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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Guest Blog: M. S. Spencer: Paean to Editors, or Whack-a-Mole

Don’t you just love editors? I do.

What I’m about to discuss should in no way be attributed to any specific editor. I’ll name NO names and the order in which I mention certain fetishes….er, fads….or foibles, in no way reflects my experience. I want to make it very clear that the following essay is an appreciative, affectionate humor “poke” at my favorite people in the whole world—without whom our manuscripts would be a mess indeed.

After three books birthed and two on the way it seems an appropriate moment to reminisce a bit about my experiences with copy editors. First let me declare that I have learned an amazing amount from every editor who’s ever taken a yellow highlighter to my work. After each encounter my work improves and I am able to pick out tendencies in my writing faster (and fix them faster).

I think every writer has a pet word or construct or two. A good exercise—now that we’re blessed with word processing—is to go through your manuscript in the penultimate edit and only look for the number of times “smile” or “grin” or “shrugged” comes up. I tell you I was shocked, shocked, to discover that I used the word “shiver” almost forty times in one novel.(You won’t find them now of course.) Some indispensable words may have only a few suitable synonyms—“laugh” is one of those. I mean, how many times do you want your heroine to titter? If your hero chortles at frequent intervals, your reader might suspect he is feeble-minded. So, you mess around with the phrasing for awhile, but if you can’t rewrite the sentence, sometimes you have to alter the character’s entire reaction to an event. So poor Moe goes from thinking the joke is funny to tearing up because it reminds him of his dead Chihuahua. Raw power in the hands of the writer is a dangerous and delicious thing

But let us return to the topic. Editors of course are all well-schooled in grammar and all the niceties, but they do have their pet peeves. As you move from editor to editor it can begin to feel like a game of Whack-A-Mole. For example, one hates, absolutely hates, the Oxford comma, while the next one seems to indiscriminately sprinkle commas all over the page. So you madly scramble to take one out and lookee, there’s another one!

In no particular order I list the items I’ve had to add, delete, diminish or increase over the years: “had,” “was,” [comma], italics, semi-colons, colons, and “and” or “but” at the beginning of a sentence. There’s no denying that using these creatures sparingly is a good thing. But I can’t help but wonder why one editor zeroes in on the “buts” and one on the “hads”? Was it something in their childhood? Why does “was” not bother one, but “had” makes them break out in hives? And is there some evil genius out there who, just when you’ve whacked the comma mole out of the park, dreams up another pet peeve for you to deal with?

Editors, while I cheerfully invite critique, kindly refrain from adding yellow highlights to this blog. Marianne HATES that.

Although M. S. Spencer has lived in Chicago, Boston, New York, France, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt, and England, the last 30 years have been spent mostly in Washington, D.C. as a librarian, Congressional staff assistant, speechwriter, editor, birdwatcher, kayaker, policy wonk, non-profit director and parent. Once she escaped academia, she worked for the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Department of the Interior, in several library systems, both public and academic, and at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. She holds a BA from Vassar College, a Diploma in Arabic Studies from the American University in Cairo, and Masters in Anthropology and in Library Science from the University of Chicago. She divides her time among Virginia, Maine and Florida. All of this tends to insinuate itself into her works.

Writing as M. S. Spencer, she has published three contemporary romance novels. Lost in His Arms is set in the spinning world of 1991 when countries fell like flies and a fixer had his hands full, and Lost and Found, in which we follow a desperate wife searching the wilds of Maine and Florida for the husband who disappeared, both bestsellers at ( My latest release is Losers Keepers from Secret Cravings (, a tale of love, lust and treachery set on the island of Chincoteague. Triptych, a tale of lost artworks, jealousy, sex, larceny and genius, will be released by Secret Cravings in November.

Losers Keepers, by M. S. Spencer Information and Blurb:
Published July 27, 2011
eBook, 72,000 words, contemporary romantic suspense
M/F, 3 flames
ISBN: 978-1-936653-95-9

Dagne Lonegan, aka Dear Philomena, advice dispenser extraordinaire, hoped that spending a year on the Eastern Shore island of, Chincoteague to write her novel would clear her sinuses, if not her heart, of any feelings for Jack Andrews, erstwhile lover and long-time jerk. It’s just her luck that her first week on the island she’s in the right place at the right time to be involved with a murder. Only she doesn’t know it. Unfortunately, the murderer doesn’t know she doesn’t know. Strange and dangerous things begin happening to her, interfering with her new romance with Tom Ellis, the handsome manager of the National Wildlife Refuge. Complications ensue when her Jack arrives to take charge of the murder investigation.

Will Dagne stick with the tall, cool glass of a Ranger or fall back into the arms of her first tempestuous passion?
Buy link:

Where you can find M. S. Spencer:


Tina Donahue said...

What would we do without editors? Like you, I'm prone to repeat words and I'm always amazed when I don't catch them but my editors do. I can't thank them enough for their guidance.

mssellsworth said...

So, so true. They are invaluable. For instance, one of them will assuredly notice that I switched persons in the bio (third to first)--too much copy & paste!Thanks for reading! M. S.

Miriam Newman said...

Good article. Yes, it is a challenge keeping up with everyone's pet peeves, isn't it? I'm just wondering if anyone else is driven bonkers by the improper use of ellipses? When I see thousands of these sprinkled all through a manuscript--at the beginning and end of sentences, in the middle, merely linking run-on sentences instead of indicating words omitted--it makes me crazy. Taking them out makes me even crazier! Is this a pet peeve for anyone else?
(Other than that, I'm cool except when someone writes "had went." That makes me choke on my coffee. :)

Cynthia Arsuaga said...

So, so true Meredith. Editors are our lifesavers, and each has their own version of jackets they toss us to save our prose. Thanks for the post today!

Lelani Black said...

I know a couple of authors who love getting their editorial feedback. Me? Please just hang me by my big toe from the nearest tree limb. While I am nothing without my editor, there are times when tree limbs start looking really good over first round edits :)

M. S. Spencer said...

Ditto to everyone! Miriam, yes! I'd forgotten about the ellipse debate. I'm sure you've memorized Lynn Truss' books, right? M. S. Spencer

M. S. Spencer said...

Btw, mssellsworth is me--can't ever decide which name to use! M. S. Spencer

Miriam Newman said...

Right, Meredith! "Eats Shoots and Leaves" sits on my desk right next to "Elements of Style." It's a great little grammar book for anyone having issues or even if they're not--it's just fun to read.

Toni Noel said...

Ah, edits. We all hate them, but can't do without them. Great Blog, but you forgot "that".

Toni Noel

Liz said...

I've been blessed with 2 of the MOST AMAZING editors on the planet, both of whom I hate with a burning passion at various times (depending on how sober I am). they have both made me better, if for no other reason than I know how to defend myself....and how to take criticism that starts with "You can do better" and go on to do just that.
great post.

M. S. Spencer said...

Have I opened a vein here? Toni: yes "that" how could I forget??? Miriam, I keep Shoots & Leaves by my bed to remind me that I'm not alone...:) M. S. Spencer

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