Self-Editing: The Cringe Test

My writing group met recently for our monthly critiquing love- and slugfest. We know each other well enough to be pretty brutal and frank, and mostly that’s good, because it means that if everyone agrees that something’s finished, you can be sure we aren’t just being polite. 

This month it happens that we’re all revising manuscripts, and we’re all weighing the pressure to be done with it against the wish for it to be perfect. And we discovered that we’ve all had the same experience at some point, of trying to ignore a subpar passage that we hoped would escape our editor’s/agent’s/reader’s notice. 

When you aren’t certain, how do you decide whether a particular chunk is good enough? Some possible cringe tests: 

—Imagine you’re interviewed on Fresh Air and Terry Gross chooses that passage to read out loud.

—Pretend it’s the only passage an old lover will read when he or she happens across it.

—Picture it printed in your obituary. 

You get the idea—and I’ll bet you have some doozies. The point is, although not every passage will turn out to be quote-worthy, none of them should make you cringe.

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Are You a Grammar Troll?

For years, it seems, it’s been impossible to find a language-related post or article online without a stickler making trouble in the comments section. Even on political, social, and retail sites, outraged commenters love to point out a misplaced apostrophe as a way to challenge the writer’s intelligence, education, or morality.

I’ve never believed that typos are that revealing. Anyone can be distracted or in a hurry. No one catches every single error. One study on human error rates concludes that “the best performance possible in well managed workplaces using normal quality management methods [has] failure rates of 5 to 10 in every hundred opportunities.”1 (Read that again: “the best performance possible”!)

And are we not human? Why shouldn’t we err?

At the University of Chicago Press a whole staff of editors makes a living finding typos and grammar goofs in book and journal article manuscripts, and no one thinks those writers are ignorant or corrupt.

It’s simply wrong to assume that anyone who types your when they mean you’re doesn’t know the difference. And in any case, is it right to point it out in a rude, public manner?

I’ll confess to taking a little evil pleasure when a grammar shamer commits a typo, falling victim to Muphrey’s Law [sic]: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

What’s your take?

Subversive Copy Editor: Random Advice for Copyeditor Newbies

If you’re new to copyediting, consider these snippets of advice. (Be sure to check with your supervisor if any of them contradict your usual instructions.)

  • Don’t query a word or spelling or locution without looking it up. If a writer uses an unfamiliar word or spelling more than once, it’s very possibly intended. It’s easy to paste “eat one’s cake and have it, too” into a search engine and learn that the writer doesn’t have it backward.

  • Don’t waste a writer’s time by continually asking for approval. (“Okay? If you don’t like this, I can put it back.”) Rather, indicate your flexibility in the cover letter. On the manuscript, use queries for giving or asking for information.

  • Save grief later by e-mailing the author before you make editing decisions that are hard to undo. (“Re romantic/Romantic: do you have a system for capping? Should I meddle?”)

  • Don’t track changes that will be invisible or confusing on a black-and-white printout, such as deletions of hyphens.* If the editing is difficult to read, the writer won’t easily see that the results read well.

  • Be conservative in editing until you have more experience. You should be ready to explain every mark you put on the page.

  • Remember the copyeditor’s creed: First, do no harm.