On smart editing tests

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At You Don’t Say, John McIntyre digresses a bit to describe his test for copy editing candidates:

Back in the day, when The Sun was still regularly hiring copy editors,* my brutal applicant test contained a short article that had nothing much the matter with it. Any applicant who went to town on it, penciling in multiple corrections or recasting sentences, was automatically disqualified, because such an editor would (a) take forever to get anything done and (b) bring down on my head a storm of complaints from writers about edits that could not be justified.


*We were repeatedly interviewing and testing because as soon as my hires displayed their mettle, they were promoted off the desk or plucked from the paper altogether by parties like The New York Expletive Times.

This reminds me of the proofreading test I took when I was hired at Monotype (now Six Red Marbles), also in Baltimore. Anxious to do well, I’d been studying the Chicago Manual of Style and boning up on grammar. My prospective boss, Jay Bernarding, slid across the desk a Spot the Difference photo set (which reminded me of the Double Check game on Highlights children’s magazine covers). He told me there were seven differences between the photos and would time how long it took me to find them. I did so pretty quickly (and that’s one reason I got the job), but he later told me that some people couldn’t find all seven, some took more than five minutes, and he was looking for people who could see what was wrong on a typeset page rather than trying to edit text that had already been through two or three passes with several editors and was about as good as it was gonna get.

NPR News graphic recreating a Highlights magazine

Click through to see the full-size image. Download it and open in Paint if you suddenly have a burning need to find and circle all 12 differences.

Doing a chair dance of joy

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I’m back! I had managed to permanently ban my own IP address (using the iThemes Security plugin on this here WordPress install) because I had too many *&!$^ wrong password attempts. I’d set the security nice and tight because I’ve been dealing with brute force attacks on the site, and I could only whitelist my own IP temporarily. (If you’re locked out of your own site too, iThemes has posted some useful directions for fixing lockouts.) Admittedly, however, it took me awhile to follow the trail of breadcrumbs to discover the IP perma-ban, remember to take my laptop to my local Tim Horton’s for an iced capp mocha and some wifi, get my user also blocked because clicking “log in” with the saved password never &*%# works, go back home to discover and then follow the iThemes directions to release any and all blocks on my IP or user, become mystified as to why this wasn’t working, then log in successfully through the WordPress app on my phone with the wifi off to whitelist my IP there, releasing the perma-ban, and allow me to actually. log. in.

I’d complain more, but two things are true: iThemes Security was actually performing quite well and doing the thing I installed it to do — it had no way to tell that this was really me trying to log in — and I did fix it in the end without breaking any part of my site.

And some bonus editorial content for the day: At the Chronicle, Rachel Toor says some lovely things about copy editors in The Better Angels of Our Writing:

My experience of receiving editing, both substantively and line by line, is that it’s like love. Good copy editors see me not just for who I am but for who I want to be, and they help me get there. They point out what I do well, but they also notice my tics and bad habits and try to break me of them.

Now I, too, want to be friends with Carol Saller and Mary Norris.

On not italicizing Spanish

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Today I’m editing an article that talks about translation in the bilingual classroom. There was a section of dialogue that was tough to edit clearly: A student read aloud a few sentences from a book, including a line that was spoken in the book, then discussed with three other students how to translate those sentences. The students asked one another in English about this or that word in Spanish, and I used quote marks, offsetting commas, and italics to clarify which words the students spoke, which words they were discussing, and which words were part of the quoted material or their translation. (If the article is freely available when it’s published a few months from now, I’ll link it so you can see what I’m talking about.)

I didn’t even bother to italicize every instance of Spanish, thanks to a video posted by author Daniel José Older last year (before his novel Half-Resurrection Blues was published; which you should definitely read):

The text I’m editing is academic, not fiction, but that doesn’t really matter. It would have been doubly more confusing (and, I decided, wrong) to try and italicize all the Spanish simply because the article as a whole is in English, and it wouldn’t have been true either to the way these bilingual students spoke or to what the reader needed to understand.

The overarching questions I ask as I’m editing are “What are you saying here? How can we get that across to readers so that they get it right away?”

These days, I don’t reflexively italicize Spanish. When I’m following a style guide that does, I stop and think about whether each instance of italics would serve the reader. Today, it would have just gotten in the way. Out it went.

Pirates of the Caribbean gif:

Why I read historical romance

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I’m back today with #WhyIReadHistoricals (there’s also #WhyIWriteHistoricals but I’m a reader here, not a writer). I’ve been ravenously reading historical romance novels for the past few months — right now I’m at that point where I’ve read the first book or two of several series but I’m waiting to get book 3 or 7 and can hardly stand it. (Recommended: Julie Anne Long’s Pennyroyal Green series, Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series and Castles Ever After series, Isabella Bradford’s Wylder Sisters series, and Grace Burrowes’ Windham series.)

historicals historys heartbeat
Source: Historical Romance Network/Facebook

What’s drawn me to historicals? Pretty, pretty dresses. Seriously, I’ve been doing some Regency fashion research because I love seeing the details of a dress vividly in my mind, or I’ll come across a reference to a piece of clothing or accessory that I can’t picture (what’s a reticule? or a pelisse or a spencer?) so I look it up. There’s some fond, unanswered girlhood wish of mine to swan around in dresses with enormous skirts, and historicals scratch that itch a little bit.

And I read romance (not just historicals) because I love to be caught up in the emotion of a book. When I read for pleasure, I’m not necessarily paying attention to themes or foreshadowing, and I can forgive plenty of fudged details for the sake of the story. I’m not trying to guess the ending, because it’s clear before the story even starts that the heroine and the hero end up together. What’s interesting and satisfying is how they get there and what they feel along the way. If the hero is a notorious rake and love of the heroine changes him into a loving, respectful, monogamous gentleman, how does that happen? If the heroine has sworn off love and sees only duty and sacrifice, why does she give up her duty as she falls in love with the hero? What do the two of them do (and not just the sexy times) to create that change in themselves? How can the happily-ever-after be believable for those two people?

And it’s not pure escapist reading, either. The hero in When the Duchess Said Yes by Isabella Bradford, the Duke of Hawkesworth, doesn’t much care for his ducal responsibilities; he’s set up agents to take care of his households and affairs, and he’s got his villa in Naples, and that’s where he prefers to be. However, one of those responsibilities is to marry the heroine, Lizzie (this arranged marriage is what starts the story). There’s a scene after the wedding in which Lizzie, now a duchess, meets the staff of her new home. Not only is it a trope, Bradford describes how this particular meeting is ritualized and what’s expected of each person; with that knowledge, we can understand why it’s a big deal that it’s been days between the wedding and this scene. Rather than the Duke introducing her to the staff, Lizzie introduces herself, and even though this is a breach of etiquette they’re more relieved that it’s done. The staff know what to do next in their jobs, and Lizzie has taken her proper place and now has one less thing hanging over her. When I read this book, I was in a place in my own life where I felt just like Hawke but needed to see how, even though it feels good to hare off somewhere and delegate my responsibilities to someone else, I really do need to show up, take my place, and handle those responsibilities. (Without completely spoiling the book, I’ll say that my takeaway doesn’t map to the ending; this was just a way I connected with the story.)

historicals best views books
Source: Historical Romance Network/Facebook

I’ve never been to London, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it. Or the Scottish highlands. Or Paris (I don’t even know how many times I read The Three Musketeers as a teenager; it’s why I took French in high school).

I hope it won’t be months until my next post here. I lost my voice for a bit, and I do very much want to get it back.


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Well, there is clearly no faster way to kill regular posting than to announce a new blog series. Nevertheless, here’s a few recent titles.

A Triple Knot by Emma Campion (Goodreads): This story woven around the real medieval woman Joan of Kent looked really thrilling, but I couldn’t get into it, even though I normally like historical fiction. I tried several times to read the first chapter but it just didn’t hold my attention. (NB: I received an ARC to review.)

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo (Goodreads): A stunning blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and romance. Li Lan’s family has fallen on hard times and her father suggests a ghost marriage to the recently deceased eldest son of the Lim family. I loved the way the story unfolds through 19th-century Malaysia, both in the physical world and the afterlife. The book ends with a decision but I wanted to keep reading more of Li Lan’s story.

Dark Witch by Nora Roberts, the first of the Cousins O’Dwyer trilogy (Goodreads): Iona Sheehan comes to her cousins in Ireland and finds that they share not only blood, but an ancient spiritual gift and an ancient enemy. Roberts blends in some elements of modern Wicca (the rhyming Silver Ravenwolf-type spells were incongruous and a bit silly), but the story of Iona finding bonds of family, friendship, and love kept me turning pages. I’m now reading Shadow Spell (Goodreads), the second book in the trilogy; the third book, Blood Magick, comes out in December.

What I’m reading now: A series

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I’ve taken an idea from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000), which is itself an amazing book full of good stories and equally good advice; I quote pieces to myself rather a lot. The part I’m thinking of now is what King calls the Prime Rule and the Great Commandment:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. (p. 145)

I read and read and read all day, and then in between I read for fun, but there’s a difference. When I read with an editorial eye, I’m looking at how sentences work and whether words got repeated or misspelled or misused. I’m reading functional text and thinking about how well a teacher will be able to follow this lesson, whether all the facts in a story about a celebrity are correct, whether references to a figure or a handout title are capitalized consistently, how well a reader will be able visualize the action happening in a scene. It’s also repetitive work; I read through, make changes, read through again, go back and fix this or that, read through again to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and so on. I’m practicing my craft.

When I read for fun, I’m a very fast reader. Especially in novels, I love to get completely swept up in the story. Before my kids were born, I’d curl up on our big leather couch and read for hours at a stretch, not really realizing how much time had passed until the sun had gone down, my cup was long empty, and I was mysteriously hungry. (That still happens occasionally now, except the hours involved usually bookend midnight, after both girls are asleep.) It’s a lovely break to just fly through and not worry about the detail stuff because many other people have already worked on this particular story and the details have been attended to. It’s just me and the story.

And yet, as Stephen King continues, “there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.” Which I’ve found to be true as well. King tells about reading a book in which the author described everything as zestful and it became “the literary equivalent of a smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or a story. God willing, I never will.”

A few weeks ago, I decided that the balance between work and play had gotten out of whack, so I settled myself down to read some novels. (Actually, I can pinpoint this to the day I edited a review of Lick by Kylie Scott. I finished editing the article, kept a tab open to buy the book, and read it straight through as soon as I could. Then I bought the next in the series. And I signed up for Smart Bitches Trashy Books’ Books on Sale newsletter and bought plenty more by other authors. I’m kinda backlogged with romance reading and it’s wonderful.)

So here’s to a new series of posts with short reviews of what I’m reading now. It’s probably gonna be romance-heavy for awhile.

Timelines and expectations: Maternity leave analysis

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I’ve been super busy with projects lately, which is a wonderful thing! And I’ve been looking at this project cycle in relation to my decision to take maternity leave as a freelancer; effectively, I had to start hustling for work just as hard as when I’d started freelancing in the first place. (Note: the bulk of my work has been in educational publishing, so the cycle I’m outlining reflects project lengths and payment periods common to that field. An editor working primarily on medical journals would likely experience a different cycle; an editor working primarily with independent authors would experience a cycle that’s different still.)

  • June/July 2013: I decide on the dates I’ll be away on maternity leave and notify my clients well in advance.
  • August 2013: I AM SO BUSY finishing up projects and squeezing in short ones before my leave starts.
  • September 2013: My daughter is born, with no complications. I recover quickly. Invoice payments continue to roll in.
  • October 2013: Rosaline turns out to be a happy, healthy baby. Invoices keep getting paid. I’m a tad bored, but life is good.
  • November 2013: I start working again, slowly, touching base with current clients and reaching out to new ones.
  • December 2013: The Holidays. A few new projects start up. Just about all outstanding invoices are paid by now.
  • January 2014: This is, unexpectedly, the point at which I started to feel the financial pinch from maternity leave. Not much money was coming in, few of the projects I’d started in November had reached a point at which I could invoice for work done, and savings were starting to run out.
  • February 2014: Busy, busy month. I added more projects, sent a few invoices, and kept hustling. I win a couple of regular gigs.
  • March 2014: Several large projects reach a midpoint at the same time others wrap up. I feel like I’m working nonstop. More invoices go out; more projects come in.

When I was figuring out how maternity leave would work, I expected that November and December would be the tough months, but starting in January, I’d be able to pick up steam again. Instead, the cycle looks much more like August–December 2012, when I was wrapping up a full-time job and transitioning into Last Syllable full-time. I picked up a few clients right away, put in the work on the first projects, invoiced when they were done… and then finally had those invoices paid in January 2013. After that point, invoices got paid at about the same pace as new projects came in and work went out, so the business was sustainable.

Judging by that information, April 2014 will be another tough month, but May 2014 should be better, and sustainability should come back around June or July — almost a full year!

So financially, I’m not sure how good an idea it was to take two months of maternity leave. However, I recovered very quickly from birthing and had no complications. Other than a bit of jaundice, my baby was born perfectly healthy; she took right to nursing and has thrived. If any part of that calculus had been different — if I’d had a difficult birthing, had to recover from a C-section, or had lasting issues from the pregnancy; if Rosaline had been sick or colicky or had trouble nursing or gaining weight; if none of us had slept well and I couldn’t think clearly; just to name a few possibilities — then a two-month maternity leave would have looked like a far wiser choice. Of course, I couldn’t predict any of these outcomes ahead of the birth, let alone far enough ahead of time to change my plans. And there were other benefits to the way I did it: no juggling deadlines and diapers until I had a pretty good handle on baby’s routine, for example. I didn’t have to stress about being sure I could keep a project on schedule, sure I could think straight, even if I was physically and mentally up to the challenge.

Is it possible to take maternity leave as a freelancer? Yes. Would I do it again? … I’d think very hard about that, given what I’ve learned, and I’d probably approach it as more of a temporary slowdown than a complete break.