Week thirteen: Words do matter

It is week thirteen of 2019. How’s the writing going? Did you try shaking up your writing routine last week? If so, I’d love to hear about how it went.

I’m writing this on my long journey back to San Francisco from the American Copy Editors Society conference in Providence, Rhode Island. My brain is stuffed to capacity with everything I absorbed, and it’s going to take me a few weeks to process everything, but here are my immediate takeaways, in no particular order: 

  • You know you are among word nerds when a speaker gets a laugh for an elaborate joke involving unicode characters, hexadecimals, and inverted commas. #ACESRuleBreaking

  • Authors, your words are in good hands. I spent three days in the company of 826 fellow editors who care deeply about your books, your words, and you. I heard editors discussing how to phrase diplomatic author queries, how to craft editorial letters that make authors feel like they are part of a conversation, and how to establish systems that help authors meet their goals. #ACESDevelopmentalEditing#ACESCoachingWriters

  • Introvert editors, this is the conference for you. I’ve never been to a conference full of self-aware introverts before, and I can tell you that it is a delight. If you need to be quiet, introverts will understand your cues and leave you be. If you are ready to socialize, introverts will understand all manner of awkwardness. (Plus, Bananagrams!) Mary Norris, aka the “Comma Queen” at The New Yorker, described it thus: “If you have ever been a copy editor among copy editors, you know the joy of being in the company of your fellow-nerds, and hearing them speak out loud of things that normally stay inside your head.” Indeed. You can read her short write-up here.

  • The English-language corpora hosted at Brigham Young University can answer many tricky editorial questions, particularly for historical fiction. Need to know whether “handbag” or “purse” was the prevalent term in the US in the 1920s? You can find an answer here – if you can learn how to navigate this hairy beast of a database. #ACESCorpusLinguistics

  • Style choices and words aren’t “right” or “wrong.” You have to evaluate the context and the internal logic of a piece of writing, and strive for clarity and consistency.

  • Most grammar and style rules can be broken – if you know the rules and know why you are breaking them. #ACESGenreCE

  • When writing about death, try to avoid euphemisms (there are over three hundred in English!) and be aware of the diverse ways cultures discuss and mark death. In fiction, be sure that death isn’t gratuitous and doesn’t reinforce racial stereotypes. #ACESConfrontingDeath

  • When you are writing or editing sex scenes, watch for continuity (are those pants already off?) and for extra appendages (characters are prone to sprout extra hands). For scenes with two or more participants, it can be helpful to assign each character a different highlight color to check that pronouns and antecedents match up. #ACESRomanceEditing

  • The world is changing, we are changing, and language is changing. Makers of dictionaries and style guides are listening and weighing and discussing, and they make changes based on what they find in the world. As Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large of Merriam-Webster, put it: “Progress does happen, things do change, and words do matter.” Case in point: the AP Style Guide’s updated guidelines on writing about race and racism. #ACESStyleJam

If you are interested in learning more about any of these topics, dive into the #ACES2019 tag on Twitter to see what other editors found valuable, or click on any of the hashtags linked above for notes from specific sessions. You can also access many of the presentation slides and/or presenter handouts here. If you write or edit romance, I particularly recommend Sara Brady’s presentation, “The Tycoon’s Secret Werewolf Bride” (which is also, obviously, the runaway winner for best presentation title). I didn’t attend Mark Allen’s “Edit Sober” presentation, but his handout of “55 Tips for On-Your-Feet Editing” was being passed around my lunch table for photographs like a piece of lost scripture. The panel discussion on “Navigating Gendered Language and Avoiding Unconscious Bias” was so popular that I couldn’t make it into the room, but the presentation slides are thorough and worth a look.

Here’s to the words mattering, y’all,

Next week’s book: Jessica Brody, Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
What kind of word nerd are you?