Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


December 29, 2013

The Elements of Expression: Putting Thoughts into Words by Arthur Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik: The Elements of Expression There’s an expression in Dutch: Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg. It translates approximately as, “Why don’t you just act normal? That’s already strange enough.” And how right the Dutch are: rhetorical flourishes, weak jokes, arty effects, obscure language, and the breezy style that Strunk and White warned against are all reasons to toss a book over your shoulder. But, taken too much to heart, won’t this keep-it-normal philosophy result in Soviet-cell-block-grey writing? The literary equivalent of overcooked cabbage and brown rice without salt may not get thrown across the room, but it will end up gathering dust under the bed.

Somewhere between these two extremes is writing that catches attention without bolting on superfluous ornaments. The Elements of Expression tells you how to use concrete images and unfamiliar combinations of words to produce writing that is fresh and expressive and brings delight to the reader. Arthur Plotnik provides techniques for injecting force and power into your writing, and suggests a variety of places, from rap music to Shakespeare, to find new language. Most importantly, he tells you how to make this new language your own.

Don’t waste time finding your single real voice. We rarely find our real voice . . . Our voice can be a new voice—or several—that we make real, a voice in harmony with our roots but capable of expressing the full flower of the evolving self. Like everything that breaks from the ordinary, the new voice entails risks, apprehensions, missteps. These are reasonable costs of liberation.

I expected this to be a book about writing, so the chapter on oral presentation was a delightful added bonus. We’ve all been tortured by the People Who Should Be Banned from Presenting (the flaunters of their unpreparedness: “Prepare? Do gods prepare?”). In keeping with the theme of adding expressiveness, Plotnik pleads for effective voice modulation. In the past, the baby-talk sound of the kindergarten teacher who traversed an entire octave in one word and the android-like delivery of newscasters made me think that the best modulation is the one that nobody notices (“just act normal . . .”), but when you’re a small figure on a distant stage, the audience needs more animation than you would use when speaking face to face. Plotnik tells you how to use volume, tempo, and phrasing to make your presentation sing. He finishes with his own checklist of methods for reducing the terror of public speaking (bring a marked text and an extra copy).

As always, Plotnik is a joy to read. He shares his secrets generously, and he empathizes with the yearning for effective expression that all writers, however casual, feel.

Other books by Arthur Plotnik

Better than Great: A Plenitudinous Compendium of Wallopingly Fresh Superlatives (review)
Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Punchier, More Engaging Language & Style (review)
Elements of Editing: A Modern Guide for Editors & Journalists
The Elements of Authorship (review)

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.

November 26, 2013

The Elements of Authorship by Arthur Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik: Elements of Authorship Arthur Plotnik is always fun to read. In this combination of manual and memoir, he presents the ins and outs of the world of writing—and he’s done it all: studying at the Iowa writers’ workshop, journalism, commercial writing, editing a magazine, you name it. If you’re committed to being a writer, this is your guide to the landscape of the trade.

The contents

  • Studying to write—the highlights of the writers workshops
  • Lessons to be learned from journalism
  • Writing full-time
  • Writing at home
  • Working as a commercial writer
  • How to please editors
  • The personal lives of writers
  • Getting published (“The Pit and the Pinnacle”)
  • Style and how to write well
  • Finances of writing and contracts
  • Being a poet
  • Technical considerations
  • Becoming obsolete
Every so often a newspaper reports on the “fecal dust” that blows through certain cities from the open latrines of shanty-towns. The imagery sticks in one’s mind, with that piercing word fecal and the unsettling notion of airborne waste. We thank heaven we don’t breathe it, yet day and night we are assailed by toxic drivel from office, media, and motor-mouthed acquaintances. Choked on this fecal verbiage, people turn to the literary word for refreshment.

For writers, the listener’s time is always suspended until the words can gather force. One attraction of writing is this magical opportunity to rummage for the bon mot or perfect squelch or ultimate love call while the world stands frozen. And so the writer struggles with words, chooses them with care, arranges them to refresh the listener’s mind and ear, then heaves them out and shops for better words and rearranges them for hours, days, months, until nothing can be added, excluded, or shifted to make them more refreshing, more stimulating. But when the words are uncorked in print, the effect is instantaneous: “By God, that’s what I would have said if I’d had a year to think about it!”

—“What Readers Want”

Reviewed from a library copy of the book.

October 2, 2013

When to capitalize “the”

I find capitalization one of the trickier areas of copy editing. As you try to be consistent, it’s easy to slide down a slippery slope of increasing capitalization until your document looks like the product of a Victorian letter writer.

One question that causes a lot of problems is the question of capitalizing the definite article with proper nouns. Should you write “he went to The University of British Columbia” or “to the University of British Columbia”? Is the article part of their name?

Luckily the style guides have some helpful advice. The Canadian Press Stylebook, 16th ed., has a useful entry on page 287, and The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., also deals with this topic.

Titles of works starting with “the”

In general, include the article and capitalize it:
The Taming of the Shrew
“The Lottery”

For periodicals, Chicago suggests lowercasing the article and not italicizing it, even if it is part of the official title: the New Yorker.

Canadian Press style capitalizes “the” when it is part of the name: The New Yorker (no italics because this is a newspaper style), but it uses a lowercase article for names of almanacs, the Bible, dictionaries, directories, handbooks, and so on.

Sometimes you can drop a leading “a” “an” or ”the” in a book title if it doesn’t fit the syntax of the sentence (CMOS 8.169):
Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew

“The” before a proper noun

The article is almost always lowercased:
the Supreme Court
the Panama Canal
the Constitution
the Beatles
the University of British Columbia

Some specific types of proper nouns

  • Places

    Lowercase the article except in a city name that contains “the” (CMOS 8.45):
    the Netherlands
    The Hague
  • Institutions and companies

    Chicago says that a “the” preceding the name, even if it’s part of the official name, is lowercased in running text (CMOS 8.68).
    the University of Chicago
  • Associations and unions

    Same again: lowercase “the” even if it’s part of the official name (CMOS 8.70).
    the League of Women Voters

Changes in capitalization styles

These are recommendations from two specific style guides. Organizations have their own house styles for capitalization that may deviate from the guidelines I’ve quoted here, so check your house style.

September 28, 2013

Robert Mackwood at Word Vancouver: A literary agent’s take on publishing today

Today I was at a Word Vancouver talk by Robert Mackwood: A Literary Agent’s Take on Publishing Today, presented by the Canadian Authors Association. Robert Mackwood is the director and principal agent at Seventh Avenue Literary Agency. He works with non-fiction books.

Literary agents in Canada

There are only about twenty agents in Canada: five in Vancouver, one in Halifax, and the rest in Toronto. New York City probably has about 150.

Dealing with a literary agent

Robert gets about thirty to forty queries per week (about the same as ten years ago). He can see quite quickly whether he thinks the project is something he can sell. He charges 15%, and of course, only gets paid when he makes a deal. Most agents don’t have a lot of clients. He tries to keep his client list to under forty.

Write, don’t call.

What about the proposal? He didn’t get into too much detail about the format and nuts and bolts of the proposal. Just put together a short description of your project and yourself. Describe what you’ve done so far to promote your writing, and include the trail of yeses: writing contests, magazine articles, previous publications, and any other time someone said yes to your writing. What he doesn’t really like to hear: “I can finish the manuscript in three weeks.” “We’re going to make so much money on this!” “Oprah’s going to love this!” and, worst of all, “I’ve decided I’d like to be a writer!”

Should you self-publish?

Deciding on the best publishing route is too big a topic to go into here, but here are a few points:
Advantages to self-publishingAdvantages of conventional publishing
You keep all the profitsNo up-front expenditures
You have total controlThe publisher does the marketing
It’s fastYou get the credibility of the publisher’s brand
 You benefit from the publisher’s professional expertise
If you self-publish, you have to be the publisher. Don’t rush, and make sure you get a good editor, designer, and printer. Robert estimated that you’ll have to spend at least a couple of thousand dollars to make a book that you’ll be proud of.

An important point is that a self-published book that gets decent sales and some good reviews may be picked up and re-published by a conventional publisher.

June 26, 2013

When to hyphenate

Hyphenation is one of the trickier aspects of writing and editing. As with other language choices, feelings can run high, and unusual hyphenation can stop a reader cold (“Violetpurple”? “violetpurple”? Would it have killed him to use a hyphen?*).

Here are some guidelines you can use to make quick, reasonable decisions about hyphenation.

  1. When the term appears in the dictionary, use the form in the dictionary.
  2. Use the guidelines in the style manual for the project. Generally, I use The Chicago Manual of Style, which has a detailed table of hyphenation guidelines available online.
  3. If there’s no guidance from the dictionary or style manual, apply general guidelines to make a choice and enter it in the project style sheet so it gets applied consistently. The most basic rules of thumb are as follows:
    • Compound modifiers before a noun are usually hyphenated (“full-length section”) before but not after the noun (“the section is full length”).
    • Adverbs ending in -ly usually don’t need a hyphen (“a smartly dressed person”) because there’s no ambiguity.
Looking at the resources in steps 1 and 2 first helps you conform with generally accepted practices, which usually helps make the text as easy to understand and “unsurprising” to the reader as possible.

When you’re making decisions about hyphenation, try to avoid getting bogged down on the “logic” or “rightness” of one choice over another. Let your goal be to avoid ambiguity and avoid distracting your reader with unusual formations.

*In the case of literary fiction written by experts, of course, just about anything goes. There’s really nothing wrong with “violetpurple”; it’s not ambiguous or unclear. I find it surprising and therefore distracting, but I expect that this author considered it the most straightforward way of writing what he meant, and that’s fair enough.

April 4, 2013

Change to GST for BC freelancers

On April 1, 2013, BC went from HST back to GST. How does this affect freelance editors?

Freelance editors: Here’s what you need to know

Do I need to register for a PST number?

No. There’s no need to apply for a PST registration number because professional services other than legal services are exempt from PST.

What tax do I charge?

From April 1, 2013, editors charge GST only. Use your existing GST/HST number.

Place of supply

The place of supply rules stay the same as before: an editor who lives in BC charges a client the HST or GST rate of the province where the client is located (see the rules about place of supply). So I charge BC clients 5% GST, but when I work for a client in Ontario, I charge 13% HST. As before, when I work for a client outside the country, I charge no tax at all.

GST/HST rates by province (information taken from CRA)

This is how much GST/HST you charge a client in this province.

ProvinceBefore April 1, 2013After April 1, 2013
Alberta (GST)5%5%
British Columbia12% (HST)5% (GST)
Manitoba (GST)5%5%
New Brunswick (HST)13%13%
Newfoundland and Labrador (HST)13%13%
Northwest Territories (GST)5%5%
Nova Scotia (HST)15%15%
Nunavut (GST)5%5%
Ontario (HST)13%13%
Prince Edward Island5% (GST)14% (HST)
Saskatchewan (GST)5%5%
Yukon (GST)5%5%

Quick method remittance rate

If you use the quick method of GST/HST accounting (this is probably the right method for editors to use, unless they subcontract out a lot of work), your remittance rate is now 3.6% for BC clients. This is the remittance rate for a service provider based in a non-participating province (which BC is now) to a client in a non-participating province. (A “participating” province has HST; a “non-participating” province has GST.) Your remittance rates for income earned from clients in other provinces stays the same (except PEI, which instituted HST this April 1). Don’t forget that this new 3.6% remittance rate for BC clients only applies to your income from April 1 onward.

Quick method remittance rates for work done in BC (information taken from CRA)

This is how much GST/HST an editor in BC remits.

Client is in this provinceRate before April 1, 2013Rate after April 1, 2013
BC (participation changed)8.2% (part.)3.6% (non-part.)
Ontario (participating)9%10.5%
Quebec (non-participating)2.1%3.6%
Nova Scotia (participating)10.6%12%
Prince Edward Island (participation changed)2.1% (non-part.)11.3% (part.)
Other participating province9%10.5%
Other non-participating province2.1%3.6%

Sources for my information

Changes to the Harmonized Sales Tax
BC Government: PST exemptions (see the sidebar “Non-Taxable Sales & Services”)
CRA: List of GST/HST rates by province
CRA: Place of supply rules for services

As always, this is backed up by a few calls to the CRA help line.

Other tax information

See also:

April 3, 2013

Janet Mackenzie on running a freelance editing business

Book cover The Editor’s Companion, by Janet Mackenzie, has a great chapter on starting a freelance editing business. In eighteen pages, she deals with all the major points:
  • Qualities that make a good freelancer
  • Running your office and being productive: time management, dealing with clients, stress, professional development, choosing projects
  • Business considerations: what a business plan can do for you, insurance, bookkeeping
  • Contracts: what needs to go into a contract, and a nice half-page sample contract

What to charge

To calculate how much you need to charge to earn your target income, start with a list of business expenses, the biggest of which is your own labour. As part of the cost of labour, consider the time you will spend on administration, project management, and the cost of employment. Employment costs are vacation, sick time, and pension plan. The author suggests that the “loaded” salary that includes these expenses is 17 to 25 percent more than a person’s base salary. (When you take into account the cost of maintaining a work space, I’ve seen estimates of 40 percent or more as the markup that a contractor needs to charge above an equivalent in-house rate.)

Hourly rate

Mackenzie suggests that an editor who is competent according to the Australian Standards for Editing Practice is worth at least AUD 50 per hour (about CAN 53; this book was written in 2004). She suggests giving a price by the job rather than by the hour, and feels it’s quite appropriate not to reveal your target hourly rate to the client (“If he presses you, say primly that your accountant has advised you not to reveal it”). She mentions in passing that hourly rates are not a good predictor of project cost because working speed varies quite a lot.

Work flow

Mackenzie suggests a three-column table—see below—to track your schedule of projects to come, in progress, and due. I think I’m going to give this format a try. I’ve been marking dates to receive and send projects on Google Calendar, but I find that the display gets too cluttered when I try to show which projects are in progress.

Due in Working on Due out
1 Joe Bloggs copy edit, first round
2 Flash Magazine, July issue, editorial Bloggs copy edit
3 Bloggs copy edit, Flash editorial Flash editorial
4 Bloggs copy edit

Because many projects are delayed or sometimes cancelled altogether, Mackenzie recommends overbooking slightly. “Bite off a little more than you can chew, and occasionally chew like hell.”

Reviewed from a library copy of the book.

March 2, 2013

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova

Ben Bova: The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells
Craftsmanship can be taught, and it is the one area where new writers consistently fall short. In most cases it is simple lack of craftsmanship that prevents a writer from leaving the slushpile. Like a carpenter who has never learned to drive nails straight, writers who have not learned craftsmanship will get nothing but pain for their efforts. That is why I have written this book: to help new writers learn a few things about the craftsmanship that goes into successful stories.
Not only does Ben Bova have a long list of book credits to his name, he was the editor of Analog and Omni, and he used to read all the manuscript submissions. The whole slush pile. As he says above, most of those manuscripts failed, not because of deficient ideas or bad artistly, but through faults in their basic mechanics.

The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells is a short, to-the-point book that lays out the basics of crafting a good science fiction story. After a short introduction, the book has four sections: character, background, conflict, and plot. Each section has a chapter on theory, a full short story, and a chapter on practical considerations, with reference to the sample story. A final section discusses special considerations for novels.

Is research the key to good science fiction?

The book has some good points about research. How can you write what you know when you’re writing speculative fiction? Research. You find an astronaut and get them to coauthor the book. You move to New Mexico for a while. You spend serious time at the library. Bova suggests you keep a book of notes on plot, character sketches, background and setting, and everything else you have to keep straight.

That’s so much work on research alone, but maybe that’s what it takes. Dune is a great book because Frank Herbert built a detailed background of ecology,* politics, economics, and religion for his story. But books with poorly thought-out backgrounds are flat and uninteresting; their stories don’t ring true. Maybe, to make something great, you have to take the approach of doing as much work as possible.

* Although Dune is perhaps not the best example of good speculative science. For starters, it’s hard to think of a plausible way for sandworms to travel through sand.

Update: See also Christina Vasilevski’s review.

Reviewed from a library copy of the book.

January 31, 2013

Editing fiction: The author-editor relationship

I attended a workshop recently on fiction editing, taught by Caroline Adderson. One of the best parts was getting her perspective on what makes for good author-editor communication. Here are some things she talked about.

Be enthusiastic

The author has worked on this book for years. They want to hear that you like it.
  • Say that you like the book.
  • Show that you care about the book and are committed to making it a success.
  • If you’re given a manuscript to work on that you don’t like, find something positive to say about it.
  • Hearing the editor say things like “I’m really excited to be working on this project” means a lot to the author.

The process of working together

A meet and greet phone call is helpful to establish rapport. Don’t leave the author in suspense. Tell them when you’ll start work, and let them know if there’s a delay so they aren’t left wondering whether you’re working on it yet, and what you think. When you do start work, let the author know and, again, say something positive about the manuscript so far (“I love the first chapter”).

Asking for changes

  • Always show respect for the author’s hard work first. Start by talking about what you liked.
  • Don’t follow a positive statement with “but.” It will cancel out the positive value of what came before.
  • Don’t let your comments take on the tone of telling the author where they’re going wrong; explain that you had trouble understanding something and ask if they can make it clearer.
  • Be very specific. Refer to exact spots in the manuscript and explain clearly what you think could be done differently. It’s even better if you can refer to another spot in the manuscript where the author has done what you’re asking for.
  • Suggest the change in a query instead of making it yourself. Marking up the text, even with track changes, comes across as far more heavy-handed than asking for the change in a comment.

A good writer wants to write a good book

A good writer cares most about producing a good book, so if you phrase your suggestions as ways to improve the manuscript, not the writer, the writer will find it easier to get on board. When you suggest that material be cut, soften the pain by emphasizing that the material is good, it’s just not right for the manuscript. You can suggest that the material be saved and used somewhere else.

Caroline said, “When you have a wonderful editor, you write the book for the editor.”

More on the author-editor relationship

January 17, 2013

The Publishing Business: From P-books to E-books by Kelvin Smith

Looking for an overview of the publishing industry? This book is written for the student preparing for a career in publishing. It provides a comprehensive overview, including the main areas of publishing (trade fiction, scientific and technical, educational, etc.), the tasks and jobs involved, and the process of how a publisher acquires material, produces a book, and sells the book. There’s plenty of attention to the economics, marketing, and branding of publishing, balanced with awareness of ethical issues.

The Publishing Business was released last August, and the case studies and discussion of recent developments in e-book rights and marketing are up to date. My favourite thing: the book is a big, attractive softcover with lots of colour pictures and visual interest. I recommend the book to anyone who’s considering working in publishing or simply wants to know more about how books are made.

I got this book as a door prize at an EAC-BC meeting. Iva Cheung, who kindly donated the book, has written a more comprehensive review.

What’s a reasonable e-book price?

One of the most interesting parts of The Publishing Business is a breakdown of publishing costs, which begins to clear up something I’ve been wondering about: loss leaders aside, why are the prices of e-books so close to the prices of paper books? Shouldn’t e-book buyers benefit from the savings in printing and shipping that this medium brings?

Sure. But printing and shipping are a smaller part of publishing costs than I thought. An e-book doesn’t incur the cost of printing, warehousing, distribution, and unsold stock, but it still needs to be written, edited, designed, laid out, and marketed. Even electronic distribution costs money.

According to The Publishing Business (page 63), the publisher’s costs break down approximately as follows:

  • marketing, warehousing, distribution, and unsold stock: 30%;
  • author’s royalty: 10%;
  • production (editing, design, and printing): 20%; and
  • other overhead (salaries, office, etc.): 30%.
Now consider that retailers typically keep about 45% of the cover price.* Given the possible savings in warehousing, distribution, unsold stock, and printing, I would guess that something like 20% of the cover price could be saved in e-book production.

That’s not a big difference. The $2.99 e-book may work when it comes after a higher-priced run that pays the bills, but if e-books are to be the dominant medium, they have to cost more than three dollars, or something’s got to give.

* E-book retailers may only take about 30%, but typically the author royalty is higher for e-books (The Publishing Business, page 36).

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.