Editorial License

I used to be a writer.

Now I only write in my head on the way home from work in the car, in the shower, or just before I fall asleep. Sometimes I think of great stories when the dog and I walk through the woods.  My thoughts rarely make it to paper or the computer—or even to a napkin.

Writing used to be my career. I called myself a journalist. I worked for newspapers. Small weekly papers. Then magazines. I made a living as a freelance writer for a while. That’s quite difficult and without my editing skills, I  probably could not have paid the rent.

Editing is rewarding—and often requires writing. But there my writing is invisible, seamlessly stitched into someone else’s. Authors seem pleased with my efforts. They praise me for improving their sentences, for grasping the mysteries of the comma, for politely pointing out sentences that lack clarity or pronouns that have lost their antecedents. I help to make their syntax sing, or so I am told. I thrive on these compliments, yet it is not the same as seeing my words in print with my name floating over them: by Eleanor K. Sommer.

A byline is an ego trip. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

My byline has been through some rough patches over the decades. In college it was simple: “Ellie Sommer.” I decided more sophistication was in order when I accepted my first post-college reporting position, so it morphed into “Eleanor K. Sommer.” Marriage offered the opportunity for hyphenation—the modern woman thing to do, while simultaneously acknowledging my change in status. That proved to be nauseating play on words as my name is pronounced like the season “summer.” My husband’s name was Springer, so my byline was a melodic “Eleanor K. Sommer-Springer.” Really.

The editor of the small weekly that I worked for in Southwest Florida was not pleased. My byline took up two lines in a single column, two precious lines of ink for every story that I wrote. We tried Ellie Sommer-Springer for a while but the typographer squished it on the line and the editor did not like that either. Finally, it just became Ellie Springer and stayed that way until I was divorced two years later. I promptly dumped the extra season and went back to plain old Sommer. I vowed never again to change my name. Postscript: The cyberage has necessitated a modicum of privacy, shrinking the byline to initials and last name.

There is no definitive geological boundary for when I made the transformation from writer to editor. Nothing punctuated—just a slow transition as editing assignments overtook writing assignments.

I once spent three years editing a book, a technical book on colored diamonds. It was 800 pages. I edited it three times, working closely with the author even though there were more than 1000 miles between us.

Another job found me heavily revising a book for someone I have never to this day met. We exchanged photographs. I would glance at her picture once in a while, trying to capture some meaningful glimpse into her psyche as I worked on her prose. She had a story, a really unique story written as an allegory about the workplace. But it was all dialogue. Endless conversation. Not a break or a breath. I suggested some narrative. She said fine, and asked if she could pay me to write it? I said, “Sure, why not.” I animated her characters, added descriptions of them and places where they could meet and talk besides the one scene she had repeated over and over as a location for their conversations. I enjoyed the work. She liked the result. I made some money. But, of course, there was no byline.

It is an interesting craft, shaping other people’s work. It is like sculpting. You begin with a surface—something concrete to work with. Someone else has figured out the beginning and there is a vision of the end. I do the in-between part. I tweak and snip and smooth, maybe like a piano tuner. Such work brings pleasure. Well, most of the time.

There are those manuscripts that make me feel as if I have slogged through a jungle swamp for ten hours tracking down endless nests of wordy phrases, swarms of infinitives stuck to verbs that end in “ing,” dark caves of sentences that tunnel through a mountain pass and come out the other side with no hint of the original meanings. These are exhausting experiences made worse by an author’s total failure at recognizing that the vast improvement in his or her work can directly be attributed to the editor. I have lost count of how many clever phrases I have given away. I’ll probably be accused of plagiarism some day, and it will turn out that I have stolen back my own work.

I’d like to write more. But often my eyes are too tired by the end of the day to spend even an extra hour in front of the word processor. Not an excuse, I realize. I could write the old-fashioned way, by hand with a pen and some paper. I could keep my journal more faithfully instead of saving it for those devastating lows, or whining after a fight with my husband, or for recording a bizarre dream. I could keep a daily journal, plying the most from the minute details of life like so many writers have done for centuries.

I have dozens of unfinished essays, short stories, even a couple of fledgling novels. I always say I just need a little time, and when that time arrives, I spend it out in the sunshine in my garden listening to the birds, instead of inside under the glare of the screen and the hum of the hard drive. Or a friend invites me to lunch or a meeting. Extraverts, someone once told me, do not make serious writers. But then Jung said we should strive for balance. I need to discover my inner Introvert.

My stories are neatly filed in boxes under my bed. My father even made a scrapbook of all my articles from college, from my first newspaper beats, from my stint as editor of a city magazine and publisher of a business magazine. I normally simply dust over these personal heirlooms. But I had the occasion to search for something recently, which is what precipitated this trip down byline lane.

As I sifted through the boxes, I paused to read bits and pieces of the yellowing collection.  As I read, I realized that these stories and articles about other people actually record my history. Each story has a subtext and a backstory not revealed to the casual reader. But the assignment, the interview, the days spent in the office writing, the criticisms of the editor, the interaction with fellow reporters, even the time of year are all there nestled around an otherwise innocent meeting of the county commission or an interview with a Gulf-side developer.

I can smell the ocean when I read the story I wrote when I went aboard the Calypso. Jacques was not there and the boat was docked, but for a 19-year-old college reporter, it was the story of a lifetime. There were adventure stories like looking for oil in the Everglades, sailing on a tall ship, and wading through Fakahatchee Swamp. I thrived on writing movie reviews, theater reviews, and the occasional coverage of live band performances. These memories though are tempered by recollection of years of sleep-inducing coverage of county commission meetings and stints writing real estate news, which consisted mostly of attending grand openings and ribbon cuttings, and regurgitating press releases.

All these stories–the inispid and the extraordinary–are under my bed. They are more than faded clippings; they compose my life story. They are reminders of a life that I may never again experience. Proof that I was a writer. Or, just maybe, a dare to be one again.

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Editing Etiquette

Watch your style when making comments and queries on documents—especially ones being worked on by teams of reviewers and editors.

Most professional editors working on documents for clients or publishers usually have honed a lexicon of polite terms and liberally use “please” (or more often the truncated “pls”). We stay away from sarcastic remarks and overly dramatic accusations. We try for maximum encouragement. And we eschew wordy comments in the margins.

However, this often breaks down when editor and writer know each other well or when documents are being edited for in-house use. In these situations, you may well find sharp repartee, humor, and even plays by co-workers using an edit as an opportunity to assert power or make bid to move up the office political ladder.

Working with a team of content review editors recently on technical document, provided me with a window into various editorial styles. I share these not as criticism of people who volunteered to review the content of a complex document written by dozens of academics, but as a way to share the pitfalls of review editing.

The volunteers on this project were not professional editors. However, I have worked with professional editors who make the same errors. When you are reviewing a document, whether you are being paid to edit or volunteering to review, here are some tips for maximum efficiency and minimum harm.

Although I am not talking about the official peer review process, many of these guidelines could (and should) be incorporated into that process as well.

Editorial Review Guidelines

Spelling Counts
When criticizing the writing, punctuation, and grammar of others, remember to watch yours as well. How much weight does your correction carry if you have misspellings in your comment?

Shorthand Language
If you find yourself making more than a few abbreviations in your comment or query, perhaps you are prattling on a bit too much. Editors use some standard shorthand, for example, “pls” for “please,” “TK” for something “to come,” and “ref?” for “missing reference.” Beyond such standard forms or shortcuts for other repetitive words in your queries, refrain from “pigeon-speak.” The author needs to be concentrating on corrections—not trying to figure out what the editor means.

Wordy Queries
Yikes! When the query or comment is longer than the paragraph or sentence in question, you really should review your thoughts and organize them to convey your message in the shortest way possible. An author’s eyes will surely glaze over and you will not reach your goal of urging the author to create better content or improve construction.

If You Can’t Tell, Then Show
If it is really too difficult to explain what you want the author to do in a concise way—and there is enough content to fix it—then fix it and query the author for agreement.

Don’t Fix What You Don’t Know
Avoid trying to rewrite something out of your area of expertise. And don’t write a paragraph trying to ask. Simply comment “Not clear. Pls fix.”

Avoid Sarcasm
This is especially true if you do not know the author well. Certainly professional editors would not do this—at least not and keep their clients very long. But among peers and office mates this may become a habit. However, you never know the level of someone’s feelings. What may seem funny to you, may not be so to someone who has worked for months on writing and preparing a document. In addition, you never know who else might be reading the document with your sarcastic comments—which could lead to embarrassment for you and the author.

Sometimes it is easy to resort to a snide “What????” rather than an instructive, “Will the reader understand this?” I admit that I have more than once typed the comment “This is stupid,” and then, of course, changed it to a polite “Not sure reader will understand.”

More than one question mark or explanation point is like yelling. Avoid them in multiples at one location.

Rants
Editorial comments are not the place for epics about content or for emotional releases about the poor quality of today’s writers. Stick to the task and save your personal angst for an appropriate time—a beer or a coffee with a fellow editor or good friend.

Review Your Comments
After years of editing, I know all my comments are not necessary. Neither are yours. Review them. You will find that you can shorten them, make them more agreeable, and consolidate some.

And correct those spellings errors.

(P.S. One of the best ways to avoid MS Word “helping” you into more spelling errors is to turn off the auto spell function. You’ll end up typing slower, but you won’t have Word trying to second guess what you are writing and “fix it.”)

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Editors Bring Fresh Eyes

From time to time I perform editing tasks for a professor at a major university here in Florida. The recipient of many environmental education grants, she understands the various stages of bringing a work to publication, especially works that involve more than one person. In addition to having the foresight to bring an editor into the mix, she also takes an active role in the process and is not hesitant to review works and/or ask her graduate students to review works in detail–more than once—before committing them to publication.

This is certainly more than can be said for major publishing houses, even educational publishers and university presses, that in the current economic crunch and tremendous changes in the nature of publishing have found the need to cut corners on everything from editing and proofreading to indexing and book promotion.

The result of these austerity measures is felt by the readers who puzzle over passages and must put up with inconsistent style and sloppy grammar. As an editor, I am much less concerned about making sure that a writer follows every arcane detail of English grammar than I am about being sure that the intent of the content is fully accessible to the reader. If your point is lost in a morass of verbiage, your efforts at conveying information to a reader are useless.

This professor recognizes that the time and effort put in by her staff and graduate students should be honored by being sure that the information is readable and understandable. She realistically understands that often those closest to the work know the material too well to objectively determine readability.

If nothing else, an editor brings a fresh set of eyes to a project. And along with this new perspective, you also benefit from the experience and expertise of someone whose background and focus is working with words and how they convey meaning. In addition, you show respect to your reader when you do them the service of presenting understandable and well-edited text.

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