When It’s Time to Restrain a Writer

The editor “will see to it that the sensibilities of the readers of the book have been respected and not unnecessarily offended,” says Words into Type (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 57). I earnestly wished that the editor had followed this instruction with Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Bryson is an entertaining, best-selling, humorous writer who occasionally has been a bit crude. In this book he went beyond being occasionally crude and used the f-word a lot, along with a bunch of crude and obscene terms. I’ve enjoyed some of his other work, but I was sorry I borrowed this one from the library and glad I didn’t buy it.

Words into Type doesn’t say never to let an author offend readers. Sometimes controversial content needs to be published, and some people won’t like it. In The Road to Little Dribbling, there was no need for Bryson to be a potty-mouth. Probably some readers didn’t mind, and probably some found it funny. But his humorous observations didn’t require crudeness, and the book would have been better and just as funny with more restraint.

So how does an editor see that readers are not unnecessarily offended and that their sensibilities are respected? I’ve never personally had to remove obscenity while editing, but I have occasionally had to keep authors on course. My advice is to respect the author’s sensibilities and not unnecessarily offend the author. Where editors recognize a digression, the author may see a jewel of writing. The editor can point out which portions detract from a piece of writing and how they may limit the readership. In my experience, the best authors are open to correction. Still, you may present your advice politely and respectfully and have it rejected. And if the author is a best-seller, the publisher may come down on the side of the author. When Words into Type says, “See to it,” that presumes some authority that an editor may, in reality, lack. Nonetheless, it’s important to try—for the sake of the readers, the author, and the publisher and to do your best work.

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Steve’s Hall of Shame:* McGovernors mixed up

On June 28, 2016, the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star splashed this headline across the front page. As the story and the photo caption make clear, it was Virginia’s previous governor, McDonnell, not the current governor, McAuliffe, who was convicted of receiving bribes.

Don’t let this happen to you: On the next day, at the top of the front page, the newspaper printed “a sincere apology.” It blamed the “massive and embarrassing error” on “several factors”: “new software” and design changes. It said it was hiring more editors and starting a “new process for proofing.” I don’t buy any of that except maybe that the paper needed a new process. If no editor was responsible for making sure that the top headline on the front page was true and correct, that certainly needed to change. New software and design changes should not hinder an editor from doing that. However, the paper didn’t need an editor to spot the error. At work, I showed the front page of the newspaper, and a co-worker immediately noticed that the wrong governor was named in the headline. Governor McDonnell’s conviction for receiving bribes has been a major story in Virginia for a while now, and it didn’t take an editor to know that. At an editorial level, the error could have been prevented by following one of the steps on my copyediting and proofreading checklist: check repeated information. Do the caption, story, and headline all say the same thing? No, they don’t …


* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.

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Steve’s Hall of Shame:* Twice-told tales, part 2

The text in the plain paragraph looks similar to that in the first list item introduced by a bullet. In fact, it’s identical. These are in an article about the choices for extending Virginia Railway Express commuter train service to Haymarket, Virginia (“VRE Continues to Advance the Gainesville-Haymarket Extension,” Ride Magazine, June 2016). The first choice is printed twice. Maybe that’s what planners call the preferred alternative.

Don’t let this happen to you: If you’re a writer, read what you’ve written! If you’re an editor, read the text after you’ve edited it. Even in my casual reading of this article, I noticed the repetition. I see a lot of writing that obviously was not read by the writer after it was supposedly finished. If the title of an article is “Insert title here” (and I’ve seen that too many times!) it’s certain that the writer didn’t read the whole thing after writing it. Likewise, I and all you other editors make mistakes. We miss things or introduce errors. Reading what you’ve edited is an essential step.


* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.

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Steve’s Hall of Shame:* Twice-told tales

These stories appeared on facing pages (C4 and C5) of the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star on June 10, 2016.

Don’t let this happen to you: I can only make a guess as to how this happened. Maybe the story was moved and two people were working on the separate pages and one of them didn’t get the word. The headlines are similar enough that even a quick look at the pages shows that the story is presented twice. Maybe this section of the paper didn’t get a quick final look. As EEI taught me about publications, don’ ditch your quality-control system when things get tight.


* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.

A time to clean up quotations

“You never alter a direct quote: that’s the strict editing rule,” wrote Ed Latham on his Ten Minutes Past Deadline blog on May 24, 2016. “Reported speech can be tweaked, but if it’s inside quotation marks, you don’t touch it.” That’s what I was taught, and I have always made it a point to follow that rule.

However, Latham, a sub-editor (British for “copy-editor”), has recognized a situation that may call for cleaning up quotations: when speakers have trouble communicating in English because it is not their native tongue. Latham doesn’t agree with “forcing quotes into standard English.” Sometimes speakers “may have made a conscious choice about using non-standard English; sometimes they may be talking in their natural voice. But, in many cases, they may not speak the language well enough to distinguish one register of English from another, and what they end up saying may be far from what they intended to convey.…”

“The risk of being seen to patronise interviewees by cleaning up their quotes is at least partly balanced by the risk of being seen to have ridiculed them by leaving them untouched.”

Latham gives several examples and discusses the nuances. His post “Ya Gotta Be Championship” is well worth reading in its entirety.

On June 7, Latham followed up with another column, asking, “When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

“What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim …
  2. “Clean up” the quote? …
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? …</li
  4. Just not run the story at all?…

“After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.”

Separated by a Common Language

Separated by a Common Language is a useful, interesting, and entertaining blog by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist (“Lynneguist”) who has been living and teaching in England for more than a decade. The blog’s name comes from a statement attributed to George Bernard Shaw: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” The blog explores the differences between British and U.S. usage, and the readers’ comments expand the discussion of the English language to the variants in their own countries, often chiming in from Ireland, Canada, Australia and other places separated by our common language.

One fascinating revelation I received from reading the blog is that there are countless variations in spelling, pronunciation, and usage within Britain and within the United States. I learned too that some places in the United States, such as Pennsylvania and Appalachia, have preserved some speech patterns brought with them by early British settlers.

As an editor, I find the wealth of information presented on the blog to be tremendously helpful. If you’re an editor, a writer, or just interested in words, I think you’ll enjoy Separated by a Common Language.

I discovered it in Katharine O’Moore Klopf’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base, which I browse now and then to see what new resources have been added. The Knowledge Base has been listed in my favorite resources since I started the blog in late 2014. Now it’s joined by Separated by a Common Language.

A word of reassurance: Lynne’s daughter isn’t really named Grover. “Grover” is a kind of screen name. However, I had read many of Lynne’s posts before discovering this, and I’d been wondering whether Grover is a girl’s name in Britain.

And a word of caution: sometimes the posts and comments get a little raunchy, partly because some words that are innocuous in Britain are considered rude in America and vice versa; this information can be helpful if you are traveling.