Book Review: Dictionary for Writers and Editors

Check out Jacqui Murray’s book review of Bill Bryson’s “Dictionary for Writers and Editors” — she highlights for us not only a new success in humor and style from the wonderful library of Bryson, but also a terrific new tool for the rest of the writing and reading world.

Thanks, Murray!

WordDreams...

Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and EditorsBryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors

by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Theodore Bernstein (author of seven books on grammar and usage) may be the acknowledged expert on English grammar, but Bill Bryson share’s his knowledge with a pinch of humility and humor.

I met Bryson reading his Short History of Nearly Everything. Therein lay the seeds of my initial distrust. How could an author who wrote such an enthralling historic book like Short History switch genres and write a successful dictionary? Shouldn’t that be the job of a bibliophile or Mr. Webster’s great grandson? Despite my misgivings, I decided to give it a try. Anyone who could distill history into 480 pages must have the see-the-forest-for-the-trees ability to decide on the need-to-know grammar required for a budding author. After all, I needed to spend the minutes stolen from my day job…

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The Perfect Ending: Challenges of Writing

Lately I’ve been struggling with a couple of different short stories because, even though they’re “complete,” they aren’t finished — not by a long shot. And the primary reason for this is simply that the endings aren’t right. The endings work, sure. The endings might be interesting, sure. But they aren’t right. They aren’t perfect.

So, bearing in mind that perfection isn’t terribly realistic, I’d like to beg you the following questions:

What’s the best ending to a book or short story that you’ve ever read or written? And, what makes it the best for you? Its artfulness? Its surprise? Its brevity? Its largess?

An Editor’s Notes on Revision, Part 1

Happy Returns, Generous Readers! It’s been a while and I could wax on about the wilds of the holidays, but I won’t.

Instead, today, I’d like to share with everyone a few tips regarding manuscript revision.

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As some of you know, I work as a fiction editor with Bancroft Press in Baltimore. We’re a small outfit, but we publish everything from children’s and YA fiction to adult fiction to memoir to even Bill O’Reilly. And our latest book deal is one I’m particularly excited about–the fiction debut of five-time Emmy-nominee and former-Seinfeld writer (coiner of phrases: “yada yada yada,” “spongeworthy,” “double-dipping,” and “shrinkage”), Peter Mehlman.

As an editor for Bancroft, I get both first crack at certain manuscripts and see others after other of our editors have done a first read-through. We all have slightly different styles, of course. For example, when I send notes back to authors, mine are usually only 3-4 pages in length and I start off by pitching a variety of developmental ideas along with a line-edited revision of their submission. And I may end up doing this over the course of two to three revisions. Our other fiction editor, on the other hand, will often send authors 30-40 pages worth of notes at a time.

However, as much as I do enjoy editing and working with new authors, there are certain things that I direly wish more authors would do before submitting. At Bancroft, we’re primarily concerned with style and originality of characters/plot/ideas, but there are plenty of manuscripts I’ll read through, enjoy the general idea of, and then find myself recommending for rejection simply because the writing needed so much work or because the author received our comments and refused to do anything about it.

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So, if you want your manuscripts to survive the slush pile and then the perhaps even more competitive first-read-through pile, here are a few tips:

1. Formatting: Proper formatting is of the utmost importance for a variety of reasons. Not only does proper formatting ensure that an editor will understand your intentions (when is white space an intended white space and when is it simply a typing error?), but it also ensures that an editor knows upon first glance that you are, indeed, a professional. After all, you wouldn’t address an email to a potential employer as, “Yo Dude,” would you? Just the same, don’t do your writing a disservice by using a “Yo, Dude” formatting style. One of the first things I look at as an editor to decide whether or not to take you seriously is your formatting–not only does it signal to me whether or not you take yourself seriously, but it also signals to me whether or not you respect my time. You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to go through an entire manuscript and insert tabs before each new paragraph when an author was originally using the space bar. Unless a publisher specifically requests otherwise, the best name in formatting I know of is William Shunn’s Proper Manuscript Format.

2. Line Editing: I’m not saying that a misplaced apostrophe or the occasional misspelling is going to make or break a book-deal, but I am saying that, as with formatting, submitting a manuscript that’s clearly been line edited more than once shows editors right off that you are a serious author who deserves to be taken seriously. When I see line after line of careless mistakes, all it convinces me of is that you’re someone with ideas but no patience for executing them. And I’m certainly not going to be the one to take all the time necessary to give them a proper execution–I’m your editor, not your ghost writer, after all. Besides, there’s always another manuscript in the pile that’ll have an interesting idea without all the blatant errors.

3. Developmental Editing: This is my favorite part of my work as an editor. I love getting to work with authors on the fuller development of their plot and characters. However, while I always enjoy getting to talk with authors about character motivation and potential plot holes and fixes, there are few greater turn-offs as a reader than to come across constant gaping wounds and 2-dimensional characters. That is to say, I enjoy working with authors to add nuance to their characters’ motivations. I do not enjoy having to wade through an entire novel wherein even the most basic drives and motivations are missing from primary characters. Motivation, common sense, tight plots–these are the marks of true professionals and solid, marketable stories. There are many ways to head developmental problems off at the pass, one of the best being to edit your manuscript from start to finish at least twice before submitting it anywhere. So, when you go through your initial pre-submission revisions, don’t just look for comma splices or improper uses of “their/there/they’re.” Instead, critically analyze yourself as you go: Why is this character doing this/going here/holding that/thinking this? Did this character always have a hook-shaped scar on their left cheek? Didn’t that character just wet his pants in the previous scene–it’d be getting awfully pungent about now; so why is my female protagonist so easily seduced by him here? So, my antagonist has been pregnant for a few weeks by this point–how come she never seems to suffer from discomfort or morning sickness? — Ask yourself why things are the way you’ve made them, and make sure that Why is solid and clear in your mind, even if it doesn’t show up as explicitly on the page.

4. A Tight Ending: Perhaps one of the commonest problems I see in manuscripts I’m assigned to as a first reader is a sloppy ending. Sloppy endings can look like anything from simply an abrupt “Well, it’s over” to a 100,000-word manuscript suddenly ending with two pages of the author just listing off how everyone lived out their separate happily-ever-afters (a problem addressed in greater depth in my post, “The List Monster: Writers Beware”). I don’t know which one is worse, but both are quick ways to tell me that the author essentially gave up on the story and didn’t have the follow-through to even see their characters to the end, let alone to have gone through it all with a fine-tooth editing comb. In other words, make sure you put just as much (if not more) time into crafting your perfect ending than you did in crafting your first page. After all, the first page might be your hook, but your ending often determines what your readers will leave your work feeling and thinking, often reshaping their opinion of the entire story.

Happy Editing, everyone! And good luck!