You might like to visit her website -
Karin has been a guest previously on the Scribbler. Go HERE.
Don’t be shy with your editing questions.
July 5, 2023
Ethics in Editing
Recently, I had to make a tough decision. I had to choose between just doing my job as a seasoned, professional editor versus being unwilling to help promote, in my opinion, incorrect and harmful information.
One of the things I strive to do as an editor is view a manuscript’s subject matter through an objective lens. I always say, “It’s not my book; it’s the author’s.” And with that in mind, I edit to ensure consistency, clarity, correct grammar and punctuation, good organization, flow, and that the level of formality is appropriate for the intended audience and for what the author is trying to convey. In both fiction and nonfiction, I will often do some basic fact-checking, as well.
But when it comes to content itself, I trust the writer has already included, to the best of their knowledge, accurate information from their own experience, research, or field of expertise (in nonfiction) or what they intend to portray for artistic or entertainment purposes (in fiction and poetry). Therefore, even if my own experience or tastes contradict the author’s, it’s not my job to make commentary to that effect, unless I believe the material is inappropriate for the intended audience. And even then, I will construct my input as a suggestion, allowing the author to make the final call as to whether revision is necessary.
Currently, there is a lot of discussion about editing for sensitivity, diversity, and inclusion, which basically means you don’t want to, either unwittingly or intentionally, fall back on stereotypes or offensive, outdated terms. This applies mainly to various nonfiction genres but is especially important when working with publications for business, industry, and education. But even with fiction writing, an author might want to consider moving away from stereotypical characterizations to reach a more modern society—or not. It really depends upon who you determine your target audience is. In fiction, there are endless options and opportunities to convey different themes and create characters the readers will identify with, have compassion for, or even despise. Again, however, it is the author’s choice whether to follow any of my suggestions regarding this type of revision. “It’s not my book; it’s the author’s.”
As editors, though, when should our own sense of ethics take over? My answer to that would be: whenever you feel the text you are supposed to be polishing and perfecting is so offensive, disturbing, or potentially damaging that you cannot, in good conscience, work with it.
We each have an ethical line we cannot cross, no matter how lucrative the project, and that line is different for every editor. Some editors refuse to edit gory horror novels. Some refuse to edit graphic sex scenes in a steamy romance novel. And some refuse to edit text that goes against—or even condemns—their own religious or philosophical beliefs.
Now, the good news for authors is that what one editor finds offensive, the next may not. My advice? If you’ve had a manuscript turned down by an editor because of your subject matter, look for another. Also, if the editor who turned it down is willing to tell you why, you can ask other potential editors if they are amenable to working with that type of content. I have had authors ask me bluntly, before even submitting their manuscript to me, if I was comfortable working with particular subjects. And most of the time, I will say I am.
But let’s go back to my earlier conundrum. Did I decide to edit the text in question anyway? No. This time, I had to turn it down. It crossed my self-determined line. And I felt it would have brought my personal and professional integrity into question, not to mention it would have made me feel like . . . well, not at all good. So I respectfully declined the job.
Next, I would like your input. As a writer, have you ever struggled with what to include—or to not include—in your book(s) because you thought it might be offensive? Were you concerned about how family and friends would view the material? Or maybe readers in general? If you wanted to write it anyway, did you consider using a pseudonym? Or did you fearlessly plow ahead, daring anyone to censor your creation?
During this celebration of Independence Day for the U.S., I think it is good to recognize the power words can wield and to ponder what freedom means to us, as individuals, as we communicate through writing.
February 10, 2023
Are You Stuck in a Word Rut?
As humans, we often gravitate towards what is familiar or comfortable. As writers, we are no different. We often get into what I like to call a “word rut,” which means using the same word(s) or phrase(s) over and over in our writing. Most commonly, I’ve found, this seems to happen with adjectives, adverbs, and cliches (“his warm embrace,” “really moving,” “at the end of the day”). But for our readers, this can be boring or even annoying. And when something in the text becomes annoying, chances are increased that the reader will not finish the book.
So how can we avoid falling into this rut? Here are a few things that can help.
1 1. Read a variety of books and other publications. If you continually read only your favorite genre or a particular author’s works, you probably won’t be challenged with new concepts or new vocabulary. Instead, read something different. If you like fiction, try some nonfiction. Read magazine articles and blog posts outside of your usual interests. And throw in the occasional literary classic. Because I read so much for work every day and am often reluctant to read for pleasure, too, I’ve found that listening to narrated books, short stories, and informational pieces can be beneficial. And just as with reading, if there is a word I am not familiar with, I look it up.
22. Try to learn a new word each day. Increasing your vocabulary is always a good idea. There are lots of free “word of the day” email subscriptions available. And I once had a little calendar sitting on my desk that presented a different obscure word, definition, and examples of usage on daily tear-off pages. It was not only a great learning tool but also provided interesting conversation fodder. And speaking of conversation: when you learn a new word, try to use it sometimes in your speaking or writing; this will help you learn it more effectively and become more comfortable using it.
33. Read your written work aloud. I advise doing this for a number of benefits, but as far as finding word ruts, reading aloud will really help you catch those pesky repetitive words.
44. Search within your text. If you begin to notice a particular word or phrase popping up, do a search for it within your text. (In MS Word, click on the Editing tab and then Find.) This will show you where and how many times the word occurs.
55. Replace repetitive words with appropriate synonyms. While you certainly don’t have to replace every occurrence of these words, replacing some is advisable. If you can’t think of an optimal substitution, consult a thesaurus. But—and this is important—it is better to keep the original word if it conveys the best meaning. I recently edited a manuscript in which it was apparent the writer had gotten a bit thesaurus-happy and had just thrown in approximate synonyms for variety. But many of them were not effective word choices for what she was trying to convey. So rather than making the story more interesting, it made it somewhat confusing in places.
Of course, a good editor will also spot repetition and strive to eliminate it, either by replacing words and phrases where needed or flagging them so you can go in and decide which ones to replace, what words to use in place of them, and which ones you’d prefer to leave alone.
Also, don’t forget that both fiction and nonfiction writers can fall into overusing their favorite words. I once proofed a client’s fifty-word business letter in which he had used the same word—I think it was “important”—four times.
What word or phrases do you find yourself overusing in your own fiction or nonfiction writing? Let us know in the comments!
If you’re interested in seeing examples of commonly overused adjectives, adverbs, cliches, and buzzwords to avoid, check out these articles:
Karin Nicely is an Ocala-based editor, writing coach, promotional writer, and independent publisher with more than twenty-five years’ experience in her field. Originally from Pennsylvania, she earned her Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Professional Writing and has worked with international publishing houses such as Prentice Hall and Wiley. Ms. Nicely has also been a marketing consultant for SAE International (the Society of Automotive and Aerospace Engineers) and has written for the APEX-award-winning business-to-business publication Spotlight on Safety.
Now specializing in developmental and line editing for independent authors throughout the United States, Ms. Nicely, owner of Seren Publishing Co., Inc., is also the editor of quarterly magazines, presents customized workshops for writers, and writes advertising and public relations copy for corporate clients.
Ms. Nicely’s other interests include music, horses, dance, swimming, paddleboarding, history, and creative writing.
Thank you for the clever article, Karin. Glad to have you back.
January 3, 2022.
Getting into Character
Character development can be one of the most interesting aspects of writing fiction. In determining who (or sometimes what) the character is, you get to imagine their physical appearance, age, origins, personal history, personality, relationships, occupation, educational level, and motivations. While some writers have a clear picture in mind of their character before they even begin their story, others let the character develop organically as they write. Either method, of course, is fine. Every writer has their own process that works well for them.
Once your character has been created, how believable will they be to your readers? In other words, whether your character is a present-day bank executive, a disembodied spirit, an intelligent multidimensional being from another universe, or a medieval serf, do they make sense in their own setting and circumstance? One factor in creating a believable character is how well you portray their spoken words (if applicable) and thoughts.
I recently came across an example of a character whose dialogue and thoughts did not mesh with the traits he was portrayed to have. The character—let’s call him Owen—was a seventeen-year-old boy in the mid-1800s. His father was a laborer, and his mother had died. Owen was portrayed as also being a simple farm laborer in his small, rural village. At one point in the tale, Owen was visiting a particular cottage, the home of his girlfriend, for the first time. The author had Owen giving a lengthy internal discourse on the appearance of the foliage surrounding the cottage. Owen’s descriptive phrases were full of college-level vocabulary and artistic appreciation. And while these painted a wonderful picture of the cottage’s surroundings, I suddenly thought, “Is this really the way Owen would think about some trees?” Nowhere in the story did it say Owen had an artistic bent, was an avid reader, or wanted to be anything other than a farm laborer. So would he have an advanced vocabulary and think in flowery, poetic phrases? It’s certainly not impossible, but there would have to be something in the story to make it believable—for instance, there could have been an old school teacher in his village who had taken him under her wing and given him a love of literature.
Otherwise, Owen would most likely speak in—and think in—more simplistic terms and in ways that related to his own frame of reference. When he saw the trees around the cottage, then, it might have been more feasible for him to think about them in terms of whether their fruit was ripe or maybe some of their dead branches needed to be trimmed. And as he was going there to see his girlfriend, would a teenage boy even notice the trees at all or instead, be completely caught up in anticipation of soon being near his beautiful love interest? As this example shows, it is so important to try to get into your character’s being. Think about how they would communicate and yes, even what their internal dialogue would sound like. Your result will be a character who comes to life for your readers.
October 2, 2021
Welcome to the third installment of my three-part series on literary point of view (POV). This time, appropriately enough, I will discuss third-person point of view, which can be broken into three types: omniscient, limited, and objective.
When you write in any form of third-person POV, you will use pronouns such as he, she, it, they, his, hers...and so on. The story is told via an unknown narrator who is not a character in the story. And the primary difference between the three types is whether the narrator can access the characters’ thoughts and to what extent.
So, let’s begin with the type that can be a bit unwieldy if not carefully crafted. When a story is written in third-person omniscient, the narrator can tell the reader what any character is thinking or feeling. The narrator, in this case, is an all-seeing, all-knowing being. The tricky part, then, is knowing how much the narrator should impart to the reader. If you, as the writer, attempt to let the reader know what absolutely every character is doing and thinking throughout your story, it may become somewhat tiresome or confusing for the reader.
Here is an example:
The four friends sat in the computer lab at Northwest High School. Each stared fixedly at the flatscreen in front of them. But their minds were not at all on the task their teacher had assigned.
As her fingers deftly pressed the correct keys to complete the advanced programming, Amanda stole a glance at Chad, the lead guitarist for the most popular garage band in their school. She adored Chad, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him. What if he thinks I’m a geek? she thought.
Chad did think Amanda was kind of geeky with her thick glasses and habit of wearing black hoodies nearly every day. But he also thought it was cool the way she knew her way around a computer. He figured she could hack into just about anything she wanted to. Man, I wish I could hack into Mr. Nolan’s computer and change my biology grade. I’ll bet Amanda could do it.
To Chad’s right sat Xavier, the French foreign-exchange student all the girls swooned over. All the girls, that is, except Amanda. Xavier did his best to catch her attention every chance he got, but she never took the bait. He could not figure out why she wasn’t captivated by his enticing accent and his suave manner.
Do you think the above excerpt holds the reader’s interest? What if an entire book was written in this manner, switching constantly back and forth between various characters’ thoughts and feelings?
The next form, limited (sometimes called limited omniscient), instead limits the narrator to focusing on one character’s thoughts or perspective at a time. The reader can only experience what that particular character is privy to or thinking.
Shaun shifted his bike down to third gear but still struggled to reach the top of the hill. He felt the sweat pouring down his back into his bike shorts and took another sip from his hydration pack. He took a quick glance over his shoulder. Austin was right behind him.
No way! he thought. How did he catch up? I was so far ahead of him. He can’t win. I can’t let him win. Push, push, push!
He pulled the last bit of strength from the depths of his being and pedaled harder, desperate to keep his lead in the race.
If limiting the narrative to only one character’s viewpoint seems a bit too limiting, and you want to give the reader insight into more than one character but not all, you can switch from one character’s perspective to another, separating the narrative by section or by chapter.
But what if you want the narrator to be an observer who merely reports what they see with no access to any of the character’s thoughts? This, then, would be third-person objective. Think of it as a good journalist reporting what they witness or learn without interjecting any of their own thoughts or feelings into the narrative. “Just the facts, ma’am.”
Isabella pulled her magenta Ferrari to the curb. The valet ran to the driver’s side and opened her door. Isabella stepped out, handed the valet her keys without looking at him, grabbed her pink Gucci bag from the back seat, and strode quickly to the posh hotel’s front entrance.
Even without knowing the characters’ thoughts, the reader of this passage can begin to know something about the nature of the character simply from the observations given in the narration. If the character’s actions, mannerisms, and dialogue are portrayed well, their motivations, thoughts, and feelings become apparent. The reader begins to analyze the character without being told exactly what the character thinks.
As a writer, you probably have a preferred POV you feel most comfortable with. However, I would challenge you to write one short story or even a passage in each of the different POVs. It is a wonderful way to practice conveying your characterizations and action in various ways. You may find that a POV you don’t normally employ is perfect for a particular story and for the impact you want to have on your readers.
Scribbler: Thank you for the explanations of POV, Karin.
Authors: What POV do you write in? Let us know in the comments section below.
September 2, 2021
Just How Awkward Is It to Write in the Second-Person Point of View?
Continuing with our look at literary point of view, let’s delve right into the rather rare fictional device known as second-person POV. While second-person is very common in certain nonfiction genres—self-help, educational, travel guides, how-to—and other forms of writing, such as advertising and speeches, it is less likely to be employed by novelists.
However, when authors choose to write in this POV, they often do so to truly immerse their audience in the story. With second-person POV, the writer uses the pronouns you and your, and the reader essentially becomes the protagonist.
But the narrator does not exist as a character in the story. We never see the narrator use I, my, we, etc. The narrator merely describes what is happening around you, what you are thinking, doing, saying. The story unfolds through your eyes and only via your perspective.
Therefore, as when utilizing first-person POV, the writer must be careful to only convey what the protagonist can personally experience.
So how does the reader learn about the character of the protagonist? The writer can, of course, show this through the protagonist’s (your) thoughts, dialogue, feelings, and actions. But to create a more in-depth characterization, the writer can also give clues via other characters’ dialogue with and actions toward the protagonist—without slipping into omniscience! Remember: the protagonist cannot know how other characters truly feel, think, and so on. (See my August blog article below for more information on this.)
You open your eyes and realize you are in the hay loft of your neighbor’s barn, huddled under a blanket and shivering uncontrollably. Shafts of sunlight enter through the gaps between the vertical-board siding, illuminating the otherwise-unseen dust particles floating through the crisp morning air.
“Blast, it’s cold,” you mutter, your warm breath flowing from your mouth in a cloud as you speak.
You stand and wrap the scratchy woolen blanket more tightly around your shoulders. The layers of loose hay chaff beneath your feet are springy. You wish you could bound and roll in it like you used to as a kid. But your sore, stiff, bony knees remind you of just how long ago that was.
This short excerpt already gives some clues about you, the protagonist. Now, let’s add interaction with another character to get a bit more information:
You climb down the ladder, carefully placing the sole of each well-worn boot on the frosted rungs. You really don’t need to add a cracked skull to your list of ailments.
“Harry! What on earth are you doing? Get down from there!”
The sound of Charlie’s voice startles you, and you miss the last rung.
“Charlie, just leave me be. I’ll do what I want. And I’ll be outta your hair before you can spit sideways.”
“Come on, Harry. Don’t be like that. Your Martha—she’s worried sick about you. Nobody’s out to get you. You’re just bein’ all paranoid. Let’s get you into the house and get you warmed up before you catch your death.”
You start to protest, but a deep, rattling cough chokes the words back, and you reluctantly shuffle along after Charlie to the warmth of the farmhouse kitchen.
But what if we take one of those lines our protagonist speaks, above, and try to make it a little more descriptive? How about:
“Charlie, just leave me be. I’ll do what I want. And I’ll be outta your hair before you can spit sideways,” you say as you look at him with fire in your eyes.
Do you know the mistake here? Well, you can’t tell if you have “fire in your eyes” unless you’re looking in a mirror, right? Instead, you could do this:
“Charlie, just leave me be. I’ll do what I want. And I’ll be outta your hair before you can spit sideways,” you say, doing your best to shoot a fiery glare at him.
See the difference? It’s still getting the same point across, but now it’s conveyed via the protagonist’s own perspective.
While most writers do not favor second-person POV for their novels, some do use it in their poetry or short stories. Here’s an example:
With your sad, sorrowful glance
To the soul
Of your lover
Wrapped around his neck
Clinging to his strength
As your tears fell
On his clean, pressed shirt
Have you written any fiction in second-person POV? If so, leave me a comment below; I would love to know why you chose that POV and whether you felt it was difficult to write in. And feel free to leave a link to your work, if you have one.
August 4, 2021.
First-Person? Third-Person? How Do I Choose the Right Point of View?
As a fiction writer, you determine the way your reader “sees” and “hears” what is going on in your story. In other words, you tell your tale from a particular point of view. But what point of view is best for your story? And how can you keep it consistent throughout your work?
Literary point of view (POV) is basically described as first-person, second-person, or third-person, so it seems only right that we should begin with first-person, doesn’t it? When telling a story from this perspective, the narrator uses pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “my.” Because everything is conveyed via the narrator’s five senses and internal dialogue, this perspective can help the reader feel a more intimate connection with the narrator and create a clearer focus. It can also allow you, the author, to provide greater insight into the narrator’s motivations, biases, past experiences, etc.
The more challenging aspect of this POV, however, is that you must limit the action and descriptions to only what the narrator can personally be aware of. The reader will only get clues as to what another character is doing or saying via what the narrator is seeing, hearing, and so on.
One of the most common corrections I make in first-person narratives is revising sections in which the narrator suddenly becomes a mind-reader and tells us what another character is thinking.
Here is an example:
I sat at the bar, absentmindedly running my index finger through the condensation on my glass. At the same time, I kept a watchful eye on Emma as she sidled up to the guy in the grey suit. She could tell the watch he wore was a Rolex Mariner, saw the telltale pale-skin line where his wedding band normally lived, and thought he would be a fine catch for the evening.
In this scene, the narrator would not know what Emma was actually thinking or seeing. But there are a few ways to rewrite this in order to get the same information across to the reader.
One of the easiest ways would be this, although it’s a bit clunky:
I sat at the bar, absentmindedly running my index finger through the condensation on my glass. At the same time, I kept a watchful eye on Emma as she sidled up to the guy in the grey suit. I knew Emma’s modus operandi pretty well, and I figured she could tell the watch he wore was a Rolex Mariner and had seen the telltale pale-skin line where a wedding band would normally reside. She probably thought he would be a fine catch for the evening.
Another fix could be achieved via dialogue:
I sat at the bar, absentmindedly running my index finger through the condensation on my glass. At the same time, I studied Emma as she eyed the guy in the grey suit.
“Hmm…nice Rolex Mariner on his wrist and a little white line where his wedding band should be. Looks like a fine catch for me, tonight.”
With a wink at me and a too-obvious tug at the hem of her tight skirt as she stood, she sidled over to her target.
Finally, the narrator’s observations of Emma’s behavior and demeanor could also be effective:
I sat at the bar, absentmindedly running my index finger through the condensation on my glass. At the same time, I kept a watchful eye on Emma as she sidled up to the guy in the grey suit. From where I sat, I could clearly see her glance first at the Rolex Mariner on his wrist and then the telltale pale-skin line where his wedding band would normally reside. The wicked glint in her eyes told me what she was probably thinking: this would be a fine catch for the evening.
Along with not being able to know another character’s thoughts, the narrator would not personally be aware of what another character was doing or saying in another room or in a house down the street—unless something makes it possible for them to do so (they listen at a door, see through a window…well, you get the idea). To make the narrative less restrictive, then, some writers choose to employ more than one narrator, each conveying the story within the constraints of their own first-person POV in different chapters or sections of the text.
This, of course, brings its own challenges, as now any overlapping action must be taken into account. I think the writers who manage this option best are those who can easily visualize where each character would be in a particular scene. But it may also be helpful to actually sketch out character positioning on paper for some tricky scenarios.
Check out my September blog for more on understanding and utilizing POV in your writing. And if you have a question about POV, please leave it in the comments below.
July 4 2021
We all know that deleting text in a manuscript is sometimes necessary to better achieve conciseness, clarity, and focus in nonfiction or to eliminate distracting, superfluous text (such as too many background details about tertiary characters) in fiction. However, when editors delete material because it does not coincide with their personal beliefs, morals, or biases, they are no longer editing: they are censoring.
One of my clients originally came to me because she’d had an unsatisfactory experience with her previous editor. Her first published work, a paranormal romance, initially contained several steamy sex scenes, which are not uncommon in that genre. But when she read through her edited manuscript, she realized something was missing. Apparently, the editor, a retired English teacher, had taken it upon herself to remove every sex scene she’d deemed inappropriate.
So how can you prevent this kind of undesired censorship?
Before you hire an editor for your project, find out if they are comfortable with your subject matter. For example, if your work contains explicit sexual situations, graphic violence or gore, hot-button political or religious topics, or other potentially offensive material, ask if the editor is willing to work with your text--without changing your intended meaning or effect. If the editor asks you to provide an excerpt from your book for a sample edit or to determine pricing, be sure to include some sections that might cause contention. It is much better to find out if the editor is a good fit before you get into the editorial process.
When authors ask me if I am okay with a particular genre or sensitive material, I try to be very honest and will turn down projects if necessary. However, I am not easily offended and am diligent about not injecting my own biases into any text I’m editing. For example, even when a particularly disturbing scene in a book I was editing triggered my gag reflex, I merely got up from my desk, took some deep breaths and a several-minute break, and got right back to work on it. (I did question the author about the appropriateness of this segment for his audience, but when he assured me it would be fine, I simply corrected the grammar and left it as he’d intended.)
Thus, it is important to hire a professional, experienced editor: we most likely have worked with many genres and understand that what one audience may find offensive, another will not. In fact, your audience may be buying your book because of those steamy sex scenes.
June 1, 2021
I’m No Expert—Why Would Anyone Want to Read my Story?
Niggling self-doubt. Many, if not most, writers experience it, especially when writing about their own painful ordeals or challenges. “I don’t even know why I’m writing this. I’m no expert. I don’t have a degree in psychology. Who would want to read about my life?”
People write about their own personal stories for many reasons: as a catharsis, to create awareness, to help others, as part of their family history, or simply to record that they have spent time on this planet—a literary planting of the flag. But the key thing to remember is this: whatever your reason, it is valid.
Invariably, my clients who had the most self-doubt about writing and publishing their autobiographical works receive the most heartfelt thanks from readers. When one author wrote about her struggles with drug and alcohol addiction in a very raw, honest, and extremely personal account, she received this comment:
“Thank you for telling your story. I always tried to be supportive, listened to all the counselors, and really wanted to be sympathetic about my daughter’s battles with addiction. But until I read your book, I never really understood. I sat there crying as I read it, but now I honestly see my daughter through empathetic eyes.”
Another writer, who tells her story through poetry, not only doubted the validity of her writing but also felt it was too private to share. However, she took the leap to publish and has been surprised at the countless positive reviews she receives. Many readers have stated they feel a connection with what the author has expressed, find the words to be healing, and find it comforting to know they are not alone in having similar experiences.
Readers of other clients’ memoirs, anecdotal writings, or collections of journal entries have commented on how the works have touched them, given them hope, or helped them become more aware. But what their readers say most often is that it’s just good to know there is someone else out there who has been through what they have, someone who understands.
But are readers the only ones who benefit from the writer’s personal accounts and insight?
In a recent article in Sun and Surf Magazine, “Share Your Story: It Heals,” empowerment coach and motivational speaker Dede Lyons discussed how sharing your personal story can, along with helping others, benefit you emotionally and even physically.
She stated, “This therapeutic process can actually reduce tension and stress and even lower blood pressure and heart rate.”
So if you want to write about your struggles, your heartbreak, your long-suppressed emotions, don’t let doubt stop you. Chances are your words will resonate with others as well.
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.”
|Photo by MJ LaBeff.|
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.
***Scribbler - Is there an editing subject you'd like to hear about? Ask Karin.