Category Archives: editing

The Editor Pontificates: Pouring vs. Poring

You know that nerve on the front of your knee that makes your foot kick out when the doctor taps it with a little hammer? Well, that happened to me, metaphorically, the other day, while I was reading some short stories. Three times in two stories, all in the one day, this particular mistake whacked me in my editor’s knee. It’s a quite obscure and unimportant matter, and it’s really nitpickety of me to even complain, but, well…

The phrase in question goes something like this: “The scholar poured over the manuscript to find the hidden meaning of the document.”

There, that made you wince, didn’t it? I knew it would. Because of course the first question you ask when you hear a sentence like that is, “Poured what over the manuscript? Hot coffee? Maple syrup? A glass of Cabernet Sauvignon?”

“Pouring”, according to dictionary.com, means “to send (a liquid, fluid, or anything in loose particles) flowing or falling, as from one container to another, or into, over, or on something“. Here, for example, is Steve pouring a cup of juice:

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That’s obviously not a manuscript he’s holding there, the thing with Big Bird on it. No, the word you want in the sentence with the studious scholar is poring. “The scholar pored over the manuscript, carefully examining every pore of the parchment with a magnifying glass and coming to the conclusion that it was clearly a late-fifteenth-century fake…” “Pore”, “to read or study with steady attention or application” (thank you, dictionary .com). Here is Steve poring over a volume of Shakespeare:

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Not that hard, is it? Pour, pronounced “poor”, dumping liquid into something; pore, pronounced “pawr”, studying something carefully. If you can’t remember which is which, maybe think of POUR having a U in it, shaped just like a cup for pouring things into. And PORE is what you do when you stare into those magnifying make-up mirrors to examine the, uh, pores of your skin. Okay, eew, I’ll stop now.

Life, the Universe, and Pour vs. Pore. Now I have to get Steve to give me my Pocket Shakespeare back before he pours juice all over it.

 

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The Editor Eats Humble Pie, or: It’s Okay To Change Your Mind

I’d been meaning for quite some time to write an “Editor Pontificates” post on a couple of phrases that are bugging me when people use them incorrectly. They’re the kind of thing that make me want to pull out my big rubber stamp and slap on a fat, juicy WRONG! But then, I had to change my mind on both of those matters. Well, okay, maybe didn’t have to, but I did anyway.

The phrases in question are “from whence” and “begging the question”.

“Begging the question” is actually a specific term that comes from formal logical debate. In that context, it means “a circular argument”: if something begs the question, it’s stating as a fact the very question that started the discussion in the first place. The way the phrase is misused is that people use it as a synonym for “bringing up the question”: “My socks got wet wading through the snow, which begs the question why I didn’t wear boots today.” That’s wrong – or is it?

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I did wear boots today, and very glad I was for them.

“From whence”, on the other hand, is a case of messed up archaic language. It’s rarely used nowadays in ordinary speech, which is why people (those pesky people) aren’t familiar enough with it to use it properly. “From whence” is a redundancy (as is its partner, “from hence”): “Whence” means “from where” (and hence “from here”). So, “from whence” really means “from from where”. WRONG!

So what made me change my mind on the big fat rubber stamp? It’s two different issues.

In the case of “begging the question”, the point is that language is not static. Yes, the phrase properly has a very specific use and meaning – formal debate, logical fallacy, blah blah. But this isn’t the Middle Ages, and we’re not engaged in university debates where we decimate our opponents by shouting out, preferably in Latin, the labels of the logic mistakes they made – “Ad hominem!”, “Strawman!”, “Begging the question!” No, this is the 21st century. Meanings of words and phrases change; language is democratic. And so, in informal talk today, “it begs the question” means “it brings up the question”. I heard an extremely erudite and eloquent friend of mine use it that way the other day, and as he can talk rings around everyone else where vocabulary and phrasing are concerned, it clinched the matter for me. I still wouldn’t recommend using the new meaning in an academic paper, but my bet is that before long it’ll become an accepted dictionary definition of the phrase.

“From whence” fell on the opposite end of the scale. “Whence” is an old word, and I thought people just didn’t know any more what it meant. But then, I was re-reading Sense and Sensibility. And there it was, jumping out at me: “He earnestly pressed her … to come with her daughters to Barton Park …, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage … could … be made comfortable to her.” Well, stay me with flagons. Austen says “from whence”?!? And she does it not just once, which might be considered a fluke, but five times in S&S alone! Well, then. Who am I to complain? Furthermore, a quick Google search turns up the fact that even Shakespeare used it, in Sonnet 48: “…the gentle closure of my breast / From whence at pleasure thou mayst come and part“. Austen and Shakespeare – all that’s left is for me to be glad I didn’t pontificate about “from whence” before, or I’d be wiping egg off my face now.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and an Editor’s Changed Mind. Which begs the question, From whence do people get their language?

 

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The Editor Pontificates: Show, Don’t Tell

NaNoWriMo is nearly upon us – in fact, as I write this, across a good chunk of the globe the clock has already ticked over the magical line of midnight to November 1st, when you get to shoot out of the starting block and race down the novelling track towards that elusive goal of getting 50,000 words on the page. So I thought this would be a good time to squeeze in another post on the writer’s craft, because of course we all have our heads in our stories and are aiming to make these the best novels yet. Right? Right.

The thing I want to talk about is that most hackneyed piece of writing advice, the one you can’t escape if you’ve taken any kind of creative writing class anywhere: “Show, don’t tell!” It’s a piece of advice that’s being handed out so freely, you’d think it wouldn’t need explaining any more. But from what I’ve seen as reader and editor, it appears that you actually still do. So I’ll put on my pontificating-editor hat (which is the hat of the pontificating editor, as opposed to the pontificating editor hat, which is the pontificating hat of the editor – the latter would probably look something like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter movies, with a mouth at the brim, pontificating away) and waffle on about it for a minute.

Just to refresh your (and my) memory on what “Show, don’t tell” actually means: in fiction, when you’re describing something, don’t just state as fact that something happened (“telling”), but let the reader see it through sensory detail, dialogue or implication (“showing”).

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Telling: “The orchard looked pretty.” Doesn’t give you the picture, does it?

So, for example:

“Joe got to the office building at 6:00 PM, stopped the car and went in.”

TELLING!! Now, how about this:

“The early evening sun caught the golden hands of the big church clock as Joe’s car rattled over the cobblestones of the market square. ‘Like a dagger,’ Joe thought, twisting his head around to maneuvre into the tight parking spot in front of the tall brick facade of Bemelman’s Law Offices, ‘that clock hand jabbing at the six looks just like a bloody dagger.’ He squirmed out of the narrow driver’s seat of the Smart, tugged down his suit jacket and ran a finger under his shirt collar. The gears of the church clock took their whirring breath to strike the hour just as he pulled on the wrought-iron handle of the old building’s front door.”

That’s saying the same thing – but so much more, as well. We know that it’s six because he says the clock hand points at it and it strikes the hour. We know it’s six PM, not AM, because it’s early evening light, not morning. We know that he’s going to an office – it says so – and that he’s stopping the car and going in. But we also know, from this short passage, that he’s in Europe (not many cobbled market squares with church clock towers in America, for example), and that he’s not happy to be there – the squirming, twisting, tight shirt collar and car seat, and thoughts of jabbing daggers tell you that he’s feeling rather anxious at the moment. Oh, and we know that it’s sometime around summer (because the sun is still shining at 6:00) and that it’s a sunny day.

But you didn’t need me to explain all that to you – you already had it figured, because you’re smart that way. See, that’s part of the reason why fiction writers need to show, not tell – because us readers ain’t stupid. Some writers don’t quite believe it, so just to make sure they double up – they do show, but then they also tell: “Joe ran a finger under his shirt collar, which felt tight because he was anxious.” Nope, nuh-uh, don’t do it. Show, don’t tell. Just don’t.

Unless, of course, you’re a reporter, not a fiction writer – then you need to reverse this piece of advice; you need to tell, not show. In fact, that’s how, in Grade 6, I got the first F of my school career. We had just moved, and in my new school they were working on writing “factual reports” in language class. I’d always been good at writing stories, but didn’t know about this “factual” stuff. So when we were supposed to write a mock newspaper report on some guy nearly drowning in the river, I threw in all these visual descriptors of the scene, and how the guy was feeling. Nope – FAIL! Not objective enough. Stick to the facts, girl, tell what happened, don’t show it! I’m still smarting from that F some 30-odd years later. But now I’m taking revenge on that failed factual report by letting my imagination run riot on the page. I’m showing ’em!

Now, if you need some help and inspiration on how to do this “showing” gig really well, go over here and take a look at Jodie Renner’s most excellent post on how to use verbs to make a passage sing. In fact, bookmark that page and keep going back to it, and then do yourself a favour and buy a copy of Jodie’s book, Fire Up Your Fiction, which is stuffed full of superb advice like that. (And no, I have no commercial connection with Jodie; I’m just advertising her because I think others could benefit from her excellent work, too.)

Incidentally, doing lots of showing rather than telling is also a really good policy for NaNoWriMo purposes. With NaNo, you want the greatest possible word count. The “showy” passage about Joe, above, clocks in at 111 words, vs. an emaciated 16 in the “telly” sentence. What’ve you got to lose, other than dry and dusty prose?

Life, the Universe, and Showing vs. Telling. Go give me the picture!

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A.M.Offenwanger Editing

new website

Look, it’s a snazzy new website! Check it out: www.amoffenwanger.com. You can also get there by clicking the “Editing Services” tab above. And the “Blog” tab on that website links back to here. There’s even a new email address that goes with it, editor@amoffenwanger.com. Cool, eh?

Spread the word – if you or anyone else  you know is in need of a wordy nitpicker, here I am!

And that’s Life, the Universe, and a Brand-new Website. Go and share!

 

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The Editor Pontificates: Lies, All Lies

Here we go with some more editorial pontification, about another issue that I’ve noticed while editing: the pesky and much-confused issue of “lie” vs. “lay”. I’m not talking about “lie” as in “telling a falsehood” – you know, “He’s lying like a rug.” Though, wait – actually, that latter example, yes, we will be talking about that. But not in the “falsehood” sense.

What this is about is the verb “lie” as in “to be in a horizontal, recumbent, or prostrate position, as on a bed or the ground; recline”. And then, “lay”, as in “to put or place in a horizontal position or position of rest; set down” (definitions courtesy of dictionary.com).

And there you have the difference in a nutshell: lie and lay are both about flat-on-your-back-ness, but the difference is who is implementing it. “Lie” means “to BE on your back”, “lay” “to PUT on the back”.

To demonstrate: Here’s me, laying Steve down:

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And here is Steve, lying down:

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So, picture 1, I lay Steve down, picture 2, Steve lies down. “Lay” always has to take an object; there always has to be a “whom?” or “what?” with it. Whom or what do I lay down? My stuffed bear, Steve. And once I lay him down, there he lies (no object) (also not a lot of initiative; he’s a bear, he’s too lazy to move).

You know the little children’s prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”? That one can really throw  you off, because you’re talking about yourself here, your own flat-on-your-backness. But note it doesn’t say “Now I lay down…”, but “Now I lay me down…” Whom or what do I lay down? Me, my tired body. And once I lay me down, there I lie. Technically, the poem should say “Now I lie down…”, but that would screw up the metre, so, “lay me” instead of “lie”.

That’s also where “lying like a rug” comes in. If you say someone lies like a rug, that means he’s a really bad liar (I mean, a good liar. He’s really bad because he lies, but good at it. Umm – whatever.). A rug, by definition, lies flat on the ground, it’s the ultimate in passivity. You can’t get more lyingly lying than a rug. The rug lies – not lays.
Laying is something a hen does, with an egg – laying hens lay eggs. Whom or what do they lay? Eggs.
So, a rug lies, a hen lays (eggs). Easy, no?

But here’s the wrench in the works: “lay” is also the past tense of “lie”. So, yesterday, the rug lay on the floor (curse its woolly hide). But the hen, at exactly the same time, laid an egg.
“Lay”, “to put down flat”, is a regular verb; its past tense (and past participle, which you use in the past perfect) is formed by adding -ed, or in this case, -id: lay, laid, had laid. Today I lay Steve down, yesterday I laid him down, the day before I had laid him down.
But lie, the “be on your back” version, is an irregular verb: lie, lay, had lain. So Steve, having never got up when I laid him down, still lies there; just as yesterday, he lay there, and the day before he had lain there.
(The “tell a falsehood” version of “lie” is a regular verb – lie, lied, lied: today I lie, yesterday I lied, the day  before I had lied – that’s where the rug simile breaks down, because you can’t say that last week Joe “lied like a rug”.)

So, one more time: “lie” stands on its own, it’s something I do, myself; “lay” needs an object, it’s something I do to another person or thing. The hen lays an egg on the rug that lies on the ground.

Now, before you’re comatose with boredom (as your lying on the floor with your eyes glazed over indicates), I’ll stop laying down grammar laws. But don’t say I never told you nothin’ – that’d be a lie.

Life, the Universe, and Lies, all Lies. Uh, I mean, Lie vs. Lay. Now you know.

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You Know You’re an Editor When…

…you’re trying to edit your dreams while you’re dreaming them. True story. Last night I was dreaming something about being in some woman’s house who didn’t like me (can’t remember why; I think I snuck into the house for some reason), and next thing you know, she was welcoming me and offering me something to eat. And I was thinking to myself, “That doesn’t make sense; it’s a character inconsistency! Better make a note of that.”

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Maybe you need to send me your manuscripts to edit (more particulars are here: amo vitam editing), so I’ve got something better to do than to try to edit my dreams.

Life, the Universe, and Dream Edits.

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The Editor Pontificates: Past Perfect

Double-Stuf-OreosNo, I’m not talking about the perfect past – you know, where your grandma keeps going on about the Good Old Days in the Past, When Everything Was Perfect. What I’m talking about here is the grammatical “past perfect” tense.

Bear with me for a moment here. I keep stumbling over this matter in my work as editor (ahem – I almost feel like I should capitalise this: My Work As Editor. Spoken with a suitably declarative intonation, so that the capitals become evident and everyone is duly impressed. Anyway…). Now, most of you probably don’t give a rip about grammar. If so, just ignore me. But some of you might actually care, and for those, allow me to pontificate for a moment.

“Pontificate”, incidentally, comes from the Latin “pontifex”, which was an early word for “bishop” (the Pope is still called Pontifex Maximus today). So, to pontificate is, quite plainly, to preach. Speaking of Latin, “perfect” is, of course, also Latin, from “perficio”, “through + make”, or “finish building”. Something that’s perfect is completed, all the way. So in grammar terms, something that’s “perfect” is something that’s finished, over with.

I was in an online discussion the other day on this very topic, and one participant, who is an ESL teacher in Asia, said that when he talks to his students he calls the past perfect the “double past”. That’s a great term, because it describes exactly what it is. Like a Double Oreo cookie, where you get twice the filling (the Oreo of Oreos, as it were), the double past means you get the past of the past.

So, when I’m talking about today, I use, of course, the present tense. “Today I waffle on about grammar matters and bore my readers to tears.” If I talk about yesterday, I use the simple past: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic.” Now, if I want to talk about something that happened before the past, I use the past perfect: “Yesterday, I thought of this topic, because the day before yesterday I had discussed it with other writers online.” When I thought of the topic yesterday, the discussing was already in the past. Double past, or past perfect.

In English, to put it simply, the past perfect is formed by “had” and the appropriate verb form: today I eat, yesterday I ate, the day before that I had eaten. (There are some convoluted verb forms where you end up with stacks of “had”, but we’ll ignore those here.)

In daily life, we rarely use the double past. But in writing, it does become relevant. Most fiction is written in the past tense (“It was the blue bowl that started it all…”), so if you describe something that happened before that moment you’re describing, you’ve got to put it in past perfect: “It was a turquoise blue, very much like the eyes of the weird guy that had stared at Cat so disturbingly in the Room of Local Antiquities.” If that “had” wasn’t there, it would mean that the guy is standing there right now, staring at Cat – but it happened earlier, before she walked into the Ceramics Room and saw the fateful blue bowl. Because the whole story is told in past tense, anything that happened prior to it requires the double past. (If you want to know what else happened with Cat and the blue bowl and just who that weird guy was, go read Seventh Son. End of advertisement.)

The most common mistake in this regard is to have your story told in past tense, but forget to use the double past when you’re telling of events prior to your “narrative present” (i.e. the time the story takes place in), which can leave the reader scratching their head as to exactly what’s happening when. But I’ve also seen stories that are told in present tense, where the author overcompensates: the “narrative present” is the present, so anything that happens before then should be in the simple past tense (single Oreo) – but then the author tries extra-hard to get the tense right and ends up putting in an excess of “had”. Nope, you don’t want that. If you’re telling it right now, a prior event goes in the simple past – single Oreo. If you’re telling everything in the past, a prior event goes in the past perfect or double past – it gets the double Oreo.

Make sense? Good. I’ll get off my editor’s pulpit then and stop boring you.

Life, the Universe, the Past Perfect and Double Oreos. Pass the milk.

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