If you don’t know what’s wrong with this picture (or rather, T-shirt) and you intend to write
—a literary masterpiece or a letter to Grandma—you need an editor.
As I try to wrap my head around the loss of my friend and mentor, former publisher Carolyn Hayes Uber, and attempt to describe her influence, her persona, her life, I am struck by a remark I heard just today that helps put everything in perspective. And the fact that this remark mentions a common editing term (the dash), is serendipitous. Carolyn would be tickled.
In the documentary Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog interviews Fred Allen, who explains his role in executions as the former captain of the Death House team at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, Texas. Allen is clearly conflicted (eventually resigning his post), as he sees the lives of inmates reduced to numbers: 1954 – 2011, for example. He realizes and explains, quite eloquently, that our lives are not reflected in a birthdate or date of passing, but the dash in between. (Granted, it’s really a hyphen, but I’m not here to edit today.) Mr. Allen then asks, How are you going to live your dash?
Which brings me back to Carolyn, who lived her dash with courage and strength and humor and love. So for Carolyn and my father and my “adopted” mother Patricia and other dear friends who are no longer here, I will live my dash, really live it… bravely, respectfully, happily. I hope you will, too.
Imagine my surprise when one of the detectives on the new TV show Murder in the First (TNT) realizes that a suicide note is a fraud based on an unusual use of an apostrophe! Punctuation meets Prime Time!
Noticing that “shouldn’t’ve” (as in “I shouldn’t’ve killed that girl…”) in the supposed typed confession was—coincidentally—exactly the same as in a workplace email communique, the ace detective (as in A+ in English!) researches the statistical commonality of the double contraction … checking with UC Berkeley’s linguistics department (a nice plug for my own alma mater!) and voila! a killer is identified. (In case you’re interested, according to what the detective told the suspect, only 1 in 800,000 use this particular double apostrophe.)
Enough of DNA matches, fingerprint comparisons, text message threads, bloody footprint trails. This is true detective work. Which gives me an idea; rather than referring to myself as an editor, I think I will now consider myself a grammar gumshoe.
Now you know when I say I’m getting a new piece … or working on a magazine , I mean of the Smith and Wesson kind. A big thanks to the clever writing at the ONION.
(Photo courtesy of Arvind Grover
As I diligently edit manuscripts, I’m struck by a trend with “my” first-time writers: not using contractions … and in fact, working very hard to avoid them.
Did I miss the memo?
Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall hearing a rumor that good writing should not (note: shouldn’t) make use of contractions. Perhaps in a PhD thesis, or a technical manual, or a story (fiction or non) based in Elizabethan England. But when telling a story with a conversation between two street thugs hanging out in New York’s Central Park in 2013? “Hey, dude, you are looking good!” “You, too, bro; how are you doing? What is happening?” Ha.
Of course I do believe in following the rules of grammar and punctuation, spelling and capitalization – after all, that is what I get paid to check. But I also believe that writers need to use common sense – that writing is as much an art as it is a science, and therefore, not all rules need apply (if there is such a rule).
Unless, of course, you are Dr. Suess. Green Eggs and Ham might not have worked too well if he had written: “I don’t like them, Sam I’m.”
Once again, my world is turned upside down (or for those of you sticklers who insist we cannot end sentences with prepositions … once again, upside down is my world).
At first, I only wrote stories on yellow-lined legal pads of paper and only read books the old-fashioned way – in print, in hardcover. I listened to CDs on a walkman. I had an answering machine. I had a vcr.
But I was determined not to be left behind, so I jumped on the bandwagon – moving slowly from desktop to laptop, from pc to MAC. I went from voicemail to email to text; from flip phone to iPhone. I got an iPod, a DVD player, a scanner!
I joined Facebook, set up a website, started a blog!
And then I read that the Pope sent out a tweet (in seven languages, no less) on his iPad (@Pontifex – in case you’re interested). He has a million followers already.
I’ll never catch up.
I often work myself into contortions trying to stress the importance of proper punctuation … but sometimes all it takes is an example so succinct that the point is driven home without so much as a deep knee bend.