Editing Your Work: Very, Very Good Is Very Bad

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

The first documented Sasquatch capture. Actually, my hair, circa 1975, much in need of editing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the very best thing you could do for your writing is to tighten it up, just a little. Still with me? With apologies to Jane Austen, the first sentence here that clogged your pores is a gasbag, a dirigible without a destination. Why? Because it’s filled with unnecessary words and phrases. It’s filled with air, not substance. But this is air that doesn’t breathe life into your reader’s lungs—it suffocates them.

Consider: any sentence that has a qualification, a dodge, is a sentence that whimpers. Words like “very” and “really,” which seem to be intensifiers, are the opposite. They are diminishers. They are the celery left a year in the cellar: no snap. And a clause or phrase like “It’s a fact …” or “just a little” might seem to refine a sentence, give it some razoring of thoughtful gradation, but instead it hobbles it.

Really, Just Very Bad

Remove some of the fluff, and you get a working-class sentence: “The best thing you can do for your writing is tighten it.” But wield the scalpel again, and you get something crisp: “Tighten your writing.” That sentence, which turns a key in a lock, implies that the tightening will improve the understanding, rather than making it bloatedly explicit.

Of course, if you’re an essayist, a fiction writer, a vaunted creative, you might chafe at the constraints. There are times when sentences need luxuriant branching, elliptical orbits to trace their flight across the heavens. But even then, the “verys,” the “justs,” the “reallys,” the “it’s clear that’s”—those blackguards rob your writing of vigor. Vigor = good. Languor = bad.

All Modifiers Are Not Created Evil

Sometimes modifiers can add nuance to a sentence so their absence is loss, not gain. “He took a few, halting steps, expelled a gust of breath and took a voluptuous fall.” If there is intent behind your diction, your use of “voluptuous” (and even “halting” in this instance) could serve a narrative purpose. At least it’s arguable. But the actually here: “Actually, I couldn’t stand him” actually, factually, does nothing. Same with “quite” and “rather”—something that’s “quite exciting” fails to excite.

I am very guilty of veritable volumes of verys in my writing; for me, “just” is also just a spasmodic touch-type away. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes is, “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Verily.

Adverbs Under Editing Threat!

There’s been a threadbare-but-broad blanket of denunciation of adverbs and adjectives thrown over prose the last few years, but that’s employing a squinty eye blind to when modifiers can add color and spark to a page. All of those urchin adverbs and adjectives aren’t bad—just the ones that are padding, or those that substitute for strong verbs and nouns. Used with discretion, they are ketchup with fries. (Or sriracha, if you need more kick.)

But when you have expressions like “loud explosion” or “violent vomiting” (or “loud explosion of violent vomiting”), you have redundant words that put a wrapper between you and the reader. Fewer words say more. Or as our lad Twain said (with a wink) in his evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing: “Eschew surplusage.”

Big Words, Big Deal

One category of surplusage is big words, the pomp-and-circumstance diction that declares that the writer is educated, sophisticated, and a wee bit smarter than the reader. But if you aren’t writing for your reader, you are writing for no one. I am the guiltiest of wordslingers here: I love words, love the chewy ones, love some with peacock flair or sly intimation. Sometimes the right word is the big word, but sometimes when you write fornication, you should write—oh, never mind.

I’ll let some stylists smarter than me put that in perspective:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

— Strunk and White, The Elements of Style

But gosh, is it tempting to gussy up a sentence or two. I can’t always resist.

Tools for Tightening

There are a couple of interesting online tools that can help with your editing: the Hemingway app highlights overly complex sentences, long words, and those cussed adverbs. The Natural Reader is an editing approach from a different angle—your ears. The software reads your work to you aloud, which lets you hear, sometimes painfully, sentences that plod, or wander, or die a slow death from pulling a bulging cart of wayward words.

A useful exercise is to take a 1,000-word piece of your writing and condense it to 700 words. It’s enlightening (and lightening) to take the frosting off your phrasings and get to the actual cake. And then take that same piece down to 500 words: the cake is still spongy and sweet, but denser, deeper. Chasing the “littles” and the “sometimes” and the “oftens” out of sentences—and putting some caffeine in passive-voice phrasings—removes fat and makes muscle.

But the most powerful tool is focus. Inspect your paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of your ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.

Book Launching (Saggy Springs or Not)

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on morgueFile

Wait, is there a string attached? Photo by whiterussian on MorgueFile

I’ve been bustling around (can’t you hear it?) this past week, trying to get my “how to find your writing voice” book together for publication next week, and it does make me wonder if most self-pub book launches—though mine might be more of a wayward toss—are as scattered and haphazard for other writers.

For instance, I’ve yet to fix my title, in my mind or on the page. It’s gone through a paddlewheel of possibilities, but my mind’s oar has cracked its handle here toward the end. Right now, it’s “Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See.” That’s all fine and good, and does capture some essentials of the book. But like any wavering candle, I’m subject to title-insecurity winds.

No, Can’t Be—ANOTHER Typo?
And my goodness, I’m a professional editor, and have the gall to charge people for things like proofreading. And yet, even though I’ve proofed this dang thing on the screen, proofed it in hard copy, and proofed sections on the screen again (I’m trying to sound Churchillian here: “we will fight them on the beaches …”) I’m STILL finding some typos and glitches. Gack!

There are umpty-trillion and one things you’re “supposed” to do to get ready for a book launch, but there’s not enough coffee in Kona for me to do them all (or even do most well). What I’ve done is:

  • sent out advanced copies to readers willing (I hope) to write a review
  • written sales copy for the Kindle description page
  • set up some guest posts on some relevant writing sites (which will appear after publication)
  • asked for a few blurbs from some writerly darlings I know (or know at least well enough to ask)
  • designed a landing page that still needs some guiding lights
  • and prepared cocktails on Fri/Sat/Sun eves for weeks on end

Oh wait, I always do the cocktail thing. But why break a good rhythm?

The Truth (and Good Help) Is Out There
There’s a bunch of other minor things I’m doing (eating more toast), and a number of things I’ll do post launch (eat less toast), but I won’t list them here now. What I do want to list is a few of the writers and their sites that I think give good guidance on book marketing and book launches.

Tim Grahl has a series of great (free) book launch posts and marketing lessons (like setting up an effective mailing list). And check out his good Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book

Joanna Penn always has great publishing industry/book marketing/book launching advice (in text, podcasts and video), much of it free.

Check out Sean Platt, Johnny Truant’s and David Wright’s Self-Publishing Podcast for info on how they’ve pretty much created a self-publishing empire, from tech tools to marketing to the ethos behind it all.

Naomi Dunford’s Itty Biz has all kind of juicy bits about marketing and product launching, and she’s quite funny too.

And my old pal, Joel D Canfield, has been there whenever I’ve asked some puzzler on publishing.

So, thanks to those folks for doing me solids. I’m rounding the corner on this launch stuff, and glad of it. I will probably continue with the cocktails though.

By the way, lately I’ve been making a real beauty: the Vieux Carré, an old New Orleans song of spirits that’s heady and just durn good. Note, this recipe shows it over rocks, but it’s great up as well, shaken or stirred. Maybe it will head the list at the book-launching party. Cheers!

Editors. Uhhh! What Are They Good For?

'2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 31' photo (c) 2008, Nic McPhee - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Over time, I’ve made a few preposterous videos (near page bottom from the link, under the “Editing: It’s Brutal” head) about the cruelties of editing, and how editors are the unsung heroes of the modern age. Or something along those lines.

But I’ve never explained, on a sane level, some of my editing approaches and processes. Since I do occasionally have bouts of sanity, here goes: I’m an editing ho of sorts, in that I edit both fiction and nonfiction, for businesses and individuals. I write (and publish) in both categories, I’ve studied the writing and editing of both, and though there are some differences in editing between the two types of writing, I can easily get into the proper mindsets of working with both.

I’ll briefly go over the three basic types of editing and some thoughts on how I approach it, with some thoughts on how to choose an editor. Here’s our big three (sometimes known under different names, but the song of the red pen is the same): developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. I’m using book editing for the examples discussed below, but much of what I say applies to editing fiction or nonfiction of varying types and lengths.

Developmental Editing

Developmental editors work on projects in their earlier stages, perhaps when a writer has written their initial draft or second draft, and wants someone to assess a book’s high-level structure, chapter-to-chapter development and end-to-end logic. Writers need to be satisfied that those elements of their work are secure before they go on to any other editing level. A developmental editor might make substantive suggestions for change, such as the shifting about—or elimination of—chapters and the addition of consequential pieces of new material. For fiction, the editor could discuss broad issues of character, theme, voice and conflict—and make the same kind of broad change requests.

For a fiction project, some of the essential questions a developmental editor might discuss with a client could be:

  • What is the main story question, intention, or theme?
  • Does the story start (and end) at the right place?
  • What’s at stake for the protagonist(s), and is the tension behind that stake well developed, handled, and resolved?
  • Have characters and subplots been seamlessly introduced and developed, and do all of them expand/drive the narrative in some compelling way?
  • Is the point of view clear for each scene? (And do transitions between scenes work?)
  • Does the work employ vivid imagery, use strong verbs and nouns, and avoid clichés, melodramatic or flat characters and passive voice?

Sometimes a developmental editor will make specific suggestions on single sentences in a story, so the differences between line editing and developmental editing can overlap a bit there. However, those kinds of suggestions would only happen in sections of the book that the editor presumes will be little changed. No sense in editing something that’s going to be deleted or changed in a major way.

Line Editing (or Copyediting)

Line editing is related to straight proofreading, but it’s a more complex, fine-toothed (and interpretive) editing process. A line editor will make simple in-text corrections or suggestions where there are errors, but sometimes also suggest re-workings of sentences and entire paragraphs, in trying to mediate omissions in ideas or undeveloped ideas. Line editors both look at grammar and writing mechanics, as well as at the flow of the work, both its logic and expression. If desired by the client, some editors also directly rewrite some sentences on issues of syntax or other structural situations, or suggest in detail where they could use some bolstering.


Proofing comes into play when a writer is comfortable with everything about the book’s big-picture structure and its grammar/sentence structure, and he or she simply wants to make sure there are no typos, misspellings or format problems. A proofreader is the person who sees where you intended a “your,” but inserted an incorrect “you.” A proofer pokes the eye out of that pesky apostrophe—when an “it’s” is supposed to be an “its.” It’s not a proofreader’s job to point out deeper problems (though I sometimes can’t help it).

My Editing Approach

For a long document like a book, usually I have a phone conversation with the client to go over the basic exchange of information, procedures and anticipated milestones—and to see if we have a good feel for each other’s work. That’s critical: find an editor who you feel comfortable with, and who respects the work you’ve done, and won’t try to change your voice. Occasionally I’ll offer to edit a small sample of the document to demonstrate my approach. Most of the work from that point is done by email. Sometimes it can all be done by email.

I normally use Word’s Revisions/Track Changes tools to directly make changes in a manuscript, and also to insert comments or questions. The writer reviews my corrections, accepts or rejects them, and if so inclined, types answers to the comments/questions back into the manuscript. If requested, I then go over it again, or if my comments and questions are best answered by the author, the writer takes it from there.

In regards the minor corrections, such as inserting or removing a comma, most authors just review the corrections in Word, and approve them or reject them. It can get a little tricky to tell sometimes when it’s just a space removed or a period substituted for a comma, because the Track Changes tools don’t make it easy to see those small additions/subtractions, but you can always see the results of accepting the correction in the text.

The work can be completed after the writer has gone over the first round of suggested changes, or it can go another round. I worked on a five-book series with one author who essentially said “Great stuff. I’ll take it from here” on every book. I’ve had a couple of other writers do the same: They rewrote from my insertions and didn’t request further help. Many others have come back with their rewrites, asking me to proof their corrections and changes. And in a few instances, writers have put in new raw material with a rewrite request, and I’ve rewritten it to their instruction, but that’s probably not the best approach for fiction.

The Dough

I’m flexible in my approach to fees. If you do want me to re-check your edited material, that’s when I always charge an hourly; but on the first round, I will do a per-word or per-page charge, based on 12-point, double-spaced type (normally around 300 words a page). If I’m unfamiliar with the client, I will ask him or her for one-third to one-half up front (and if I need more candy and my piggy bank is low, I might ask for it even from my familiars). Should we dissolve our agreement before I’ve even reached that point in the work, I’d return the equivalent balance.

Per-page charges can really range, from $2.50 to $4.50 a page for line editing. The range is dependent on how I project the effort and depth of attention the work will demand—which means I need to take a look at the whole of the work. After the first copyediting round, I normally charge $30–$40 an hour to input any suggestions the author has made (which includes rewriting sentences or even paragraphs, if requested) and re-proofing. Or if the author wants to me to go over the manuscript that he/she has reworked, I can go back to the per-page model, which because the work has already gone a round, would be much cheaper.

One other consideration is that if a client wants to have a straight project fee—because the level of attention any manuscript needs is individualized—rather than an hourly/per-page, I can provide a bid after I take a good look at the work. However, if you are looking for a thorough copyedit, it’s likely that a book of 100,000 words will cost at least $1,000 on a bid. I am soon going to copyedit a 90,000-word novel from a client whose work I know from an earlier novel edit, and I gave him a $1,000 bid because I have a good feel about how much work I’d have to do; I’d have to check out any unfamiliar work a bit to get that sense. I know it sounds expensive, but doing a deep copyedit is a considerable time investment, and I’m good at what I do.

Editing Your Editor

Obviously, you don’t have to accept every (or even the majority) of your editor’s suggestions, particularly when it comes to slippery issues of “flavor” and tone. I often question whether a single word in a sentence is the word that does the best job, and I’ll suggest substitutes. But you should hold steady if that word carries the weight you wanted. Sometimes an editor’s job is simply to make the author consider if a character’s gesture or expression is really the one the author intended, to introduce the idea that on the very sentence and word level can rest the lasting power of the work. But sometimes the editor’s job is to question whether a character even belongs in the work. Asking an author to consider such a heavy structural issue (such a question should only be part of a developmental edit, to be sure) is asking a lot—but sometimes those questions need to be asked. And you as an author have every latitude to just say no. (or Hell No!)

You may do better with an editor that specializes in your genre. If you are a YA writer, you might want to work only with YA editors. I’ve edited a range of business books, mysteries, self-help books, literary fiction, nutrition books, and thrillers, so I’m all over the place. But it’s reasonable to consider seeking out an editor that is steeped deeply in your genre. I’ve been editing for more than 25 years, but all projects are different, as are the authors. One unifying thing is that it’s a deep pleasure to work with authors and see work improved—my work as well as theirs. Expressing oneself in words—and doing it well—can seem daunting, but there’s such satisfaction in making a strong effort.

Ask around writerly circles and groups (LinkedIn might help) if you are seeking an editor. The Bay Area Editor’s Forum is an organization about which I’ve heard a great deal of good. Obviously you want to work with someone whom you feel is credible, and with whom you’re comfortable.

OK, this has gone on WAY too long. But if you want to read some more musings on editing, download my Style Guide from the right-hand side of the page. Sure, you might have to read some stuff about grammar, but there are lots of jokes too.

May all your words take wings (and without any leaden feathers).

Editing: the Big Gazoombah to the Ant’s Antennae

The Editing Hand

This guy’s so good he doesn’t even need a head to edit well

Editing a book-length project is an intriguing undertaking for the sheer variety of the material an editor might see. I’ve edited both fiction and nonfiction works for years, having cut my eyeteeth on big software manuals years ago (the writing of which can be more creative than might be imagined), and having moved into novels and nonfiction projects as time’s train has moved on.

There’s some argument as to what an editor does (slash the soul out of an artist’s heart might be one angle) and divergent discussion yet about the types of editing. But I set up my lemonade stand with three: developmental editing, copyediting (or line editing) and proofing. You could stack a lot of words to describe the distinctions—and other editors break them down into more categories yet—but for this discussion, let’s call developmental editing the big-picture shakeout: you assess a nonfiction work for its structure: does it have a solid foundation, are the walls of its ideas well-framed, does the front door open to the living room rather than the bathroom, does the roof of its concepts leak, are the floors of its logic cracked?

You get much more granular with a line edit, inspecting paragraphs and sentences for diction, flow, grammar and clarity: is the expression of the espoused ideas crisp, cliché-free, clean? Do verbs have verve? Does a subject play hide and seek with its predicate so that even a sugary gingerbread trail of subordinate clauses can’t lead the way home to understanding?

Proofreaders, the Chimney Sweeps of the Editing World

Proofreading might be considered the lowly chimney sweep of the editing ranks, but if your work is blackened by misspellings, typos, transposed words, extra words (so often I’ll see a stray “a” next to an “an”), or inconsistency of usage and style (writing “versus” when it’s been “vs” all along), the book’s fire just won’t burn clean. And sometimes a work will need an extra sweeping, because when initial errors are corrected, new errors are introduced. (Which should be some kind of law, like the Uncertainty Principle.)

The reason I’m going into this “What’s an Editor Do Besides Unnecessarily Charge You?” is because I’m editing a blend of a memoir/personal development book right now. The work consists of a series of essays, some a couple of pages, some thirty, filtered through the author’s spirited perspective, founded on her extensive travels and her interesting background. The author engaged me to copyedit the book, but in checking it out, it begged for a developmental edit first.

Here a Theme, There a Theme

I ended up moving essentially all the chapters around, and grouping them into six themes. Because there wasn’t a grounding voice that began the work, I wrote a main introduction and then six short introductions to each theme (all vetted by the writer, of course), and will suggest adding any needed transitions at other points in the book. I think this greatly strengthened the framing for the work—the roof, walls and floors are in the right places now, and now I can start looking at whether the furniture fits the rooms and whether the knick-knacks fit the furniture.

And my mom wanted me to be a brain surgeon. She just didn’t realize that editors are pretty much surgeons too. And sometimes politicians. And psychologists. And—oh, don’t get me started.

First-Chapter Fiddling: Yea or Nay?



It’s time for some red-pen savagery! Below is the first chapter of a novel I “finished” a few months back. I have sent it out to some agents, but there was undoubtedly some kind of solar flare that kept the instant medley of “Yes, I want it!” replies from arriving back to me. Rather than darken more inboxes with my shrieks, I thought I’d revisit the first chapter, to see if its joints are properly oiled.

First chapters, of course, should have the needed amount of firecrackers or sure-footed feints or character conniptions to move a reader from “I’m not sure” to “I will lick every page of this book.” My biggest blanket question: does this first chapter draw you in and make you want to continue? It introduces the three central characters: the bit-of-a-blowhard narrator, his constrained boss, and a homeless guy who’s about to get all shook up—and not just from the earthquake.

My specific question is: does the introduction of some backstory material—five paragraphs of such, starting at paragraph eight—deter reading interest, in that it steps away from the immediacy of the earthquake accounting? To me, that bit of expository material serves to get a necessary serving of the narrator’s perspective, with the quaking quickly taken up again. Or is it just distraction?

Thanks for any thoughts on the questions and the chapter in general.


Chapter 1

I was thinking about my Studebaker when the quake hit. Though it’s not exactly a showstopper, it’s a ’63 Lark, and pretty sweet. The Studey was on my mind because a moment before the building went bonkers I’d been looking at Della’s legs. She was wearing one of those napkin-sized skirts she sometimes wears and her legs are all the way up to there anyway. I always tried not to stare—I think I’ve perfected this method of looking off in a fake distracted way and then flicking my eyes back. I can get away with zeroing in on her stems without getting caught, I think. It was almost quitting time, and I wasn’t paying much actual attention to anything.

So there I was standing in my cubicle holding some papers and Della was standing at the copy machine in that skirt and I was thinking that maybe if those Nazi mechanics of mine would fix that problem on the Studey, this time I could finally ask Della out without worrying that my car would stall at a light and maybe leave us in the Tenderloin without wheels and me looking like Doofus Number One. And then the quake hit.

Now it’s not like I’m a quake virgin or anything. I’m a California boy all the way, and have been through more than a couple shakers in my thirty-plus, including one in the 70s when I was staying in Santa Barbara where I watched a nearby hillside seem to turn to liquid—but that was just my eyes jiggling. And since I’d moved to the City I’d felt the earth skip a beat more than a couple of times. I’ve always sort of liked it—the land stretching its legs a bit and all. And now it was almost the 90s, and there hadn’t been a real big bumper for a while. But this was different.

Different because Consolidated Leasing (yeah, that’s where I work—could a business name be any more lame?) is on the eighth floor of a new building on the edge of downtown, and it’s built to flex in a quake—and man was it flexing. But different yet because even with the flex, even with me having rocked and rolled through my share of quakes, this shaker seemed special right from the get-go.

I felt it in my stomach first, a kind of squeezy uncomfortable feeling, like riding on one of those old centrifugal-force carnival rides where you lean against a wall on a spinning, circular platform, and then the floor drops away while you spin faster, pinning you to the wall in an awful, verge-of-nausea way. I always hated those rides, but I would always ride ’em when I could. You can’t be smart all the time, I guess.

So my stomach did a couple of pirouettes before I really even knew what was going on and then the floor started moving in a real greasy way, a kind of sliding, humping, fucked-up kind of way, and I was finally clued in that it was an earthquake—and that it was a big one. There seemed to be a second wave that had more kick than the first and then the building really stepped onto the dance floor. It swayed big-time, and I mean swayed like you’ve downed ten tequila shooters and slapped yourself in the temple with an unabridged dictionary.

The jolt punched me into the edge of my cubicle, and I hit the corner about armpit height, hard, and then I stumbled to one knee. Though I pretty much forgot about scoping Della, she was still right in front of me and I saw that she was clutching the sides of the copying machine with both arms, a love-death grip. From my angle it looked like the machine was actually lifting into the air a little, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t exactly the Rock of Gibraltar myself. Also from my angle I saw that her little skirt had hiked up even further so that I could see where the thighs of those fine legs moved right up into that round rump, which was covered by red panties. I filed that away in one of those micro-seconds because it’s really no time for my standard lech act, considering that the office was in a state of total pandemonium, and I’m not completely convinced that the entire building wasn’t going to go kablooey right down onto Market Street.

It might help to know that our office is not going to win any design awards for innovation or architectural flair or for that matter, the quality of its business concerns. Sure, it’s an OK building at the corner of Market and Main, just off the Embarcadero. We lease big equipment to big companies. Big deal. If your company needs a fleet of trucks to shoot widgets from Daly City to Jersey City, we’re in the book. If your five thousand employees need five hundred copiers, and you don’t want to pay up front, we’ll meet you around the back. And if you’re a big wheel and you want to flash it, we’ll even arrange for you to lease a corporate jet on the cheap—if you call thirty thousand a month cheap. Of course, we don’t own any of this crap we lease anyway—we’re just middlemen, picking up as much change as spills out of the pockets of corporate America on its way from here to there.

The office is modern enough, which is to say that that oatmeal-puke fur that lines the cubicle walls isn’t torn and the Sparkletts water bottles get changed on a regular basis. There are about thirty people that work in the office (and about twenty lawyers that work outside), and it’s mostly a young bunch, though the sales guys have some mileage on their faces and plenty of air in their spare tires. But I don’t deal with those guys anyway. I really only deal with the people in the so-called Editorial department, issuing decrees from my exalted throne as Proofreading Coordinator.

We do documents at Consolidated. Oh boy, do we do documents. Paper industry big-wigs must rely on leasing contracts for their year-end bonuses. If your company wants to lease office furniture for a three-story building, the leasing contract might be a story tall all by itself. But that’s not to say it’s an interesting story. Contracts are about 98 percent fat, and that’s all the boilerplate mumbo-jumbo that goes into all the contracts, whether the items being leased are tanks or tortilla chips.

We’ve got that phalanx of lawyers twiddling the same documents in twenty different ways depending on the piddling new info in the contracts, and since lawyers couldn’t be bothered to spend any extra time exercising their eyeballs on the precious billable words they’ve inserted into the contracts, we need a whole crew—well, two, plus me to bless their sweaty efforts—to make sure that every T is not only crossed, but in the correct typeface, line length and proper page placement.

That takes an editor’s eyes (though we call ’em proofers so they don’t ask for raises too often), and those eyes must be overseen by yours truly, the executive editor, a title I no doubt deserve, but this being Consolidated, they act as though they’d conferred the Order of the Knights of Malta on me with my paltry present title. The fact that I have a Bachelor’s in Philosophy (and even a year in grad school) doesn’t seem to carry any pay-scale weight either. I try to be philosophical about it.

I wasn’t feeling particularly philosophical when the cubicles started playing bumper cars with each other. Since our building was getting so loosey-goosey, and we were on the top floor (the eighth), office stuff was really starting to scoot around with each pendulum swing of the building. Two of the tallest filing cabinets toppled with a huge crash, but I could barely hear that because of the shouts and screams that were ricocheting around the office. After I’d righted myself a little using my cubicle wall, the next round of building flexing took my monitor tumbling off my desk, and it exploded on impact. When I whirled around to look at its scattered remains, another tremor hit that seemed to run sideways from the direction of the first. I was plunked right down in the aisle between the cubicle rows so that I sort of fell on my back and my butt, with my legs a little in the air. That gave me a splendid view of some of the plasterboard roof panels of the acoustic ceiling above, which were now deserting the roof in droves and diving to the floor.

I sprang up, but was staggered a bit by a rolling motion of the building. I noticed that the most egregious example of wretched corporate art that the office possessed (on a lease, of all things) had jumped to its deserved death off the wall. It had been pierced by the weird sharp-edged desk lamp that one of the graphic artists had brought in to try and prove that she wasn’t a corporate drone. I had a fleeting thought that I hadn’t appreciated her creativity before. At this point, at least six people were crowded into the office’s open double-doorway, seeking wall-joint strength like good Californians should. Unfortunately for them, that was also the primary office exit, leading to the elevators and staircases and what seemed now to be an impossibly long flight away from a building that was rumbling like it was moving to a good belly laugh.

The bulk of the office populace was now pouring toward those open double doors, where that half-dozen of the first mad scramblers had fled. The doorway people were half-crouching, some with arms entangled, all leaning on the person next to them, all wide-eyed and open-mouthed as the floors and walls did a little tango. They didn’t intend to abandon their protected place in the doorway, but those intentions had to negotiate with those of the half-crazed stream of souls coming toward them who had no intention of remaining in the building. I glanced back at the cubicles, seeing two people from Payroll standing wall-eyed in the aisle, while a rivulet of a toppled Sparkletts bottle trickled between them toward me. When I turned back to head for the door, my boss Megan was standing in front of me.

In front of me doesn’t quite explain it though. When I turned back toward Megan, I was wearing her, rather like an apron, since I had turned holding both my arms out from my waist and she had moved with her arms up and forward toward me. Since she’s about a foot shorter than me, just in turning around I ended up involuntarily clasping her to my chest, which surprised us both.

I grabbed her by the shoulders and said “Megan!” which was all I could manage. My ante was too high for her, however—she couldn’t even speak. We’ve all heard that phrase “white as a ghost.” Just another phrase that’s lost its elastic—but Megan brought a rich new meaning to a poor phrase.

She was drained of color, paste-white, a fully credible white that would never pretend to be the pallor of a living being. But I did detect a little pinkness in the center of her face: her tongue, usually as discreet as all of Megan’s doings, now blatant because she was unable to engage it to make conversation. It rested limp on the bottom of her widely open mouth. Behind the heavy black horn-rims of her Elvis Costello glasses, Megan’s bright blue eyes shrieked the words her tongue couldn’t manage.

I did a little pas de deux with her in the aisle, spinning her by the shoulders toward the exit. In thinking of it afterward, I longed for a video: my formidable boss, always cordial but always reserved, impenetrable and boss-like, spun like an addled child and pointed toward the door. “I think we should get out,” I said in as manly of a voice I could muster.

We were near the tail end of the crowd moving toward and through the doorways. The first human wall of resistance clinging to the entryway had been breached—and like bowling pins, most had scattered, choosing the staircase path preferred by the bulk of those in flight. Probably two minutes, three at most had passed since the initial shock hit, and the building still seemed to be reverberating, though I couldn’t judge time or the trembling with any accuracy. I shepherded Megan past the lone doorway holdout, Sheldon Shenk from Accounting, who we all called Squink behind his ample back. He was gripping the doorsill with both hands, his eyes wet and dreamy as we went by.

“Squink, you’d better head down. The worst of it’s over,” I said as we passed him. I thought I was getting the hang of this whole leadership-in-a-crisis thing, what with Megan acceding to every tiny pressure of my arm, and me feeling like most everything’s in control. It was only when my knees buckled at the first staircase step that I realized that my whole body was slightly quivering, and that I had lost that fine motor control needed for precise movement.

I grabbed the handrail and steadied myself, though Megan, in full zombie mode, didn’t notice my little stumble. At that moment, she might not have noticed if I had a long scaly tail and flippers. We merged into a mass of semi-orderly building deserters, moving haltingly down the staircases mostly three abreast. I saw Della ahead of us, looking back with an alarmed look and then lurching forward. My crew, Silvie and Crenshaw, was ahead of her—I could see Silvie throw her arms up while she talked to Crenshaw as they descended. She had a characteristic way of flinging her arms about; I thought it was because she always wore about twenty bangles and wrist bracelets on each arm that clicked and clattered when she jostled them. I was glad to see they were both all right.

The only person I could see that had an injury was Mr. McManus, the portly Vice President, who had a pretty good gash on his forehead, against which he held a slightly bloody handkerchief. There was a lot of tangible tension going down the stairs, which was a process less than brisk. “What if there’s another quake? We’re likely to get crunched on these stairs,” someone said. “God, I wonder what my house looks like? I just put all this decorative glass on shelves in my living room,” somebody else answered. “Goddamn. I thought the whole goddamn building was going down! The whole damn thing!” said one of the lawyers, who’d just come into the office before it hit.
We came to the landing for the seventh floor, where we met a surge of employees from the big insurance firm that worked there. I could see a couple of women who were crying, and several people who looked disheveled and shaken up, but no major injuries. An older man in a suit was standing on the side of the stairwell saying over and over, “Just move slowly and watch out for your neighbor. It’s OK, just move slowly down and watch out for your neighbor.”

Just a few steps ahead someone I didn’t know had a portable radio pinned to his ear. “Seven-point five. They’re saying seven-point five, and major damage in the City. Big fires in the Marina. Not certain where it actually hit yet.” We were slowing way down on the stairs as we came in contact with people emptying out of the sixth-floor offices. People were starting to get more anxious, pushing a little, and I could see a big guy ahead of us trying to force his way through. But when I looked at Megan, she looked weirdly calm. Some color had started to come back into her face.

“Megan, are you feeling better? You OK?”

She turned to me and nodded and softly said, “Yes.” Her eyes still looked as if their owner was off vacationing, but at least she resembled the upright—if not uptight—boss that I reported to that morning. I turned into a bit of a robot myself after that, just moving kind of numbly with the crowd, listening to people speculate on what had happened, the fear squeezing their voices. I wondered how my house was. Sure, it was a rental, so it’s not my house, but it had been hard enough finding the place after I left Santa Cruz in such a hurry a year before. It’s a big Victorian, with a huge bay window in the Lower Haight. I hoped Drew, my housemate, hadn’t been standing in front of that window debating his next decorating move. We hadn’t lost any windows in our office, but I was plenty worried that big old house wouldn’t have flexed quite like our spiffy new building.

It might have been thirty, forty minutes to get down to the lobby—it seemed like hours. Then, suddenly, we were out on Market Street. It was pandemonium. The noise was the first shock. The combined sounds—shouts, crashes, horns, machine noises, police sirens—hit with a physical impact, so that I ducked a little when I stepped out onto the street. The street and sidewalks were teeming with people, some milling about, some standing alone, many walking in waves up and down Market.

Traffic was completely stopped, with some cars left at odd angles in the middle of the street. I saw an empty Muni bus almost sideways, straddling both lanes with its door open. There was smashed glass all over the place, much of it from sidewalk-level storefront windows. Police cars were parked or in movement in all directions. I saw water gushing over a low rooftop wall and down the front of a nearby five- or six-story building onto the sidewalk below. Then I watched an ambulance pull up on the sidewalk of the building right next to ours and spill out its attendants, who rushed inside. I could hear sirens near and far. I checked out the big office building right across the street, and it had thick white smoke pushing out of broken windows on the third floor. It was madness.

People from our office had gathered in a loose circle on the sidewalk edge and in the street, trying to decide what to do. One of the sales guys was trying to get people to go to the Gnome’s Hat, a dive bar around the corner, but nobody was listening. I thought I should try to call the house, but the only phone in sight had six or seven people crowded around it. I spun around in a small circle, looking up and down the street, and at my fellow workers, who didn’t seem to be able to put a plan of action together. Silvie and Crenshaw stood off to the side, Silvie waving her arms and Crenshaw sucking on a cigarette with fierce concentration.

Then I noticed Megan staring at me. Though her complexion was returning to normal, she still looked stricken. She looked at me steadily for a moment and then said, slowly, in a tight-throated way that made her words croak a bit, “Hayden, I would greatly appreciate if you would walk me to my apartment. I’m feeling quite ill.” She fluttered her arm toward my shoulder, and briefly rested it there and then she looked away. I thought I could see her trembling a little.

“Well, that’d probably be OK, Megan. I’ll just try and call my place from your house—I’m a little worried because it’s an old building.” I tried not to smile too broadly when I said, “I’m glad to see you’re getting some blood back—your face was the color of printer paper up there.”

She touched one of her earlobes, covering one of her tiny pearl earrings. “Well, that’s probably true. This is my first earthquake, and I’d like the number to stop there.” She looked out at the crazed street scene and shuddered a little. “At the moment, I think I’d take the peril of Boston drivers over San Francisco earthquakes hands down.”

Megan had come to Consolidated from Boston only two years before. She’d been an editor there, but also (because it was a small company) the Traffic Manager or some such ungodly title at a small boutique publisher in Boston, routing manuscripts, messages, contracts and communications through that office and across that quadrant of the East Coast’s literary world. She did have all kinds of exchanges with agents and name authors, but that didn’t count much at Consolidated. But damn, that contract work did: Now she insured that leases had signatures, executives had quarterly reports and that meetings had 100% attendance. Consolidated leaned on her small frame with a vengeance, but she never seemed to be caught with a contract—or a sandy-blond hair—out of place.

Not that I’m complaining. In my storied history of bosses, I’ve had ogres, oafs and other assorted hind ends. Megan was the picture of reason, calm and cordiality. I’d spent a few idle moments in the past wondering how Consolidated could have lured Megan out of her Boston environs. She seemed so quintessentially Right Coast and proper, a person who could probably get away with wearing white gloves to work without it seeming wholly absurd, someone who might not visibly stiffen if you spoke to her with food in your mouth, but whose delicate glance away would prompt that mouth’s closing. Even though she was just a year or two older than me, her manner seemed ten. But maybe I’m not telling it right: It’s not like she was a stiff—she was just someone you couldn’t see getting loose. She wasn’t stuffy in some dried-up way; she was simply precise. Her opinions—and her English—were never sloppy.

Maybe the source of that tidy English was the fact that she was English: she grew up in suburban London, an only child of well-to-do parents who left when she was nine, after her father accepted a position at a Boston law firm, while teaching law part-time at Boston University. Her mom had been born in Boston, but had met her dad in London. Suffice it to say that Megan was the only one I knew who had had a nanny. At the moment, both of us (and maybe even the City itself) could have probably used a nanny, but we would have to soldier on without.

First things first—get off of Market Street. I knew Megan lived somewhere on Taylor in Russian Hill, so I figured we’d walk up to California and maybe move north on Stockton, skirting Chinatown. I knew that would first take us through some of the big-boy buildings in the financial district, but I didn’t want to flank the Embarcadero—I’d remembered that big waves can follow an earthquake, and though that seemed pretty unlikely in the Bay, I’d always had a weird fear of drowning. Megan still seemed only semi-coherent, so I just gestured the way and we moved through the chaos.

We started walking up to where California hits Market and I saw Leg Man, in his usual spot, not far from Consolidated. I saw him almost every morning, since he set up shop near the coffee stand where I regularly fueled up. Leg Man was a homeless guy, or at least he looked like a homeless guy, and like many of the homeless on Market, he had a regular spot where he plied his trade. The ways the homeless folks hit you up for dough on Market Street varied: some would try a story on every passerby, walking with you a bit to fast-talk a dollar. Some had crude or artistic signs with jokes on them—“Homeless man needs money for college and beer” or sad descriptions of their plight. Others would just sit slumped on the sidewalk, not looking at the masses moving by, maybe with a plastic cup to take any donations.

Leg Man was different. Leg Man had an artificial leg that he set up on the sidewalk, and at the top of the leg (a little above the knee), where there was a little platform/connecting bracket, he’d position a small metal can for people to drop money in. He usually stood stock-still back off the sidewalk from his leg—he didn’t seem to need the leg to stand—looking at everyone passing by, a small scowl on his face. He was late forties, maybe fifty, black, a big, stocky guy with wild graying hair. Today, amidst the madness, his leg was next to him against the storefront wall he normally leaned against. He undoubtedly knew that pickings would be slim on a day when all of the City was topsy-turvy.

I gave him a nod, and his eyes tightened a bit, but otherwise, he gave me no acknowledgment. But he gave Megan a long, sharp look and then gazed down the crowded street. He’d seen me many times, but I never knew if he recognized me or not, though I’d pushed a buck his way a few times. I wondered for a second if he knew Megan, but then we turned up toward California.

California was only marginally better than Market. The same twisted street scene of stopped cars, blocked drivers, bewildered pedestrians and buildings with some bites taken out of them. We headed into the living traffic, surrounded by confusion and crazy conversation. A story moved from behind us and forward through us, as though it were an electric shock: “The Bay Bridge collapsed! Whole thing’s down in the water. Rush hour—can you imagine it?” It was truly surreal—not merely the thought that that huge structure over the Bay had fallen, but how there was a tangible feeling that the story was like a swarm of bees or wasps that moved electrically through the crowd, stinging people with news as they passed.

I didn’t really believe the thing about the bridge, and was going to tell Megan as much, but when I looked at her, she just glanced at me with a look of such sick grimness that I didn’t say anything. We hurried on as best we could, Megan clacking in her heels through the crowd. She was wearing one of those pinstriped, pantsuit kind of things she often wore, when she wasn’t wearing a dress. I wonder if she even owned a pair of jeans.
On the corner of California and Kearny was a scene I won’t forget: a middle-aged man was just turning around in a small circle, weeping loudly, and just a few feet away, a heavily tattooed woman who looked like a bike messenger was gesturing to the sky and laughing maniacally. It was hard to tell which one was in worse shape. We moved on.

We headed up Stockton and started to climb the hill. On the edge of Chinatown I saw a strange sight: there were a bunch of those pressed, flattened ducks that they sell in plastic bags spilled all over the sidewalk, along with a bunch of root- and twig-like things, some kind of loose tea or herbs. All of the display racks of the ducks and some of the shelves had flipped over and spilled everything, and a guy that looked like he might have been the proprietor was just staring at the stuff on the ground.

We got over to Taylor and started heading north and up and if you know Taylor, you know I mean up. Taylor was quieter than the streets we’d passed, though there was full evidence that something had given the street a big shake. It was pretty close to dark now, and darker yet, because there was no power. It was quite eerie to ascend the street and come to corners where you could see toward downtown and the Bay. San Francisco with no lights was something strange, the tall buildings dark and brooding, with sirens still going off in every direction.

I was surprised at how well Megan moved in those heels up that hill. It’s not like she’s out of shape or anything; in fact, as I walked close behind her I found myself admiring the pull of her hips as she tackled that hill, with the street’s angle and her motion tugging her loose pants so that they outlined her small, tight frame. I shook my head a little bit—I can’t think of Megan that way, no. My mind quickly moved on to those red panties of Della’s I’d caught a glimpse of that morning. I was so deep into a warm thought about Della that when Megan turned back to me and spoke I almost jumped.

“This is it—I’m on the top floor.”

I glanced up at a five- or six-story apartment complex, the Belvedere, with its street address written out in script letters with a flourish. Russian Hill might only be five or six miles from my place in the Haight, but it was a world away as well. There was no obvious damage to the stately old building, though it looked like someone had stacked a bunch of cardboard boxes out front filled with broken stuff.

“OK. I probably should get over to my place and see if it’s still standing. Take care, Megan.”

I turned back down the hill and started off. Megan’s voice behind me was too sharp for the short distance between us.

“Hayden! Hayden, maybe you could come up for a moment and help me determine if everything’s all right. I, I think that I wouldn’t be able to right my bigger bookcases if they’ve fallen.”

She looked at me quickly and looked away down the street, her hand scratching a bit at her face.

“Well, yeah, sure. I mean, maybe just for a minute. I really should get home.” Man, at the beginning of this day, could I ever have predicted I’d be asked into the boss’s apartment that night?

All it took was a huge earthquake.

The Viking Origin of Editing

As a historian who relies exclusively on lies, only I can sufficiently explain that Vikings were the original editors. And effective editors they were.

Please view the film below, where I let the world know about the early—and brutal—days of editing, and how that has affected editors today.

Take a Punctuation Mark to Lunch

Question Mark

A comma, a period and a semicolon walk into a bar … oh, wait! I can’t finish the joke; I forget how it’s punctuated.

Wow, tough crowd.

But punctuation’s no joke, my friends—each punctuation mark has a grave (or acute) purpose: sometimes bearing a serious slant, sometimes swinging a strong, straight shoulder to torque the weight of words through thought rivers. Think of the cymbal crash of the exclamation point, the yearning intrigue of the question mark, the potential hidden menace of the semicolon.

But behind the sober, workaday faces of those little bits of pause and check, it’s not so black and white. Every punctuation mark has its own personality, much more idiosyncratic than that of a bland worker wielding the traffic signals of sentence flow. Like any of us, they appreciate the anonymity of a job well done, but at the same time, they don’t mind letting on that there’s a purple sash under the white cotton shirt …

But if you want to fully know the compelling reasons why you should take your favorite punctuation mark to lunch, you’ll have to go over to Writer Unboxed, where I finish up this exposé on both the sappy and the sordid aspects of those tricky lines, dots, slashes and dashes.

Dribbling Metaphors (and Other Sporting Pursuits)

The grammar coach works with a recalcitrant verb

 A Grammar Coach Works with a Recalcitrant Verb

It’s easy to tire of the exhausted sports metaphor: “He dropped the ball; it’s in your court; that was a slam dunk; we had to punt.” Most clichés have altogether lost their pepper, but ones involving sporting feats—employed with particularly ruthless disregard for their applicability in the business world—seem to have withered before they even rounded second base. So for me to drag you, punting and dunking, into an arena where basketball is used as a metaphorical muse for writing might cause you to think this is an exercise in sweaty nonsense.

And yet. This past weekend I went to a professional basketball game in Santa Cruz, where the Oakland Warriors have their D (developmental) League team. If you’ve watched (or even played) much basketball, it can look like a manic maelstrom of movement, the ball whipping from player to player, defenders darting, many a feint and many a collision of shoulders and legs. And that’s just on one possession of the ball. It begins all over again when the ball changes hands.

But when a team is running the court in high gear, when passes are crisp, cuts away from or to the basket are sharp, when a jump shot floats off the fingers of the shooter like a soft fluttering dove to nestle in the net, it’s a thing of beauty. That’s how it is when words, sentences, paragraphs are working right. There is motion in language, there is exchange of motion, there is anticipation and delivery. The smooth pause can lead to an explosive conclusion; a quiet turn of phrase can open up a delicate cat and mouse communication, one that can lead to a ferocious end or a finessed bit of finery.

Words Work in Teams

While I watched the action on the court, word weirdo that I am, I thought how words work in teams, how there is an energy exchange between words, and how when you move them around in different ways, their meaning is recast. So it is with the movement on the court. Of course, the court movement can have a slapdash, arrhythmic outcome, as can a poorly rendered sentence or paragraph. Use the wrong verb and your sentence sags. Put your center out on top of your offense in place of your point guard, and watch your offense go to sleep.

I also started thinking of how your first-string team (your conflicted protagonist, the opening lines of your blog post, the value prop of your business) is supported by the structural material of your second string team (the backstory, the summary section of the blog, the features/benefits box), and how your bench material can hold the dam together while the prime design shines. But then I realized I was mixing sports metaphors with other writing clichés, kind of like making a meal of old boxing gloves and thumbtacks, and nobody’s hungry for that. Slam dunk!

Addendum: Awesome Engagement (and Comment for Cash)

I am a finalist in Firepole Marketing’s Awesome Engagement Strategies guest-posting contest. My post, which is about how being a human being in your dealings with clients or with your audience is so much more helpful than being a crazed-for-sales wolverine, is running now. I’d greatly appreciate it you’d stop by and agree, disagree or leave an epic poem in the comments section. The five best commenters throughout the contest get $100. If I win the contest, I get to do some kind of go-go dancing with Danny Iny, the site’s head honcho, so go out and buy some thigh-high white boots for me in anticipation.