A Primer on Nouns and Pronouns

July 17, 2013

One of the most common issues I find in the books I edit deals with the use of nouns and pronouns. Most of us remember that nouns name a person, place, or thing. Pronouns refer to nouns. If you’re really into English, you probably know the noun that the pronoun refers to is called an antecedent.

Perhaps the problem between pronouns and antcedents began when we started making the English language politically correct. We stopped using the masculine pronoun as a default and, having nothing to replace it, we started using plural pronouns in place of singular.

If your eyes are glazing over, stay with me another minute, as I’m about to make my point, which is: A noun and its pronoun (antecedent) must agree in person and number. Examples: I must keep my cool. You must keep your money. John said he drove home that night. Ann likes her new apartment. The store won’t change its policy. The manager expects her staff to get along. The students demanded their grades.

The examples seem straight forward enough, but here are some examples I’ve seen in manuscripts I’ve edited. (1) A parent saw their child in trouble. (2) You have the person who learns from their experience. (3) An individual knows their own needs.

In each of the three examples above, the noun is singular and the pronoun is plural. Chicago Manual of Style, the book publishing standard, requires the noun and pronoun agree. A good writer will take on the challenge and rewrite the sentence to make that happen.

Here are a few more tips to improve your use of nouns and pronouns.

  • Use who and whoever when you can substitute he, she, they, I, or we. Examples: Who was promoted? Whoever wrote that?
  • Use whom and whomever when you can substitute him, her, them, me, or us as the object of the verb or the object of the preposition. Examples: Whom did you see today? I will speak to whomever answers the phone.
  • If two nouns are  joined by the conjunction and, the pronoun referring to them is plural. Example: John and Mary co-authored their book.
  • Watch collective nouns such as team or committee or staff or jury, as these are singular words that refer to one collection of people. Example: The committee took its break.
  • And, in general, avoid sexist language when possible. Examples: staffed instead of manned or firefighter instead of firemen.

Of course, how you use the language can depend on what you’re writing. For example, if your character uses sexist language, you need to write the character’s dialogue that way. If you’re writing a business book, you need to be mindful of sexism. But, in general, the tips I offer here should help you with the common use of nouns and pronouns.

Happy writing!

10 Things You Need to do to Successfully Self-publish

July 10, 2013

Most authors know to stay away from vanity presses–the ones that take your money and publish your book as is. But few authors think about self-publishing being the ultimate in vanity publishing. Instead, they write the book, insert the text into some publishing program, list the book online, and expect the book to sell itself.

There are some self-publishing success stories (The Celestine Prophecy, What Color is Your Parachute?, The Christmas Box), but success comes with a lot of hard work after the book is written. Here are ten things you need to do to have a shot at becoming a self-publishing success.

  1. Educate yourself and have a plan. Publishing is not dream fulfillment. It is business, and it is a competitive business, so read books on publishing, take classes, join associations of publishers and learn from others’ experiences.
  2. Study the competition. I recently heard there are 16,000 books written about President Lincoln. Browse the online bookstores and see how many books are written on your subject. Then decide how you can make your book stand out by offering something new, better, more, or different.
  3. Write what people want to read. Hard as it is to accept, few people care about your opinion or life experiences. They want to be entertained or educated, and your book needs to satisfy that want.
  4. Think marketing every minute. Before you publish your book, have a marketing plan that starts with identifying your reader and how you can reach that target market. Blog? Articles? Seminars? Classes? Corporate training? Bundle with other authors’ books? Book signings or events? Trade shows?
  5. Hire a professional book editor. You know what you want to say in your book, therefore you are not qualified to edit your manuscript because you’ll see what should be there rather than what actually is there. Avoid hiring English teachers, avid readers, friends, etc. because as willing as these folks are to help, they’re not book editors. Be sure the editor you hire follows the Chicago Manual of Style, the book publishing standard.
  6. Create a catchy title. The title needs to be short and clear. Alfred Hitchcock preferred one-word titles for his films and people remember them!
  7. Hire a book cover designer. The purpose of the front cover is attract the reader/buyer to your book. Your book is competing with thousands of others in the marketplace, so hire a book cover designer (as opposed to a general graphic designer) to create a dynamite cover for you.
  8. Make the book interior inviting. Your designer can help you with font choice, layout, folio, etc.
  9. Price your book competitively. When doing step #2, make note of the prices of the books you’ll be competing with. You’ll know how much you can sell the book for, then do the math to see how many books you’ll need to sell before you start making a profit after paying all your self-publishing and marketing expenses.
  10. Promote your book at every opportunity. Nobody cares about your book as much as you do, so you need to be enthusiastically looking for every opportunity to get your book in front of your target market. Marketing never stops as long as you have a book to sell.

Now you have ten things you need to do to successfully self-publish. Remember that only you can write what you write, and your readers are waiting.

Happy writing!


Budget Basics

June 25, 2013

When I edit books, I ask the author about his or her publishing plans. Ninety percent plan to self-publish. Self-publishing requires investing in oneself, and it also means creating a publishing plan, including a budget. Here are some budget basics.

  • Budgets are plans that set out expected revenues (income) and expenditures (outgo) for a specific period of time or project.
  • Budgets rely on a set of assumptions, usually based on some past activity.
  • Deviation from the plan is expected since some assumptions will not always be accurate (printing costs can go up, sales aren’t as high in a given period, etc.).

Budgeting is the process by which you relate spending with project progress. Simplistically speaking, if you budget $5000.00 for your self-publishing project and you spend $2,000.00 on the cover design and interior layout and $1,500.00 on editing, you have $1,500.00 remaining in your budget for printing. That leaves you nothing for marketing, however, in your project.

You may want to revisit your budget total for each activity in your budget. But if you skimp on the wrong thing, you could assure your book will fail in the marketplace. Therefore, you’ll need to make some hard decisions. For example, can you attract investors for your book and pay them back through sales revenues? The cover design’s job is to attract the reader, so can you find a less expensive designer to accomplish that task? The book industry standard is the Chicago Manual of Style and you want your book edited to that standard. When you find an editor, be sure you find one who meets that criteria.You want every aspect of your book to look professional, so hire professionals who work in book publishing.

When you keep in mind that publishing is business, not dream fulfillment, you increase your chances of success. Part of that success comes from realistically estimating your expenditures and revenues based on assumptions. Budgeting may not be the most fun part of writing, but it’s an important step if you want your book to at least break even.

Happy writing!

Editing is a Critical Part of the Writing Process

October 3, 2012

I attended two meetings and one seminar last week and one issue surfaced in each venue–today’s writing needs more editing. When pressed for more details, each person talked about the explosion of independent publishing created by technology and the deterioration of the quality of the end result. Most of the complaints centered around e-books, but independently published (aka self-published) print books were just as bad.

Here are some of the points raised in the discussions during last week’s meetings:

  • Simple punctuation errors such as where to place commas or periods with quotation marks (both go inside the quotation mark, by the way).
  • Simple punctuation errors such as whether or not to place a comma before the conjunction in a series (per the book industry standard, Chicago Manual of Style, a comma goes before the conjunction in a series).
  • Pronoun/antecedent disagreement (plural pronouns such as they or their with singular antecedents such as speaker). Example: When a speaker tells their audience a story, they should use more gestures. Edited version: Most speakers should use more gestures when telling stories to their audiences.
  • Overuse of trite expressions.
  • Overuse of favorite words or phrases.
  • Overuse of scare quotes. Scare quotes are the quotation marks put around words. These should be used judiciously and only when “scaring” a reader into seeing a word is used in unusual manner. Too many scare quotes become distracting.
  • Capitalization of job titles without a person’s name. Example: I couldn’t reach the Principal, so I called the Superintendent.
  • Using ellipsis to show a break or pause. The correct punctuation for that is a dash. Ellipsis shows omission, not pause. The one exception is that ellipsis is correctly used  in dialogue to show faltering speech.
  • Sometimes words are missing.

The take-away from the discussions is the writer’s credibility is compromised, if not dismissed, when he or she shows little regard for details before publishing.

One caution, however. Avoid asking people who love you (and everything you write) to help you with your editing. They simply won’t tell you where your writing lacks clarity or needs work, either because they don’t see it  themselves or they don’t want to risk hurting you.

Do yourself and your reader a favor and invest in hiring an editor before you independently publish your work. The perception of your credibility depends on it.

Does all of this mean your “baby” won’t have a birthmark? No. Writers are human. Editors are human. Humans make mistakes. It happens, even in the big publishing houses. All I’m suggesting is it’s worth doing a little extra editing for both you and your reader.

Happy writing!

Comma Sense

October 12, 2010

In the writing classes I teach at the college, I assign a comma exercise. I provide students fifteen sentences and instructions to add commas in the appropriate place, provide the reason for the comma, or mark the sentence with a C if it is correct (no commas needed).

The textbook I use contains a glossary with the most common reasons for commas, and I encourage students to use the appendix.

For most students, this is one of the hardest assignments of the semester. Sentences without punctuation are difficult to read. Knowing where to insert a comma is tough, but knowing why is even more difficult.

Here are some common reasons to use commas.

  • Insert comma between two independent clauses joined with a conjunction. Example: Louise thought John would be late, but John made it on time.
  • Use commas between three or more items in a series. Example: Larry, Moe, and Curly. NOTE: Some writing manuals require the comma before the conjunction in a series (Chicago Manual of Style and APA, for example), while others do not.
  • Use a comma after introductory phrases. Example: When the sun goes down, the night creatures come out.
  • Use a comma to set off contrasting words or phrases. Example: The more you edit, the better your writing.
  • Use commas for sentence interrupters. Example: She is, or thinks she is, a wonderful person.
  • Use commas to set off explanatory equivalents. Example: My mother, Jane, is a huge baseball fan.
  • Use a comma in a direct address. Example: Mary, can you babysit Saturday night?
  • Use commas with direct quotations. Example: Tom said, “I’m trying out for the lead in the class play.”
  • Use commas between modifiers. Example: the thorough, concise, readable manuscript.

Make sure you have a reason for inserting a comma (and the reason is not “That’s where I stop to take a breath.”). Your comma sense will show and you won’t go comma-crazy.

Happy writing!

The Craft of Editing

June 29, 2010

Some writers think of editing as a necessary evil they have to deal with if they want to sell their writing. Others embrace working with their editors because they’ve had good experiences with editors improving the writing.

So what’s the difference? If an editor changes your writing to reflect the editor’s viewpoint or style preference, that’s not a good thing. If an editor comes to your writing with the reader in mind, you’ve got the basis for a good editing experience.

But editing is more than that. Editing also entails following standards–Chicago Manual of Style for books, Associated Press Stylebook for periodicals, and APA (American Psychological Association) for most academic work (although there are other manuals for academic work as well).

When you hire an editor, make sure you check that the editor you hire knows which manual to use and uses the correct one in editing your work. Anyone can say he/she is an editor. In fact, many writers hire English teachers/professors as editors. This may or may not be a good practice, depending on the teacher’s familiarity with when to use which manual. Just because someone knows a verb from a preposition doesn’t make that person an editor–it makes them knowledgeable in that one part of the craft of editing.

You also want to be clear about what type of editor you’re hiring. If you want grammar and punctuation edited, you’ll want to hire a copy editor. If you want content and clarity edited as well, you’ll want to hire a content editor. If you simply want someone to look for typos and check spelling, you’ll want to hire a proofreader.

All of these are part of the craft of editing. But, just as you don’t go to a pediatrician for cardiac care in the elderly, you don’t want to hire the wrong editing expert.

Connecting with an editor you can work with and who respects your voice can make or break your writing career. Whether you’re looking for someone to slash and burn your text down to bare bones (technical writers may be looking for this type of help) or creating fiction that requires an eye for content and timing and detail, you can find the right editor for you.

Happy writing!

Good Editors Ask These Questions

June 4, 2010

I was looking at a publisher’s website the other day. It was a publisher who advertises itself as a “self-publisher,” which is a misnomer unless the only author that publisher publishes is himself. That made me wonder how accurate that publisher was in other aspects of publishing, so I clicked around and discovered that they “edit as needed.”

That allows all sorts of leeway in what one can expect from their editors.

Writers deserve better and here’s a list of  questions good editors ask when editing a manuscript.

  • How clear is the author’s message to the reader (sentence by sentence)?
  • What does the reader need to know and does this sentence meet that need?
  • Am I suggesting this revision because that’s how I would say it or because it improves the author’s voice and clarity?
  • Have I consulted the appropriate manual (Chicago Manual of Style for books, Associated Press Stylebook for periodicals) regarding the suggested change?
  • Have I done my best to verify facts or references I thought needed verification?
  • How well did I proofread (typos, spelling, capitalization)?
  • Have I examined every punctuation mark?
  • Have I considered legal issues regarding quoted material, allegation, etc.?
  • Have I looked for overuse of favorite words, sexism, ethnocentrism, etc.?
  • How does the organization work overall for the piece?

The next time you get your piece back from your editor, you’ll be able to tell if your editor asked these good questions by the changes suggested. If your editor did not, you may want to look for a new editor.

Happy writing!

Don’t Let Your Editor Get Away With Changing Your Intent

May 7, 2010

In our book publishing company, Expert Publishing, Inc., I’ve had the opportunity to work with several editors. Sometimes I’ve had to re-do their edits because they changed the author’s intent. Obviously, I don’t rehire those editors.

Every author (including me) needs an editor. Authors know their topics so well that they don’t know when they’re not being clear to the reader. Authors also may not know the various editorial manuals as well as an editor does (for example, periodicals don’t use the serial comma–the comma before the conjunction in a series–but books do).

One editor we hired was very well versed in the Chicago Manual of Style, the book  publishing industry standard, but he changed the author’s voice in the manuscript so the text read the way the editor would have written it, not the way the author wrote it. Of course, you expect your editor to improve your work, and you should trust your editor completely, but the final decision to make a change should be yours, as the author whose name is on the work.

Another editor we hired worked on a book that contained several scriptures. Chicago says to include the translation (KJV for King James Version, for example) next to the scripture reference. The author did that and the editor changed Version to Volume. Clearly, this was not an editor familiar with scripture. Had we not checked her work, it would have been a disaster for both the author and us, as publisher.

By all means, hire an editor when you think you’re in the final draft of your manuscript. BUT never allow the editor to change your intent. The editor’s job is to improve your work. You are the author and your name is on your book or article, so it should reflect your words, not the editor’s.

On the other hand, hire an editor you trust to challenge you to be as clear to the reader as possible. You won’t go wrong.

Happy writing!

Editors Don’t Need Constant Consistency

April 9, 2010

One of the hardest decisions editors make deals with consistency. To be credible, authors need to be consistent. They can’t say something is black one day and white the next and expect people to believe them–unless something is both black and white and alternates between the two daily.

Yet, people are often inconsistent and go with what works at the moment. Editors use manuals as the standard for their work, but sometimes there are reasons to deviate. For example, Chicago Manual of Style says to rewrite sentences to avoid pronoun/antecedent disagreement. That means if what the pronoun refers to (antecedent) is singular, the pronoun is singular. However, in our politically correct society, we’ve evolved to using the plural (they/their) instead of the singular (he/she, his/her). That’s not okay with Chicago and the manual says the author should rewrite the sentence.

While I’m pretty much a stickler for following Chicago when I edit books, I am inconsistent in allowing this standard to be compromised. I allow a plural pronoun (they/their) with a singular antecedent when we don’t know the gender (any student or anyone). Why? It’s easier for reading flow than he/she or his/her.

Another rule editors follow is change passive voice to active. Anyone involved in writing has heard of (or maybe even used) Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style.  While the active voice is more forceful, it isn’t always the better choice. Sometimes it’s okay to use passive voice. For example, use it when there’s no ownership assigned to the action (It was reported that you came in late three times this week).

Finally, editors don’t need constant consistency in placing headings and subheadings whenever a new concept is introduced in a nonfiction book. I’ve seen books with headings every three or four paragraphs, as the author introduced a new concept in a chapter. While this is effective after a list of bullet points because it helps the reader find the text connected to the bullet points, it is not usually effective in straight text.

Yes, strive for consistency for your reader’s sake, but be aware that constant consistency can detract from your message as well. Have a reason for the deviation, that’s all.

Happy writing!

What Makes a Good Editor?

April 6, 2010

When I teach my writing and publishing classes, I often get students who tell me they’ve always wanted to become a writer. I also get students who tell me they love finding errors in books and magazines when they read them. Then they tell me they think they want to become editors.

What makes a good editor?

A good editor is well read in many areas. To limit one’s expertise to one or two topics is to limit one’s ability to edit well to those few topics–at least if one wants to do more than edit for grammar or punctuation.

A good editor also needs to be adaptable. Authors have their own voices, and those voices won’t necessarily match the editor’s. Too often editors inflict their preferences on how to word something rather than accept the author’s wording. A good editor may suggest a better way to say something to make the writing more clear to the reader, but does not inflict his/her own voice onto the author’s work.

A good editor should be a bit compulsive. To be overly compulsive is to be disabling, but there’s merit in being compulsive about finding punctuation errors, incorrect word usage, and striving for clarity in writing.

A good editor understands the medium he/she is editing and uses the correct manual for editing that medium. For example, the book publishing industry uses The Chicago Manual of Style. Academia relies on the American Psychological Association (APA) for business and management, but on Modern Language Association (MLA) for other academic disciplines. Periodicals use the Associated Press Stylebook.

Finally, a good editor is self-disciplined. By that I mean a good editor understands the importance of deadlines and works to make sure every deadline is met. Sometimes that means shifting work priorities. Sometimes that means working long hours. Sometimes that means giving up lunch or a weekend event.

Whether you aspire to become an editor or are searching for an editor, you now have more information on what it takes to be good at editing.

Happy writing!