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Marilyn Levinson on When Editors Edit

Marilyn Levinson writes the Golden Age of Mysteries Book Club and the Twin Lakes series, and the Haunted Library series as Allison Brook. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

Marilyn Levinson
Marilyn Levinson

Having published seventeen novels in more years than I care to mention and two books coming out soon, I’ve been vetted by a variety of editors. Just as each writer has her own voice, every editor edits in her own particular way. Some editors I’ve worked with considered me a clean writer and made a few notations on my manuscripts. Their edits mostly dealt with simple grammar and punctuation issues: adding or deleting the occasional comma, pointing out that my protagonist had invited a guest for mac and cheese then prepared a dinner of meatballs and pasta. Or they split my compound words into a hyphenated word or two separate words, depending on the publisher’s style. These are small changes editors should and do make.

Other editors have inserted their stamp via changes and deletions. I thought I’d mention a few I’ve found interesting:

1. An editor changed every “he asked” to “he said.” Interesting. Recently, when I used “she said” after a question, my current editor changed it to “she asked.”

2. Another editor deleted many of my introductory sentences to a new scene, feeling they weren’t necessary. I believe such sentences establish time and setting and I continue to include them.

3. One editor eliminated expressions such as “she grinned,” “he nodded,” “she smiled.” While I felt the cut was too severe, it taught me to be more creative and not to rely on these well-worn phrases.

4. After a statement, I often write “he said,” and follow it with an action. For example: “I’d like you to make the corrections in red,” I said, handing him the pages. My editor eliminated “I said” and followed it with a new sentence: “I handed him the pages.” I’m of the school that considers “said” a tag hardly noticed by readers, and considered this type of change to be her personal preference.

5. Is there something wrong with saying “ten o’clock?” I ask because one editor eliminated my use of “o’clock” each time it appeared in my manuscript.

6. Another editor insisted on inserting the word “and” in every clause beginning with “then.” An old grammar rule, I believe, that’s gone the way of the floppy disk.

Most of the corrections—or differences of opinion—involve the use of commas. I suppose that’s because different editors follow different schools or styles. Until recently, I inserted commas to set off clauses not essential to the sentence. I inserted a comma to separate two independent clauses. In both cases, I’ve had my commas removed. I haven’t always inserted a comma after timed-related phrases such as “after dinner.” Now that I’ve been “corrected” re all of the above, I’m truly confused as to when to use a comma.

The rules are constantly changing. We authors must remain flexible and accept the new order when long-established rules are discarded. We no longer type two spaces after a period. Nor do we insert a comma after “white” in “the red, white and blue.” (Goodbye Oxford comma.) All of this takes some getting used to. I’ll abide by the rules and try not to get too upset when a new editor changes what I’ve just managed to learn. 

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Marilyn — This was a fun read that I can relate to. (See how I left a preposition at the end of that sentence?).

    NOTE: I’m a staunch proponent of the Oxford comma. I love it, and I’ll never give it up!

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    Laurie, Glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve been retrained to omit the Oxford comma. I’ve also been retrained to omit a comma before words like “too,” though I must admit it still feels strange.

  3. Margaret E Mizushima
    Margaret E Mizushima

    Three cheers for the Oxford comma! I’m keeping it too. Loved this fun post, Marilyn. I have always loved working with my editors, and I agree that some of these “rules” are subjective and can vary among editors. Perhaps we should think of them as “merely guidelines.” Ha!

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    Thanks, Margaret. If only we could think of them as merely guidelines. Thank goodness I now have an editor with a light touch.

  5. Sherrill M Joseph
    Sherrill M Joseph

    Hi, Marilyn. I agree with your uses of commas in nonessential clauses and independent clauses. I will never give up the Oxford comma! Journalists started deleting it to create more space, but I think it’s an important punctuation mark for us writers. Many a time, I’ve had to reread a sentence for meaning when that comma was missing.

    I’m fortunate to have an editor who understands that there seems to be a difference in how kids’ books and adults’ books are edited. I have noticed many adult books breaking all my dearly loved comma rules, which distracts my reading, but not so much in kids’ books. As a former literacy teacher, my guess is that kids are just learning rules of written convention, so we kids’ book authors try to model those rules. At least I do.

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    Sherrill, I never noticed the difference between editing for adult books and kids books. I have had words like “that” added to my text, something I’ve been told to use sparingly. Even “whom” (used properly) changed to “who.” Go figure!

  7. Anne Louise Bannon
    Anne Louise Bannon

    I hate the Oxford comma. I love all kinds of other commas. Trying to figure out which is a clause and which is a phrase is getting to me, but it is making me a better writer. Sigh.

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      I can go either way re the Oxford comma. What I don’t like is that now many compound sentences don’t seem to require a comma.

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    As a former English teacher and rule-follower, I feel your pain on every one of these counts. (And I’ll include errors in punctuation of possessives.) I’ve also been told I’m a clean writer by editors, and I’ve bent to accommodate editorial suggestions, learning from them, but I’ve pushed back on others that really don’t seem right to me. As a reader, nothing takes me out of a story more than mechanical errors. That’s why sharp editing is so important.

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    At this point, I’m less sure of when to use a comma in certain situations. I usually defer to my editor and copy editor.

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    Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for your thoughts. Agree that the comma rules change like the wind!

  11. Sheila Lowe
    Sheila Lowe

    Copyeditors–the bane of my existence. When I wrote my first book, a nonfiction, the editor replaced all of my “he” with “she.” I wanted to rip her head off, but compromised by changing half of them back. It still doesn’t feel natural.

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    I know what you mean. Some like to do lots of changing. Thankfully, I’ve been very lucky with copyeditors.

  13. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    This makes me think of the loooong discussion we had in my critique group about the use of en-dashes and em—dashes and when you use them. We had a lot of strong opinions on that! The other thing is that two of us were trained as journalists using AP Style and most publishers use the Chicago Manual of Style, so we go back and forth between the guidance those two offer and which is proper. Hard to change old habits! Fun article–thanks Marilyn!

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    Glad you enjoyed it, Valerie. I use em dashes, esp. in dialogue. Once I had a copy editor who added more in my manuscript.

  15. Sharon Lynn
    Sharon Lynn

    My very first published short story was an editing nightmare. I got the first draft back and every line had an edit. Every single line. Soul crushing at first. But I learned so much from the process and became a stronger writer for it.

  16. Joy Ann Ribar
    Joy Ann Ribar

    Hi Marilyn and all, I’m old school and an English teacher, so I’ve had to teach students according to the textbook, which is pretty rigid and traditional. It’s hard for me to shake those habits, so I find myself looking up “grammar rules for fiction writing” quite often. Every editor seems to have their preferences, so I try to be flexible, but I’m kind of a stickler. In my series, I want consistency in style. After a couple of editing woes, I decided to be adamant about that consistency. Oh well…

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    Joy, It is difficult when you work with different editors. You’re so right. They all have their own preferences and we have ours. But I do see a few changes in comma usage. There seems to be less than there used to be.

  18. Tracey Phillips
    Tracey Phillips

    Marilyn, your post rings so true! I’ve been through a handful of editors and they all have different styles. I take to heart your summation to go with the flow. The rules are constantly changing. But I will not miss the Oxford comma! Thanks for your insight!

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    Yes, every editor has a different style. My current editor changes many of my contractions and I don’t bother to change them back.

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