The editor’s role; also entertaining rants about fake rules

Here, via Janet Reid’s blog, a post about the role of the editor at Anthimeria Rampant, a blog that I’ll be checking out again when I think of it.

I like this:

Editing isn’t just asking if all the words are spelled right and the subject and verb agree. It’s asking the questions that come after that: Are these the right words? Have we said enough? Have we said too much? Is this even true? Do the ideas flow intuitively from sentence to sentence to illuminate the subject? What’s being implied here that we might not intend to say? What’s not being said that we might be assuming is implicit? Are we repeating ourselves unnecessarily? Are we repeating ourselves enough to make the case for our premises? Is the tone appropriate to the audience, and does it need to reflect a larger body of work so that everything speaks with a single voice? What’s the story here? Who is telling it, who is listening, and why should anyone care?

This post doesn’t address developmental editing, but it seems to really peg the nature of really solid copy editing. I’ve never had a copy editor I really disliked, but my most recent copy editor, for The White Road of the Moon (Knopf, next spring) had a particularly good feel for the book’s tone and style, it seemed to me.

Lotta interesting comments about “zombie rules” in grammar, too, if you click through links in this post and wander around. This in particular, the Peeververein Canon — meaning the list of pet peeves and shibboleths that get passed along like they are real rules when they aren’t. You’ll have to click through if you want to see the actual list; it can’t be copy-and-pasted.

Let’s see, rules, rules, scanning through the list . . .

Welll, I still don’t like the singular they — except in casual conversation sometimes, which also means dialogue and sometimes a character’s thoughts. “Everyone needs to clean up their own mess” is the way we say that. Nobody actually says “his or her own mess” in that sentence. Well, hardly anyone. Probably not your characters, unless they’re Mr. Spock. It’s possible Grayson Lanning would say “his or her,” and for the same reason: like Mr. Spock, he speaks way, way more formally than most people. For most of us, the singular ‘they’ sometimes makes sense, though.

I don’t mind sorting out “persuade” and “convince,” though I’m not fanatical about that.

More than one copy editor has fiddled around with “which” and “that” for my manuscripts; I guess I mostly follow the rule these days just to save wear and tear on us all, even if it is a shibboleth more than a real rule.

I have always known that it’s fine to start a sentence with And or But. Not a single copy editor has ever fussed about that, as far as I can recollect. If they did, I’d roll my eyes and sprinkle Stet through my manuscript a lot more than I usually do.

And my favorite because it is the most obviously true:

MYTH: That the passive voice must always be avoided (frequently combined with an astonishingly ignorant belief that any construction containing a form of the verb to be is passive).

Yeah, the only thing I don’t agree with there is that the level of ignorance surrounding the passive voice is astonishing. It doesn’t astonish me at all, considering Strunk and White couldn’t tell the difference between the passive voice and the past tense and way too many people still are just in love with Strunk and White.

Anyway, Anthimeria Rampant looks like a really interesting blog to keep tabs on. Here’s a post with a lot more about the passive voice, as well about elevated diction in (high) fantasy. Here’s a bit of this (long) post:

Bradley makes two mistakes here that make it frankly impossible for me to take him at all seriously. The most immediate one is the matter discussed above, that he’s both misidentifying passive voice and treating it as some kind of stylistic error on Greenwood’s part. Deep were the dragon’s eyes is a solidly active construction … and while it’s certainly not a plain-language phrasing – and why should it be, in a fantasy novel? – the only reason I can see for it “throwing the reader out of the action” is if that reader has absorbed the idiotic idea that all infinitival (be-variant) constructions are passive and that moreover Passive Is Bad.

The other error on Bradley’s part is a more subtle one, and it’s that he seems to be tone-deaf to the history and conventions of the genre he’s attempting to critique. The inverted sentence structure of Deep were the dragon’s eyes is a nigh-perfectly compact example of deliberately elevated diction – an attempt to invoke the style of a mythic and formal storytelling mode.

And then the post offers a really good example of elevated diction in a fantasy novel I’m sure all of us will recognize, adding, as you might expect, “I hope no one’s about to accuse Tolkien, philologist and conlanging pioneer, of not knowing what he’s doing with words.”

Yeah, no kidding.

By the way, had you heard of the “by zombies” rule for identifying passive constructions? I don’t think I’d seen this before. It’s pretty cool, actually. It works like this:

…my personal favorite test is that if you can insert “by zombies” after the verb phrase, it’s passive voice. So Bob was eaten by zombies is in the passive voice, but Bob was going by zombies home is nonsense in English, and so that “was going” is not, in fact, passive.

Pretty snazzy rule! I will keep that one in mind, for those admittedly rare moments when I care about whether a sentence is passive rather than whether it sounds right.

Please Feel Free to Share:


5 thoughts on “The editor’s role; also entertaining rants about fake rules”

  1. Allan Shampine

    This rule of thumb is delightful! I’m an editor for a law journal, and I can tell you right now it’s going to make my life more amusing. By zombies, indeed!

  2. I’ve run across the zombies rule before – it’s very useful.
    I hopped over to the original post about passive voice (maybe) in a work by Ed Greenwood, as as described by the original complainant, I would probably have agreed. When one has been yanked off the ground by a dragon that sort of diction would be out of place. Unless the author has established that the POV has gone into a really strange mental state. (end digression) But that wasn’t what Greenwood wrote, and it fits perfectly with the scene as written, not as described.

    I’ve been jarred out of reading recently by people using reticent where I expect reluctant. It’s apparently acceptable, but has been uncommon until very recently. It bugs me, the way ‘alot’ does.

  3. “Deep were the dragon’s eyes is a solidly active construction ”


    It’s neither active nor passive. That’s a linking verb there.

  4. I agree S&W is badly flawed…but now and then I run into work that clearly violate their “tautological” guidelines. Adjectives drip from sentences like shiny green poison ivy with just a touch of red on the new leaves….

  5. Okay, Mary, with some amusement I must agree. Neither active nor passive. Thus demonstrating to us all the extreme importance of triple checking every word of a post when you are criticizing someone else’s grammar.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top