Saturday, 11 February 2012

Editing and Hair Loss

When I started working as an editor, this is what I looked like:

This is what editing has done to me:

What is it that makes me pull my hair out?

Things like:

1. Use of the word "couple." I've lost count of how many times I've corrected this, but it's currently top of my list of naughties. "I'm going to get myself a couple beers." Yikes!!! Imagine if your character was called Queen Elizabeth II and she said, "My husband and I are having a couple friends over for high tea."

It's "couple of" always, and without exception (except!!! in dialogue or when using idiomatic voice for narration). Yes, people speak that way in the US, but it's never, never, never to be written, barring the exceptions above.

2. Word repetition: "I went to the door and opened the door. I saw a zombie standing outside the door with his rotting stump of an arm resting on the door. I shut the door on his stump, which was resting on the door, and trapped the stump between the door and the door frame." I think this one speaks for itself. Be careful, though, as it's almost never a good idea to just drag out the thesaurus and find synonyms for "door". Rephrasing, Governor, is what you need.

3. Capitalising every use of the word "king". "King Henry V" is fine. "I wondered if he might be a King" is not nice. Not nice at all.

4. Using "I" when you mean "me". I blame the schools for this one. We all thought it was terribly posh saying, with Her Majesty, "My corgis and I", but it's just plain wrong to say, "Would you like my gibbon and I to come to dinner?" Why? Take away the gibbon (yes, please do!). That leaves you with, "Would you like I to come to dinner?" Speaks for itself.

5. Not using a comma and a conjunction to join two independent clauses. Noooooooooooooh! If the clause could stand alone as its own sentence, with a subject and a verb, then it's independent. You could write two sentences, or you could join them using ", and", ", but" etc.

6. Using hyphens for em dashes, and en dashes for hyphens. I mean, I ask you!

7. Subject confusion. "The wizard tried to cast a spell. He hit him before his spell could affect him."

There are plenty more reasons for baldness, things like dangling participles, verb/noun confusion, pronoun avoidance, improper prepositions, inconsistent spelling and capitalisation.

I thought it might be fun, and perhaps even helpful, if I posted a few tips here, all of which are open to discussion. Most of the above are part and parcel of copy editing, which is what I'm paid for. It's actually rather enjoyable work.

Now I really must go pick up a couple bottles of Chateau neuf du Pape.


  1. I've never encountered #1.

    #2 generally has me in fits and trying really hard not to post extracts direct to my blog. One of my writers started tearing his hair out though, once I pointed it out to him.

    #3 I've spent days on this one. I think it best to go with CMS. It isn't very logical, but it is at least simple. It does bother me though.

    #4 There are, of course, cases where 'I' is correct but noone in his right mind uses it in normal speech: "Me and Derek are going down the Lamb. Care to join us for a couple of sherberts?" In those cases it's the editors who "correct" them that have me tearing my hair.

    #5 Nowadays you can start a sentence with 'and' or 'but' and noone bats and eyelid. I do it all the time. I don't quite get what you're complaining about. Can you give an example?

    #6 Most people don't know there's a difference. CMS is sensible on this. I have house rules.

    #7 You can hit this one in either direction, and my bugbear is when the writer tries to avoid confusion by repeating everyone's names. This of course gets crazy when the participants haven't been named yet: "The wizard tried to cast a spell. The spell of the other wizard cast hit the wizard who was trying to cast his own spell before that wizard (the one I mentioned first) could complete his spell."

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