Friday, June 19, 2009

Editors don’t like...

...all kinds of things, apparently.

Have you ever had a writer, who was commenting on your work, slip that into margins or onto the page?

I’m always slightly awestruck by the omniscient knowledge implicit in that comment. This person must actually know every acquisitions editor in every English language publishing house on earth. Not only do they know them, they know them intimately enough to know for a fact what they don’t like.

Editors (all editors since there is never a qualifier on that comment) don’t like adjectives or adverbs or explanatory dialogue tags or first person or present tense or back story or novels that open with description or passive verbs or dream sequences or single POV or multiple POV or omniscient POV or poetic language or plain language or lots of characters or too few characters or...

If it was as simple as all that, then why does this universal pool of like-minded acquisitions editors keep contracting fiction that contains all of the above?

How can that be?

Go to the library or the bookstore and pull ten recently published books of different genres off the shelf. Read through the opening page or two of each. I bet every “mistake” in the so-called writing lexicon of what “not to do” will be there.

I don’t know about you folks, but even if I wasn’t an editor myself, logic tells me that acquisitions editors like all kinds of stuff. In fact, it looks like they actually like things they don’t like. If you pick fifty or a hundred books to peruse, it looks like they maybe even like those things they “don’t like,” a lot.

Don’t fall for it when someone tells you you’ve broken a writing rule. If they can direct you to that one set of rules that all publishers and acquisitions editors keep open on their desks, then please share with the rest of us. But they can’t do that, because it doesn’t exist.

Write the novel or short story that you’d like to read. And you know what you like to read because it’s published and you buy these books. So someone else likes to read what you like to read as well, including an acquiring editor.

Forget the rules; write from the heart and the gut. If it feels good in that secret place all of us writers have where we read something we’ve just written and it makes us smile, then it will make someone else smile. That someone is likely the same someone who buys and reads the same kind of books that you buy and read—and the acquiring editor who snapped them up.

Try not to get caught up in the world of opinion on writing that proliferates on the internet and in how-to writing books. It’s all opinion and nothing more. Some of it may work for you and your manuscript, some of it won’t work at all. Just remember that if this set of absolute “rules” existed, it would be published somewhere. This magic book would be on the curriculum of every creative writing class in the English speaking world. Every aspiring writer would be directed to it as soon as they typed “creative writing” into Google, right?

There is no such set of rules and no credible list of what editors don’t like.

Give yourself the freedom to plaster the page with words. Colour outside the lines. Be messy.

Be you.

I’ll have another post coming up on what it is that writers can give you that editors can’t, and vice versa. It will be entirely my opinion. :-) Like everything on this blog.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Little Dash With Panache or a Pesky Puzzler?

That’s the hyphen, of course, and it’s a complicated little symbol. Aside from indicating a word has been segmented on a line break (the placement of which I will leave up to your word processor and your good judgement), hyphens have the exciting job of joining words together to create a new or expanded meaning. Hyphens belong in two areas of writing—spelling and punctuation. They play an essential role in compound words and in their evolution from open compounds to closed compounds.

Take email, for example. I remember it being called electronic mail (open compound) before it morphed to e-mail (hyphenated compound). Now most dictionaries list it as email (closed compound).

Closed compounds evolve quickly in America. Open or hyphenated compounds are more common in the U.K. Canada straddles the fence, as usual, with a mixture of open, hyphenated, and closed compounds.

If a compound word is used frequently, it will show up in a dictionary. Don’t be surprised if dictionaries differ. They will. Pick the most current edition of your favourite dictionary (I recommend the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, for the U.S.; the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition, for Canada; and the Concise Oxford English Dictionary for the U.K.). The dictionary itself really doesn’t matter, as long as it is current, and you use the same one consistently.

So, one part of unravelling the mysteries of hyphenation is easy. Look up the compound word in the dictionary and use whatever combination you find there. Is it copy edit, copy-edit or copyedit? Your dictionary (the one you cherish above all other books in your library :-) ) will guide your way.

Of course, that doesn’t help with the pesky words we hyphenate to modify words. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples:

The well-known actor sat down at the table. The compound word “well-known” is hyphenated.

The actor sitting at the table is well known. What’s up with that? We just saw that “well-known” is hyphenated. Here’s where the complexity comes in. Compound words are usually not hyphenated when they follow the word they modify.


It gets worse.

The beautifully dressed woman looks very elegant. Why isn’t this compound hyphenated? Well, sometimes it is, and now you’re ready to pull your hair out. But a good rule of thumb is that if you are writing for the North American market, don’t hyphenate a compound word when the first word ends in “ly.” If you are writing for the U.K. market, go ahead and hyphenate compounds that contain “ly” words.

The very well known actor is sitting next to me. Now what? The compound word is in front of the word it is modifying (actor), so why isn’t it hyphenated? If a compound word is further qualified by another modifier (very), then there is no hyphen.


Hyphens can be tricky.

New car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. No hyphen. But does this mean that only first time car buyers (regardless of the age of the car) will get the rebate? Or does it mean that only buyers of new cars will get the rebate? If we play with the hyphens, the answers are clear.

New-car buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (No previously owned vehicles here.)

New car-buyers will receive a substantial rebate. (Yay! That second-hand rust bucket qualifies.)

I checked four dictionaries for “second hand” to see which ones used a hyphen: the Canadian Oxford (CANOX), the Nelson Canadian, Merriam Webster’s (MW) and the Concise Oxford. They all list second hand as an open compound as a noun (think the little hand on the clock). When used as an adjective, CANOX and the Concise Oxford hyphenate it (second-hand), and MW and Nelson both list it as a closed compound (secondhand). So don’t despair if you can’t decide if a hyphen is necessary or not. It’s not a precise science. :-)

Here’s a quick overview of some simplified guidelines (notice I didn’t say rules):

1. Check your dictionary first. You’ll be surprised how many compounds are in there. The choice is already made for you.

2. If you are in North America and writing for that market, don’t hyphenate a compound that contains a word ending in “ly.” If you are in the U.K. and writing for that market, go ahead and use a hyphen.

3. Hyphenate compound words that appear before the word they are modifying.

4. Don’t hyphenate compound words that appear after the word they are modifying.

5. Don’t hyphenate compound words that are further modified.

6. If in doubt, and the absence of a hyphen will have no impact on the meaning of the sentence, then don’t hyphenate. Too many hyphens can be distracting. The use of hyphens is so variable that a missing one is not likely to raise any eyebrows.