Copyediting: When Little Changes Matter — Guest: Misti Wolanski

by Jami Gold on March 31, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Close up of a water drop on a leaf with text: Getting the Little Details Right

I’ve spoken before about the different types of editors. Each type of editor and/or editing pass helps us strengthen a different aspect of our work: the storytelling, the writing itself, and the grammar of our sentences.

As a developmental editor, I focus a lot on the storytelling aspect of writing craft in my posts here: character arcs, plots and subplots, stakes and motivations, etc. But any peek at Amazon reviews reveals that the common “needs editing” complaint usually refers to copyediting.

That is, complaints about editing quality from readers usually focus on grammar and word choice and usage. (In contrast, storytelling issues are usually revealed through complaints about characters and plot holes, and writing issues are usually called out with complaints about voice, clarity, or “weak writing.”)

That copyediting-style focus makes sense. Most of us think we learned the basic rules of grammar and mechanics in school, so that’s the level of editing most of our readers feel qualified to judge and call out as bad editing.

That potential of being called out in reviews is just one reason why copyediting is so important. The changes copyeditors make often seem small, but they add up over a story’s pages, and sometimes the wrong usage of a word or punctuation mark can change the meaning of our writing.

Today, my friend—and one of my copyeditors—Misti Wolanski (also known as Carradee) is here to help me out while I’m still struggling with vision issues. (My doctor initially misdiagnosed the problem, but I’m hopeful the follow-up tests this week nailed down the problem—and the fix.) Thank you, Misti!

For an in-depth look at how some of the smallest words can have a big impact on how readers interpret our work, please welcome Misti Wolanski! *smile*

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Do You Need “a” Word or “the” Word?

Let’s say you’re writing something—a blog post, a story, a comment somewhere—and you start out with, “The problem is that nobody listens.” Solid sentence, right. You have a subject, verb, dependent clause…

But which nobody are you talking about? Nobody in a particular place? Nobody in a particular demographic?

And what, exactly, is nobody not listening to?

So you revise your sentence to be more clear, and you say, “The problem is that people listen to what they think you’re saying rather than what you’re actually saying.”

That works, but… The problem with what?

And is that issue with listening really the only problem with it?

Of course poor listening skills isn’t the only reason people misunderstand each other!” you might respond. “I didn’t say it was!”

Ah, but you did indicate it’s the only problem.

How?

You said “the problem”. If you meant that it’s only one of the problems, you should’ve said “a problem” or “one problem”.

(And you have to make sure the context—reasons people misunderstand each other—is on the page, too. Otherwise, you’re saying that folks’ failure to listen is at the root of everything in general.)

Why does such a little word matter?

How “A” and “The” Differ

To explain, let’s back up and look at what “the” and “a” (and “an”) are.

  • the = definite article, which means it refers to something definite: a single and specific item that has already been defined.
  • a (also an) = indefinite article, which means it refers to something indefinite: a single yet unspecific item that has not already been defined.

It’s the difference between “the house at the end of the street” and “a house at the end of the street”. “The house” refers to a specific house at the end of a specific street, whereas “a house” refers to some house at the end of a specific street, and which house either doesn’t matter or isn’t known.

“Which word do I use?” depends what is defined in context.

In nonfiction, much of that context is your audience. For example, I haven’t defined what an article is, in context, because it doesn’t matter here and I know y’all know how to look that up if you want to.

In fiction, much of that context is your point of view. Does the point of view have a particular defined item in mind, or is it just a random one.

Possessive Pronouns: Other Little Words That Matter

There’s also another word that changes your meaning, and that’s the possessive pronoun, like “his” and “her” and “its”. These possessives narrow your context to a specific defined item that derives from whatever or whoever the pronoun’s referring to.

Dense, right?

This is one of those things that makes a lot more sense once you see some examples:

  • “I grabbed the basket from the table.”

There’s one table, and it has one basket on it. I grabbed that specific basket.

  • “I grabbed a basket from the table.”

There’s one table, and it has multiple baskets on it. I grabbed a basket at random; it doesn’t matter which.

  • “I grabbed his basket from a table.”

This has two possible meanings, and the context will determine which is meant:

  1. “He” (whoever “he” is) has one basket, and it just so happened to be on a table when I found and grabbed it—it could’ve easily been on the floor or chair or elsewhere.
  2. There are multiple tables, and each one has a basket belonging to “him” on it. I grabbed one of his baskets, but it doesn’t matter off which table.

Which Word Should We Use?

Now, what if you’re in a situation where you aren’t sure if you should or can use “a” or “the”?

First, look where you are in the context. Unless you’ve already defined a specific item under discussion, “the” will often be innately unclear. (The main exception: comments on forums and blogs that refer to an opening post, but whatever your comment’s referring to needs to be clear.)

For example, “I went to the store” means…what, exactly? Which store? But if it’s an answer to “We need groceries” or “Do we have groceries?”, then “the store” would probably be wherever the speakers usually go for groceries. (Note that someone can use this to lie without explicitly lying.)

Second, what happens if you say “one” of whatever it is? Does that keep your meaning? Or do you need to say “this”?

  • If “one” keeps your meaning, then you need to use “a” instead of “the”.
  • If “this” keeps your meaning, then you need to use “the” instead of “a”.

To illustrate this tip, let’s hop back to our original example and that sentence that’s supposed to start a piece of nonfiction:

  • “This problem (that causes misunderstandings) is that people tend to listen to what they think you’re saying rather than what you’re actually saying.”

Huh? That doesn’t work as an opening. Maybe if you added a definition before it, like “There is a problem that is central to many misunderstandings”—that would’ve worked. But just standing out on its lonesome like that? Nope, so I can’t use “the” here unless I add something before it to define what I’m talking about.

  • “One problem (that causes misunderstandings) is that people tend to listen to what they think you’re saying rather than what you’re actually saying.”

Oh, that works, so I can use “a” if I want.

What does this matter?

Do These Little Words Actually Matter?

Ignoring the difference between “a” and “the” is a quick and easy way to contradict yourself and confuse your reader. By the same token, you also have to make sure you use the right possessive pronoun for what you meant to say.

Let’s say you are talking about your sibling’s ex-boyfriend.

  • “Oh, I went to his house” = “Oh, I went to the house of my sibling’s ex-boyfriend.”
  • “Oh, I went to the house” = “Oh, I went to whatever house is being spoken about at the moment” (or “Oh, I went to a particular house (and I want you to think it was whatever house is being spoken about at the moment)”).
  • “Oh, I went to a house” = “Oh, I went to a random house”—which is a completely new topic altogether.

And that’s why these littlest words matter so much.

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Misti Wolanski's ClassMost teachers assume their students already know these sorts of details—details that most people can learn, if someone bothers to point them out, but that most people just don’t think to. It doesn’t help that these things tend to feel obvious once you know them. Every realm of expertise has these kinds of details, information that is skipped or forgotten by the experts when they’re telling newbies.

For years, I’ve tutored clients one-on-one, but teaching one-on-one has its limits. It also tends to make folks feel like the worst writers in the world (even though they most certainly aren’t), which only makes it harder for them to learn. A group environment would be so much better for morale and learning overall.

That’s why I’m starting my group class! Why Don’t They Get It: what your writing teacher forgot to tell you will cover all sorts of foundations like that pronoun thing, and not all of them are related to grammar.

To get foundational concepts and news when things open next week, you can sign up here. If you want a bit more information about the premise behind the class, check out the class page on my website.

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Misti WolanskiMisti Wolanski lives somewhere on planet Earth with a cat. When she isn’t reading, writing, or editing, she’s probably listening to song covers on YouTube, troubleshooting website code, or inventing a new recipe without any of the myriad ingredients she’s allergic to.

She enjoys bridging the gaps between newbies and experts to help others accomplish their goals, be it by teaching them how to write better or showing them how to make a tincture. Find her at her website.

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Thank you, Misti! Many of us might never have thought how much little words could affect our readers’ understanding (and how much this matters for our characters’ point of view as well). As you said, every area of expertise has details that are considered so basic that experts forget to mention them.

Sometimes as newbies, we might not know those basics, or we might vaguely know them but not understand how or why they’re important. That’s why even things that experts might assume we know should be explicitly taught. Thanks for adding to our knowledge base, Misti! *smile*

Have you ever wondered why these little words matter or how we can know which one to use? Has an editor ever found errors along these lines in your work?  Have you ever been faced with an expert who couldn’t start with the basics when teaching? Do you have any questions for Misti?

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19 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee March 31, 2016 at 6:41 am

Thanks for having me, Jami, and I’m glad to be able to help. Now go get as much rest as you can! 🙂

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Karen McFarland March 31, 2016 at 3:44 pm

Thank you Misti and Jami. Applying these skills in our writing is so important. I appreciate how you broke down the meaning and usage so that I can implement the correct usage into my writing. 🙂

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Carradee March 31, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Glad you found it helpful! 🙂

—Misti

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Serena Yung March 31, 2016 at 9:45 pm

Speaking of pronouns, two of my teaching assistants in my literature courses talked about the ambiguity of pronouns, especially “it” and “this”. My TAs advised us to avoid saying “it is” or “this is” and to replace “it” and “this” with what you are really referring to instead. E.g. “The love between Charlotte and her brother is X”, rather than “it is X.” Sometimes we may think the reader should know what “it” or “this” is referring to within the context, but not always. This problem happens with “he”, “she”, “they” pronouns in stories as well; sometimes I’m not sure which male character the narrator is talking about when the narrator says “he”. The context doesn’t always clarify who “he” is. 🙁 So in my own stories, I try my best to replace potentially confusing pronouns with the person’s name or another identifier (e.g. “the lion”) to make it clearer.

At the same time, I know that it can be tedious to replace all these “he”s, “she”s, “they”s, and “it”s with the people’s names. So if the context *should* make it clear, then I just leave it as a pronoun. But again, sometimes I think it’s clear when it’s not.

There are also many times when you just say “this is”, “it’s”, “that’s”, because we can’t be bothered to specify what “it”, “that”, or “this” refers to, as the reader *should* understand that the pronoun refers to the thing you were last talking about. But again, this can still create confusion at times. (I keep doing this myself, and multiple times within this comment too, haha, so I’m not judging anyone for this.)

What do you think of this issue, Carradee?

Oh another thing I wanted to point out, is that in language, we often say what we don’t mean. So I might say “What I love about the Transformers robots, is that they all have such cute personalities!” However, I may actually love the Transformers for more than just that reason, but I just wanted to emphasize this particular reason right now. OR, after saying this sentence, I may belatedly realize that I love the Transformers for other reasons too, or that there is an even bigger reason that I love them for. (So I accidentally lied? Lol.)

Another example I can think of where we don’t say what we really mean, is when one says “Sally is perfect.” We may not literally mean Sally is flawless; we may just think that she is such an amazing person, and we are currently not paying any attention to her flaws because they aren’t relevant to her awesomeness right now, haha. Similarly, a teacher may say that their student’s performance was “perfect”, but the teacher probably meant that the performance was of decent or very good quality, not literally without flaw, haha.

Sorry I kind of deviated farther and farther from the topic of copyediting. XD

Btw I love the idea that faeries can’t lie, so they tell true statements in a way that trick you, because you interpret their statement in a “normal” way, but the statements are actually supposed to be interpreted in a very non-standard way. So they are very sly deceptions, haha. Quite fascinating, really.

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Carradee March 31, 2016 at 11:06 pm

Particularly in formal nonfiction, “this” and “that” should have the noun included (i.e., “that fact” or “this idea”). It’s often a good idea to include the noun in general, for clarity—but sometimes you want to be ambiguous, which makes it better to drop the noun.

“It” is a bit fuzzier, for reasons demonstrated in the previous sentence and this one: the word has some construction uses that involve definition within the sentence it’s in.

There are also rules and patterns to help identify what pronouns can mean—and how that can be used for intentional clarity or ambiguity—but that situation gets more complicated to explain and illustrate. (It’s a somewhat lengthy explanation in itself. So…on the syllabus to be addressed in the “Why Don’t They Get It?” e-course, but not something I can readily summarize for an elevator pitch—not without assuming a lot of context.)

That disconnect between what is said and what is meant is common. It’s figurative/metaphorical language, which has its own form of consistency. (A major thing that often gets ignored: Images need to be coherent rather than self-contradictory; i.e., “a stone flower” works as imagery because the literal aspects can be blended together; “A scattered flower” does not work, because “scattering” requires multiple items and “a flower” is only one; though you can scatter flower petals.)

The disconnect is also incredibly significant in life. Your example of the fairies is a case in point, but it misses the point.

See, you’re assuming that lying with the truth necessarily relies on a nonstandard interpretation of the words. Nope. Pitch and cadence and timing have more to do with it—and the audience has the most effect altogether.

Note that “standard interpretation” is defined by the audience. For example, if you say someone else “likes to tell stories”, does that mean that person is a storyteller or that they’re a liar? Well, if they’re saying some things you don’t want to believe, you’re going to be inclined to go with the “liar” thing. (Personal experience as the one introduced to others as a teller of stories.)

People generally assume they saw or heard what they expected to see or hear—and that applies to phrasing and word choice, too. That’s how and why toxic and abusive persons get away with so much: people take what they say, filter it through, “Oh, they must’ve meant…”—that or they bend words or phrases or discussions in order to control the dialogue. (I realize that’s confusing, but it’s another one of those “Hard to compress into an elevator pitch” things.)

An experienced and skilled copyeditor can read something and, from the word usage in even a brief sample, often make certain evaluations about the writer, so you’re not actually as off-topic as you think. 🙂

The difficult thing is that toxics are common enough that if you dare to point out any of their tells, they’ll retaliate or in the very least make a rebuttal that indirectly accuses you of saying something that wasn’t at all what you actually said.

(For example, someone claimed that linked-to post describes things that someone would reasonably do in response to false accusations of abuse. To be fair, it’s possible that the person is using certain misinterpretations of jargon that I happen to know is common in his denomination, but the way he response to commenters indicate he’s abusive himself. I’m not linking for reasons related to how that denomination’s politics and policies work; I still have some friends there.)

Yanno, basic reframing of reality. Brainwashing 102, I believe. Not hard to do at all, and certainly not uncommon. (Which is one reason why attention to these details of how words work is important in general.)

Many a wise and witting person avoids engaging toxics whenever possible and gray rock ’em when they can’t. I do something else, myself, but I am well aware of the risks and dangers in what I choose to do. [waves and smiles at cyberstalker]

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Serena Yung April 1, 2016 at 8:16 am

Thank you for your reply! Argh as someone who recently escaped from a toxic friendship myself, I can empathize. O_O. My ex-friend was really scary.

Oh by faerie deceptions, I meant a situation like: The faerie Queen says to the main good guy characters “I promise that I will not tell anyone in any form of communication that you came to faerieland.” And then the main characters walk away from faerieland towards hell to seek whatever they wanted to find in hell.

Later, the faerie Queen betrays them by telling their enemy, “(The main characters’ names) have just left faerieland.”

The enemy asked, “They made you promise not to tell anyone that they came to faerieland, right? How did you manage to circumvent that?”

And the faerie Queen replies, “Oh, I only promised not to say they CAME here. I didn’t promise not to say that they LEFT faerieland!”

That the faerie Queen was able to say that “she promised not to tell that they came here” also shows another sly trick. She is telling the truth that she made this promise. Technically this is a form of communication to reveal the information that the heroes and heroines had been at faerieland, but maybe when the faerie Queen said it, she meant “all forms of communication” as in via letters, spoken words, symbols in the sand, body language, songs, etc.

This example scenario came from a fantasy series that I read. Very clever and devious of her, huh? XD Anyway, that was what I meant by a “standard” and “non-standard” interpretation. Normally, when people get you to promise not to tell anyone they came to a certain place (to find you), they expect that you wouldn’t reveal that they were present in this place at all, either by direct or indirect phrases. However, the faerie Queen meant her promise in an unexpected way–she’s not allowed to say they CAME here, but she’s allowed to say that they LEFT this place, which still divulges the information that they had been present.

Anyhow, I’m sorry for expressing the above example in an unclear way, haha. Maybe I should have said “expected/ conventional” vs “unexpected/unconventional” interpretations? But what is considered conventional or expected may depend on the person too. Yet, at least “expected/conventional” doesn’t have the connotation of superiority that “standard” may have, haha—I only realized that now.

On another topic, yeah! I used the method of saying “this (noun)” like “this theory”, “this love” in my lit essays too!

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Carradee April 1, 2016 at 8:41 am

But what is considered conventional or expected may depend on the person too.

Yep. Just be careful not to lose sight of that and end up define lying with truth as only conventional vs. unconventional interpretations. If you do that, you’ll leave yourself vulnerable to other forms (and more likely to do it yourself on accident).

As far as that example of the Faerie Queen…that’s intended as a definition switch, but it’s actually a flawed example. She promised not to tell by any form of communication, yet she told via indirect communication, and therefore she broke her promise—you can’t leave a place you never came to.

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Serena Yung April 1, 2016 at 8:54 am

Yeah actually I wonder if the “faeries can’t lie” thing depends on how the faeries themselves interpret what they said? So the faerie Queen can save herself by saying that she interpreted the “forms of communication” as via letters, spoken words, written poetry, body language, etc. BUT “forms of communication”, according to HER definition at the time, does not include indirect communication like saying the heroes and heroines LEFT faerieland. Yeah, I know that is just toying with our minds and being devious, but to me, faerie deceptions are like the sly contracts some companies ask their clients to sign? The client may later say that, hey, according to this sentence on the contract, you said that XYZ. Then the company says that no, you misunderstood this clause. This clause meant that (gives the company’s interpretation of the clause and dismisses the client’s interpretation as invalid…)

Btw just to clarify, I’m only fascinated by how faeries in fiction can get around these situations. I don’t endorse these kinds of deceptions in real life. ^_^

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Carradee April 1, 2016 at 9:20 am

There’s a degree to which definition does factor in verbal redirections like that, but that particular example’s just flawed. It’s the “all”. Universal statements have no wiggle room.

“I will not tell nor write anyone of your coming” would’ve been far better—saying that a person left isn’t telling of (about) their coming, and that particular phrasing gets misinterpreted to mean “I won’t tell anyone you came” when the listener isn’t paying attention.

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Serena Yung April 1, 2016 at 8:41 am

Oops, I realized that my first comment on this post implied that faeries (and humans) can “lie” without making untrue statements ONLY by using “unexpected/unconventional” interpretations, like the example with the faerie Queen. But indeed, that is only one of the many ways people of any species can “lie” without making false statements. D: This is one of those situations where you were only thinking of one thing, so you say that thing is the only thing. But only afterwards do you remember that you missed some other things, whether by spontaneous remembering or via a friend’s reminder (thank you!), haha.

Speaking of, do you have this experience? Often, I make a general statement about myself, but right after I make this statement, I immediately think of counter-examples that disprove what I just said. XD Makes me wonder why I should bother trying to say general things about myself, but I still do it just for fun. If I were more disciplined in my language use, I should make more specific statements about myself, rather than broad, sweeping statements. But I often just can’t be bothered to be so specific and precise, so I hope the other person will think that I’m complex and full of contradictions like many other people, and not take what I said about myself too seriously. But yeah, it’s a bad habit of mine that I should try to improve on, even if it may seem tedious and bothersome—it might sound tedious to my listeners too, but maybe I can figure out a way, lol. Or, I could always use the strategy of saying “In general”, “sometimes”, “often”, ” I think most of the time”, etc. , rather than just stating something without using any qualifiers, which may mislead the hearer into believing that I mean that the statement is true in ALL situations. Using the phrases “I believe” or “I think” to make what you said sound more uncertain is another method, so you could just say later, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”

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Carradee April 1, 2016 at 8:58 am

Yes, I naturally think of exceptions in response to generalizations. It’s gotten me accused of “thinking too hard” by folks who don’t want to believe that it’s just how some folks are wired.

I don’t usually experience that in relation to statements about myself because I phrase generalizations as generalizations, not as universal statements. When it does happen, it’s because I’ve forgotten something or because I haven’t yet realized X is Y.

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Serena Yung April 3, 2016 at 3:26 pm

Good to hear that you don’t use blanket statements phrased in a universal way like a lot of other people (including me) do. I’m still trying to change this bad habit of mine, haha.

Oh yeah people get upset when I point out counter-examples to their universal statements, even when I’m pointing them out because I think they’re making highly sexist statements. 🙁 So they were being both sexist and inaccurate! They tell me to stop interrupting them, because I should know that when they make a universal statement like that, I should understand that they don’t literally mean everyone in that social category is like X. Haha I think people just don’t like being contradicted. I can empathize, but the statements they were making were REALLY sexist, so I couldn’t help jumping in and rebutting their claims.

Speaking of, when I talk, my parents and aunt like to contradict my arguments all the time, and it does admittedly get a bit annoying. But when I contradict their arguments, they tell me to stop, because they find that annoying, haha.

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Carradee April 4, 2016 at 5:36 am

Double standards and expectations of mind-reading aren’t healthy communication mechanisms. Manipulative ones, actually, and damaging if consistent.

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Serena Yung April 4, 2016 at 1:10 pm

Yeah, exactly. 🙁

Davonne Burns April 1, 2016 at 12:39 pm

Okay … ngl but my eyes might have glazed over a few times trying to parse all this information. It is quite excellent information though. I’m going to print this for reference and see about attending your group class, Carradee. Thanks for a great post!

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Carradee April 1, 2016 at 2:39 pm

You’ve pointed out a very real danger of what can go wrong when you compact data into a short amount of space: it gets harder to process. Easier to use as reference material, yes. Easier to process? No.

But I’m glad you found the article helpful, and I look forward to seeing you in the class! ^_^

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Michael April 11, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Great article! I would love to know if actual data is available from Amazon on how many reviews cite bad editing. Now THAT would be a fantastic service intro for an editor 🙂

MD

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Carradee December 3, 2016 at 6:18 am

That’s an interesting idea, Michael. As far as I know, nobody’s mined that data. I’ll have to look into that. 🙂

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