Editor Vs. Author – Finding the Balance

Happy Friday, everyone!

I don’t normally talk about the specifics of projects I’ve been working on, but today I’m going to nudge that habit aside just for a moment, because it brought up some interesting food for thought. One of my recent clients works as a translator in addition to her own writing, and I was contracted to look over a short story that had been translated into English. The nature of the job and a friendly peer discussion on our freelancing careers subsequently brought up the topic of how to keep the integrity of the originals we work with — or in my case with this contract, an original translation of an original.

Of course I can’t speak for the challenges translators face, as I myself do not have fluency in a second language, but I have always held them in awe. Not only is there the technical accuracy aspect of translation, but to then balance that with equally-accurately translating the intent of the author and the subtleties of connotation is mind-boggling to me. Seriously, hug any translator you come across, or  anyone using a language outside of their mothertongue to any degree for that matter. Having worked with several clients for whom English is not their first language, my admiration remains undimmed!

Editors encounter this balancing act to a lesser degree. While of course our primary job is to ensure readability and technical accuracy of a text, we too seek to preserve the integrity of the original, particularly when it comes to more creative texts. Otherwise, many would run the risk of sounding the same and your favorite authors would not have their unique voice, nor some of your favorite stories or poems their boundary-stretching (or convention-breaking) forms. For example, anyone who has delved into Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves will tell you that if an editor had gone through the (arduous) task of revising the novel to a typical layout and style and it had been published as such, then it would not be House of Leaves. Likewise, we would not have the technically-grammatically-incorrect but stylistically-significant punctuation and syntactic choices of e e cummings.

Herein lies your editor’s challenge: to determine whether you have set additional stylistic rules for yourself (and perhaps then broken them, deliberately) on top of the rules of the language (and form) in which you are writing. Then, once this is determined, to decide whether the breaking is worth it. Although I’m not familiar with the initial publication history of either cummings or Danielewski and thus how long it took their unconventional style to be accepted for publication, it’s safe to say that although they eventually found an editor and publisher that believed it was worth it, that this is not something that happens every day. Often, it will not be worth it because the rule-setting and -breaking has been done inconsistently, or weakly, and ends up crippling an otherwise perfectly decent text. Other times, the form in which you are writing simply cannot allow additional rule-setting or -breaking, such as a civil report or legal document with set styles. The key to helping your editor out in this regard — as well as being good advice for your writing in general — is as Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

We will do our best to retain your unique voice as long as it is worthwhile. While this may sound cold, remember that if a text is ultimately unreadable, it is useless — and surely that is the endgame for any writer in any medium?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Pros and Cons of Using Local Vernacular

Happy Friday, everyone!

I may have mentioned that I was born and currently live in the Southern US; I may also have mentioned that I had a twelve-year stint in the UK. While naturally I haven’t encountered all the dialects either of them have to offer, I’ve seen and heard a good share. Local vernacular is close to my heart right now, too, because of the novel I’m working on that’s set in New Orleans in 1916, which is why I wanted to take today to talk about the talk, a.k.a. local vernacular.

What do I mean, exactly, by local vernacular? It’s slang, essentially. An ingredient of local or regional dialects. What can readily link a person to a geographical area in addition to (but not the same as) an accent. Why should it matter to you? Because yes, there are some occasions where it’s good to be linked to a region, but there are other times that you’ll want to avoid it.

Local vernacular in writing is ultimately a tool, and the better you understand how and when to use it, the better. We see it all the time in marketing (whether we realize it or not) where it’s used to inspire loyalty from a certain customer base, make a product or service recognizable, or support/create an image of belonging. If you’re one of the crowd, you’re trusted as a businessperson. For example, pseudo-French signage and packaging is understandably rampant here in Louisiana because of the pride in French and Creole heritage – if your product or service utilizes it, not only are you understood, but you are seen as belonging and friendly. Meanwhile, we also see local vernacular in fiction to enrich characters and impart flavor and realism to the setting. There’s a little more flexibility in fiction since we can set and play with our own rules. If you get the details right, you’re trusted as an author.

So if local vernacular is pervasive and useful, why would we want to avoid it? There are three main reasons:

  1. Geographical limitations. You can only take a piece of slang so far before, frankly, it may not be understood. For instance, the South will have a ready grasp of lagniappe — ‘a little something extra’, for those of you not from around here — because it’s familiar. Head north, east, or west, however, and while they may have heard it before, they may struggle to define it. Head outside of the US and use it, and you may not be understood at all. If something’s not understood, it’s ineffective. If you’re trying to market yourself, a service, or a product outside of the locality that uses that language, you’re going to struggle — it’s incredibly rare for a business with a name or slogan that uses local vernacular to be successful in a larger national or international market.
  2. It’s ultimately slang, whether you like it or not. Slang falls into the informal language category and as you know, there are occasions where informal language is appropriate and where it is not. It’s unfortunate but true that outsiders to a dialect, upon hearing/reading it, will — because of point #1 — feel at a disadvantage, which usually translates to seeing that dialect as lesser. Not all the time, but often. A more common example is that we all know that we shouldn’t be casual in an interview, and speak formally and clearly.
  3. Consistency problems, which mostly applies to writing. While there may be a few words that have a widely-understood spelling, when you get into the less obvious representations of dialect (e.g. — using apostrophes everywhere to contract words or drop a final letter) the fact of the matter is that it can be difficult to keep track of how you write something and when. I know I do. Also, though punctuation is a beautiful thing, if you have apostrophes everywhere eventually your manuscript is going to look like a spider skittered through an ink pad and then over every page.

Readability is key: too much vernacular and your reader will be exhausted by the time they get through a couple of paragraphs. You want your text — whether it’s a resume, a novel, or a business card — to be easy for your reader to understand, and appropriate to the audience and your intentions.

I’d love to hear about your experiences with local vernacular, be it when writing or reading!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Ten Ways to Build Writing Confidence

Happy Friday, everyone!

In previous posts, you may remember me mentioning the importance of creation before you can even begin to contemplate editing. Sounds obvious, right? Maybe even easy? A second glance, however – or a second sit-down at the desk to stare at a blank page – reveals that often, it’s the exact opposite. In today’s post I want to take a little detour from our usual fare of editing and the like to talk about writing.

First, let’s get a misconception out of the way – there’s no ‘magic cure’. There will be days where the words just don’t flow, and everyone has them. There’s no hard science that will instantly make everyone prolific. Much of it boils down to practice, experience, and discipline. Yet there are some factors that you can influence in order to make practicing – and thus discipline – come more easily, and lead to experience. Many of these will overlap with those I’ve mentioned in ‘When Editing Is Bad’.

  1. Give your writing – and yourself – due respect. Recognize that this effort is just as important as any other pursuit. Often we become inhibited by thoughts such as “I’m not good at this, so why should I bother?” or “But this has already been talked about.”. They’re often grounded in falsehood and sabotage you before you even begin. Own what you’re doing.
  2. Following on from the above, build an environment that will best cultivate this fledgling habit. This could include setting aside a particular time/day, setting deadlines or goals if they help you or removing them if they don’t, finding a dedicated space in which the writing happens, noise levels, and so on. You may find that this is a work-in-progress in of itself, or that it varies depending on what you’re working on.
  3. Find a support network. There are an unbelievable amount of writers out there and just as many readers, but instead of finding this daunting, know that there are a nearly equal number of groups where you can share your writing and get feedback and encouragement. Likewise, enlist the help of friends and family for additional encouragement (I promise you, I get more encouraging remarks than sneers when I say I’m a writer). No one does this alone, and feedback will be crucial to your improvement.
  4. Find a method that works best for you. You could be a plan-it-out-to-the-last-detail writer, with oodles of notes and bullet-pointed frameworks, or you could be a “I’m going to start in the middle and see what happens” sort. You could prefer writing by hand or by typing or by dictating and transcribing. Everyone works differently and no method is better than another.
  5. Gather what external resources you need for the particular work. If you need to write webcopy for a client, make sure you know what they want; if you’re contracted to write an article on growing tomatoes, read up on tomato-growing; if you’re writing a historical novel set in Jamaica in the 1800s, do your research; if you’re experimenting with ghazals as a poetic form, study lots of ghazals; if you’re writing the next best sci-fi novel, watch a bunch of sci-fi movies or spend an hour or two on Pinterest to get inspired.
  6. Practice. Scribble thoughts in a notebook or on post-its as you go about your day. Keep GoogleDocs open. Write down all your thoughts at the end of the day. Journal. Whatever works best for you. The idea is that the more accustomed you grow to physically articulating your thoughts and seeing them there on the page, the more normal the action will become for you.
  7. Read widely. The truth of the matter is that, if nothing else, reading widely will show you what’s possible.
  8. Try not to pigeonhole yourself – or be too strict – in the beginning. Started a romance novel that ended up wanting to be a mystery? Got halfway through your essay and ended up changing your own viewpoint? What was supposed to be mere tangential evidence in your thesis becomes the thing you’re actually interested in? It happens! The important bit is that you wrote.
  9. Try not to get too caught up in making it perfect the first go round. Editing can come later. Just get it out for now.
  10. You cannot make everyone happy. There are going to be people who love your work, and others who can’t stand it. Building up a thick skin is part of being a writer. The most important thing is, as Philip Pullman says, to write to please yourself. Write the novel, or poem, or critical article, or biography – whatever it may be – for you.

I know not everyone is aiming to make writing into a fullblown career. Some folks just want to be more confident when it comes time to write up that quarterly report for the boss, or feel pretty good about their college entrance essay. All of these are valid reasons to improve one’s writing skills – humans are social creatures that, introvert or extrovert though we may be, need communication in order to feel fulfilled. Writing is just one of those ways, and it opens so many doors.

In a year, you’d wish you’d started today.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan