I’ve never been great with grammar. Even though I’m a writer, I never officially learned it. My middle school typically taught grammar in 7th grade, but right before I started, Mr. Paulsen -- the longtime grammar stickler -- was replaced by Miss Fitzgerald, who favored nature journals and dioramas over sentence mapping and proper punctuation.
Now I know grammar intuitively, but I don’t explicitly know the rules. So I didn’t quite know what to expect when I got my manuscript back from the HarperCollins copyediting team. I’m proud to say that I had minimal embarrassing gaffes, though I was surprised and enlightened by some of their other fixes. Here are some of my favorites.
1) The quirks of certain style guides (even if they go against what you’ve known all along).
HarperCollins uses the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition “in matters of spelling, punctuation, and style”. What threw me off most was the treatment of quotes.
For example, I originally wrote:
He could have been nicer, considering I was his “protégée”, not his punching bag.
But that sentence was changed to:
He could have been nicer, considering I was his “protégée,” not his punching bag.
Commas (and periods) inside the quotes. Weird, huh?
2) Consistency and continuity.
Were you one of those kids who was really good at that “spot what’s different” game? Well, if you were a savant, then maybe you could be a copyeditor.
A straight-forward example: I called something a “sesame-yogurt mousse”, and then later called it a “sumac-yogurt mousse”. Nope.
A more involved example: a character doesn't introduce himself with his last name, but the main character knows it a couple chapters later. (cringe)
3) Placement in space.
I’d like to think that I fully imagined these scenes, but when you get closer to the finish line, you have to really think about the physicality of scenes, like blocking actors on a stage.
I didn’t do that, so this round I ironed out a bunch of placement issues. Like, I’d say Tia was on the couch, but then two pages later, her boyfriend has his hand on the small of her back, as if standing. (How can that happen?) I said Tia and Chef Pascal were sitting across from one another, but then he puts his hand on her knee (uh, kinda hard).
In early writing rounds, I was more concerned with character, language and story. But you definitely have to think about the physical logistics, or else your story will feel unrooted in reality and therefore disorienting.
4) Repeated words.
I tend to do this a lot. Do you? Personally, when I agonize over a sentence, it can be hard to see something very obvious. Here are actual sentences where I had to later eliminate repeated words.
She flashed a big toothy smile and took off the big men’s coat…
...sophisticated and poised, like she belonged at a place like Madison Park Tavern…
they’d always been apologetic affairs, excursions where I always felt underdressed…
Even though I just pointed these repeated words, they're not always easy to see... right?
Other random things I learned…
5) When it comes to dialogue, the difference between a dash (cutting someone off) and ellipses (trailing off in thought).
6) Popsicle™ is trademarked by Unilever. So in my book, you’ll see "ice pop".
7) And this was the most amusing comment, related to fact-checking:
Eggs are usually near the dairy—revise? Or is this how the LES Whole Foods is arranged?
To which I responded:
Regular eggs are near dairy, but "exotic" eggs are near produce.
That's one thing I do know.