Is everyone rested and refreshed after
the long weekend our brief hiatus from discussing revision issues? I thought very seriously of posting on the 4th, for the benefit of those of you who had no intention of barbecuing anything or endangering your precious, manuscript-creating fingers with fireworks, but a page into critiquing the Declaration of Independence by modern editorial standards (will your audience consider those truths self-evident, Tom? It’s just lazy writing not to explain the underlying logic here), the whole enterprise began to feel a tad disrespectful.
So even though the darned thing is stuffed to the gills with ands, nouns capitalized for no apparent reason, and paragraphs made up of only a single, often run-on sentence, I left it alone. Perhaps I will get back to it fourscore and seven years hence.
Note to readers outside the United States: that running joke actually was kind of funny. Honest. You’d have to be here.
Before I leave the Founders to their own devices, however, I would like to give all of us a running start back into nit-picking mode by borrowing a couple of sentences from Jefferson’s immortal document to talk about a phenomenon that plagues many a modern-day manuscript: misused semicolons. Cast thy worthy eyes over these classic sentences, citizens, and see if you can spot the problem:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Did it leap out at you, as it probably would have at our old friend Millicent the agency screener (and almost certainly would have at her aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge)? No? Here’s another specimen of semicolon abuse:
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He, by the way, was King George III; I wouldn’t want the resemblance to current political events to confuse anybody. That last sentence, incidentally, was a correct use of a semicolon: it joined two complete sentences together. Functioning as an effective contraction of comma + and, a semicolon allows two complete sentences to occupy the same sentence without technically creating a run-on.
See the problem now? Like so many aspiring (and, unfortunately, established as well) writers of our own day, our third president evidently did not understand that ; and is inherently redundant. That’s why, in case anyone out there had been wondering, it’s technically improper to place a semicolon before the and in a list: this thing is red; that thing is blue; and the other thing is chartreuse. is, it pains me to tell you, incorrect. It should be: this thing is red; that thing is blue, and the other thing is chartreuse.
Fortunately, this species of semicolon abuse is extremely easy to rectify, either by the means I just used above, changing the improper semicolon to a comma, or by removing the and allowing the semicolon to function as God intended.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
A reviser could also, should s/he be of revolutionary propensities, simply turn the gargantuan sentence into two, removing the necessity for the semicolon altogether. While I’m at it, I can’t resist cleaning up the commas a little:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. Accordingly, all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Yes, yes, I know, semicolon-lovers: a semicolon indicates a pause longer than a comma, but not the full stop of a period. It is not beyond belief that in these specific sentences, Jefferson might have been making a point by cramming two sentences’ worth of information into single sentences.
I grant you that — but as an editor, I cannot in good conscience forbear pointing out that if that was his goal in these sentences, it would have worked better if he had not made it his goal quite so often. Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: the more often a writer uses a literary device or sentence-level trick within a short run of text, the less effective each subsequent use will be.
The Declaration of Independence (or, more properly, The Unanimous Declaration of the Thirteen United States of America, a cumbersome mouthful) is almost five pages long in standard format. Tell me, do you believe that a modern-day Millicent would keep turning the pages after the second misused semicolon? What about Mehitabel?
Actually, depending upon the book category, they might take umbrage at the first semicolon, properly used or not. Although ubiquitous in nonfiction (due, no doubt, to their popularity in journalism), the semicolon is not particularly welcome in most fiction book categories. Other than literary fiction, science fiction/fantasy, mainstream and high-end women’s fiction — the fiction categories that also assume the largest vocabularies in their respective target audiences — semicolons tend to be rare in published novels, at least in the U.S.
Enough so that it’s usually in a reviser’s best interest to minimize their use, unless the manuscript he’s slaving over happens to fall in one of the categories mentioned above. It may not be necessary to omit them altogether — although, frankly, most freelance editors would tell you that it’s virtually always a good idea in a submission — but do your best not to use more of them per page than is common in first novels in your chosen book category.
Yes, scanning enough recent releases to see what kind of writing the popular kids are selling these days is going to be a lot of work, now that you mention it. Sorry about that, but using either what the bigwigs in the field can get published or what was considered the best writing in your category ten, fifteen, or fifty years ago won’t give you a very clear idea of what Millicent’s level of tolerance for semicolons — or, indeed, any other literary trick you might happen to favor — is now, will it?
Besides, we all know in the depths of our creative little hearts that most semicolons turn up in manuscripts not because they are essential to the paragraphs they grace, or even for rhythmic effect, but because so many writers really like them. Some really, really like them. They like them so much, in fact, that they often find ways to work ‘em in four times a paragraph.
Is Millicent’s objection to them starting to make a bit more sense? She sees so many dots over commas that her desk sometimes seems overrun with aphids. To see yet another reason why that might be annoying, let’s seek out more evidence of Jefferson’s apparently troubled relationship with punctuation:
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
Funny how pertinent some of his issues still seem, isn’t it? Not just politically, but grammatically: what on earth was he thinking, using more than one semicolon within a single sentence? Happily, this, too, is easy to fix.
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States. For that purpose, he has obstructed the laws of naturalization for foreigners, refused to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raised the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
Doesn’t really lose anything by being freed of semicolons, does it? Neither does the average sentence in your garden-variety semicolon-laden manuscript.
I’m bringing this up, not to sadden those of you who worship the semicolon, but to remind you just how closely professional readers scrutinize manuscript submissions and contest entries. Remember, they do not read like folks who read for pleasure; for the opening chapters of a manuscript, at least, they tend to be on the look-out for reasons to reject it.
So while it may seem tedious — heck, may be tedious — to search a 400-page haystack for needles, going over each page with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to make sure that every sentence is your best writing, Millicent and her boss would not consider such behavior above and beyond the call of duty for a serious writer.
Do you know what they would consider it? A good writer’s job.
That’s why, in case you’ve been scratching your collective head over it, I’ve been hammering so hard throughout this series on the importance of re-reading your work not only for story and characterization, but also for sentence-level stumbling blocks like word repetition. Or seemingly unimportant formatting issues.
Everything adds up to create an impression. Believe me, Millicent would be much, much happier about recommending a manuscript that just bellows, “Look! My writer is capable of taking infinite pains in order to present her story and voice in their best possible light!” than one that sighs, as so many do, “Well, my writer may be talented — if you look past the technical mistakes, you’ll find evidence of it.”
Remember, too, that even a Millicent or Mehitabel willing to invest the effort to ferret out the occasional beautiful sentence in a poorly-presented manuscript may be put off by formatting problems. They have been trained to zero in on them, after all — just as no entry is so easy to knock out of finalist consideration as one that has broken one of the contest’s rules, no submission is as easy to reject as one whose very margins declare that the writer hasn’t done his homework about what professional manuscripts are supposed to look like.
In fairness to Millicent and Mehitabel, once your eyes are accustomed to spot the small stuff, it’s pretty hard to overlook. That’s a pity, because the small stuff is often the most difficult for the reviser to catch.
If that last paragraph didn’t automatically make you murmur, “And that’s why it’s a good idea to read your submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off,” well, I must not have repeated it enough in this series. Which I find rather hard to believe.
To illustrate just how difficult it can be to see the little problems that would jump up and down on the page as a screener or contest judge scanned it, clamoring distractingly for attention, I have called upon a brave reader to allow me to use his opening page as an example. Reader Nick has kindly provided us with the following:
Did the little problems flag you down, distracting you from the narrative? Believe it or not, as few and small as the gaffes here, they would have made it difficult for Mehitabel or Millicent to be drawn into the unfolding story.
I see raised hands out there, trying to flag me down. Yes, hand-wavers? “But Anne,” many of you protest breathlessly, “I don’t see anything wrong with Nick’s page, technically. I suppose Millicent might quibble about the semicolon in the opening sentence, depending upon the book category, but it is properly used. What’s she reading with, those X-ray specs that used to be advertised in the back of comic books?”
No, merely the eyes of experience. Let’s take a look at this page as she would have preferred to see it presented.
See the difference? Admittedly, I tinkered with a few of the style choices here — while anyways may have been intended to show that the narrator is not well-educated, using it twice on the same page invites Millicent to recognize that it isn’t proper. Since the narrator here clearly means anyway, it was an easy change. Ditto with the redundant use of right now: excising it does not alter the meaning of the second sentence, so why antagonize Millicent with the word repetition? (Speaking of things that might annoy her: who is the friend mentioned in paragraph 2, the reader wonders? Is this a sarcastic reference to the doctor? The text does not offer an explanation.)
While either Millicent or Mehitabel would have caught all of these problems on a first read-through, drawing conclusions accordingly, those are probably not the gaffes that would have caught their attention first. The fact that the text began too high on the page would have struck any professional reader, as would the fact that each paragraph is indented five spaces, not .5 inch.
This is a mistake that I have suddenly begun seeing with great frequency within the last six months or so; it was relatively rare before, perhaps because it’s a gaffe that someone who had taken a typing class would be unlikely to make. Word sets an automatic tab at .5 inch, so all one has to do to indent the right amount is to hit the TAB key.
It’s less trouble, honest. Speaking of going to unnecessary trouble, did you spot the most serious formatting problem on the first page?
Instead of the lines of text falling evenly on the page, there is extra space between paragraphs. This would look quite wrong to a professional reader — and since it’s usually not the default in Word, it’s probably the result of some writerly tinkering in the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/INDENTS AND SPACING box. Not only is this sort of fancy manuscript formatting annoying to set up — it’s improper. Just allow the lines to fall naturally, equidistant on the page.
And all that’s visible before Millicent or Mehitabel read so much as a single sentence of the submission. See why it might be a good idea to take a gander at your work IN HARD COPY, even if you are planning on submitting it electronically?
Of course, either dear lady would have caught some problems within the text itself. The dashes are not consistently doubled, with a space at either end, and there’s a comma missing from the quote — neither perhaps rejection reasons individually, but together, they would indicate to a pro that this page had not been proofread for consistency.
As we discussed earlier in this series, consistency in formatting, grammar, and voice is much, much more important to professional readers than most self-editors even begin to suspect. Inconsistencies are jarring — more so, sometimes, than consistent mistakes. To prove that, we need look no farther than the dashes in the first example: obviously, given the correct second usage, the writer here knows that dashes should be doubled; he evidently just forgot to do it the first time around.
And what would have been the best way to catch a nit-picky problem like that, campers, an oversight that a spell- and grammar-checker would not pick up? That’s right: reading this page IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.
Which, you must admit, is quite possible that the writer already did before letting me post this (thanks again for that, Nick); most of these are, after all, quite small cosmetic problems. The vast majority of aspiring writers would not even have looked for at least half of these.
But we aspire to high standards than that, don’t we?
Scarcely had this set of admittedly small revisions fallen off my weary fingertips when I sensed a certain amount of disgruntlement in the peanut gallery. “Oh, God,” a fairly hefty percentage of you murmured, “revising my Frankenstein manuscript is going to be an infinitely more complex matter than I had previously anticipated. Or so I nervously surmise from the fact that Anne is now talking about problems I could not solve, or at any rate locate, with a simple search-and-replace. Horrors!”
Actually, my finely-tuned silent, far-flung reader detector picked up three distinct flavors of chagrin floating around out there, each a fairly common response to being greeted with advice to perform any sort of microsurgery on a manuscript. (If there’s a fourth type of stressed-out writer who does not become at least momentarily distraught at the notion of spending days, weeks, or even moths months nit-picking his way through the submission he thought would be snapped up by an agent a year ago, let’s just say I haven’t bumped into him recently on the writers’ conference circuit.)
The first kind is someone I suspect all of you who have spent any time around aspiring writers have met in spades: the oh-it’s-too-much-bother. “But Anne,” representatives of this easily-discouraged type exclaim. “Going through my manuscript to check for something as minor as dash consistency is going to take WEEKS. I know that you like to set high standards for all of us here in the Author! Author! community, but aren’t you over-reaching a bit here? Surely, no reasonable agent or editor is going to back off from a good submission for something that minor. I’m just going to hold off and wait until my future agent/editor/reviewers of my bestseller tells me point-blank that I need to correct this type of problem. In fact, I think I’m going to put off dealing with any revision problem that requires a tool more sophisticated than a simple search-and-replace or spell-check.”
Whoa, revision-eschewers — for such you almost certainly are, or will end up being — who is over-reaching now? As we have discussed throughout this series on revising Frankenstein manuscripts, the firm belief that books by new writers get picked up before they are polished is, while rather charmingly old-fashioned, one that tends to make those of us who read manuscripts for a living smile sadly and murmur to ourselves, “Oh, this one’s going to have a hard time landing an agent.”
Why? Because a writer who does not habitually proofread implicitly expects that other people will do it for her. While many agents will provide a limited amount of editorial feedback to their clients, especially to new ones, few would be eager to send out manuscripts filled with eye-distracting errors. And in these sad days when even very large publishing houses are laying off editorial staff, is it really a good idea to assume that even the editor who falls in love with your book enough to push it through an editorial committee will have either the time or the inclination to go over the text with that fine-toothed comb I mentioned earlier?
Especially when, if you’ll pardon my bringing it up again, that’s your job?
Just in case any of you are still harboring illusions on the subject, at this point in literary history — and this was true even before the recent economic downturn sent the publishing industry into its current let’s-lay-off-a-third-of-our-editors spree, by the way — aspiring writers are held 100% responsible for the diagnosis and treatment of their manuscripts’ ills. It could hardly be otherwise: Millicent sees so many technically perfect, beautifully-written submissions that she seldom has qualms about rejecting ones that are merely in pretty good shape.
Translation: if your manuscript has a slight cough, it’s up to you to provide the cough drops before she sees it.
With a Frankenstein manuscript, it can be very hard to tell when enough revision is enough, though. Increasing warmth of rejection letters as a writer revised and submitted, then revised and submitted again until an agent snapped up the book, used to provide a pretty good barometer of how a manuscript was improving over time. (That’s why, in case you’d been fretting in the dead of night about it, you might have heard an agent or editor say at a conference that getting only form-letter rejections is always a sign that a manuscript needs intensive revision: in the good old days, that would have been true.)
Now, the MS with emitting the occasional ladylike “Ahem!” usually received precisely the same prefab rejection letter as the MS infected with an advanced case of whooping cough. Or, still worse, with no reply at all. As hard as rejected writers might try to read specific meaning into general statements like I just didn’t fall in love with this story or while the writing is strong, I just don’t think I can sell this in the current market, personalized rejection letters have mostly gone the way of the dodo.
We’ve all heard that such creatures once roved the earth, but few of us have ever seen one in person.
The second variety of revision suggestion-induced panic runs to the opposite extreme, plunging aspiring writers into orgies of incessant worry about whether they’ve cleaned up their manuscripts enough prior to submission. Faced with the kind of alarm I’ve been raising throughout this post, the victim immediately snatches up her editing pens and shouts, “Thanks for telling me, Anne! I’ll clear my schedule for the next three weeks to attend to the matter!”
She is, in a word that I suspect I’m making up on the spot, over-conscientious.
Most of us have probably encountered advanced cases of panic #2, right? Every time the sufferer runs into a new writerly axiom, he rushes to apply it to his work. Adherents of this philosophy would rather spend their time cleaning minute specks of dust off their writing with a toothbrush like an archeologist exhuming the ruins of Troy than run the risk of anything whatsoever being wrong with their work by the time some kind mailman pops it under Millicent’s nose.
In moderation, such devotion to detail is laudable. Over-indulgers, however, can fret themselves into an absolute standstill. Since there’s never any shortage of ostensibly never-fail writing advice out there, a writer who becomes addicted to dipping his cup into the stream of wisdom too frequently can feel as though he’s trying to drain Lake Titicaca with a teaspoon.
The third type, of course, is the one who exclaims, “Oh, my God — the publishing industry is so unreasonable! No wonder nothing of value ever gets published! I might as well give up now.” Which is no skin off Millicent’s freckled nose, of course: see my earlier comment about the number of technically perfect manuscripts she sees in any given year, far more than her boss agent could ever hope to sign to representation contracts.
Welcome to the joys of living in a great, big country filled with talented, creative people. Isn’t competition grand?
By now, I suspect that I’ve given all three types a common cause upon which they agree absolutely. “Heavens, Anne,” they cry in unison, “if your goal was to depress us into a stupor, you’ve certainly succeeded. Knock off for the day, will ya?”
Actually, that wasn’t my goal — although, admittedly, it’s an achievement into which I stumble with some frequency whenever I talk about being realistic about the grim odds that face even an excellent agent-seeking manuscript. (Although while you’re already antsy: if you don’t mind my asking, when’s the last time you made a back-up of your writing files? Or, to put it less gently, if — heaven forfend! — anything happened to your computer tomorrow, would you have to go back and re-make all of those changes you’ve already made on your manuscript? See my point?)
The intention behind bringing up the common stripes of over-reaction to revision suggestions is to encourage all of you to stop yourself from heading toward any of these extremes.
When faced with the prospect of ferreting out and fixing either a manuscript megaproblem or a whole string of little gaffes, what serves a writer best is to come up with a practical plan of attack. Nothing is better at staving off that feeling of being overwhelmed by complete strangers’ extremely high and sometimes rather arbitrary standards.
Trust me on this one. You’ll have a substantially happier life as a writer if you train yourself not to give in to any of the very natural emotional first reactions.
Like, say, to a post like this. Ponder manuscript matters small and great, everybody, and keep up the good work!