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Control Freak as Editor

Spiritual Smart Aleck

I have been pondering lately how little control I have in my life. Sometimes it occurs to me that not being in control is not a personal fault of mine. It is simply the way things are.

I consider the big things I have not been able to control – the lives and health of my loved ones. Not much turned out the way I would have had it. None of my prayers for miracles was answered to my specifications. I am still not God.
Perhaps this is why it feels disproportionately good to me to control what I can control: I got the dirty dishes into the dishwasher and it is humming and splashing away as I type. Ah. That worked out okay.

Occasionally I do free-lance editing. That’s another exercise in control. Punctuation and grammar have rules, although I have learned that there are great arguments to be had over the placing of a comma.

Writing is hard work. Don’t let anyone tell you different. I tried to write a novel once, and found out for myself what a long haul that can be.

The book I tried to write will never see the light of day. I didn’t need an editor to look at my book to know it was a stinker, but even writing a stinker takes a lot of time, effort, and persistence. The experience taught me enormous respect for anyone who sits down and writes a book-length manuscript. When someone comes to me with a manuscript and asks me to edit it, I treat them with due respect. I try to be encouraging.


I am amazed at how many people write a book-length manuscript without knowing or using the basic tools of grammar and punctuation. I blame computers. They make it so easy for people to sit down and string words together like beads on a string.

When I work on those manuscripts I spend most of my time fixing basic errors. I add and subtract spaces between words and sentences. I replace “your” with “you’re,” and “it’s” with “its,” and vice versa. I put punctuation inside of quotation marks, which is standard American English usage.

I try to iron out lumpy sentences. For example: “The dog lay under the table at her feet,” becomes “The dog lay at her feet under the table.” If you can’t see the difference, you need an editor.

Writers tend to be incredibly sensitive and insecure about their work, so I try to be kind, respectful, supportive, and encouraging. If there is a good story lurking in a book, I will say so. If the writer is good at dialogue, I point that out. Sometimes I have to deliver bad news, big problems that the writer must fix in order to have a readable book. I’m insecure myself, so I know how horrible it is to have my dreams crushed. I don’t want to do that to anyone, but it is the job of an editor to consider and comment. Lying to a writer by saying everything is fine when it is not fine does a writer no good.

If you must write a book, learn the basics, learn the craft. Get those grammar and punctuation tools in your toolbox and use them. You can look up the rules about punctuation marks in The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and I wish you would. Every writer should own and use that slender volume.

An editor costs money and you’ll be ‘way ahead if you do the basic work on your manuscript before you show it to anyone. If you think readers aren’t going to notice errors because your native talent is so gosh darn exceptional, think again.

Don’t read the Seattle Times to learn how to write, by the way. When I read the Times I wonder if they have copy editors anymore. A recent paper had a headline saying a wind storm was “vicious.” I maintain that wind storms may be destructive, but they are not capable of spite or malice. This may be one of those things that bother me but not many other people.

I may be able to get the clean dishes put away today. That’s the extent of my control, and believe me, I’m going to enjoy it as much as I am able. I take what I can get.