Please welcome Karin Nicely, a professional editor, who will be posting on her own contributing page for the Scribbler. Postings will appear the first of each month. Karin welcomes any questions or opinions you may have on editing.
Karin Nicely is the president and lead editor of Seren Publishing Co., Inc. She provides copyediting, developmental editing, proofreading, and project management services along with writing workshops, consultation, and coaching.
Karin has previously been a guest on the Scribbler and you can read her interview HERE.
You might like to visit her website -
The Editor's Edge
May 1, 2021
Should We Embrace the Evolution of English?
Maybe it’s just an editor thing, but I tend to have a hard time embracing changes in the English language. I want words and phrases to have some kind of correctness, to be seen as “right” and “wrong.”
The word that triggered this thought was “backyard.” In my clients’ manuscripts, I always revise “backyard” when used as a noun to “back yard.” As an adjective, I’m fine with the compound word form: “She had a lovely backyard picnic.” But when it is used as a noun, it gets my red slash every time: “The swingset sat in his backyard,” vs. “The swingset sat in his back yard.”
And I thought, “There must be other words and phrases writers use incorrectly, ones that seem to be changing in the vernacular, that I could call out in this month’s blog.”
But what I found instead was this bit of wisdom:
“The fact that language is always changing doesn’t mean it’s getting worse; it’s just becoming different.”
Hmm…maybe I’ve been thinking about this in the wrong way.
I’ve always thought that if you are writing dialogue, whatever fits the character is fine—incorrect English, odd colloquial phrases, etc.
But in the narrative text, shouldn’t we be picky about the grammar?
Now, what if we view this another way. Hasn’t English undergone countless alterations over the centuries? Who are we to say that particular words and phrases currently in flux shouldn’t be allowed to metamorphose into their next incarnation?
In an article for the Linguistic Society of America (see the link below), Betty Birner writes:
“Language will never stop changing; it will continue to respond to the needs of the people who use it. So the next time you hear a new phrase that grates on your ears, remember that, like everything else in nature, the English language is a work in progress.”
So, what are some things that bring about these changes?
New technology certainly brings new words into our everyday vocabulary all the time. Why, fifty years ago, for example, no one would ever have heard the words “fax,” “email,” or “smartphone.” And yet, they are now so commonplace as to appear even in business letters and other more formal pieces of communication.
Another instigator of new phrases is the teenager. As we reach middle age, our clothing, music, and yes, even language are no longer hip…uh, groovy…or dope…or sick…to the younger generation. They want to have their own style, their own lingo.
Birney states: “…[N]ew words and phrases are used in spoken or informal language sooner than in formal, written language, so it’s true that the phrases you hear teenagers using may not yet be appropriate for business letters. But that doesn’t mean they’re worse—just newer.”
For those English purists like me, this is quite a revolutionary idea.
And then there are those words that trickle into our language from—you guessed it—other languages. Long before people knew what a “global society” was, words from other countries and cultures slipped ever so stealthily into our common knowledge. Words like “curry,” “yoga,” and “zen” regularly appear in our English-speaking society, for example, and can probably be traced back to Colonial times.
Of course, you may be wondering whether this all means I will be less picky in my editing process. Will I let all those pesky grammar rules fly upon the wind and embrace the transient nature of our language?
I’m still going to red-line it if it’s clearly incorrect, especially if it just doesn’t make sense. But when I see certain words or phrases I know to be in transition, I may give them a second thought. And why not? Language of bygone days is in good company. Think of the challenges we of a modern age face when we attempt to read Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, or the works of Shakespeare.
Who knows? In another hundred years, “backyard” could be just another compound word.
Link to article:
“Is English Changing?” by Betty Birner for the Linguistic Society of America
April 1, 2021
Once Upon a Time…
The Challenges of Writing about Other Eras
If you are a historical-fiction writer, you already know how much research is necessary to create successful story elements against the backdrop of a time period other than the present.
But what if you’re writing for another fiction genre and want to incorporate a character’s flashback to the Great Depression, time travel to ancient Sumer, or maybe a past life in medieval Wales?
If the time period you choose to write about actually occurred in Earth’s past, thorough research is essential to writing a believable story. Never take the chance that your readers will not notice discrepancies!
Here are a few tips about what to consider once you’ve determined what era you will write about:
1. Try to narrow your time period as much as possible. Even if you never mention exact dates in your story, this will give you important parameters when doing your research.
2. Find out important details about the era’s modes of travel. For example, you might assume that if chariots were used, they were pulled by horses. However, in some ancient civilizations, donkeys were used instead.
3. Next, find out about the clothing. Did people make their own? Did they buy it in stores? What types of fabrics were available (for example, manmade or natural)? What kinds of footwear were common? What were the differences between clothing items for males and females? How about for different ages?
For instance, did you know that young boys (babies and toddlers) wore dresses in the early 1900s? I first knew this because a great debate in my family arose as to whether a particular unmarked photograph was of my great-grandmother or great-grandfather because the toddler pictured was in a dress and could have been of either sex.
4. This brings us to what authors sometimes overlook or fail to obtain an understanding of when creating and developing characters from other eras (during which the author did not live): What were the social mores of the time period? Were there well-defined class structures? How did the behaviors vary from one class to another? What about the behaviors of women vs. men?
Because we live in such an open and relaxed modern society, we tend to forget just how rigid social rules were in certain situations and cultures throughout history. These details are extremely important because they would influence your character’s actions, dialogue, and even thoughts.
5. Consider what other elements you will be incorporating into your story and research those accordingly. These might include things such as food, religion, technology, government, medical care, art, music, and so on.
Does this seem like a lot of background work to do? Yes, it is. But I always tell my writing students and clients it is better to do too much research than not enough. Even if you use only a portion of the details you learn about your desired era, you will gain a better understanding of your character’s attitudes and motivations and be able to confidently portray the aspects of a time period other than your own.
****Thank you, Karin, for this insightful post.
March 1, 2021
Is the Road to Hell Paved with Adverbs?
“The adverb is not your friend,” states Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (New York: Scribner, 2000), a book described as a “tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists.” Skeptical of such a bold claim, I wondered why he would view this helpful part of speech with such disdain, and I prepared to scoff.
However, as I read on, no scoffing ensued. King warns us that a more-than-minimal use of adverbs, like the use of passive voice, creates a weak tone in writing. Thus, if we rely on adverbs, we are most likely doing too much “telling” and not enough “showing.” For example, compare these two sentences:
He viciously told her to leave.
“Get out!” he snarled.
The second sentence is more powerful and creates an emotional response in the reader. Another example:
The tree was really tall.
The tree’s topmost branches scratched against the seventh-floor windows.
The first sentence uses the overused adverb “really,” while the second gives the reader a clear visual.
King’s discussion also made me think of one of Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s famous quotes: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” In other words, why use a weak, boring description when you can, instead, evoke an image or scene in your reader’s mind?
we eliminate adverbs from our writing? Even King admits that an adverb here or
there does not constitute terrible writing. And according to Lawrence Weinstein
in Grammar for a Full Life (Cambridge: Lexigraphic, 2020), the use of
certain adverbs can contribute to developing your unique voice as opposed to
writing with a strict objectivity and the “dispassionate tone of
Now, how about you? Do you try to avoid overusing adverbs in your writing? Do you use them more in one style of writing than another (i.e., fiction vs. nonfiction)? Or do you absolutely love adverbs and feel they are an integral part of writing in your own voice?
Let us know in the Comments section below.
February 1, 2021
What Do You Get When You Cross a Period with a Comma?
The poor, misunderstood semicolon. Writers often either misuse it or avoid it altogether because they are not quite sure what it is. Is it like a colon? A comma? A period?
Well, let me try to clear up some of the confusion with a few examples.
1) When I pore through manuscript drafts, I often see incorrect sentences like this:
“The boy shivered as he walked along the river, however, he decided he would not turn back.”
Here, the writer has attempted to form a compound sentence with two independent clauses, i.e., each could function as a complete sentence on its own. If these two clauses were joined with a conjunction (and, but, so, etc.), the first comma would be correct and the second would be eliminated. But instead, the second independent clause in our example begins with a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, otherwise, meanwhile, etc.). So now what do we do?
In cases like this, we have two choices. First, we can simply form two sentences:
“The boy shivered as he walked along the river. However, he decided he would not turn back.”
But the two sentences are closely related. The reader needs to understand that despite the boy being cold, he has decided to press on. So rather than making a solid break by using a period, our second option would be to separate the two clauses with a semicolon:
“The boy shivered as he walked along the river; however, he decided he would not turn back.”
2) A semicolon would also be appropriate if we have two closely related independent clauses without any conjunction or conjunctive adverb:
“During the night, her mind raced wildly; during the day, her mind barely sauntered along.”
Note that each independent clause in this sentence is equally weighted. If we think of the semicolon as being somewhere between a period and a comma, we can use it to effectively show the relationship between two complete ideas.
3) Another appropriate application tends to appear more in nonfiction (how-to books, business materials, travel books, and so on). When we show items in a series, but at least one of those items includes a comma, we can use a semicolon to avoid confusion:
“There were three new board members: Bob Jones from Gateway, Florida; Sue Barnhart from Green Cove, Alabama; and John Roberts from Butler, Idaho.”
4) Sometimes writers confuse a semicolon with a colon. Whereas the semicolon is used (as in examples 1 and 2, above) to separate related ideas that have basically equal importance, the text before a colon has a different function than what comes after. To me, the colon says, “Pay attention to what I’m showing you next.” Here are a couple of examples:
“The décor incorporated three of my favorite colors: turquoise, rust, and taupe.”
“Her admiration for the man was clear in her speech’s opening line: 'His integrity and professionalism were beyond reproach.'”
Note that the text leading up to the colon clearly sets the stage for the information following it—usually an example, a list, or an explanation.
I hope these examples have helped you become better acquainted with the sometimes-subtle semicolon.
If you have a question about this topic or something you would like me to discuss in another post, please leave it in the comments below.
January 1, 2021.
Help! I Can’t Turn Off Editor Mode
When people learn I am an editor, they often ask if I’ve read this bestseller or that inspirational book. And my answer for a long time has been, “Well, no…I read manuscripts and research materials all day for work, so I hardly ever read for pleasure anymore.” I would also add that it is difficult for me to just read a book (or magazine article, website text, business communication, etc.) without editing it in my mind.
But recently, I was going through some things in a closet and came across a stack of books—one of those “when I have time” stacks we book lovers like to populate our homes and offices with. I picked up a paperback, read the intriguing back-cover text, then turned to Chapter One. As I pored through that chapter and the next, I suddenly realized I was (gasp!) reading for fun. I was getting into the characters and anxiously turning the pages to see what happened next. Now, does that mean I didn’t notice the occasional typo, awkward phrasing, or redundancy? Of course not. But I wasn’t getting bogged down by them, either. The sheer joy of being immersed in the story was propelling me through it all.
Therefore, I have realized that I absolutely should read for enjoyment much more often. After all, my love of reading is what got me into this profession in the first place. Whether it’s a fantasy novel, a paranormal mystery, or a tome on the odd creatures of the ocean’s depths, books can still produce excitement, wonder, and joy, even for me—no, especially for me.
As long as I remember to turn off my Editor Mode.
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