Writing | Editing | Obsessions | Writing Tips | Productivity |
Addicted to Editing
Editing one’s work is necessary, important, required. But someone of us overdo it. Once upon a time, I made my living as an editor. But that’s not the reason for my addiction: I’m a perfectionist and since one can never be perfect, one can never stop editing.
How I became an editor after being an Editor
Capital E suggests an editor who makes choices about what to publish, how to publish, and has a staff of assistants. She is a recognized important person.
Lowercase “e” indicates a person who slogs through a manuscript and moves commas around. Spots terrible errors like the use of “they’re” when it should be “their.” This work is done by an unrecognized important person.
Lower case “e” editors hold power with their blue pencils and keyboards. A big “E” Editor suffers criticism if a piece in her newspaper has errors a little “e” should have caught. Too many errors and the newspaper suffers. “Oh, that newspaper never gets anything right.”
I transitioned from capital “E” to lower case “e” when I was no longer Editor of the NWSA Journal and agreed to edit a manuscript for the University of Indiana Press. I would edit a boring, academic book about the literary precursors to Nazi Germany. Already I’m out of my expertise: I’m an historian, not a literary critic. And who wants to read about the Nazis? But we needed the money.
To make matters worse, bits and pieces of the book were in German, including most of the footnotes. Ten years earlier I had barely passed the required German reading exam for graduate school, after which I instantly forgot every German word I knew except “gesundheit.”
I hadn’t unpacked my 100s of books so who knew where my trusty Langesheidt German Dictionary was. I bought a new one.
Sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, I would move commas, correct its to it’s, search for style inconsistencies, check the spelling of words and names I questioned.
No autocorrect or red underlining in those early days of computing. No search and find to change George Fieldhammer to Georg Feldhammer a dozen times in the text, footnotes, and bibliography.
I worked in a one-room office in the basement of an old building on E. Colfax Ave. a neighborhood not known for safety after dark. Eric would call every few minutes to ask when I’d be finished for the evening.
“I’m worried. You need to come home. It’s not safe for you to be there. Call me when you leave the building and are safely in your car. Be sure to lock the doors. Make sure nobody’s hanging out in the parking lot.”
The neighborhood wasn’t that dangerous. I certainly wasn’t scared. The worst thing was a drunk or two knocking on my ground floor window and waving. I waved back.
Finally, I finished the job and sent the manuscript off to the big E editor. She loved it. I got kudos for doing such a careful job. And would I like to do an index? I’d never done an index but I said “yes.” Index software had not been invented yet. We needed the money.
After reading a book on “how to index,” I proceeded with this laborious job. Finally it was done. I could go home.
Just as I was calling Eric to tell him I was leaving the building, I heard a crash. Lights flickered, lights went off, thecomputer screen went dark. Five minutes later, the lights came back on and I checked my index. It was gone. Not so much as a comma remained.
I called Eric, left the building, and drove home.
The next morning I went back to the office. Luckily I had first worked on the index using a lined, yellow pad. (Those were the days before the luxury of having two screens open at the same time.)
Eureka! The lined, yellow pages were still in the wastebasket. I’d found the roughest of rough drafts of my index before the janitor did.
I redid the index, sent it off, and vowed never to edit again! The Editor was pleased, telling me I’d done a perfect job. That was surely an exaggeration. But, yes, good editing does require a perfectionism mindset, and I had learned it well from my Mother.
Becoming a Perfectionist: A Lesson from Celery
One Christmas before a few stores, except for small Jewish grocers, would stay open on Christmas Day, we were hosting the family Christmas dinner.
My Mother asked me to fix the celery sticks for the relish tray. I carefully washed the celery, chopped off the leafy ends, tossed them in the garbage, and dried the celery with paper towel.
Mother was horrified. I’d ruined the celery. It would have to be thrown out. Celery on relish trays at Christmas dinner must have the leafy tops. My Father and I then drove out to the old Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in West Denver in search of a open shop with celery.
We found celery. I got the second batch of celery cleaned and on the relish tray with the leafy ends intact before my cousins arrived with their parents.
Breaking the Vow to Never Edit Again: Becoming an Editing Addict
Although I never returned to academic editing, I did write for others and for myself. And I continued editing . . . everything . . . all the time.
I stopped ghost writing and began writing for myself. Of course I hoped that lots of people would read what I had written. As I began thinking about publishing eBooks and bound books, I became even more fanatical about editing.
I’d change a word or two, move a couple of commas. Break one sentence into two. Join two sentences into one. Catch the serious stuff: “there” when the word was “their.”
I’d add new material, sometimes making a reference more specific: “hiking in the mountains” to “hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.” I’d take out redundant details, remove paragraphs that were out of context.
It’s said by the mental health folks that perfectionism can cause depression, anxiety, and stress. Cause writers to be overly-critical of themselves. And worry excessively about what other people think.
The description fits my Mother. I hope it doesn’t describe me! But I do admit to over-editing.
Find a Middle Ground
Correcting and changing writing is easier now than ever before thanks to computers and modern software. This good: You can add things, change a link if the old one no longer works, fix a glaring typo. Make a title catchier. Put in a better picture.
In honor of Father’s Day, I published a story about my Father. (Here’s the story.) Later I remembered I’d forgotten to put in a couple sentences about the tunes he played on the piano.
It had been important to him and to me. And it was a bit odd. I opened the story, hit edit, inserted a couple sentences, found a typo, fixed it, and hit publish.
And remember that thanks to the internet, our writing is there forever (unless we decide and are able to remove it). A month ago I wrote a story about tossing my master’s thesis into the fire. Yesterday somebody read it. Click for that story.)
Ten years ago I had a business working with parents and teachers of kids with ADHD. I had a website that’s still up, which I’ve done nothing with in years. Every so often, a parent will leave me a message, ask a question, or comment on a blog post. I respond. (It’s rude not to respond.)
Careful editing helps keep your readers on track. If I’m reading your writing, I won’t hate you or think you’re a bad writer if you use the wrong word, but my brain will pause. Huh? Now I’m off track reading what you wrote.
But STOP before you find yourself editing your latest story the 4th time and adding several new paragraphs.
Nine Elements You MUST Edit
Capitalization: If you’re not sure, Google it. Is Capitol capitalized as in “the capitol?” What about army? Army? I’m writing a book about my birth-father who enlisted in the Army to train as a parachutist and fight in World War 2. (A story about my father is here.)
I had to check Army or army.
Punctuation: Know the basic rules and then read your piece out loud to make sure it reads smoothly. Punctuation rules exist to make reading readable. The good news is you don’t have to memorize the rules.
Spelling: Yes, most of us have spellcheck and auto-correct on our computers. But you can’t always trust them. If spellcheck says a word is wrong, spellcheck may be wrong. It’s often wrong on names and proper nouns. It goes without saying that spelling is important. Auto-correct is wrong too often. Sometimes hilariously so.
(However, I’m not suggesting not to pay attention to spellcheck and auto-correct.)
Consistency: The best example of this is the infamous Oxford Comma, sometimes known as the Serial Comma. I always use it. Many do not. Either choice is correct. (It’s the use or non-use of a final comma in a series followed by “and.”) Read about it here and get lots more writing tips.
E Editors and e editors of newspapers, magazines, and publishing companies have style books that spell out how they want a name, word, phrase, punctuation, etc. These monstrosities can be many pages long, and if you’re an e editor, you must have a copy and follow it.
For example, can you use New York Times or must you always use The New York Times. Is “Times” ever permissible? What about NYT. (And would you put NYT in italics as you do with a title.)
Fortunately you don’t have to be that fussy in your own writing. But you do need to be consistent.
Contractions: I use them most of the time. I find writing that avoids contractions stiff and formal. Contractions make reading more readable, in part because most of us talk using contractions. “I’ll go to the store” is “friendlier” and more readable than “I will go to the store.”
But there’s no rule.
Verb Tense: I was sad and I’m hungry. “Was sad” is in the past; “I’m hungry” is now. Are you sad and hungry? Or were you sad and hungry? This seems obvious, but it’s a common mistake. One that’s easy to miss.
Watch out for changing tense in the middle of the story. Maybe the first four paragraphs are present tense, and then, oops, the next paragraph is in past tense. This happens a lot — even to me, a seasoned little e editor.
Words that Sound Similar Phonetically: Are you going to where your new dress tonight? Or wear it? Even though we’re not aware of it, we hear words before we write them. (Older writers, like myself, seem to make this mistake more frequently than younger writers.)
Words That Sound Alike: Right, rite, write, or my neighbor Ms. Wright? There, their, or they’re? Too, two, to? Won or one? Principal or principle? Capitol or capital? Google to find the difference if you don’t know.
Overusing the Same Word: I love the word “however,” and can go on autopilot, beginning every other sentence with “however.” Please don’t do that.
You do need to edit carefully. You don’t need to overdo it. Publish what you’ve written. It’s fine! Just make sure what you’ve written is readable.
If you’re not sure about “readable,” check it out here. Readers are forgiving if your writing is readable. If what you’re writing is boring and stilted, readers aren’t forgiving even if your writing is “perfect.”
Because I’m an adoption coach for women, my writing, as one might assume, focuses on adoption. In addition, I offer words of wisdom for adult ADHDers. (Not only do I suffer from ADHD, but so do many adopted folks.)
Given raging ADHD, it’s no surprise that focus does not come to me easily! In addition to adoption and ADHD, I also write random stories from my life, what I’ve observed, what’s in the news, about writing and editing, anything that tickles my fancy.
For a Black Lives Matter from a white perspective, see my stories For White Folks from an Old Gray-Haired White Woman with Arthritis. And Teaching Kindergarten at an all-Black school.
You might also like musings on Staying at Home because of COVID 19: The Good, The Bad, and the Not So Ugly.