Monthly Archives: February 2015

Physician, Heal Thyself

Editing your own work is a risky proposition for all the much-discussed reasons: You’re too close to the work. You see what you meant to write rather than what is actually there. Familiarity is not your friend.

Everyone must edit his or her work to some extent, however, and self-editing is a skill that can be refined. The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell provides a wealth of insight that should be helpful to any writer or editor. In the work, Bell lays out methods that have worked for her, but, as she says, “editing is as much an improvisation as a science,” and she supplies her readers with tools that in the end depend on “open-mindedness, courage, and stamina.”

Bell begins with a discussion on perspective and posits that you must first gain the proper perspective on a work before editing it effectively. There is always the war between what a person intends to write and what has actually been written, and you must in some ways let go of the first to effectively address the second.

Bell then delves into aspects of micro- and macro-editing, observing that most editors feel more comfortable doing one than the other. She suggests that editors should step out of their comfort zones and practice the kind of editing they feel less sure about. Many of us unconsciously revert to positions of strength, but we can all benefit from recognizing our weaknesses and consciously working at them.

Some of the most useful advice here lies in calling our attention to adjectives and adverbs, redundancy, repetition, and other flaccid language. Does our text stand up smartly and demand our attention or does it lie flat on the page?

Throughout the work, Bell illustrates her ideas with real-life examples, many of which provide interesting bits of literary history. The editor-writer relationship between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Max Perkins is particularly fascinating, but readers will also enjoy anecdotes featuring W. H. Auden, Anton Chekhov, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, and Michael Ondaatje.

While undoubtedly many will read this and still regard writing as the “fun part” and editing as a type of penance one has to serve to get something in print, this excellent guide argues persuasively that editing, of oneself or others, is where the real magic happens.


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Space, the Final Frontier


Or rather: Think for a moment about how marvelously useful spaces between words are. And cheers to that big triple-em-dash-looking thing on our keyboard: the space bar.

Without spaces, sentences are all but unreadable, and so conditioned are we to using spaces that I could not write that first sentence without them. I tried, but damned if my thumb didn’t automatically hit the space bar after every word. I almost immediately abandoned the attempt and simply typed the sentence normally and then went back and deleted the spaces.

(Latin did not employ spaces between words until sometime around 700 CE. Sales of the Aeneid must have skyrocketed.)

Good editors naturally develop the ability to spot extra spaces between words and sentences. Once you’ve honed this ability, an extra space will send up the same mental red flag as a misspelled word. Whether you know it or not, you’re already reading every space as a type of character, so the groundwork for developing this skill is already in place.

I imagine someone is about to slam down a fist and cry out, ”Let’s just be clear that there should be one space between sentences!” Or: “You’re crazy! There have always been two spaces after the period!”

Needless to say, you’ll still hear arguments about whether there should be one space or two after the period. In short, the use of two spaces after the period was a common typewriter convention. Typewriter fonts used monospace typefaces and the two spaces helped readers recognize the break between sentences. Modern fonts use proportional typefaces and one space is usually preferred, unless otherwise specified by a house style. There’s no need to get upset, and those of a confrontational bent can go back to arguing about the Oxford comma.

No matter how practiced you become at recognizing extra spaces in text, it’s always good to use all the tools at our disposal, and the Find/Replace feature on most programs is a helpful aid.

Simply type two spaces into the Find field and let the machine do its work. You can type one space into the Replace field and fix issues one at a time as the Find/Replace feature takes you through the document. You can also run a Replace All, but if doing so, be sure that there aren’t places in the document where a run of spaces hasn’t been used for another purpose.

If you are using Find/Replace to ensure one space after the period, be sure to run it again and again until it comes up with no hits. If there are instances of two spaces after the period, there’s a good chance that there will also be instances of three or more spaces as well, and running the cycle multiple times ensures you catch all of these.

To sum up: Space is a good thing, but too much can cause problems. Sounds a bit like relationship advice, doesn’t it? But then there are any number of ways editing extends beyond the page. And perhaps that’s something for another post.

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