Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Beware the “Writing Police”

Here’s an entertaining post by Anne R Allen: Beware the Writing Rules Police

The Harvard Business School recently did a fascinating study of toxic employees and their effect on a company’s bottom line. The researchers discovered the most difficult and costly employees aren’t the lazy ones or the gossipy ones.

It turns out the worst are the ones dead-set on following rules to the letter.

Hah, I can believe it!

Anne Allen is addressing several points in this post: that would-be writers who don’t actually know grammar that well are often the ones most dogmatically committed to weird rules that don’t really exist; and that rules that actually decent suggestions can be overapplied or misapplied.

She adds:

My #1 pet peeve when it comes to silly writing rules is the one that says you can’t use the word “was” because it makes your writing “passive.”

I wrote a whole post about it in 2012: Should You Eliminate “Was” from your Writing?

I’ve heard from a number of writers who were unfortunate enough to meet up with an editor or agent who insisted they remove every instance of the verb “to be” from a novel.

Excuse me while I roll my eyes. You know, we have had writing instructors at my college who have made this same demand of students. It really makes me wish I were one of their students. I’d write the whole paper in active sentences, every one of which included forms of “to be.”

Grammar rules are much on my mind right now, what with going over this copy-edited manuscript. Mostly I accept the copy editor’s suggestions, but sometimes I use stet to say: Yes, I do want this comma splice; I want all the comma splices in this particular passage. Also, I know this comma is not technically necessary, but I think the little pause it creates is important here. Sometimes I add a brief note explaining a stet that I feel might otherwise be questioned.

I also see that Saga has some house style rules that seem a little strange to me. No comma after short introductory clauses. Okay, I don’t care. Usually I don’t care; once or twice the sound of the sentence is all wrong if you take out that comma.

Also, they want a comma after a dash in dialogue, like so: “If you actually think–,” he began. I think that looks weird, so I spent an entire hour of my time searching for the –,” construction and rephrasing all those sentences. Almost all; I felt two could not be successfully rephrased and just left them alone.

And if I had known the copy editor would painfully capitalize Your Highness everywhere, I’d have capitalized it myself. Sorry, copy editor! I don’t think it matters in secondary world fantasy where the rules can be different, but fine! I sure don’t plan to stet all those back.

Anyway, I estimate going through the copy edits will take about another two hours, so I *nearly* finished over the weekend. Other things that got done: taking dogs to the park. Other things that did not get done: Keziah’s story is not nearly finished. I think it’s going to be longer than I estimated, not entirely to my surprise. And though I clipped and brushed Dora, she has not yet had a bath.

Seven days left in spring break! Gotta run —

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3 Comments Beware the “Writing Police”

  1. Mary

    Critiquers should note that the rules of grammar are absolute for them — telling a writer that something’s in the passive voice when you mean not much is happening, or a run-on sentence when it’s merely long but grammatically correct is a good way to look silly — but not for the writer.

  2. Kootch

    Rachel, good to see that you are on the ball with regards to the copy editing. I remember CJ Cherryh was blindsided by a copy editor who thought she(?) knew better how to write CJ’s novel and totally butchered “Intruder”. CJ had to scramble to repair the damage and the finished book had some glaring mistakes. I wrote to her and complained about it, that’s how I got the story about the copy editor, who was probably never allowed anywhere near CJ’s manuscripts ever again.

  3. Rachel

    Wow, if it can happen to CJ, it can happen to anyone!

    I’ve never had a copy editor try to rewrite a book of mine, though I have had a copy editor make many, many suggestions. She was extra-gifted at spotting repeated words and proposed her own fixes: Do you want to remove this repeated word and rephrase the sentence like this? Pretty often I accepted her suggestions, so that actually speeded up checking through the copy edits.

    I guess I’ve had more issues with particular aspects of “House Style” that I just don’t agree with. At least I got a heads-up with MOUNTAIN so I could revise to avoid their dash-comma-quote marks thing.

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