Full Stop, Capital Letter

Some random thoughts on the vagaries of editing by fellow Crooked Cat author, Pamela Kelt.

My High School geography teacher once said: ‘As I get older, I’ve discovered that I know less and less about more and more.’

This describes my relationship with editing to a T. I should be an expert. You should see my CV. Proof-reader, copywriter, formatter,  translator, editor, sub-editor.

I’m always happier editing other people’s writing. It probably stems from a traumatic childhood incident. I wrote a descriptive piece about a winter scene and ‘snow-caped’ mountains. The teacher thought I’d spelt the word wrongly and had the nerve to correct it to ‘snow-capped’ and deducted a mark. If she’d bothered to ask, I would have told her that I meant ‘caped’, which described the circular snow pattern rather better, I thought. I’ve never recovered from the slight, it seems.


Snow caped mountains

So, I became an editor – and got paid for it. I’ve done it all, from checking a doctoral thesis on inorganic computational chemistry to marking up a civil engineering brochure about dams – in Portuguese.Set me in front of my own manuscript, and it’s different story. All writers know this, but we still have to do it.

These past 12 months, I’ve edited six books of my own, plus my father’s, and it’s been quite a challenge. Here are some things I’ve learned the hard way.

I started out by swearing I’d never ‘Track Changes’ EVER AGAIN. I’ve mellowed. It’s now a necessary evil. (Happily, my version is from an antique version of Word, so I can switch off most of the lurid features, but don’t tell anyone.) In truth, my hatred sprang from the corporate world where I used to work. Tetchy go-getters would use Track Changes as a personal forum to air their views. Now, as long as there’s just one person using the manuscript at a time, it works.

Pam editing

Track Changes – they’re never as bad as you think

Editors are actually nice. No, really. They are. I’ve been treated with such courtesy that I’ve been quite humbled. I can say that I’ve happily exchanged quips and in-jokes in the ‘comments’ with gay abandon. I even have a standing invitation to a vineyard in Oregon from one editor to meet his wife and family. Match that.

Agree on a dictionary. Three of my books have been edited by a Canadian publisher – great news for me, because Canadian spelling and word use is so close to UK English that I can avoid such abominations as ‘color’, ‘equalize’, ‘envision’ and ‘normalcy’. My favourite is the online Collins (and thesaurus), for many reasons. It’s modern, it has a US variant, audio pronunciation and some lovely examples of word usage which are often quite hysterical. For fun, I looked up ‘proofreader’. ‘No expense has been spared on the production of this volume either, except, sadly, that of a final proofreader.’ Times, Sunday Times (2002)


Proofreading symbols chart

Never be afraid to go back to basics. I’ve had to relearn some basic sentence structure. As an ex-journalist, I’ve had subtle constructions drummed out of me. So, it’s back to some online grammar sites to tackle some of my personal weaknesses, such as commas in a sentence with two independent clauses. I was always bit vague about those, but now I know what to do. (See?)

Get in control of your Spellchecker and dictionary. You must own it, not the other way round. And don’t believe everything it tells you. Funny story. One of my husband’s colleagues was supervising a particularly obnoxious doctoral student. Her spelling was atrocious. Instead of correcting the mistakes, she added them all the dictionary so she didn’t have to emend anything. She was obliged to resubmit, so justice was had. Oh, how we chortled.

Always assume there is a howling error in the first paragraph and possibly several in the first three chapters you submit. Don’t be proud. Get someone else to read it.

It pays to be humble. If you accede to a small point, you have the moral high ground to push a key issue later on.

A small lay-out tip. If you’re checking covers, blurbs etc, look at it upside-down. You’ll be surprised what you can pick up.

So far, so good. However, none of the above applied to my latest challenge. A year ago, I received a giant box of my late father’s manuscripts, hand-typed on a typewriter from hell. The first was an original Cold War thriller, which I thought was terrific.

Father's book

My Late Father’s book, Not With a Whimper, out on Crooked Cat Publishing in June

With help from tech-savvy husband Rob, we bought a printer with OCR. This sounds like a disease, but of course, it’s ‘optical character recognition’.

We experimented, with horrendous results. As the machine scanned a type-written page, it misinterpreted the line breaks and inserted the next line in a separate column. Hmm. After much fiddling about, we ended up using rtf, rich text format. Each chapter emerged as one continuous series of lines, each with a carriage return at the end. Once I deleted these, I ended up with a continuous block of text which I then had to break into sentences and paragraphs. Gulp. It took a while, but it was a cracking story, with edgy characters and razor-like dialogue. I took a chapter at a time, and read it as I went.

The next step was turning it into English, word by word, sometimes syllable by syllable. The character recognition was rather hazy, to say the least. Here’s a small example. What does ‘IVlartini breabh’ mean? In fact, it’s ‘Martini-breath’. The scanner failed to recognise the ‘M’ and attempted a facsimile using capital I, V and the letter l.

I won’t even begin to bore you with what it did to punctuation. Added to all this, my father’s old typewriter had a dodgy upper case W. Imagine how often that came up? (In case you’re interested, a tightly-written 60,000 words of manuscript took me two weeks of solid work.)

And before you ask, I did attempt to retype from scratch. Anyone who’s seen my typing will be sighing and shaking their head right now. Fast but inaccurate. That’s me. After two pages, I gave up.

So, when it comes to editing, let’s say I get a lot of practice.

My final thought? Nobody’s perfect. Editing is a skill. Good editing is an art. Take all the help you can get.

PS I hope you’ll forgive any mistooks in this piece. As mentioned, my ypting can be, um, erratic.

Crooked Cat.tiff

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12 Responses to Full Stop, Capital Letter

  1. I admire you, Pam. I only recently recognised with the patient and gentle help of Steph Patterson of Crooked Cat, that I suffer from “twitchy thumb”. I have a feeling that my right thumb is jealous of all the other digits, having only one function as I touch type. So It gets its revenge by shoving in double spaces every time I am distracted. Given its own way my m/s are like Alaska – full of wide open spaces.
    It doesn’t help, of course, that a great deal of punctuation rules learned by ladies of a certain age (mine for example) have changed. My thumb is the same age as me, learned to touch-type at the same secretarial school and stubbornly refuses to play with this silly new “full stop, single space” fad. It will pass.
    Thank you both for a lovely chortle and amused wry grin of sympathy.

    • jbwye says:

      Yes – I’ve had to make myself adapt, too!
      And the habit I have of using single quotes for dialogue… I’ve tried using search and replace to amend matters, but ended up in one awful muddle.

      • Pamela Kelt says:

        Aha. Jane, I have a formula that I use to swap single and double quotations. The trick? It’s easy to search and replace opening quotations, so do that. THEN … and this is the inspired bit … go through and replace every apostrophe with a spurious character, say a dollar sign. (I find these using a list of my most common examples, such as it’s, they’ve, o’clock and so on.) Then simply search and replace all the remaining close quotations. Finally, if you’re still with me, just replace your chosen spurious character with the correct apostrophe. I can do a 90,000-word ms in half and hour! Of course, if you have quotes within quotes, you have to sort those out manually, but it’s still quicker.

    • Pamela Kelt says:

      I know what you mean! I still check every ms for double spaces. It’s a key item on my list. Meanwhile, I’ve had to adapt to a new chiclet-style keyboard. I think the poor young salesmen at our local PC World are still recovering from my visit where I gave them rather a grilling. I think it’s so true that we have to keep learning new techniques (or is forgetting the old ones?). One pet hate is the so-called Oxford (or Harvard) comma in lists. Arg.

  2. gwpj says:

    I like this, especially her comments about Canadian and British English. I’m from the US originally (now live in Japan), where we realize things. Problem is, I read so widely that I no longer know which is right, realize or realise. I’ve learned in the past few years that there is no English language, there are Englishes. Help! My eyes are crossing dangerously.

    • Pamela Kelt says:

      I used to work in Australia and happily, my editor wanted British spelling, so I got in the habit of editing out antipodean-style English. My daftest subbing job was to reword US-style dialogue in a graphic novel and make it UK. Because the artwork was done, it also had to fit inside the bubbles. That was tough.

  3. Nancy Jardine says:

    Great post, Pam. Ditto on the relearning of certain aspects of style these days. When I seriously pursued my writing, after giving up teaching in 2011, I found my first editor picked up on so many things I was horrified because I’d been ‘teaching’ those BAD things to my pupils for years. The publisher was American. I’m now absolutely thrilled that Steph at Crooked Cat likes/ and uses the grammatical style I HAD been teaching- for example use of commas, and clause structure issues. I can tell you I was very relieved but if you are published in different countries then you do have to learn to adapt to ‘house’ style.

    • Pamela Kelt says:

      Oh, boy. I’ve compromised on some points of grammar that once would have given me sleepless nights. Mind you, I did dig my heel in a few times (especially with those weird and wonderful US past tenses). Failing that, I just rewrote the sentence! One quirk was that I had to remove ‘had’ from the entire ms – younger US readers don’t really understand it, apparently. I love US dramas on TV (The Good Wife, for example), but even in educated shows there are some forms of strangulated grammar that make me choke on my Pinot Grigio.

  4. Sue Barnard says:

    A great post, Pam. As an editor myself, I can relate to a lot of what you say. The low point of my editorial career was when I was proof-reading a specialist text-book which contained a line of computer data. I’m no expert on this but it looked as though it contained an inconsistency. I asked my husband (who had co-edited the book), and he had to ask the original author of the article. I don’t think we ever got a definitive answer about it!

    • Pamela Kelt says:

      It’s so hard to switch off the proof-reading reflex. Menus are my favourite, especially the ones spotted on holiday. At a restaurant at the top of Mount Lovćen in Montenegro, we spotted what should have said ‘smoked carp’. Unfortunately, the letters of ‘carp’ were transposed. We ordered lamb.

  5. Excellent post, Pam. I am a scientist by background and instinct, so grammar was always nuisance that just got in the way of some perfectly good equations. When I became a doctor, medical shorthand worsened my use of English further, assisted by a stint as a medical journalist. After all, everyone knew what our acronyms meant, didn’t they?
    I loved English literature at school but it was only when I started writing novels in 2012 that I realised readers weren’t psychic, words like ‘suddenly’ were tiring if used too often and too many commas (particularly in the wrong place) most definitely spoiled the broth! Thanks to Laurence Patterson at Crooked Cat and his subtle editing my writing has improved, most people now know what I mean without resorting to translation software and I am ever watchful of errant commas, spaces and acronyms SUDDENLY creeping in. I love the sound of your Father’s Cold War book 🙂

    • Pamela Kelt says:

      Beautifully spelled and punctuated, may I say. Scientists write better English than they suspect – despite some starting every paper with ‘recently it has been shown …’ Not that I hate the passive, but it is passé. Look. I did the accent!

      I’m a fan of ‘suddenly’. I often need to state how many minutes things take, then I forget which room I’m in. Continuity is tricky.

      It was fascinating editing my father’s book. No major grammar glitches that I could see – he did have a sound Scottish education. Mind you, I did spot the odd error with the Spanish and German, but hey.

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