A Quick Thought

Why Everyone Needs an Editor

The person who already knows and understands what they’re trying to explain is in no position to evaluate whether or not they’re doing an effective job of communicating it. It’s a classic instance of the curse of knowledge.

And now, here’s a hedgehog in a bathtub.



What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 3: Fact Checking

red-pen-3jpgIn a previous post, I said that being smart requires two things: 1. thinking, “Is there an easier way to do this?” and 2. having access to Google.

For this edition of “What no one ever told you about editing,” the number one of that strategy doesn’t even apply. There’s no need to think of an easier way. Just have Google at the ready because authors just make stuff up.

Um, Okay, But Why Do I Care if They Make Stuff Up?

Hard truth time.

Many times, real-world folks mostly want an editor not because they’re aiming for the most beautiful prose of all time. They want a safeguard against being embarrassed.

They may not ask you to fact check. They may not actually know they want you to fact check. But they want you to be a filter for potential humiliation. If something ridiculously untrue and easy to verify slips through, they will think (whether fairly or not), “Where was [your name here] on that one?”

So. Should you fact check things that aren’t easily verifiable, such as company-specific knowledge? Nope, don’t charge the client for tons of extra time. But is fact checking a universally understood part of your job as editor, like an unspoken contract with the client? Yeah, kind of.

“That Doesn’t Seem Right

I was once handed a letter from a high-ranking executive at a company for inclusion in an annual report. This letter claimed that Bermuda was a halfway point between the U.K. and the U.S. I read that sentence and thought, “Huh. That doesn’t seem right.” And just the other day, I edited something that claimed “Leone, France,” was the location of a conference. I had to google the conference to make sure that I was correct in thinking that “Lyon” was meant and not some city I hadn’t heard of spelled “Leone.” Microsoft Word hadn’t flagged it, so I’m glad I knew to check.

These are the types of things that are not the end of the world, mistake-wise, but they can embarrass authors or organizers on a fairly public scale, and I think much of an editor’s job is to prevent these types of embarrassments. And mistakes can have more damaging consequences. What if there were a Leone, France, and folks were booking travel to the wrong place? That’s a serious hit to the public’s trust in the organization publishing the brochure.

In the same brochure, I also had this in a sentence: “This city…is located in the southern part of the Rhine-Main-Area,” and I was pretty sure that “Rhine-Main-Area” wasn’t going to be the correct way of noting the area. (If you’re wondering about specifics, I doubted that “area” was going to be capitalized and that the whole thing would be a hyphenated cluster.) So I googled it. That brings us to the next point…

Plagiarism, Ug

This trip to the search engine in the case of this brochure revealed not only the error in this sentence but also the error in Wikipedia’s sentence…because this entire section of the document was a copy/paste job from Wikipedia. Sigh.

Plagiarism, whether in school or in the business world, is often not meant to be malicious, nor does it necessarily show any lack of integrity on the author’s part. In this case, the writer just wanted to add some facts about the city to a pamphlet for a conference so the reader wouldn’t need to go to Wikipedia on their own and get the exact same information. It’s hardly the end of the world to copy in cases like these. However, as a recent grad and essay coach who’d encountered policies that could punish plagiarism with expulsion, I’m used to the stakes being high as far as plagiarism goes. And I still take a pretty hard line on it. If I hear a voice change in a piece and my spidey sense tingles, I don’t let it slide. The source needs to be identified, the text needs to rephrased, and, preferably, the material should be cited. And once I’ve found one copy/paste job, I know something about the author. I’m on red alert.

Now, here’s where I’ve relaxed since school. Technically, if you get information from a source and you rephrase it in your own words, you still have to cite or it’s plagiarism. In the real world, a copy/paste job on something like a brochure, you’re not going to use the back page as a bibliography. That’s just not realistic. If the brochure is, for instance, about a place with easily-google-able information, such as the year a city was founded, I’ll just rephrase so the exact wording isn’t a copy/paste job. Half the time, the copy/paste source needs editing anyway.

Plagiarism is all over the real world, especially from people who lack (or are years separated from) higher education. They never learned how to properly engage with other people’s written work. I once worked on a book on entrepreneurship. It was over 100 pages long, and I noticed even in the first few pages that the voice seemed choppy. When a oddly specific statistic appeared without citation on page three (something like “83.6%”), alarm bells were ringing furiously. As I started googling verbatim sentences, time after time, I realized his entire book was a Frankenstein monster of other books, academic journals, published research, business bloggers, you name it.

The book I was editing was thoroughly researched, and the author had probably done years of information-gathering, stringing all the bits together to make his own point. That’s exactly how good academic papers work and is seldom seen in non-scholarly writing! But he was going to spend another few years going back and citing the hundreds and hundreds of sources he had copied and pasted without crediting in the slightest, because that cannot, cannot fly–not even in the real world, where pragmatism often supersedes stubborn adherence to rules.

One Last Thing: What They DO Tell You About Editing!

References. Bibliographies. Works Cited. Whatever form they take, you’ll meet them again, even when you’re out of school. Knowing how to build a proper reference section has served me better than just about anything I learned in school. Well, beyond the more abstract, critical-thinking-type lessons, anyway.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve needed to find a title at an online bookstore, go to the publisher’s website to hunt down their city, revisit the Chicago Manual of Style’s rules for citing online journals, track down a blog post and figure out how to cite it, etc. Getting good at this in school had been extremely valuable to me afterwards.


A recent post from copyediting.com on fact checking


That’s it for this series on editing. I hope to get back to books soon. I’m wading through American Pastoral. It’s good, but it’s taking absolutely forever to get through because I pretty much don’t “do” leisure right now. These days, it’s all work, travel, or preparing for travel, or unpacking. I always used to read on planes because I couldn’t concentrate, but even that now is work time instead of forced chill time. I’d ask you to feel sorry for me, but I’m going to fabulous places like London and Scotland and Panama, so I feel like no one’s going to be playing me any songs on the violin.

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 2: Politics

red-pen2Editing. It’s so romantic. You will work with fiction authors to make their story a masterpiece. That IS what being an editor entails, right?

Aspiring editors are probably at least a little more down-to-earth than that. There’s a ton of content in today’s world, and most of it isn’t awesome fiction. In fact, most of it isn’t fiction at all. And fiction editors aren’t nearly in as much demand as ones with other areas of specialty—editors of web copy, B2B or B2C content, blogs, tech pubs, communications material, etc.

And here’s the other reality. Even if you’re the next Max Perkins, taking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work and molding it into a thing of stunning beauty to be remembered for decades to come, it’s not your show.

Here’s what I never learned about editing, part two: it’s all about your author, and diplomacy is more than essential—it determines the success of the project.

(Note: most of this probably doesn’t apply to journalism where there’s a style in place and you’re accountable to a boss to enforce rules.)

Being Edited Can Hurt

In some circumstance or another, surely you’ve been asked to change something you’ve written. Unless you’re of a heartier stock than I am, it hurts, even if you’re not particularly attached to the material. You took the time to sit down and choose those words, one by one, to explain something or to tell some kind of story. It’s a part of you. It’s difficult when someone essentially asks you to call the time you spent, even on just one sentence, a wash. I know this from being a writer myself. Criticism of creation, even valid criticism, can be hard to take.

Side note! Writers, don’t treat an edit like a marriage: going to bed angry is a great idea. Wait out that initial resistance to be critiqued. See if you feel it’s valid after you’ve gotten some space. You’ll wake up with perspective, and you’ll either be ready to accept some truths you couldn’t accept before (that’s me) or else you’ll know the editor and you are not a good fit.

Other side note! After getting used to it, being edited is like going to a writing spa. I throw a snarl of word bedlam at someone and it comes out all beautiful and sparkly, and I didn’t even have to do any work! I love being edited.

Your First Assignment with an Author

Of course, it’s helpful to feel out what the client is looking for with a discussion first. The problem is that most people looking for an editor think they’re done and just want a quick check, but they almost always need at least a few rewrites. As I said in an earlier post, if they think they need proofing, they probably need copyediting; if they think they need copyediting, they probably need global work. An editor almost always knows better what a piece needs than the author does. The author may have vision, but they’re too close up to fulfill it by themselves.

But the reality is, at least for freelancing, that the author is the boss, and they’re hiring you to do a job they dictate, not you. In a 9–5 situation, you might have more leverage if there isn’t a time crunch. But you have to manage relationships. Even if the piece you’re handed could be amazing if you could just reshape it with total freedom, don’t give into that temptation with a new author. Every word was chosen. Maybe it was chosen carefully, maybe not. But it always will serve you well to treat those words as if they’re precious.

The first time I edit anyone, even someone who knows their piece is going to need to be ripped apart and reassembled or maybe even completely rethought, I always note even just a little thing that the person has done right. That’s done with the idea that they can take that and build upon it the next time they write. I really think that’s one of the most important services an editor can possibly provide—rather than focusing on failings to be addressed, how can we amplify their best qualities as a writer?

Next to note is this: I always use a light hand the first time I edit anyone, especially if they specifically just ask you to look for typos or if they’ve just spent a lot of time polishing it and are exhausted. Sometimes, a recommendation to revisit the entire thing is inevitable. But if you can avoid it, reserve the “this would sound better if”-type advice to the comments section or in an email. Seeing work crossed out is rough, and it shouldn’t be done more than absolutely necessary the first time you work with someone. Even if you’re tracking changes and the author has the power to just click a button and reject what you’ve done, don’t overestimate the unspoken judgement and finality of going into a document, looking at a sentence that’s troublesome but has no grammar errors, and making it clear you reject what they did and can do it better. An author will learn to trust you if they like your advice, and you can eventually get to the point where you can just rephrase.

Bottom line: always assume an author will be extremely sensitive to edits until you know otherwise. It’s a hard thing for editors, especially those editors who are meticulous or—worse—are seeing potential go unrealized. But it’s (generally) more important that the author is happy with their piece than if you’re happy with their piece.

Not Causing a Scene

Have you ever finished a long project, sent out your work, and gotten an email in response that said, “Great start!” and then listed the 40 things that you needed to fix? You don’t want to that person unless you have to be—the one who will send back a piece with way more work to be done than even before the canvas was blank.

If an author trusts me, I’ll often go into the medium itself (WordPress, Constant Contact, InDesign, StackEdit) and make my changes without tracking. That way, they can have something that’s ready to go without needing to do any more work than they have to. People are busy. But the first time you edit someone, you want to track pretty much everything.* You want them to know your style of editing—what you recommend, what problems you’re catching. You also want them to feel empowered to accept or reject things.

If a piece needs a ton of work, I’ll often send them a marked up and a clean copy, attaching the clean copy first and calling it a suggested version or something. Most people will only review the clean copy and not even really look at the tracked one. If they like it, they’ll just send you a thumbs up. No one needs to do much work after that, and if they didn’t open up the tracked changes copy, they probably never even saw how much you did.

If you do this, make certain that you maintain the author’s voice. If they read something that seems like a completely different piece, they will dive into your changes, and you’ll be in for an ongoing email chain that’s bound to be varying degrees of awkward.

* The exception is when you don’t want to send someone back an intimidating, potentially psychologically damaging document covered in red. If there’s a common comma error, I’ll track the first change, note the error in a comment, and say that the rest of the instances have been changed without the distraction of markup. Then I’ll just toggle track changes on and off as needed.

Preparing to Defend…

Your edits are your castle and your knowledge is your moat. Make sure you have a good one, with alligators and possibly harmful bacteria.

We were all misinformed to varying degrees about the rules of English language in grade school. For some people, that’s the last and only encounter they had with grammar. They will use their zombie rules as an excuse to go swimming in your moat.

Be friendly, and make it clear that you’ll do whatever incorrect thing they like. It’s their piece, not yours. But make your castle unapproachable for any author who values “the right way.”

…But Don’t Be a Pedant!

That being said, this isn’t math class. In school, there’s often one right answer. In the real world, there isn’t–even when there is. Let me explain.

Don’t insist on the right way if it hinders communication or if your author says, “I understand it’s wrong, but I like it better the way it is.” Save your battles for things you feel will strongly harm a piece if it isn’t addressed. Nine-tenths of people aren’t going to notice if job titles are capitalized when they shouldn’t be. But if your client is using “supercede” instead of “supersede” and insisting on keeping an incorrect spelling, that’s pretty embarrassing for them and may hurt their attempt to be a voice of authority. You should probably point them at a source that explains that they’re wrong rather than just say, “Whatever you want!”


Authors are the bosses. Choosing to be an editor means that you’re caring for someone else’s baby. Don’t hand the baby back with a new arm and different colored hair unless that arm had gangrene and that hair was, um, plagiarized (a toupee? A baby toupee?). Once you have a relationship with the author and you know they want your full treatment, writing can more of a partnership. But you have to earn trust.

Be an awesome editor—be a flexible editor—be an editor people know will make them sound fantastic. But most importantly, be an editor that treats people’s work as if it has value, not like it’s just trash to be crossed out at will.

After all, if you can really do that much better, perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong profession…


Kill Your Darlings,” a blog post about being edited by the very amusing Geraldine from The Everywherest

What No One Ever Told You About Editing, Pt. 1: Formatting and Word

red-pen1Hi guys! I have not posted in months because I have not read anything in months. So sad, I know. I’ve been doing a lot of work, so what’s mainly on my mind these days is editing.

I started making a mental list a few months ago of all the things I wasn’t prepared for and learned on the job. I thought it might be a fun series for writers and the generally curious, and maybe it will even be valuable to some aspiring editors.

Your New Roommate: Microsoft Word

As I said in my last series on the subject, someone once asked me what it was like to go to school to be an editor. I would again like to reiterate that going to a liberal arts school and getting a degree in English is wonderfully edifying and 10 of 10 Amandas would recommend. But it in no way teaches you how to be an editor in the real world.

Here is one of things they never tell you about being an editor: you and Microsoft Word are going to be reeeeeeal close. You will have to become the god of MS Word. And I’m not talking about “yeah, I can put in footnotes!” I’m not talking about “yeah, I see that styles pane on top of the screen, and sometimes I press it if I want to change the way my title looks!” I’m talking about setting up macros to run a series of find-and-replace tasks for an author that makes continued mistakes. I’m talking about designing a custom style set to auto-number second and third level headings in multi-leveled lists, and then telling it to decouple the numbers for the annex section but rank the sections the same in the headings navigation. I’m talking about people sending you a Word document with all sorts of weird spacing between the letters, and not just understanding why it’s looking wrong but also knowing where the kerning section is in Word. (Hint: it is deep in the Word-bowels, and I would have never found it on my own the first time I needed to access it.)

There are people better than me at Word, who know how to do things that I never knew were even options. But I am at least a demigod at Word, a minor deity. Maybe a Word fury. And I learned NONE of it in school.

So potential editors, here’s the stuff they don’t teach you.

Track Changes

First things first. You cannot, in this day and age, be an editor and not be good with Microsoft Word’s track changes. Track changes is not intuitive, and your document will be a rainbow mess of garble if you have multiple people participating—no avoiding it. But you have to be able to read it, understand it, switch views, accept and reject the changes, and deal with people’s comments. You also should know how to accept only format changes, limiting the displayed changes to substantive edits.

Also, I promise you will be mighty pleased with yourself if you figure out how to password-lock the document so that other users can’t turn tracked changes off. The worst thing in the world is when you get a document where some maniac has actually used the manual underline/strikethrough/font color features so that it looks like tracked changes you can accept or reject. Then, oh god, it’s really just formatting you have to manually delete. ~Bangs head on desk until blood pools.~

Like democracy, the only thing worse that Word’s tracked changes is everything else. It can be a real headache, but it really is the top of the line when it comes to collaborating and editing. You have to know how to use it and be comfortable with it if you’re the editor of the document.

Find and Replace

Next! Find and replace is launched by Ctrl + H. Memorize it. It’s the feature, other than track changes, you’ll use most as an editor. Let’s say I convert a technical document that started out as a PDF to Word, and I see all the mathematical symbols and Greek letters have converted incorrectly. But what I also see is that they seem to have all come in as Times New Roman, whereas the rest of the document is in Calibri. I open the find and replace dialogue box, click in the “Find” section, search for the Times New Roman typeface, and replace with a highlight. Poof. All the places I need to double check are highlighted, and I know I won’t miss one. (If I were more trusting, I might try changing the typeface to Symbol and replacing all. But after many Word-traumas, I have learned that the wise find the balance between expediency and caution.)

Or how about this? A document is full of inconsistencies. Sometimes they spell out the numbers 1–10; sometimes they use the Arabic numbers. You can use find and replace and enable something called wildcards to find all numerals instead of typing in “1,” “2,” etc. (Wildcards are amazingly powerful, and I’ve only begun to understand what they’re capable of.)

And there’s more. Find and replace will change all those stupid double-hyphens into em dashes. Or, in one shot, it will save you the agony of turning all the double-space-after-periods to single-space-after-periods. It’s irreplaceable. Irrefindandreplaceable.

Alt Codes and Macros

I work primarily on a Surface now, so I don’t have a numbered keypad. But back in the day, alt codes were how I’d create en and em dashes. An alt code is this: if you hold the alt key and press a series of numbers on your number pad, you get a symbol character not available on your keyboard. There are so many of them that you’ll certainly find one for whatever you wind up using most: Greek letters, mathematical symbols, diacritics, that awesome o/e combo for writing “foeces” (more classy than poop!). It will save you so much time to not have to dip into “Insert” and “Symbols” and paw through endless boxes of undecipherable squiggles.

Now that I don’t have the numberpad, I’ve made serious use of Word’s macro option. When you record a macro, you record keystrokes, and your keystrokes will be repeated when you run that macro. So to set these up, you have to be comfortable enough with a keyboard and ribbon that you can get to pretty much anywhere you want without a mouse. (Hint: to access anything on the ribbon with a keyboard, try hitting alt and going from there.)

Because of macros, I can now hold “Ctrl + Alt + M,” a shortcut customized by me, and get my em dash. I can also highlight a Series of Words that are Capitalized for No Reason Whatsoever (this happens all the time) and turn them all lowercase with a macro I recorded. And, for the aforementioned psychopath who tried to mock track changes with all the underlining and striking through, I can highlight what I want to accept, hit a few keystrokes, and clear all his local formatting. Team macros!

Serial Killers and Word: Using Tab Stops and Styles

I’ll often get documents from people with lines all over the place, what looks like columns placed unevenly, text that looks like it’s right aligned but something isn’t quite right. So I choose to reveal paragraph marks and formatting symbols to see how they created this fun look, and, oh, the horror. Serial killer formatting.

If you’ve ever seen The Shining, you probably remember the scene that shows Jack Nicholson’s conviction all work and no play makes him a dull boy. That’s what serial killer formatting reminds me of. It looks like an insane person got ahold of the document and just held down the spacebar for 30 seconds, and then started hitting tab like it’s some kind of word processing tic. Then they hit return six times, threw in a soft return, put in a non-page-breaking section break, and when that didn’t work, put in a page break. All these horrors are revealed when you show hidden characters.

Anyone who doesn’t know how to make Word behave the way they want (read: everyone at some time or another) has been guilty of creating such a document. But revealing those marks and seeing what’s behind the veil is like peering into the mind of a deeply troubled human being—your eyes will widen and your heart will start pounding and you’ll wonder if the author, who you thought was a just a nice, regular guy with excellent taste in ties, is behind you with a knife.

Anyway, unless the client has a specific proofreader that will get the document after you or unless Word is not the final destination (in which case, shed a tear for the person porting it into its end document design program) you can’t let things like uneven alignment go. You have to learn to use tab stops, and you have to know more about them than how to click on a ruler. Leaders and right-aligned tab stops are important for forms needing names and addresses and other information (certainly, your client has held down underscore for this purpose), and creating a paragraph style once you’ve set up tab stops can make your life so much easier.

I edit a series of publications for a client, and they often have equations with coordinating labels (e.g., “Equation 2.5 I-P”). I know that most equations won’t go past the three-inch mark in Word, so that’s about where the label should go. I’ve created a tab stop at that mark and now can hit tab after the equation to make the label sit at the three-inch mark. I then saved this as a paragraph style, labeling it “Equation”–with my other saved styles so they make a set–and saved that set on my computer. If I apply this style set for all this client’s documents, I’ll be able to have them all have the equation label at the same place by quickly applying that style.


They don’t teach you this stuff in school, folks. At least they didn’t in mine. This is just one of the ways that school can help teach you how to think, but it won’t give you the practical skills you need. And Word is THE essential one I never knew I’d need to the extent I do every day.

For one thing, I was asked about it in my job interviews out of school. Of course everyone will say they know Word—after all, much of school is typing things out on a screen, printing it out, and handing it in. But when they start asking you the real questions, you may be in a pickle. I was.

And here’s the other thing. Now that I’m freelance, I often charge by the hour. There comes a point where you’re taking a silly amount of hours to get this formatting right or to fix repeating errors (and double checking for your own human error in correcting them, because I promise you missed one!). You have to have shortcuts for no-brainer work so you can focus on content. And for 9–5ers, you got stuff to do, right? You don’t want to be spending your time manually hunting down every semicolon in a document because your author thought it was a fancier-looking version of a comma.

Know your Word. Or at least know enough of the terminology to Google what you need. Half of being smart is thinking “Is there an easier way to do this?” And the other half of being smart is having access to Google.


Here’s a document listing all my favorite shortcuts and explaining macros as plainly as I can.

The Trouble With Literary Device Abuse

My sincerest apologies for this prolonged absence. I’m still around and still excited to talk to you about books, I promise.

I was overwhelmed with work for a bit there, and there was little time for reading, let alone blogging about reading. But I did manage to polish off Michael Cunningham’s The Hours about a month ago. 

I’m a little distanced from it now for an overview, but I’m not so distanced that I don’t have things to say about it. This should have been the perfect book for me, folk. It’s got Virgina Woolf. It’s got rage against the cult of domesticity/feminine mystique mindset. It’s got introspection and character-heavy (and non-plot-heavy) writing. Heck, would have recommended this book to me.

So, my personal opinion is that this set of ingredients, which should have formed the most delectable layer cake, was totally wrecked by the wrong chef. (Also, you will be burned out by all cake metaphors by the end of the book, and I don’t know how I even stomached making that one. More on that later). I feel awful saying it. To have devoted so much of himself to a very women-centered, introspective, and deep-feeling book, I’m sure Cunningham is a wonderful man. But The Hours contains some of the most exasperating (professional) writing I think I’ve ever encountered.

Anyway, I looked at what I thought about The Hours and extrapolated to get a list of literary device abuses. These misuses apply to a lot of writing I see.

I Will Never Get Back The Hours I Spent Reading This Book (But Some Don’t Want Them Back)

The Hours CoverQuickly, let me say this: as I was reading The Hours, I thought that surely I must be batty to dislike it, and that was pretty much confirmed. A number of judges thought this worthy of a Pulitzer. I started googling reviews and scholarly articles on the book, and it did nothing to convince me that I’m sane. The overwhelming consensus is that this book is excellent, with me all alone on the sea-salty island of curmudgeon.

So take this all at face value–I personally felt these things, and most other people didn’t. But my minority opinion shall not be silenced, and by that, I mean I have a blog that’s pretty much an Amanda brainstuff soliloquy. I will be the one person to say, albeit nervously, that my thoughts that this was bad writing were reaffirmed on every page as I read.

By bad, I mean excessive. Obnoxiously thorough examination of every thought in a character’s head. Concerted efforts to make everything “deep.” Pushing symbolism past the point of being meaningful and into the realm of bang-you-over-the-head insulting. And that leads us to…

Literary Device Abuse 1: Symbolism

There’s a section where a housewife is cooking her husband a cake, and the author makes it clear that this cake is a reflection of how she felt in her role–imperfect, trying too hard, a failure. Cool. I like symbolism. But this one is drawn out to the point of being rage-inducing. Chapter after chapter is about this cake, I kid you not. The author would veer into another subject, and then there would be a paragraph that started, “She thought of the cake at home” or something and I would think “STOP.”

In fact, I was looking through my notes in the Kindle book as they pertain to this. It moves from “Ug” to “Please stop” to “AHEM, metaphor, are you getting this meeettaaaaphooooooor” to, finally, a big fat “ENOUGH WITH THE [censored] CAKE.” This is what I mean by the writing being exasperating.

This is not the only instance of literary device abuse.

Literary Device Abuse 2: Pretzeling Yourself to Describe a Character

What I mean by “pretzeling” is that an author bends in all sorts of weird ways so they* can include a description of a character without a paragraph that’s something like, “John was medium height with brown hair and bushy eyebrows, and he liked long walks on the beach and ice cream.” The classic (and awful) way of trying to more naturally integrate character description is to have them look in a mirror. I do think there are creative, unusual ways to do this that can work, and I’m not saying no one should try. They just should fix it if they fail.

In The Hours, there’s no looking in a mirror to describe oneself. But there is a character that has been living with someone for many years, and to describe that person she’d lived with, Cunningham says, “for a moment–less than a moment–she sees Sally as she would if they were strangers. Sally is a pale, gray-haired woman…” etc. Ug, this is so obvious and gimmicky! It’s just a hair better then the mirror tactic, and it’s not natural at all. You don’t have to see someone as if they are a stranger to know what color hair they have.

I think this could have been better done with something like “Sally’s gray hair, the harsh features–all were as familiar to Clarissa as her own face, yet an unspoken distance between them made her feel almost like a stranger” or something like that. You can integrate description in natural ways.

I didn’t find character development and description done right all throughout the The Hours. All of the tactics used to develop characters seemed obvious, not just the tactics used to describe them physically. There was a scene where Virgina’s relatives come over, and they find a dying bird. “Oh boy,” I thought. “Here comes a character-development device.” You could just sense it. Reader, we are about to enter a character’s brain and learn over the next three pages of inner monologue (see device three) that Virginia thinks things, deep, life/death things, because of this bird. Sigh. Indeed, that then happened. Color me unsurprised.

Literary Device Abuse 3: Inner Monologue

The dialogue in this book was excellent. It was minimal, curt, and left a ton to the imagination. Unfortunately, there was about a 1:10 ratio of dialogue pages to inner monologue pages, and the inner monologues contained so many literary sins.

First, everyone’s inner monologue was exactly the same voice. A depressed, self-consumed, prone-to-overthinking voice.

Second, we got to hear many characters’ inner monologues, even the ones that barely show up in the book. That’s a problem when combined with the first sin of them all having the same voice. It’s also a problem because it gives the reader whiplash. We are in and out of way too many heads. I picture the reader as a spirit being plunged in and out of brain after brain, eventually needing to reach for the Dramamine.

Third, god, inner monologue: there’s just so much of it, and it’s so, so tiring. There would start to be a scene–someone would walk into a room to say hi to the occupant there. But as they entered, they would need to pause for two pages and have big thoughts. Then comes the hello. This is not only exasperating, it’s hard for a reader to reconcile with real time. No one would walk in the room, think quietly to themselves for five minutes, and then greet the person on the couch.

Fourth, inner monologue will quickly send you into the danger zone of telling and not showing. An author needs to be careful not to diffuse a potentially powerful scene with a “Character realized she felt sad and depressed.” I found The Hours to be brutally tell-y and almost never show-y.

Conclusion: I am a Bummer

I feel bad, getting so negative on so universally loved book. I loved the idea behind it, and I especially loved the cultural message behind it. But I just could not deal with the writing. I thought about sharing my notes from the book, but just the sample I shared with you is probably enough. Most of them are like that. There is a lot of cussing. It was a tiring, eye-rolling read, despite the subject matter being serious and, to me, invigorating.

Anyway, if you loved The Hours, please crucify me in the comments. Just kidding. Please don’t. I can dish it out, but I can’t take it.

*I am taking a cue from all the style guides changing over to the singular “they,” and now writing is like one big sigh of relief, not having to re-read and look for spots that should unnaturally say “his or her.” You should try it.

Vote on My Conundrum!

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Gentle reader,

I wanted to start documenting what it’s like to start doing entrepreneurial things–bootstrapping an online swag store, marketing a self-published book, etc. I was thinking that, since I’m in the valuable position of being a total ignoramus, it might be valuable to record my experiments starting from the ground up and to talk about what went well and what didn’t. I feel like someone out there might find this perspective, paired with my findings, useful. And it would be a nice way to record my thoughts and results.

Here’s the conundrum, though: to split off into two blogs, focused on the niches, or to build on this current blog?

I thought I’d let you tell me.

Here’s the need-to-knows. Very little (if any) of the material I would be introducing would be literature-focused. I would probably clean up my categories and tags to make sure people could find the content they want that way.

With that in mind, would you be interested in hearing about entrepreneurial journeys? Or would you prefer that I keep things neatly literature-based here?

Don’t feel like you need to be a regular reader to vote, either! If you want, just let me know what you think I should do–that’s welcome, too.

Thanks for weighing in!

Hyperion: Overview


Cover of Hyperion by Dan SimmonsBlog post subjects over the last four years will show that science fiction hasn’t historically been my jam. I read much of Jules Verne’s works over the years, and the husband and I were putzing through the Stranger in a Strange Land audiobook. (We stopped because there was a glitch in the app we were using, and we never picked it back up–no knock on the book, really.) But that’s about where my sci-fi journey ends.

We bought Hyperion on Audible because it was a favorite of my husband’s when he was younger. The way he described it was intriguing–an involved, imaginative system of future worlds imagined by author Dan Simmons, conveyed through the personal stories of pilgrims off to see the world’s creepiest deity: the Shrike. So into the car speakers it went.

Tl;dr Synopsis

With a war that may destroy humanity on the horizon, seven people are summoned to go on a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, a giant, walking Ginsu knife set who probably didn’t get very many hugs as a child, what with the being made of sharpness and all. (Just kidding. The Shrike was probably never a child. It was never innocent.) To pass the nights on the way to see this metal nightmare, the pilgrims decide to tell their stories. Most of the book consists of the personal stories, and each pilgrim has a strange, usually sad connection to the world of Hyperion and this uber-terrifying Lord of Slicing and Dicing.

Writing Style

You know, the writing (other than the obnoxious use of ellipses as throat clearing) is way better that I would have thought. This is terrible of me, but I assume books that are very plot/action-centric will be designed with writing quality taking a backseat to various happenings–that, at best, writing will not get in the way of the plot. But the writing style of Hyperion was consistently elegant and creative, I thought. The dialogue could be over the top, especially in the beginning when the author was trying to establish the different personalities of the seven pilgrims. But to be fair, that’s a really hard thing to do: introduce seven characters and expect your reader to keep them straight. It was when Simmons wrote the lines for the poet that he went most over the top, but I also found the poet’s lines were the ones that most often the showcased what Simmons could do with the written word. I also think Simmons is a well-rounded reader himself. His many references to classic and contemporary lit weren’t lost on me. Much of Hyperion revolves around John Keats, and I thought that was a nice touch. Simmons’ writing did his references justice.


The characters won’t be your life-changing new best friends, but they’re decently developed and seldom cliche. All are quite serious, with the possible exception of the poet. I was quite pleased with the woman character being second on the list of most capable fighters on the quest and that Simmons made her of a stocky, muscular race.  Some of the characters are obnoxious–the poet is bawdy and full of cursing. And while the scholar is in possession of a heartbreaking story, there’s a current of pretentiousness and self-importance that runs just under the surface of all that he says. But overall, I think Simmons did a pretty good job with the people who populate his book.


I personally found the very first story the most moving (and the most horrifying). The poet’s story is fascinating as well, and so much understanding of the Shrike, the history of Hyperion, and why things are the way they are come in his chapter. The last story is a little male-gaze-y (please, make sure I’m always up-to-the-moment on the texture of the female character’s breasts), but it becomes very moving at the end. It’s also a familiar story. The cruelties of colonization is a song being played on repeat throughout history, and I think Simmons would argue that it will continue playing as long as humanity is around.

Who Should Read this Book

I don’t think you have to be a sci-fi fan to love this book. It’s a fabulous choice if you’re looking for an “escape novel,” one you’d read every night to take a break from your own life. It isn’t exactly uplifting, but reading it was a great experience.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I just adored some things about this book. One: there’s a skillfully executed mimicking of The Canterbury Tales‘s structure. Two: I thought the in medias res intro left enough to imagination but not so much that it was too confusing. Related: the way each story filled in blanks bit by bit was quite satisfying. It was generally a great device for story creation. I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who’s done this in the same way. The mini-stories themselves are all very involving and inventive.

As you saw, I have a few bones to pick with the book. But it’s really very few. As few bones as you’d have attached to your skin after the Shrike fillets you.