Grammar

What Spell-Checkers Don’t Catch

By Yellow Bird Editor David Aretha

Before I edit a manuscript, I always inform the author that I’ll be checking the text for spelling. “That’s something you can skip,” one author told me. “I already ran it through the spell-checker.”

Ah, yes, the infallible spell-checker, invented in the 1970s and honed to perfection over the decades by multi-billion-dollar software companies. Given that a flash drive the size of a Bic lighter can safely store ten thousand book manuscripts, surely the spell-checker is bullet-proof when it comes to recognizing all the words in the dictionary.

Well, it isn’t. For example, it didn’t catch multi-billion and bullet-proof in the previous paragraph, which should be multibillion and bulletproof.

Unfortunately, the spell-checker is about as effective as this winter’s flu virus. It catches simple words and correctly leaves misspelled ones underlined in red, but it sheepishly tiptoes out of the room whenever it comes to certain compound words.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word bible that most book publishers follow, loves to smash compound words together. According to this dictionary (and others), many words that we think are open compounds or hyphenated compounds are actually closed compounds. According to Merriam-Webster,boarding house—which slides through the spell-checker unscathed—is actually boardinghouse. The spell-checker will give the green light to first-hand, even though M-W spells it firsthand. When authors look at my edited manuscript, they are often surprised to see that I changed the spellings of dozens of their compound words in order to adhere to Merriam-Webster.

If you’re looking to self-publish without hiring a professional editor—or you want to appear as professional as possible when you submit your manuscript to a publisher—you should scroll through M-W and get a sense of all the smushed-together compound words. You’ll find stomachacheschoolteacher, andtransatlantic.

I have long come to the realization that I should scrutinize all hyphenated and open compound words. If I think such words have even a remote chance of being closed compounds, I drop them into the search box of www.merriam-webster.com. Very often, my hunch is correct.

Below are some surprising closed compound words, according to the publishing world’s favorite dictionary. You don’t need to memorize these spellings, but I suggest you take two minutes to study the patterns. You’ll see, for example, that counter- and -up words may not always have a hyphen, and that the spellings of waitperson and congressperson indicate that other job+person words are also closed compounds.

absentmindedness

afterburner

antiaircraft

beachcomber

bedsheet

bloodsucker

bookmobile

bullheaded

butterfingers

cheesecloth

concertgoer

congressperson

counterclockwise

counteroffensive

counterrevolution

countertop

crackerjack

crewmen

cubbyhole

deathbed

deathblow

extracurricular

farmhouse

flashlight

footlocker

freestanding

freethinker

freshwater

gearshift

ghostwriter

gumdrop

gunpowder

hairdresser

halfhearted

handcart

hardheaded

headfirst

headgear

homeowner

hotbed

icebreaker

jobholder

kindhearted

landfall

laughingstock

levelheaded

lifelong

lighthearted

longtime

makeup

matchbook

moneymaker

mouthwatering

officeholder

offshore

openhanded

otherworldly

outdistance

overabundance

overaggressive

overcompensate

overgeneralization

painkiller

pawnshop

pigheaded

pincushion

plainclothes

plaything

policyholder

praiseworthy

racecourse

racetrack

ringleader

roundabout

rumrunner

saltwater

sandblast

schoolhouse

seacoast

secondhand

shipbuilding

shorthanded

shortsighted

sledgehammer

sleepwalking

stepdaughter

stockbroker

straightforward

summertime

sundress

sunup

tagline

thundershower

townspeople

troublemaker

turnaround

underdeveloped

underemphasize

uppermost

waistline

waitperson

washtub

wavelength

weatherproof

wholehearted

windowpane

windowsill

workstation

waitperson

What Kind of Editing Do You Need? Part the Third

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In case you’re just tuning in, this post completes athree part series detailing the various freelance editing services offered by Yellow Bird. I promised to talk about copy editing in this edition. No really, I did. And you seemed okay with that. So here we go.

What is copy editing and how is it different from proofreading? To answer that, let’s start by defining the two levels of copy editing:

Standard copy editing includes corrections for grammar, punctuation, capitalization, verb tense, spelling, sentence structure, awkward phrasing, and word usage errors. Intensive copy editing covers all of the above with an additional focus on style, consistency, clarity, pacing, and dialogue.

So where does proofreading fit into the mix?

Proofreading is essentially the same thing as standard copy editing. However, the distinction is that proofreading is done on a PDF or print-ready file (for example, when getting ready to self-publish a book). In addition to correcting spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc., your editor will also check for visual disruptions in the text layout, such as widows and awkwardly-placed hyphens at the end of a line.

So if you’re just looking to give your manuscript a final once over before submission, then go with proofreading or standard copy editing. An editor will go through and fix only the mechanical things. This is probably the least subjective editing service because it’s all about the rules of writing.

But if you need a little more guidance, a little more spit with your polish, then you might be looking for an intensive copy edit which delves deeper into more subjective questions of style and usage. This slightly more expensive service is perfect for the writer who feels pretty good about the “big picture” but still needs help wrestling with clunky sentences and paragraphs before sending her baby out into the world.

And that’s that. We’ve reached the end of our journey. Now I’m off to a workshop/retreat at Austin’s own Writing Barn where I’ll start revising my own manuscript for a change of pace.

Happy writing!

What Kind of Editing Do You Need?

I had a great time this past weekend at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents Conference. I spent most of it manning the Yellow Bird booth with Sara Kocek. A lot of the writers who dropped by felt unsure about how to move forward editing their manuscripts. In particular, many wanted to know what kind of editing they needed.

First off, if you don’t already have a critique group or a cadre of trusted beta readers, get one. These folks are your best first stop on the editing journey. The feedback a writer gets from these readers is invaluable, and it doesn’t cost money. Start there.

However, that is just the beginning of the rewrite process. I once heard YA author Matt de la Pena put it this way: critique partners look for different things than professional editors. In other words, your critique partners can only take you so far toward perfecting your manuscript.

But pro editors cost money, right?

Yes. We do. Which is why you need to do your homework and find an editor you can trust. Word-of-mouth referrals are the best way to start. Ideally, your editor should come recommended to you by a past client. When that’s not possible, Google the name of your potential editor to learn as much as you can about him or her. Editors often grant interviews, appear as guests on blogs, or publish articles online. Reading these pieces should give you a feel for their editorial sensibilities. Once you’ve made contact with a potential editor, don’t be afraid to ask questions. What kind of works have they edited in the past? Do they have testimonials? Can they provide samples of their editorial work? How long have they been editing? What’s their educational background and editorial training? If a freelance editor balks at answering any of these questions, that’s a red flag.

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The bottom line is: you should feel as comfortable as possible before you write that check and hand over your manuscript.

Okay, so you’ve picked an editor you feel good about. Then what?

The Yellow Bird website breaks down the various types of editing services that are available as well as some of the rates. But how do you choose which service is right for you?

Think of the editing process in terms of an upside-down triangle, and start at the top. In other words, you need to identify and fix the big problems first. Address the major issues like plot and pacing, character arcs, and thematic resonance. Depending on your preferences and your budget, this means developmental and/or content editingis what you should spend your money on first.

It’s only after you’re through with this big picture phase of rewrites that you should move down the triangle, narrowing your focus to word choice, grammar, and spelling. This is the copy editing and proofreading phase of the process, and it should always come last.

Doing your editing in this order (even if you do it on your own without professional help) will save you hours — if not days or weeks — of duplicated effort. It’s hard enough to write a good book; don’t make it any harder by rewriting it in the wrong order.

Writing Advice from Elmore Leonard

 Elmore Leonard counts down his top ten writing tips.

Elmore Leonard counts down his top ten writing tips.

The fabulous Austin author, Lindsey Lane, brought this old NYT article to our attention, and it’s too good not to pass along. It’s a list of ten of Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing. Not surprisingly, he comes down pretty hard on adverbs and overwrought dialogue tags. But we had no idea he had such strong feelings about what Steinbeck called “hooptedoodle.” Take a look and let us know what you think!

In Defense of the Passive Voice

Here’s how my current favorite style manual, The Little, Brown Handbook, defines passive voice:

“The passive voice of the verb indicates that the subject receives the action of the verb. Create the passive voice with beamisarewas,werebeing, or been followed by the main verb’s participle.”

It gives this example: “Her latest book was completed in four months.”

The main point to take from that definition is that “the subject receives the action of the verb,” as opposed to the subject performing the action. To make the above example active, you would write it like this: “She completed her latest book in four months.”

Seems pretty straight forward, right?

Apparently not. I regularly run into writers who work from the assumption that any use of a “to be” verb constitutes the passive voice. This is not true! (See? That last sentence was active even though I used “is.”)

I offer this post in defense of the passive voice. Not only is it frequently misunderstood, it’s not always the wrong choice to make as a writer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it should be your “go to” sentence structure. But sometimes it makes sense to use it.

For example, I once worked with a novelist who was revising a first person POV YA sci-fi thriller. He tended to overuse the passive voice, constantly describing things that happened to his hero until the manuscript read like a journal of events the narrator simply witnessed. We worked a long time on rooting out all that passive voice and making his hero into the prime mover of his novel. But he had a chapter where his protagonist fell into the clutches of an antagonist with mind control powers. So I encouraged the author to go crazy with the passive voice in that part. It made sense, because his hero had lost all agency. The passive voice captured his protagonist’s predicament perfectly because he had become, quite literally, the puppet of the antagonist.

So, don’t fear the passive voice. Just make sure you use it deliberately. Like any grammatical construct, it deserves its place in your writer’s toolbox. But, like any tool, it can be dangerous if you don’t understand what it is or how it works.