BuzzFeed, Editing Peeves, and Split Infinitives

What—editors have grammar and style peeves?

You must be shocked.

Emmy Favilla from BuzzFeed asked ACES2015 attendees to write down their editing peeves as they relate to grammar or usage and used them to create a whiteboard post. As you may suspect, she had an eager audience. Even I made it on there.

I’ve got a thing about people who arbitrarily enforce a “no split infinitives!” rule. If you’ve worked with a stickler (or had a particularly strict fifth-grade teacher), you know what I’m talking about. So does Bryan Garner:

H.W. Fowler divided the English-speaking world into five classes: (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. It is this last class to which, if we have a good ear, we should aspire.

Amen. We split infinitives all the time in common speech, even though misinformed grammarians prescribe against it, especially in formal writing. (This prescription usually exists because they’re afraid someone else will think you’re wrong, not because you’re actually wrong.) I’ve worked jobs that required me to recast sentences, or awkwardly rearrange words, to avoid splitting an infinitive. The reality? Unless splitting an infinitive makes your sentence weird or changes the meaning, there’s no reason to tie yourself in knots avoiding it. (Context matters!)

I suppose I should step back. What are infinitives? Infinitives are verb forms commonly used in conjunction with the word “to” or another auxillary verb (e.g., to go, can go, to examine). They can assume characteristics of nouns and verbs, and form phrases in association with objects and modifiers. These phrases can work as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs in a sentence.  

She needs to go to the store.

I offered a solution to solve world hunger.

They are taking a class to understand the complexities of grammar.

Splitting an infinitive is when you jam something—usually an adverb—between the two parts of the verb.

She needs to quickly go to the store.

I offered a solution to comprehensively solve world hunger.

They are taking a class to better understand the complexities of grammar.

If you can move the adverb (or whatever’s jamming the infinitive) to the end of the sentence or phrase without getting goofy, do it. Here, moving “quickly” to the end of first example sentence produces an awkward construction: “She needs to go to the store quickly.” While it’s not wrong, per se, it’s close to suggesting that the subject, needs to get to the store—STAT! Here, the writer might be better off recasting for clarity: “She needs to stop at the store for a minute.”

If we changed the second sentence to “I comprehensively offered a solution to solve world hunger,” we’ve altered the meaning of the sentence. In the original, the solution will completely solve world hunger. In the second, we imagine the speaker offered a solution to a global crisis in a thorough fashion.

The third sentence exemplifies a widely acceptable split infinitive; “to better understand” is a far more common construction than “to understand better.”

Consider euphony: Does the sentence with (or without) the split infinitive sound pleasing to your ear? The last thing you want to do is write or edit in a way that trips up your reader. Your audience demands clarity.

The Chicago Style Q&A offers an excellent epitaph:

CMOS has not, since the thirteen edition (1983), frowned on the split infinitive. The sixteenth edition suggests, to take one example, allowing split infinitives when an intervening adverb is used for emphasis (see paragraphs 5.106 and 5.168). In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched. 

Feel free to boldly go, friends.


Picture courtesy of Emmy Favilla and BuzzFeed. 

Grammar Day 2015

On March 4, word nerds, grammar gurus, and language artists collectively brandish their red pens to celebrate National Grammar Day.

But I get a little nervous when self-described sticklers and grammar police make finding typos and rule breakers their singular cause—the goal almost always seems to embarrass, not aid. And yet, I’ve cheered grammatical goofs. There’s a fabulous card sitting on my desk depicting a conversation between two women:

“Where’s your birthday party at?”

“Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”

“Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?”

My old coworkers and I still giggle about an e-mail someone circulated after a rough project:

“We know that this was difficult. Thank you for your patients.”

Someone pinned a flyer about lifesaving punctuation to my cabinet:

Let’s eat grandma.

Let’s eat, grandma.

And, as a diehard proponent of the Oxford comma, I enjoy the below example:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

I like to see these examples as grammatical merriment at a rule’s expense. I’m old enough that my grade school curricula included black-and-white grammar lessons and extensive sentence diagramming. We learned that you never end a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, use “they” in a singular context, or write in passive voice (unless, of course, you were taking any sufficiently advanced science classes, wherein all case studies adopted a third-person, passive approach). I get it—children require hard and fast rules to eliminate confusion and encourage growth. Too many exceptions can muddy the waters.

But that’s not life. Sometimes the grammatically correct option sounds wrong and risks alienating a reader (or client). Editors are not gatekeepers to arcane realms of language—we’re crafters who shape words for intent, value, and audience. The hard-nosed, dog-whistle teachers and editors who clamor about esoteric errors fail to acknowledge that most readers really don’t care (nor should they). Grammar exists to assist clarity and help articulate a message, but our English is hardly standard. Language evolves.  

This morning, I spent five minutes taking Grammarly’s quiz @Mededitor shared on Twitter, and was subsequently delighted when it returned the title “The Enlightened Grammarian.” Because I’m shameless, I’ve excerpted the description below:

“You know your stuff when it comes to proper English grammar and writing, but you’re not overly traditional. Language does evolve, after all! Chances are high that you’re fascinated, rather than put off by, the verbing of nouns or the disappearing ‘whom.’ You have balanced the standardization of language with the practical usage.”

I love this, precisely because it illustrates the type of editor I’m working hard to become: one who celebrates, rather than polices, the evolution of the written word.

Happy Grammar Day, friends.

Upcoming Events

If you’d like to discuss a project, schedule a self-editing clinic in person, or have a beer, I will be attending multiple events this winter and spring:

Use my contact form explain your request, and we’ll make arrangements. (You can also drop me a line on Twitter, if that's easier.) If you’re local to Mid-Michigan, I will schedule personal appointments or events based on my day-to-day availability. Hopefully I’ll see you around!

Discounted NaNoWriMo Editing Packages

I love the idea of National Novel Writing Month. It’s an excuse to chase ideas and leverage oneself into a consistent writing practice. It’s a supportive (and sometimes competitive) community that offers on and offline resources to hobbyists and professionals. NaNoWriMo recognizes that cranking out wordage is crucial for producing a workable first draft, and it rewards and motivates you with badges, trinkets, and e-mails. If we’re really honest, sometimes that’s necessary.

Regardless of whether you write 11,000 words or 50,000* words, writing is happening. And the best part? Readers can’t tell the difference between a well-crafted novel written in one month, six months, or six years. The key is quality, and that’s where I step in.  

Ready ($100)

I’ll read your manuscript and provide you with a reader’s report detailing overall strengths and weaknesses. (Excellent for unfinished stories and those lacking direction. Let me be your compass!) This report also will contain suggestions tailored to your story. Expect honesty! No marks will be made on your manuscript.

Set ($700)

I’ll analyze your characters and provide concrete suggestions to improve your story’s structure or arc, and chances are good that I’ll ask a plethora of questions. After you’ve rewritten your manuscript to your satisfaction, we’ll discuss a schedule for completing a detailed copy edit. This comprehensive review will include recasting, rewriting, and reorganization, as well as strengthening dialogue, improving word choice, eliminating clichés, and flagging inconsistencies. You’ll end up with an awesome manuscript filled with comments and suggestions, ready for your final revisions.

Go ($850)

All of the above. Once you’ve worked through the developmental and copy editing processes, killed your darlings, and dragged your manuscript through glass, we’ll move to pre-publication edits. I’ll examine your manuscript to check for typos or other errors that may have been missed or introduced during revisions. You can send me your final manuscript as a Word document, eBook, or PDF. If you choose to send an eBook or PDF, this proofreading phase will also review formatting and layout.

These packages come with my ongoing support and are only available until December 31. Contact me as soon as possible if you’d like a sample edit, and know that I’ll be happy to make package adjustments based on your needs. Back to the word mines, wrimos!

*Please note that if your novel is (a lot) longer than 50,000 words, I may need to modify pricing.


8 Ways to Vet Potential Editors

A self-published writer recently confessed that while he doesn’t mind investing in a good editor, he finds it difficult to determine what constitutes a “good editor” before writing the check. I get it. Why fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars to someone who will only skim your work and correct glaring grammatical errors? Why contract with an editor who doesn’t understand your genre, or worse, is openly hostile toward your style? (As an example, I will decline religious texts and nonfiction books beyond my scope of knowledge. There are editors out there who will give you a better read on those than I will.) Choosing an editor is often as much a personal decision as it is financial; an editor proficient in her craft may still alienate you with her style. How can you find out what the experience will be like before you sign the contract?

  • Determine the type of editing your work needs. When you match your needs to an editor’s skillset, you’re more likely to receive the results you want. Understanding the editing process helps lessen surprises, too. (Hint: if you think your work only needs proofreading when it’s never skimmed an editor’s desk before, you may be in for some wonky quotes.)
  • Ask around. Freelancers often receive the lion’s share of their business from word-of-mouth referrals. Crowdsource your editing needs—your writing group, forum, or institution may have reliable, honest recommendations. Many of my clients find me through social media.
  • Read testimonials. Most editors post client testimonials—including me. While testimonials showcase praise rather than problems, they can still give you a feel for what clients liked. If an editor produced “great results” but was “slower than anticipated,” you may have found a meticulous editor who’d be a great fit—if you have the time to spare. Check to see if the editor has additional freelance profiles on LinkedIn, Upwork, Guru, Reedsy, or Freelancer. Many of these sites allow clients (or associates) to provide unfiltered feedback.
  • Check professional associations. Membership in a professional association does not guarantee the quality of work. However, membership can indicate that an editor is dedicated to advancing his or her craft and has enlisted the resources to do so. These editors also have access to networks of like-minded peers for support. As a result, they may be able to refer you to another, better-suited editor when warranted. Check out the American Copy Editors Society and the Editorial Freelancers Association.
  • Compare bookshelves. Ask your prospective editor about the last book he or she read. Most editors will be delighted to share their literary proclivities, and their responses may help you determine whether they’ll be interested in your work. One individual asked me to provide a list of the last ten books I’ve read, as well as a list of my ten favorite books. It was a fun exercise, and it provided a personal connection point. Just remember—an editor’s interest in hard science-fiction may not preclude them from being awesome editors of paranormal romance (and vice versa).
  • Send a sample. Most editors will ask for a sample of your project, especially if it’s big (e.g., grants, dissertations, novellas, novels). Don’t choose the first chapter. Instead, pick five to ten pages that represent the messiest portion of your work. Giving your prospective editor the chance to read a challenging section lets the editor properly gauge the complexity of editing required, which ensures you receive an accurate quote. I once provided a copy editing quote based on an early chapter of a story. It seemed fairly tight, and I accepted the contract. It turned out that the writer had, in earnest, sent me the best chapter. The remainder of the book required far more time and editorial effort than I’d planned for, which necessitated a revision of my initial quote. It worked out in the end (largely because we both kept open minds), but you may not be so lucky.
  • Request a trial proof. Great editors will offer you a trial proof. If they don’t, you should request one. Remember that sample you sent for an initial quote? Your prospective editor should take three to five of those pages and perform a sample copy edit, gratis. You can look over the type of changes provided, as well as query style (if any), and make a more informed decision.
  • Check the contract carefully. Don’t provide any type of payment until you’ve signed a contract you’re satisfied with. The contract doesn’t need to be elaborate, but it should include detailed information about preferred payment methods, total costs, late fees (if any), timelines, and the exact services provided. If any of this information is missing, request clarification. This ensures that both you and your editor are on the same page.

Vetting a potential editor requires your being open and honest about your expectations. If something doesn’t make sense, request clarification. One editor may be willing to Skype with you on a weekly basis, while another will only send you an editor’s letter at the end of the project. (And both options are equally great depending on your needs.) The person who edits a best seller may not be the optimal choice for your project. Remember: a little extra work at the beginning of the editing process can prevent chaos or disappointment at the end.

Breaking the Rules

Have you ever encountered a work rule so ridiculous, arbitrary, and inflexible that you want to shoot yourself or someone else into the sun at the earliest opportunity? Me too. But before you start crafting your solar cannons, put down your spanners and reassess: what’s the genesis of the offending rule? In some circumstances, hard and fast rules are created to prevent mortal peril. (So please, put your helmet back on). Other rules prescribe against economic peril, wherein an old, faulty process may have cost your company clients or cash. Still others guarantee a specific sort of orthodoxy; they may not make sense in every situation, but they’ve had the effect of keeping things moving forward in a uniform fashion.

As a writer and editor, my work is guided by a myriad of grammar, style, and usage rules, some of which have been dictated by my place of employment (rather than a dusty book or database). One particular supervisor decreed that no sentence should have more than twenty-six words. On the face of it, this rule makes sense: concision aids in client understanding. However, this particular individual would review every document for conformity, counting words and slashing sentences that violated the standard—even if the sentence made perfect sense. (You may imagine how challenging this was when working with legal documents. Lawyers have a unique talent for stretching sentences into paragraphs.)

That particular bugaboo caused far more consternation than it warranted, but was still useful. It’s a reminder to tighten up, to ask:

  • “Could I write this sentence more efficiently or effectively?”
  • “Is this sentence lengthy because it contributes to a particular mood or theme, or because I lost my mind and crammed in too much information?”
  • “Am I Proust?”
  • “Am I varying length in a way that engages the reader?”
  • “Is my sentence swollen with unnecessary adverbs?”
  • “Does the length of my sentence contribute to a series of dangling participles?”

You get the idea. Sentences with more than twenty-six words can and should occur. Style and grammar rules will occasionally be subverted for the betterment of a narrative. That’s okay. Our rules exist as beacons to light our path and illuminate the monsters; we’re still free to trail our pens through the gloaming.

What type of editing do you need?

In early 2014 I attended (and accidentally helped lead) a freelance editing panel at ConFusion. The indie authors understood they probably needed an editor to move forward, but they weren’t entirely sure what they’d be paying for. It became clear that each of us—aspiring authors and seasoned editors alike—defined editing differently. “What’s the difference between copy editing and proofreading?” someone asked. “Is line editing the same as developmental editing?” Further, “How do the needs of self-published writers differ from those determined to publish traditionally?” We easily could have sat in that stuffy conference room for another hour.

Let’s be real—the editing process is a costly endeavor. It’s crucial that you understand what you need—and what you’re getting—so that you can grow your prose and spend your resources effectively. There are three major types of editing: developmental (or line) editing, copy editing, and proofreading.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editing focuses on the big picture: structure, pacing, characters, style, and setting. A developmental editor will ruthlessly rearrange your work, remove entire chapters, query your characters, or flag gaping plot holes. This editor will generally communicate with you on an ongoing basis to ask questions or request feedback. The goal, here, is to ensure that each major story element contributes to and aligns with the writer’s intent. When I’m performing a developmental edit, I’m focusing less on grammar and style and more on how you can improve the shape of your story.

Before you send an entire manuscript to an editor, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Would my novel benefit by switching point-of-view (e.g., first person to third-person limited)?
  • Would my story be more interesting or meaningful if I switched a character’s race, gender, or sexual preferences?
  • Do I have friends and family willing to function as beta readers?
  • Are any of my scenes out of order?
  • Have I sat down and outlined my manuscript, chapter by chapter, to look for plot holes or inconsistencies? Can I send my outline and summary for review rather than the entire manuscript?
  • Do I just want someone to read my manuscript and give me their general impressions? (If so, consider a reader’s report.)
  • Am I willing to make substantial changes to my work based on an editor’s feedback?

Copy Editing

Copy editing takes place after you’ve nailed down big-picture concerns and focuses on sentence-level improvements. A copy editor will recast awkward passages, evaluate your dialogue tags, suggest alternative word choices, and point out when you accidentally change your character’s eye color mid-story. They ask (and research) whether you meant Washington, Missouri, or Washington, D.C., or whether your hero is wielding a halberd or a naginata.

To make it easier for writers, I break copy editing down into three categories: light, medium, and heavy.

  • Light copy editing includes correcting faulty spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation, as well as checking specific cross-references.
  • Medium copy editing includes the above tasks as well as editing for parallel speech, checking idioms, ensuring chapter heads reflect content, enforcing consistent style and tone, flagging awkward passages, and tracking continuity of plot/setting/character traits.
  • Heavy copy editing includes the tasks described above, but also includes significant editing to eliminate wordiness, suggesting and implementing additions and deletions, and smoothing transitions. Some editors will incorporate heavy editing into a developmental editing process.

If your manuscript is nearing its final stages of revision, you may want a light touch, only marking egregious errors or inconsistencies. If, on the other hand, you’re just finishing a substantial revision, you might need a detailed review. It’s easy to accidentally introduce errors during the revision process, and a copy editor will be able to find (and correct) many of them. Writers seeking to self-publish or traditionally publish will generally benefit from some sort of copy editing.


Proofreading is a non-intensive review of a final manuscript to check for typos or other errors that may have been missed or introduced during the editing (or page layout) process. Traditionally, a proofreader views your manuscript in its final form—as an e-book or as a galley PDF. An editor who is proofreading will not rewrite, rework, or rearrange any of your manuscript. The goal of proofreading is to catch last-minute errors before your book goes live.

If you’re self-publishing, proofing is an important step to add final polish to your work and eliminate embarrassing errors. If your book is traditionally published, a proofreader associated with the publishing house will perform this step for you.

But do I really need all of this?

Most manuscripts will undergo developmental editing, copy editing, and proofreading before publication. However, you can strategically select the services you need by being honest about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer and self-editor. If you have trusted friends and family who will read your early work and provide feedback, you may be able to eliminate the need for developmental editing. If you’re confident the rhythm and flow of your work is superb but have concerns about dialogue or inconsistencies, you might benefit from medium copy editing.

Regardless, you need to connect with an editor you trust. An excellent editor will not only improve your current project but will also give you the skills you need to improve everything that comes after.

What’s in a name?


Like many children of the 1980s, I grew up playing Nintendo. I started out with a small stack of mother-approved game cartridges that included Excitebike, Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy, and Tetris. If left to my own devices, I'd spend hours parked in front of the TV until inevitably, my mother would appear and shoo me outside.

I was particularly drawn to Tetris and its hypnoptic 8-bit music. If you're not familiar with the game (or one of the myriad iterations it's spawned), Tetris is a puzzle game operating on a 2D plane in which a random sequence of Tetriminos (tiles composed of four square blocks) falls from the sky. These tiles can be rotated so that they fit together, allowing you to create a solid line of blocks without any gaps. The solid lines of blocks then disappear, giving you more room to work. The more lines you're able to clear at once, the more points you're able to obtain. As each level progresses, the tiles fall faster and faster, making it more difficult to organize and far easier to fail. Once your stack of tiles hits the top of the screen, your game is over.

Even as a child, I was good at Tetris. I was able to watch the entire screen, note the shape of the tile slated to fall next, and plan for its entry into my assemblage. I optimized line clearing, setting up entire blocks that could only be cleared with the highly-sought after "I" tile of a quick, last-minute rotation of a "J" or "L" tile. When I'd eventually become confounded by blocks that fell so quickly as to be impossible to rotate without a fast-twitch tremor, I'd calmly push the power button and restart the game. I relished putting everything into the space where it'd best fit.

I still play Tetris every once in a while, and I still play well enough that my gamer husband is suitably impressed by my skill. I like to think that my ability to patiently clear blocks has wide-ranging applications, both in writing and in editing. I curate work in much the same way as I arrange my Tetriminos: thoughtfully and efficiently, and with a keen mindfulness toward effective organization. My goal is to help others clear their own blocks and maximize their creative potential.