John, have you seen Jon, James, and/or Jeremy lately? What about Jessica, Jacqueline, Jessamyn, or Jasmine?

cardinal richelieu tripych

Three guesses: which particular species of word repetition am I going to tackle today?

Actually, that was a trick question — I’m going to be talking about two of the most common, gratuitous character name repetition and character naming that inadvertently gives the impression of same. Why talk about them together, you ask? Because in manuscript submissions, faux pas of a feather tend to flock together.

Why, yes, that was a mixed metaphor, now that you mention it. Would that the following not-all-that-uncommon type of fiction opening suffered from only metaphor-blending.

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Mona, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Maurice!”

Mona moaned. “Darling Morris,” Mona mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Marius means nothing to me, and Mencius hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Merton, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Mona!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Mona murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Marius, Mona — I am accusing you of being in love with Maurice!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Mona?”

Mona looked blank. “Maurice who?”

Maddening to read, is it not? If you really want to drive yourself mad, try reading it out loud. Or simply step into Millicent the agency screener’s shoes and read a good third of the fiction openings on any given day.

Why are these phenomena so pervasive in submissions? Believe it or not (but I hope you select the former), as evident as the too-similar names would be to virtually any reader, most aspiring writers — nay, most writers, period — seem to have a hard time noticing how their name choices can distract the reader. Or so I surmise from how defensive writers often get when editors like me suggest, however gently, that perhaps their manuscripts might benefit from some name fine-tuning.

In fact, I would bet a wooden nickel of the variety that folks are always urging one not to take that a fairly hefty proportion of the otherwise excellently-humored writers reading this have already taken a bit of umbrage from the nation’s seemingly inexhaustible supply. “But character names are a creative choice!” writers everywhere protest, indignant. “And if I like a character’s name, why shouldn’t I use it a lot? It’s necessary for clarity, you know!”

Is it now? More to the point, is it always? I ask because usually, what indignant name-dropping writers have in mind as the only feasible alternative is something like this:

He strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or him!”

She moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? He means nothing to me, and that other guy hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now a third fellow, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” he gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit — I am accusing you of being in love with You Know Who!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Who?”

Yes, this pronoun-fest would be a bit difficult for your garden-variety reader to follow. As justifying examples go, however, you must admit that this one’s a bit of a straw man. I’m not saying that you should never mention your characters by name at all. No one — no one sensible, anyway — would seriously suggest that, because you’re right: naming characters can be awfully handy for identification purposes.

Nor is anyone here arguing that character names don’t fall firmly within the province of authorial discretion (but don’t be surprised if your future agent/editor/some random guy from your publisher’s marketing department harbors few thoughts on the subject). No, what we sensible editorial types have in mind was a revision more along these lines:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” he said. “It’s me or Armand!”

She sat bold upright on a chaise clearly designed for supporting an inclination to recline. “You mean Armand Jean, the Duc du Plessis, otherwise known as Cardinal Richelieu? Why, he’s been dead for either decades or centuries, depending upon when this scene is set!”

Morris sank to the floor, clutching his head in his hands. “Oh, God, have I been time-traveling again?”

Just kidding — that was the edit the guy from marketing wanted. (Oh, come on — you wouldn’t keep reading?) Simply making the names less similar would produce a run of text a little more like this:

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “Elaine, I’ve had enough,” Morris said. “It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling Morris,” Elaine mentioned, “whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha!” Morris gloated audibly. “Hoist with your own petard, Elaine!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years, Morris,” Elaine murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan, Elaine — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” Morris muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that, Elaine?”

Elaine looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Come on, admit it — that’s easier to follow, isn’t it? As little as writers might want to hear it, anyone who has ever screened manuscripts or judged contest submissions could tell you (quite possibly whilst clutching his aching head and/or bathing his weary eyes) that the best or only test of the strength of a character’s name is not whether the writer happens to like it.

Yes, yes, I see your hackles rising, defenders of authorial rights: the writer of this turgid little exchange may well have been deeply enamored of every name in the original draft. I can guarantee, though, that the reader will find this set of monikers considerably more individually memorable — and thus more conducive to matching with each character’s personality.

While you’re retracting those hackles, however, let me ask you: this time through, did you notice how often Morris and Elaine’s names appeared for no good reason?

If you’re like most writers, the answer is no. Seriously, folks, you’d be astonished at just how often a given character’s name will pop up within a single page of text in the average manuscript submission — and even more astonished at how difficult it is for chronic name-repeaters to spot the problem in their own writing. Like the bugbear of our last few posts, the ubiquitous and, major characters’ names seem to become practically invisible to self-editing writers.

But you know better, right? In a two-person scene, is it remotely necessary to keep reminding the reader who those two people are? Yes, it’s helpful to identify speakers the first time around, but couldn’t any reader familiar with the principle of alternating dialogue be relied upon to keep track of which is speaking when thereafter?

And while we’re at it, isn’t audibly a trifle redundant here? What else are the quotation marks for, if not to alert the reader to words having been uttered aloud? Could not the writer assume sufficient intelligence in the reader to render this rendition a viable option?

Morris strode into the opulent drawing room, so oddly out of keeping with the rest of the austere log cabin. “I’ve had enough. It’s me or Arnold!”

Elaine moaned. “Darling, whatever do you mean? Stefan means nothing to me, and Ned hasn’t entered my thoughts for years. Now Edmund, on the other hand…”

“Aha! Hoist with your own petard!”

“I haven’t used a petard in years,” she murmured, but he seemed not to hear her.

“I wasn’t talking about that twit Stefan — I am accusing you of being in love with Arnold!” He muscled aside a dainty occasional table. “What have you to say to that?”

She looked blank. “Arnold who?”

Oh, there go those writerly hackles again — it takes so little to raise them. Clarity and flow not enough for you?

“I guess that’s fine,” hackle-raisers mutter, kicking the nearest piece of heavy furniture, “but really didn’t see a problem with the earlier version. I miss the fun names.”

Of course you do — as a writer. As a reader, you almost certainly wouldn’t; let’s face it, the similarity of the names of Mona’s presumptive lovers could only be amusing for so long. It’s also a type of joke that our Millicent sees often enough in submissions that even if it did tickle her funny bone at first, it could hardly strike her as original. On the whole, she’s more likely to be pleased to see some naming restraint. She spends so much time trying to remember which character is which, you see.

Oh, you think that’s not difficult? Okay, try a little experiment: hie yourself to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and pull twenty books off the shelves. Stack them neatly before you and read the first page of each. Wait five minutes, then jot down as many of the main characters’ names as you can.

It’s not so easy. Especially if you happened to select books in which the characters boast similar names. Which prompts me to ask: everyone did catch the plethora of Js in today’s title, right?

I sincerely hope so: names beginning with J have for years been by far the most common in submission, especially in YA. Isn’t that right, Jeremy, Josh, and Jesse? And don’t even get me started on the many, many years during which John, Jon, Jonathan, Jack, and Johnny traipsed merrily through the pages of virtually any novel one might happen to pick up in an airport.

Just between us, Justin, a screener or contest judge doesn’t have to be on the job for very long to start longing for the odd Anthony, a wayward Terence, a charming Gregory, merely for the sake of variety. “Would it kill the average submitter,” Millicent moans into her third latté of the morning (hey, something’s got to keep her awake), “to give a passing thought to naming his protagonist Keith?”

Oh, Millie, I feel your pain — but at the risk of repeating myself (oh, John, must we go over this again?), it’s my considered opinion that on the manuscript page, writers just don’t spot the problem. Partially, that’s attributable to an unfortunate fact of submission: a good 90% of writers currently sending off manuscript pages to agencies, small publishers, and writing contests have never actually clapped eyes upon another writer’s manuscript.

So is it really any wonder that any given submitter should be unaware that by the time Millicent meets his protagonist, Joshua Jefferson, in the course of her screening day, she will have already had the pleasure of making the literary acquaintance of 13 other Joshes, Jeffs, and possibly their sons? As far as they know, her Josh is the only one in town.

Then, too, all of us are just used to knowing quite a few people with the same first name. So is Millicent. In her case, though, all the sympathy this experience sparks is to wonder why so few writers seem to have noticed that in the real world, it’s often kind of inconvenient when several people moving within the same circles share the same name.

Says the former coed who could walk into her collegiate dining hall, shout “David!” and see a third of her male classmates turn around. Someone in the admissions office — and in the nation’s maternity wards a couple of decades earlier — sure must have been awfully fond of it.

Before any of you slice-of-life aficionados leap to your feet to argue the virtues of having a manuscript’s naming strategy hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, let me hasten to add that it’s really, really common for readers to confuse characters whose names begin with the same capital letter, let alone the same first syllable. It may be fun to plan a story about adventurous twins Ken and Kendra, but on the page, it’s likely to confuse a skimmer. So are those intrepid best friends, Dustin and Justine.

Oh, you don’t believe me, friends of Morris, Maurice, and Marius? Okay, let’s take a peek at some of these naming faux pas in their native environment, the manuscript page. If you’re having trouble reading such small type so fast, I recommend holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

For those of you who would like to replicate Millicent’s experience within the comfort of home, I invite you to try to read your way all the way down the page in less than 30 seconds. On your marks, get set — squint!

Name rep example

How did you do? Award yourself a gold star if you spotted all 9 iterations of John in the body of the text — and another if you caught the author’s name in the header. (No, that wouldn’t count as repetition in the text, now that you mention it, but to a repetition-weary Millicent at the end of a long day, it might contribute subconsciously to her sense of being bombarded by Johns. She’s only human, you know.)

So far, so good. But let me ask you: did the 6 Paulines bug you at all? Or did they simply fade into the woodwork, because your brain automatically accepted them as necessary to the text?

Again, for most writers, the answer would be no — as long as this page had fluttered gracefully out of their own manuscripts. Admittedly, though, not all of them would have instantly leapt to their feet, crying, “My heavens, Mr. or Ms. Johns, have you never met a pronoun you’ve liked?”

That’s quite a bit more charitable than what a nit-picky reader would have shouted — and since that demographic includes practically everyone who has ever read for a living, including agents, editors, and contest judges, you might want to worry about that. Millicent, I assure you, would have found the level of name-repetition here eye-distracting.

How eye-distracting, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let me put it kindly: how distracted from your fine writing would you find it acceptable for her to be? Wouldn’t you rather she focused upon the many excellencies of your style than all of those Js and Ps?

News flash: proper nouns are as susceptible to over-use in writing as any other kind of words. Although aspiring writers’ eyes often glide over character and place names during revision, thinking of them as special cases, to professional eyes, there is no such thing as a word exempt from being counted as repetitive if it pops up too often on the page.

In fact, proper noun repetition is actually more likely to annoy your friendly neighborhood Millicent than repetition of other nouns. (Did you catch how frequently fog appeared in that last example, by the way?) Too-frequent repetition of the character and place names makes the average editor rend her garments and the garden-variety agent moan.

If it’s any consolation, they’ve been rending and moaning for years; proper nouns have been asserting and re-asserting themselves on the manuscript page for a couple of decades now. Pros used to attribute this problem to itsy-bitsy computer screens.

Oh, did that reference perplex you, children? Ask your parents about the early Macs’ postcard-sized screens. They weren’t even tall enough to give a life-sized reflection of an adult face. If the user made the text large enough to read, the screen would only hold a dozen or so lines.

But as technology has progressed, the screens on even inexpensive computers have gotten rather large, haven’t they? Even on a tablet, you can usually view of half a page, at least. My extra-spiffy editor’s monitor can display two full-sized manuscript pages side by side. I could serve a Thanksgiving dinner for eight upon it, if I so chose.

I never have so chosen, in case you were curious. But it’s nice to have the option.

Given how much easier it is to see words on a screen now than in days of yore, Millicent is left at a loss to explain why writers so seldom have a clear idea of how distracting name repetition can be on a page. Could it possibly be as simple as writers tending to christen their major characters with their favorite names (I’m looking at you, John), ones they like so much that they simply cannot see the darn things crop up often enough?

Good guess, Millie, but I don’t think that’s all that’s going on. I suspect it has to do with how differently the eye reads text on a backlit screen: it definitely encourages skimming, if not great big leaps down the page. But for the most part, I believe it has to do with how infrequently writers read their own work in hard copy.

Hear that Gregorian-like chanting floating through the ether? That’s every writer for whom I’ve ever edited so much as a paragraph automatically murmuring, “Before submission, I must read my manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.” I repeat this advice so often that writers who read this blog religiously have been heard to mutter this inspiring little axiom unconsciously their sleep, under their breath during important meetings, on their deathbeds…

So my prescription for learning to head this Millicent-irritant off at the pass will not, I suspect, come as a complete surprise: the best way to catch any visual pattern on the printed page is, you guessed it, to print out the page in question and read it. As I think you will soon discover, proper nouns are unusually gifted at flagging down a reader’s attention.

Since I don’t see too many of you stampeding in the direction of your manuscripts to verify this in your own writing, here’s another example. Again, you’ll get the most out of this exercise if you read it at top speed.

name rep 3

Did you notice how your eye longed to leap from one T to the next, even if it meant skipping some text? That’s only natural. Come a little closer, and I let you in on a closely-held professional readers’ secret: the skimming eye is automatically attracted to capital letters.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, not-especially-literate people tend to Capitalize Words for Emphasis. When they’re not placing words that no one has ever said aloud inside quotation marks, that is — another widespread professional readers’ pet peeve. It’s virtually always grammatically incorrect to Use Punctuation to Attract Unwarranted Eyeballing, just as it’s seldom literarily acceptable to “surround” words like “this,” presumably to demonstrate to the “reader” that were these words being “spoken aloud,” someone might emphasize them, but that doesn’t seem to stop devotees of either practice.

To be fair, using punctuation as a substitute for writing that calls attention to itself does indeed work. Just be aware that among print-oriented people, that attention will probably not be positive.

Proper nouns, on the other hand, claim capitalization as a natural right. Completely legitimately, they jump off the page at the reader — which can be a good thing, if a manuscript is crammed to the gills with action, unnamed characters, and other literary titivations that do not involve the named characters. That way, reader’s eye will be drawn to the major players when they show up. Problem solved, right?

In most manuscripts, no. It’s pretty common for narratives to remind readers unnecessarily often of even the protagonist’s name. And since most novels and pretty much all memoirs deal with their respective protagonists on virtually every page, that can result in a whole lot of capital letters competing for Millicent’s attention.

Are you satisfied with that outcome, John? John? If you don’t start paying attention, I’ll have to page Pauline.

Millicent’s constantly confronted by scenes constructed by authors evidently terrified that some reader will forget who is speaking. Or so she must conclude by the frequency with which characters address one another by name — much more often than would be bearable in real life. And it’s not just the characters that seem to fall prey to this fear: narratives often compulsively name and rename everyone in sight. Heck, while we’re at it, why not remind the reader of how those characters are interrelated?

“But that’s not fair, Mom!” Cecile wailed.

Her mother stroked her bent head. “Now, Cece, you knew running for Congress was going to be hard.”

The daughter batted the maternal hand away. “It’s no use, Mom. I simply cannot kill another baby. My pucker is broken.”

Call me zany, but I cling to the hope that when one character refers to another as Mom, a conscientious reader will be able to figure out that the latter is the former’s mother. Similarly, once that reader has been made aware that the latter gave birth to the former, I’m pretty confident that the conclusion that Cecile is the daughter will not be an especially surprising revelation.

Besides, we’re not dealing with legions of characters here. Unless the one of the characters happens to have multiple personalities, most readers will leap to the radical conclusion that the names of the conversants will not alter substantially within the course of a few pages of dialogue. So why keep labeling the participants in a scene where there’s little probability of confusing the reader?

A fine question — and the reason professional editors so frequently cut tag lines (he said, she said), rather than having the narrative identify every speaker every time s/he opens his or her pretty mouth. Once the narrative has established the speakers in two-person dialogue (far and away the most common variety, by the way), a reasonably intelligent reader is more than capable of remembering what both of those people are called by their kith and kin.

So if your text seems to have broken out in capital letters, look first at the dialogue, both inside the quotation marks and without. In dialogue where the use of tag lines has not been minimized, proper names can pop up so frequently that it’s like a drumbeat in the reader’s ear.

And it’s my job to get you to hear it as you read. I can keep producing these examples all day, people.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?” April asked.

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me, April. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, Lou, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it’s about John,” Louisa huffed. “How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one,” April said, smiling. “It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject, April. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

April sighed. “Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

“I’ll say,” Louisa said, edging out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

Yes, speakers in the real world do call one another by name this much sometimes, but like so much of real-life dialogue, that level of repetition would be snore-inducing, if not downright hypnotic, on the page. Especially when name-bearing tag lines are featured in the text, even dialogue between just a couple of characters can convey the sense of a very crowded room.

Does that combination of frantic jumping and wild arm-waving mean that some of you would like to add something here? “But Anne,” some perennial reader-distrusters point out, “wasn’t that last example rather unwise? I mean, if you took your vicious red pen to that exchange, slashing all of the proper nouns but the first set required to set up the alternating dialogue rhythm, you’d end up in precisely the dilemma we saw at the top of this post, the one you dismissed as a straw man: a scene in which the characters share a pronoun. Get out of that one, smarty-pants!”

In the first place, I seldom edit with red pens: due to early school training, virtually any adult will perceive red-inked marginalia as more critical than commentary scrawled in another color. (And you might be shocked at how excited some adult writers become when they learn that if a paragraph is especially good, I have been known to slap a gold star next to it. Book-length revisions have been fueled by the hope of gold stars.) And in the second place, with a little finesse, depicting an exchange between pronoun-sharers need not be at all confusing.

We’re writers, after all: why should the only possible word choice to replace a proper noun be a pronoun? Use your creativity, as well as your scissors. And don’t be afraid to rearrange a little text.

“I don’t think that’s fair of you, April,” Louisa snapped.

“Why not?”

“Oh, don’t be disingenuous with me. I’ve known you too long.”

April played with a nearby paperweight. Was she testing its weight for throwing? “Honestly, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. Unless this is about John?”

“Of course it is. How many husbands do you think I have?”

“Just one. It’s been just John since the seventh grade.”

Louisa’s eyes stung for a moment. April always had known how to push her buttons. “Don’t change the subject. Next, you’ll be reminiscing about that time we tarred and feathered our classmate when we were in the fourth grade.”

“Those were the days, eh, Lou?”

She edged out of paperweight-tossing range. “She should have known better than to beat you at tetherball.”

We weren’t exactly flung headlong into a morass of confusion there, were we?

“But Anne,” pronoun-eschewers protest, and who could blame them? “You keep giving us dialogue examples. I find myself going out of my way to eschew pronouns in narrative paragraphs as well. Is there then no hope of quelling my deep and abiding fear of being misunderstood when I’m describing a couple of similarly-gendered characters?”

Never fear — we already have a very capable quelling device in our tool kit. And look, here’s a dandy excerpt to which we can apply it, fresh from the pen of someone terrified that two shes in a scene is one lady too many.

Eve slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when Tanya did not come running, Eve filched a straw from the table next to her. The guy tapping away on his laptop never even noticed. Eve made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of Tanya. For good measure, Eve upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya retrieved Eve’s glass from Eve’s waving hand. Tanya inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at Tanya with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses who lived primarily upon their tips. Haughtily, Eve tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her. How dare Tanya treat her like a drunk?

At this juncture, dare I hope that you found this at least a bit annoying to read? Come on, admit it — if I had opened the post with this example, it would have struck you as better prose, right? Which is why, I can reveal at long last, I’ve been positively burying you in examples today: until you’ve had to read page after page of name-heavy prose, it can seems a trifle counter-intuitive that reusing a single word — any single word — within two consecutive lines might be irritating to a reader.

Yes, even if the word in question is not a proper noun. The capitalization of a name merely makes it stand out more, bellowing at Millicent, “Look at me! Repetition here! Wouldn’t want to miss it, would you?”

So what, the fearful ask, are we to do about it? Clearly, we can’t just replace all of the proper nouns with she; the narrative might conceivably become confusing. (If you retain any linger doubts about how confusing a narrative can be when no proper names are used at all, get a 4-year-old to tell you the plot of a movie he’s just seen.) And clearly, going after tag lines and characters naming one another wouldn’t be helpful in a scene containing neither.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t perform a little judicious proper noun removal surgery. We’ll just have to exercise a little more creativity. Here’s the same scene again, streamlined to minimize the perceived necessity of naming the players.

She slapped her laptop shut with a bang and glanced around, annoyed, for her waitress. Naturally, Tanya was nowhere in sight. Eve ostentatiously drained her drink to its dregs, but when no one came running, she filched a straw from the table next to her — the guy tapping away on his computer never even noticed — and made slurping sounds on the bottom of her glass with it.

Still no sign of life. For good measure, she upended the glass, scattering swiftly melting ice cubes messily all over the starched white tablecloth, and began banging the now-empty vessel upon the now-sodden linen.

Silently, Tanya snatched the glass in mid-flight. She inclined her head toward the wall clock: ten minutes past closing time.

Eve looked up at her with that my-daddy-is-someone-important air that always worked with bank tellers, hot dog vendors, and waitresses. God, she hated being treated like a drunk. Haughtily, she tapped her fountain pen on each of the seven empty Perrier bottles before her

Anybody especially confused? I thought not.

Before any of you proper noun-huggers out there start grumbling about the care required to tell when a pronoun is appropriate and when a proper noun, let me hasten to point out that this was not a very time-consuming revision. All it required to alert the reader to which she was which was a clear narrative line, a well-presented situation — and a willingness to name names when necessary.

That, and an awareness that repeating names even as far apart as three or four lines just doesn’t look good on a printed page; it can draw the eye away from an orderly, line-by-line reading, and therefore detrimental to the reading experience. A proper noun repeated more than once per sentence, or within a single line of text, almost always seems just a trifle odd to a reader — and more than a little annoying to Millicent.

Feel as though you will be excising proper nouns in your sleep? Excellent; my work here is done. Night-night, John-John, and keep up the good work!

Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

This time, I mean it about the deadline — and I always mean it about logical flow

I’m going to keep it short and semi-sweet today, campers — tomorrow, if you will recall, is the deadline for entries to The Sensual Surfeit Literary Competition of 2012, this year’s edition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. To be specific, your fabulously-detailed scenes must be submitted by midnight in your time zone on Monday, December 3.

Some helpful links for those of you whose writing chops bloom under last-minute pressure: you’ll find the rules here. You’ll also find, for your rushed entry-proofing pleasure, a handy post in which I show precisely what a winning entry for this contest might look like on the page. You’re welcome; have at it.

I have a nice treat in store for all of us once contest-entrants once again have time to read, something that I think is really going to provide a launching-pad for some fabulous big-picture discussion. I’d like to free up some time for those of who whose creative brains are this very instant suggesting, “Hey, Mavis, I know you hadn’t planned on entering this contest, despite the genuinely pretty great prizes, but wouldn’t that scene in Chapter Five precisely fit the bill?”, though, so for the nonce, let’s concentrate upon something nit-picky.

Fortunately for the cause of relative brevity (hey, we are talking about me here), as so often happens, the universe leapt to provide an apt blogging topic for our immediate need. See if you can spot the notorious editorial pet peeve in the following sentence, courtesy of a news program’s bottom-of-the-screen eye distraction headline ticker. So as not to tar the catastrophe in question with the additional stigma of reader-irritant, I have altered the sentence’s subject matter.

The governor blamed the storm on the extensive flooding.

My, that would be newsworthy, wouldn’t it? How unusual for flooding, extensive or otherwise, to cause a storm, rather than the other way around. May we also conclude that sand build-up on a beach is the ultimate culprit for all of those waves?

This kind of sentence has resulted in more handfuls of editors’ and agents’ hair ending up on carpets, parquet, and desktops than I can even begin to estimate. It’s unclear, of course, but in a way that the rise of reality television, misread teleprompters, and hastily-typed Tweets has led your garden-variety member of the general reading public to shrug and accept: the sentence’s running order runs counter to what the reader must assume was the writer’s intended meaning.

Causation, in short, is flipped here. (Either that, or that governor’s mental processes could bear some psychological scrutiny.) What the writer almost certainly meant — and what the news program’s producers were evidently cavalier enough to presume viewers would be willing to put in the effort to extract from this convoluted logic — was this.

The governor blamed the extensive flooding on the storm.

Not nearly such an eye-catching headline, admittedly, but I hope we can all agree that this version poses less of a brain-teaser. It’s also, to be purely practical about it, significantly less likely to cause a professional reader like our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, to stop reading.

Does that immense clank of ten thousand jaws hitting the aforementioned floor tiles indicate that we hadn’t discussed this sad fact in a while? I hate to be the one to break it to those of you brand-new to the submission process, but due to the sheer volume of aspiring writers clamoring for their literary attention and the concomitant necessity to narrow tens of thousands of requested manuscripts down to the four or five new clients even a very well-established agent could hope to take on this year, Millicent tends not to read each and every submission in its entirety before passing judgment upon it. She simply does not have the time.

She does not, in short, approach each fresh manuscript like an ordinary reader, any more than her boss, the agent of your dreams, or the acquiring editor you’d like to pick up your book would. Generally speaking, at least for a submission’s opening pages, Millie will read one or two lines. If they are well-written, book category-appropriate, current market-appropriate, presented professionally, and sound like the kind of book her boss likes to represent, she’ll move on.

For a line, whereupon the assessment process begins anew. Repeat as needed until a rejection red flag pops up — or Millicent becomes sufficiently engrossed in the story to follow it for its own sake.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, the overwhelming majority of submissions to agencies get rejected on page 1. Can you imagine how many Millicents a truly popular agent would have to hire if they did not?

Oh, dear, I didn’t mean to send those of you new to this blog curling into the fetal position. “But Anne,” shocked writers everywhere moan, and who could blame you? “Speaking of logic, that doesn’t make sense. Why would an agent request a full manuscript if he doesn’t intend to read all of it?”

In a word, time. Some small fraction of those requested manuscripts will make it past Millicent’s line-by-line scrutiny, after all, and isn’t it fortunate that she’ll have the rest of those books on hand when she does? If all the agent asked to see was the opening page or two (which, I should note, some agencies do ask queriers to include; check individual submission requirements), then Millie would have to stop after being wowed by an opening, contact the writer, and ask for another chunk. If her boss asked for the full manuscript, she can simply read on.

To be fair, requesting the full manuscript used to mean precisely what excited successful queriers and pitchers still usually believe it does: that the query or pitch excited great professional interest on the agency end. In days of yore — which is to say: more than years ago, a lifetime in a trend-based business — the usual positive response entailed asking to see the first 50 pages, or perhaps the opening chapter.

Before you sigh gustily and long for a time machine, so you could pop back to the 1980s, land an agent, and wing back to find yourself a well-established and long-beloved author, though, consider this: accepting electronic queries or submissions was unheard-of then. Many an aspiring writer still produced her manuscripts on typewriters then, rendering very real the possibility that she would accidentally send an agent her old copy. It would also have been much, much harder for that writer to learn much of anything about the agents she intended to approach: agencies posting websites at all is a relatively recent phenomenon, even by Internet standards.

Does any or all of that make you feel better about the fact that the advent of widespread personal computer ownership and the later easy access to worldwide connectivity have caused an astronomical rise in the number of queries and submissions those agents receive in any given week? Probably not, at least if you’re like the hefty majority of first-time submitters who believe that the only factor an agent or editor could possibly consider in deciding whether to acquire a manuscript is the quality of the writing.

Oh, are some of you still curled up like shrimp? I am sorry. “This logic is making my head spin,” those maintaining the fetal position protest. “I get that agencies are busy, busy places, but how is it possible to judge the talent of a writer of book-length works by the first, second, or fiftieth line of text? Shouldn’t novels be judged, you know, as a whole?”

In an ideal world, yes, but as you may have noticed, we don’t live in one.

Or so those of us who read for a living surmise from the fact that the reading public is perpetually barraged with so many logically-convoluted sentences every day. Apparently, we’re all just expected to rearrange the running order ourselves. In a well-ordered universe, that surely would not be the case.

Admittedly, that’s not all that difficult in our example — unless either the news ticker-writer or the governor knows something about how storms work that the rest of us do not, reason dictates only one possible intended meaning, right? Storms cause flooding, not the other way around. But as any hair-rending agent, editor, or literary contest judge would be only too glad to tell you, it’s the writer’s job to produce clear text, not the reader’s job to guess what the writer actually meant.

Or, to put it another way, logical flow is the minimum requirement in professional writing, not an optional extra. Readers of published books have a completely legitimate right to expect every sentence in a narrative to make sense, without having to put in the extra effort required to change running order, as I did above.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought (and quite loudly, too), logical flow is not just the acquiring editor’s problem. Yes, your future publisher will most likely employ copyeditors to spot this type of gaffe, but in the current over-stuffed literary battleground, it’s rare that editors, contest judges, or agents will not expect a talented writer serious about getting published to proofread his work closely enough to catch it himself.

Ah, how gratifying: my regular readers automatically shouted that they habitually read every syllable they submit or enter IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD. That’s solid strategy, as well as the best way to weed out such inadvertent errors. It’s also a means of obtaining a competitive edge at submission time, because, frankly, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts appear to Millicent not to have been proofread at all.

Heck, many of them don’t appear to be spell-checked. Folks seem to be in too much of a hurry.

That’s a genuine pity, because as I like to point out early and often on this blog, one of the double-edged differences between writing on a typewriter and composing on a computer lies in the latter’s comparative ease of revision. Changing even a single word in a sentence used to require White-Out (ask your grandparents, children); altering a description could require retyping entire pages. And let’s not even talk about how much easier automatic pagination makes life for writers; imagine having to renumber pp. 328-472 by hand, just because you had a second thought about that scene ending on page 327.

Don’t see a down side to being able to copy and paste your favorite paragraph from Chapter 3 and plunk it down in Chapter 1, where a line-by-line reader like Millicent might be better able to appreciate it, or to insert a startling new descriptor in a formerly lackluster sentence without being forced to ink over the original verbiage? Millie does: all too often, a self-editor in a hurry will forget to read over the resulting scene, to check for logical flow. The result, I tremble to report, frequently looks like this:

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Oh, you may laugh, but Millicent actually does see incomplete revisions this logically mixed-up. Yes, we could invest the energy in figuring out the possible intended running orders, but is it legitimate for the author to expect us to determine whether she meant to say this?

“I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.” Gabriella turned toward the window, glancing toward the horizon. “What is that? A tidal wave?”

Or this?

“What is that?” A tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, checking for violent cloud activity.

Musette remained focused upon her newspaper and warm fire. “Yes, I’m worried by that news report, too. Maybe we should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Quite different situations, are they not? Can you think of any particular advantage the writer of the original version derived from expecting us to tinker with the logic to this extent?

Only one strikes me as at all likely: time. Our author was in a hurry, clearly, either at initial composition time or when revising this excerpt. Perhaps he even intended to come back and rework it, but all of a sudden, Millie’s boss, the agent of his dreams, requested the manuscript. Besides, a copyeditor will catch any lingering problems down the line, right?

Perhaps — but she might not get the chance, if Millicent stops reading. And could you really blame Millie for not fighting her way through the twisted version?

Since a disturbingly high proportion of you just mentally shouted, “Yes! It’s her job to see past the rough edges to the underlying brilliance of that submission,” allow me to tinker with this example in order to render it more reflective of what screeners often see. Slip into Millicent’s well-worn moccasins for a moment, and picture a manuscript featuring the following four gems on three consecutive pages:

Jacob ran his hands through his full head of hair. “I can’t believe I forgot to proofread the news ticker before put it on air.”

Arleen reached a sympath hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about it, Jared. It could happen anybody.”

Still reading, Millie? You’re a trooper. We’ll press on with you.

“But Governor,” Jared gasped, slapping his bald scalp, “you can’t be serious! I can’t tell viewers that gravity is no longer operational?”

Governor Medfly frowned. “Our citizenry deserves we can’t lie to them to know the truth.”

Persisting in your love of literature? Read on.

The house would soon be swamped by the rising flood, that was apparent. {Insert some show-don’t-tell stuff here.} Boats were already flying into the sky, knocking rain from the ominous cloud cover.

Stop rolling your eyes at me; submissions occasionally turn up in agencies with writers’ revision notes included this obviously. So do contest entries. (I speak from experience, but because I love you people, I shan’t induce nightmares by describing any specific occasion.)

Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that Millicent has become intrigued by the fascinating pretzels into which the laws of physics seem to be bending themselves in this manuscript. Let’s take a gander at the context for the earlier example.

Water flew skyward. Droplets covered the window so rapidly that she had to open it to see the horizon.

“What is that a tidal wave?” Gabriella glanced toward the horizon, turning toward the window. “I’m worried by that news report. Maybe I should see what the ocean is doing today.”

Musette squirmed in her cozy chair. “The governor said not to worry. Knock it off your whining, already.”

Starting to sense a pattern here? Millicent would. Clearly, this is a manuscript still in the throes of revision; it might be wonderful down the line — I, for one, would like to know how that whole sky-flooding thing works out for Gabriella and the gov — but it certainly is not yet ready for publication. So why, Millie is left to wonder, did the author send it now, rather than when the revision-in-progress was complete?

I can answer that one: time. The author may not have any more of it to spare than Millicent or her boss. The crucial difference, though, is that while rushing an unproofed manuscript out the door — often, these days, by the simple expedient of hitting SEND — will usually merely save the fine folks at the agency some time, it can doom the author to rejection. Think about it: what would tell a busy agent that this would be a time-consuming author to represent more effectively than the run of text we’ve just seen? Wouldn’t some luckless soul at the agency have to proofread everything he submitted before the agent could possibly submit it to a publishing house?

So yes, knee-huggers, it is a trifle unfair to judge an entire manuscript by just a few lines, but most professional readers can tell pretty quickly whether that small logic flow problem on page 2 is indicative of a larger pattern across the manuscript. Manuscript gaffes are like ants, after all: one does occasionally see one trudging along in isolation, but generally speaking, they travel in groups.

Oh, you thought that the news ticker text contained only one faux pas? Want to help me count up the number of necessary apostrophes it omitted that day, or how many repetitions it took before someone on staff noticed that Egypt had been spelled without a y?

As I said, we see evidence of writing haste all the time, but that does not mean that the level of gaffe-forgiveness most of us extend to our e-mail correspondents has permeated the publishing industry’s expectations for exciting new manuscripts. Take the time to make sure your text makes sense, not only on the story level, but in every sentence as well.

Millicent’s scalp will thank you. Old time may be still a-flying, but her lovely hair need not. Keep up the good work!

These are the times that try editors’ souls

No time for a lengthy missive today, I’m afraid, but I could not resist sharing a bit of tangible evidence in support of a theory long lurking in the minds of editors across the English-writing world: in recent years, many people’s eye-brain connections seem to have ceased working reliably. At least insofar as signage is concerned, citizens of this great land have evidently decided that if a piece of prose sounds vaguely like what its writer had in mind, well, that’s close enough to print.

To an editor, that logic represents the first step down the slippery slope that leads to, well, a heck of a lot of work. If nailing down a precise meaning in writing has ceased to have social value, what’s next? Widespread confusion of colons with semicolons? Ravening packs of the untutored roaming the streets, doubling or even tripling prepositions? Or even — avert your eyes, children — eschewing proofreading altogether?

Whom the gods would destroy, Euripides informed us, they first drive mad. Clearly, this was the kind of thing he had in mind.

I’m not merely talking about grocery store signage that adds an extraneous -e to potato or tomato, the misguided belief that pointless abbreviations such as tonite, thru, and alright have ever actually saved anybody any time, or even the bizarre gender blindness that struck otherwise perfectly reasonable people in the media to toss subject-object agreement to the winds in the mid-1980s, causing everyone and their monkey to crowd everyone and her monkey practically out of the language as she is spoke — although, naturally, the literate find such slips inexplicable. Many of my fellow editors insist that we should expect no better from people incapable of understanding why a female member of Congress might conceivably be known on paper as a Congresswoman, rather than a Congressman. Once it became necessary to begin explaining to even fairly well-educated people why paragraphs should be indented, handlers of manuscripts everywhere began hearing the resounding thumps of barbarian weaponry upon the gates of civilization.

I do not take such a dismal view of the matter, but I must confess, bungled logic in print drives me precisely as nuts as our pal Euripides predicted. Take, for instance, the undoubtedly generous offer that appeared in a local paper recently:

Did that second paragraph make you beard the heavens with your bootless cries? Or, like vast majority of the comparatively carefree denizens of the greater Seattle metropolitan area, did your eye simply gloss over it?

Unfortunately for editorial sanity, but fortunately for literature, those of us that read for a living do not enjoy the luxury of believing that close enough is fine for print. English is a language that permits, nay, positively encourages precision: just look at the stunning array of adjectives you have at your disposal. The benighted composer of the free pizza offer above had every bit as many tools at his disposal (nice subject-object agreement, eh?) as the next fella, yet fell down on the descriptive job.

To his credit, he does appear to have realized that his prose might be just a tad confusing to those who believe that words carry specific meanings. To an editorial eye, a phrase like to be clear can indicate only one of two authorial fears: either the writing immediately before it lacks communicative oomph, or the writer isn’t too sure of the comprehension capacities of the reader.

In this case, both terrors probably governed word choice. Let’s take a closer look. Because I love you people, I shall spare you the — sacre bleu! — all-caps presentation of the original.

After the costume parade, head up to Pagliacci for a free slice for your little monster! And to be clear, only kids in costume accompanied by a parent will be served.

Did you catch it, now that the eye-distracting formatting is gone? No? Would it help to know that what the writer almost certainly meant was this?

After the community-sponsored costume parade has run its course, we at this fine pizza emporium would be pleased to serve a free slice to any child in costume who shows up clutching the hand of either a biological or adoptive parent.

But that’s not what the original actually said, was it? Read literally, these were the preconditions for scarfing down some pie gratis:

(1) The potential scarfer must be a minor.

(2) The potential scarfer cannot show up before the parade has ended.

(3) The potential scarfer must be in costume.

(4) The potential scarfer’s costume must also be occupied by a parent — and, the use of the plural kids implies, possibly one or more other children.

Now, I can certainly picture a few charming two-wearer costumes — if the child in question were open to being strapped to a guardian’s chest at a 45-degree angle, the pair could form a wonderful spider. However, long practical experience with both advertising and careless writing leads me to conclude that the pizza-hawkers almost certainly did not intend to limit their offer to only literal readers with creative multi-party costumes on hand.

Oh, don’t roll your eyes at me. It’s my job to nit-pick. “But Anne,” eye-rollers everywhere protest, “I was not confused at all by the original version. It was clear enough what the pizza-mongers meant. I can see why prose imprecision might be unacceptable in a high literary manuscript, but why get so exorcised about a small slip?”

However did you manage to slip through that gate, barbarian? We in the editorial keep already have boiling pitch prepared to fling onto the noggins of all comers.

Seriously, those of us that read for a living are perpetually flabbergasted by how many writers seem to cling to a close-enough-is-good-enough philosophy. Clarity constitutes the minimum requirement for professional writing, not an optional extra. As a reader, I’m sure you would agree: on the printed page, you don’t believe it’s your responsibility to guess what the author probably meant, do you? It’s the author’s job to convey precisely what she had in mind.

Contrary to astonishingly pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not an agent, editor, or contest judge’s job to speculate, either. No matter how often any of us are treated to the sight of unclear, poorly written, or logically convoluted prose, the trick to catching a sharp editorial eye in a positive way lies in choosing your words with care.

Oh, and not stubbornly retaining topical jokes after their expiration date just because you happen to like them. ( I had intended to use that last paragraph a couple of weeks ago, you see.)

Yet another reason to read your submissions and contest entries IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, of course. Since the human eye, editorial or otherwise, tends to read about 70% faster on a backlit screen, even the most dedicated self-editor will be substantially more likely to catch subtle gaffes on a printed page. You wouldn’t want to leave Millicent the agency screener wondering just how many family members your text wanted her to envision stuffed into a single costume, would you?

Actually, the barbarians currently howling at the gate might actually prove helpful in this endeavor. Bless their unrepentant hearts, their lack of precision in wielding the language provides would-be self-editors with abundant opportunities to sharpen their editorial eyes. The photo at the top of this post, for instance: scroll up and give it your best nit-pick.

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “By Jove, that restaurant appears to be ordering lunch customers to bring their own egg roll and rice!” award yourself a gold star for the day. Come w(ith) egg roll in any other context would in fact mean that the speaker would expect the hearer either to show up with an egg roll — not the kind of thing most of us tote around habitually — or to accompany an egg roll on some unspecified journey. Neither, you must admit, seems like a particularly inviting prospect for restaurant patronage.

Snag a second gold star from petty cash if you also bellowed, “Nor is that the only labor the poor potential customer is evidently expected to perform. Why should the diner steam her own rice?” As steam is a verb, it must logically be a command to the reader; steamed, on the other hand, is an adjective that might conceivably be applied to rice.

Whom the gods would not see published, first they burden with an inability to spot the differences between parts of speech. While I’d like to think that they have also provided a special spot in Hades for sign-printers too callous to point out such problems, perhaps we should all be grateful for the proofreading practice advertising provides us all on a daily basis.

Excuse me — some charming visitors bearing pitchforks and torches appear to be banging on the gate, just in time for lunch. Perhaps they were courteous enough to bring their own egg rolls. Keep up the good work!

The ever-knotty question of what constitutes good writing

An old friend presented me with a stumper yesterday, campers: although neither a teacher nor a writer himself, Nate had just been asked to teach a writing class at work. Specifically, he had been allotted six hours in which to transform the prose stylings of the fine folks in another department from argumentatively sound but hard to follow into…well, the company’s owner had not been all that clear about what better writing would mean in that context, but he certainly was adamant that he wanted it.

Oh, and would the day after tomorrow be too soon to offer the class? Under the circumstances, I would have called me in a panic, too.

Already, I see the logical conclusion-huggers out there scratching their heads. “But Anne,” the rational point out, as they are wont to do, “if this storyline popped up in a novel, readers would find it implausible. In the first place, if the owner doesn’t know what good writing is, how can he set writing standards for the department? If he does not know how his staff is falling short of those standards, how is the class — which, if my calculations are correct, should convene sometime tomorrow morning — to address the problems? And if the boss is so darned worried about his employees’ writing, wouldn’t it make more sense to bring in someone with experience diagnosing writing problems and helping writers iron them out?”

There you go, expecting the real world to be as plausible as fiction. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: reality is a lousy writer.

Case in point: Nate’s predicament is exceptional not in that he’s fallen victim to the astonishingly pervasive notion that anyone who can express himself well on paper must perforce be capable of teaching others how to do it — which, as anyone who has attended an authors’ panel on craft issues at a writers’ conference could tell you, does not always bear out in practice — but insofar as he happened to have gone to elementary school with an editor willing to help him come up with a last-minute lesson plan. Makeshift workplace writing seminars seem to have been on the rise in recent years; I hear constantly from aspiring writers who insist that their queries must be in business format (left-justified, non-indented paragraphs, a skipped line between paragraphs) because, they claim, “the guy who taught my writing class at work said standards have changed.”

Upon further inquiry, that guy virtually never turns out to have received the Nobel Prize in literature, if you catch my drift.

To be fair, though, Since my primary experience of Nate’s forays into the realm of the Muse has been a paragraph or two in his annual Christmas card, I’m not really in a position to assess his writing — and since neither of us work in the department he’s assigned to teach, I had to ask to peruse his potential students’ writing specimens before I could even begin to give him advice. Every profession has its own internal standards for communicative excellence, after all; for all I know, Nate might be the Edith Wharton of interoffice memoranda.

As a writing teacher, however, I did know that his terrified, broad-based question, “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” was not one easily answered under any circumstances. Those of us who edit for a living hear this one fairly often, doubtless due to the widespread and erroneous belief in one-size-fits-all writing solutions — and universally-applicable writing advice, for that matter.

Which is why, one presumes, that the standard editorial answer is, “It depends. What kind of writing are you talking about?”

Did that resounding thunk of chins collectively hitting floors indicate that at least a few of you were unaware that what constitutes good writing varies not only by style and voice, but by context and intended audience as well? To those of us that read for a living, there’s no such thing as generic good writing, especially when one is discussing books. While clarity and voice consistency are desirable in any genre, specific standards vary by book category: what would be laudable in YA, after all, might bore a literary fiction readership to death, and vice versa. The conventions by which paranormals operate quite happily would seem absurd in a Western. And call me zany, but when I pick up a cookbook, I don’t expect it to read like a Sherman Alexie short story. (His new short story collection is terrific, by the way, even though it contains some old stories.)

So while a layperson might have responded to “How do I teach these people to improve their writing?” with a handful of soothing platitudes about the importance of showing vs. telling or some light wrist-slapping on the subject of run-on sentences, Nate could hardly have asked a pro like me more challenging question, or one more likely to produce a three-hour answer. Since neither he nor his prospective students seemed to be looking to break into the literary market, however, I spared him the nuanced lecture on the many gradations of stylistic merit, contenting myself instead with asking what kind of writing these fine folks habitually did and what about their efforts had disturbed his employer enough to be willing to stop the enterprise dead in its tracks for a day in order to improve it.

The questions seemed to surprise him, or so I surmise from a pause long enough for me to have set down the phone, have my hair permed, and returned without missing his response. “Well,” he said eventually, “they’re expected to describe real-world situations.”

Was it callous of me to laugh? “That, I’m afraid, is the challenge faced by every memoirist and other nonfiction writer who has ever trod the earth’s crust — and a hefty percentage of the novelists as well.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but my folks are not very good at it.”

As I love you people, I shall not reproduce the eighteen minutes of cross-examination required to elicit what might charitably be regarded as a reasonable description of what kind of writing these excellent people were not doing well, for whose eyes it was intended, and how their literary efforts were not pleasing that target audience. To my ear, the problem seemed not to be entirely writing-related: the budding Hemingways in question were routinely expected to walk into conflict-ridden situations, rapidly assess the various potential and/or current combatants’ needs, desires, and aggressive capabilities, and produce a terse summary in the few minutes they had at their disposal before diving into the next fracas.

I’m inclined to believe that even the actual Hemingway would have found that a writing challenge, especially on a short deadline. And the more Nate talked, the more the tight deadlines seemed to be exacerbating the writing problems. In a move that might not astonish anyone familiar with either rushed writing or professional jargon — but evidently did come as something of a surprise to Nate’s employer — those harried scribblers had fallen into the habit of using stock phrases to save time. If not actually using the copy and paste functions to recycle entire sentences.

Obviously, that practice would over time try the patience of anyone tasked with reading many of these reports back-to-back, but not only for reasons of style. Specific descriptions would not be particularly conducive to reuse, right? In order to be easily portable, the less descriptive those statements could be, the better.

Better for the rushed copy-and-paster, that is, not for descriptive clarity — or, importantly for the credibility of the reports Nate’s students are expected to write, the reader’s ability to picture what’s going on. Even if one of these writers is a terrific observer and an obsessively honest reporter of fact, repetitive wordsmithing will convey a less-then-meticulous impression.

Let’s examine why. If Report #1 reads like this:

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

And Report #2 reads like this:

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

It’s pretty hard for the reader to tell these two battling groups apart, apart, isn’t it? That’s the nature of generic description: even if the writer’s has something specific in mind, stock phrasing represents generalities — and that’s what the reader is going to take away.

Lest those of you who write fiction be congratulating yourselves, thinking that this is one writing problem, thank goodness, that does not apply to your work, let me hasten to add that the same principle applies to any description. No matter how detailed the writer’s mental image of a person, place, thing, or situation might be, if the narrative uses generalizations to depict it, or holds back salient details, the reader’s going to end up with only a vague impression of the writer’s artistic vision.

Take, for example, the photograph at the top of this post. It would be factually accurate, as well as quite speedy, to describe it as a picture of a piece of wood. A writer in less of a hurry could tell a reader that the wood is dry, has a knot in it, and that a small portion of it had apparently been slightly burned at some point in the dim past.

All of that would be true; you can see that for yourself. But if you had never seen the photograph in question, would reading either of those descriptions enable you to picture it? Couldn’t those descriptions apply to a practically infinite variety of photos of pieces of wood?

If we cranked our observational skills up to high, however, and set our literary skills on stun, we could easily describe that image so thoroughly that the reader would not only be able to envision it, but would know precisely how that particular hunk of wood differed from every other piece of wood on the planet. If the reader ever encountered it in real life, she would recognize it. (“That’s it, officer — that’s the lumber I read about!“)

If the description on the page does not show the relevant specifics, though, how is the reader supposed to learn about them? Guesswork? Telepathy? Showing up on the author’s doorstep and demanding a fuller description?

Obviously, at least from a professional reader’s perspective, it’s not the reader’s job to do any of these things; it’s the writer’s job to provide those specifics. How a savvy writer would chose to go about that, though, might well depend upon the type of narrative that would contain the description, as well as the writer’s individual stylistic preferences and the needs of the scene. In a thriller, for instance, a just-the-facts description might be appropriate:

The glass in the window rattled in the wind. Not too surprising, really, considering the state of the wood holding it together: dry, cracked, and full of knots. Even its garish yellow paint job seemed to have given up on holding itself together.

In an emotional YA scene, however, this treatment might make more sense:

I ran my fingertips along the warped wood of the window frame, wondering if I could pry it open. Old yellow paint flaked onto my sleeve as I worked a pencil into the largest crack in the wood. The last inmate must have been too depressed to try to escape — all she seemed to have done was crush out a cigarette on the yielding wood.

For literary or mainstream fiction, though, it could read like this:

No wonder the window leaked heat like a warped sieve — the very wood holding it together had dried out to the point of shattering. An ancient knot spun near the confluence of sill and frame, sending angry concentric circles of resistance shivering toward the glass. Deep, murky cracks wrinkled decades-old yellow paint.

Quite a difference from the window frame was made of wood and painted yellow, eh? While all of these descriptions are factually true, the reader would take away radically varying mental images.

Bearing that in mind, let’s take another gander at our two original examples. Now that we know that the reader’s sense of what’s going on could be substantially improved by including more specifics, what other style changes would be helpful here?

Arnold, Beatrice, and Celeste work in adjacent cubicles in an office on the fifth floor, and they do not get along, because everyone has different opinions about the best way to get work done. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, fearing for their lives, coworkers called the police.

David, Evelina, Franz, and Gerard work in adjacent cubicles in a ground-floor office, and they do not get along, because some of them feel that the division of work is not fair. Words are routinely exchanged when conflict arises. On October 2, their boss got sick of it and called us in.

Did the word and phrase repetition catch your eye this time around? It would have maddened Millicent the agency screener, and for good reason. Even taking Report #1 and Report #2 individually, their repetitive phrasing is, let’s face it, not very interesting to read — and thus inherently less memorable, from the reader’s point of view, than more varied word choice.

Did that last contention make you do a double-take? Okay, here’s a test of whether it’s true: quick, without scrolling back up, explain the differences between what the writer observed in Situation #1 and Situation #2.

Did you come up with anything but a floor level, and perhaps a couple of the participants’ names? Neither would a reader. That’s a writing problem as much as a matter of content choice.

How so? Well, by definition, repeated phrases do not add new information to a description in the way that fresh wording can. Yet many writers deliberately repeat words and phrases, apparently in the mistaken belief that the reader will magically derive a more complex meaning from seeing the same writing a second, third, or fourth time than s/he did the first time around. Take a gander:

The sight made Zenobia sad, sad in a way that no sight had made her feel before. And that realization made her sad, too, because she realized that unless she could manage to change the course of history, she might well be the last human ever to see the sight at all.

Okay, okay, I get it: the lady’s sad, and she’s seeing something. But no matter how many times the narrative tells me Zenobia’s sad, I’m not going to understand her sadness better than I did the first time it used the word. And surely it’s not unreasonable for me as a reader to wonder what the heck she’s seeing — or to resent that the narrative keeps referring to a sight that it’s not showing me.

Seem like an extreme example? Perhaps this frequency of word repetition is on the high end, but you’d be amazed at how often manuscript submissions simply adapt few chosen words and phrases to many descriptive purposes. Verbs are particularly prone to this treatment.

The door was locked. That was unexpected, like the frustration downtown had been. He tried to break it down, but the door was too strong for him. Frustration made him grind his teeth.

He was down to his last idea. If he couldn’t get inside, or at least prove that he had tried, all of his plans would be down the drain. He would be broke. It was just like that time in Phoenix, when Ariadne had treated him like a dog.

If you don’t mind my asking, what does was convey to the reader the fourth time it appears that it didn’t in the first three iterations? Or, to stand the question on its head — a lot more interesting than any of the activity indicated by the verb choices here, I must say — what does this passage gain in either stylistic or in storytelling terms by recycling these words and phrases?

Come up with anything? I didn’t, either. But you’re starting to feel more sympathy for the conflict-describers’ supervisors, are you not, if not for Millicent, for having to read this kind of prose all the time?

I sense some furtive shifting in chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you fond of word repetition protest, and well you should, “isn’t word choice a matter of style? Maybe the writer here reused things deliberately. The phrasing above might not be your cup of tea, or Millicent’s, but it is stylistically distinct. In fact, read out loud, it might even sound pretty cool.”

That, as you say, is a matter of opinion, but even if Millicent or I did think it sounded cool (and I don’t), the limited vocabulary and repetitive phrasing here carry distinct clarity costs. What, may I ask, happened downtown? Why was it frustrating, and what about it produced the same type of frustration as the current situation? For that matter, how is this situation like what occurred in Phoenix? While we’re asking, who is this trollop Ariadne, and in what way did her interactions with our hero resemble the manner in which she might hobnob with man’s best friend?

See the problem? Even if the manuscript prior to this point had simply throbbed with detail about that donnybrook downtown, conveyed a sterling sense of our hero’s door-battering capabilities, and devoted 70 pages to Ariadne’s emotionally questionable proclivities, the word choices here deprive the reader of a clear sense of what’s going on in this particular moment. Not all feelings of frustration are identical, so why present them as though they were? How does our hero attempt to breach the door, and how precisely did it resist him?

And don’t even get me started on how the inclusion of hackneyed phrases — down the drain, treated him like a dog — further obfuscate meaning. Yes, most of us will understand in general what these stock phrases mean, but it honestly isn’t the reader’s job to guess how these clich?d descriptions apply to this particular situation, is it?

Hadn’t thought of those phrases that way, had you? Most writers new to the game wouldn’t: if a phrase is in common use, they reason, it just sounds right. How else would someone put it?

That’s a dangerous question to tempt Millicent to consider, I’m afraid. “Well,” she is likely to snap, “a writer might want to phrase it in a more original fashion, just for the sake of style. While this one is at it, s/he might consider applying some thought to coming up with less expected ways to convey break it down and grind his teeth, too.”

You have a point there, Millie, and one that applies equally well to the workplace writing of our first examples and manuscripts intended for submission to agents and editors. Naturally, it’s important that writing sounds good to the writer, but that is not the only measure of whether a passage is well-written. It needs to sound good to the reader — and not just any reader, either. It must sound good to the reader in the writer’s chosen audience, the kind of reader who already reads books like the one the writer has produced.

Why? Because that’s the reader who will ultimately buy that writer’s work when it appears in print.

Millicent wants to help good writers reach that reader. So does her boss, the agent of your dreams, and the editor to whom he pitches manuscripts. Since agencies and publishing houses specialize in marketing to particular types of readers — thus book categories, right? — it’s a safe bet that all of these professional readers will be familiar with the kind of prose that’s currently selling well to your target audience.

That means, in practice, that they’re not just looking for generic good writing. They’re looking for what that audience will consider good writing.

Which, of course, will vary by book category. And if that doesn’t make you want to stop scrolling through this post, snatch up your hat, and race to the nearest well-stocked bookstore to check what kind of prose readers of books like yours are buying these days, well, you might want to reexamine your priorities.

I sense some purists gearing up to be huffy, do I not? “I’m appalled, Anne,” those who pride themselves on eschewing mere mercenary motives scold. “I thought we were talking about good writing here, not altering our artistic vision to conform to whatever bestseller happens to be dominating the literary market at the moment. I don’t want to sound identical the authors whose work happens to be selling well in my book category; my work is original.”

I applaud that — and it’s precisely my point. By definition, stock phrases, clich?s, and expected phrasing do not read on the page as the original phrasing of an exciting new voice; they’re generic. At submission time, that means that using them can never help a writer impress Millicent stylistically.

They’re a waste of page space, frankly. As your friend in the biz and sincere well-wisher, I would rather see you devote that space to what’s best about your writing: your individual vision, expressed as only you can describe it on the page, in a manner likely to appeal to your target readership.

No amount of one-size-fits-all writing advice is going to be able to tell you how to do that — and, frankly, that’s probably good news if you’re trying to develop your individual authorial voice. Generic style precepts that purport to be universally applicable presuppose a single notion of good writing. But you have too much respect for your intended reader than to buy into that oversimplified notion, don’t you?

Don’t squander your unique artistic vision by expressing it in vague terms or overused phrases. Trust me, your reader will want to gain a clearer sense of what you have in mind. Keep up the good work!

A few words about the virtues of continuity, or, so long, Mr. B