Monday, October 24, 2011

Yo, Editor: How Do You Spell Success?

I never set out to be an editor. For one thing, it's not the sort of profession that appears on the ?What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up? lists. Even if it had been there I would have sidled by with averted eyes--because for another thing, I can't spell*. And whatever else I thought that those mythical editors might do (a topic for another time), I was certain that correcting spelling was a prerequisite. You couldn't be a successful editor if you couldn't spell.

Yet here I sit.

I backed into editing when I found myself in the midst of a community of non-native English speakers, many of whom were working on various papers and Masters theses and PhD dissertations. They could all spell just fine, but their grammar and usage (or so their professors told them) needed an obligatory overhaul. Which is when I discovered that the one vendable commodity I had was a modest facility with my own language. This, in combination with an equally native analytical bent, my insights on the writing process, and a horror of being late, got me started. The fact that I liked it; liked working with writers toward definable goals; liked making money, got me hooked. Living overseas for twenty years, during the period in which all other contenders to English as the language of the planet bowed out, gave me plenty of opportunity to get good at it.

So that was a form of success. I made a good living working for various companies for many years. I learned many things:
  • No one sets out to be an editor (whatever "editor" means).
  • Knowing what you can't do and how that dovetails with what you can do is key.
  • Don't assume you're right because you're the native speaker: check everything.
  • Include a bullet list and lots of white space to make your page look attractive and easier to read.
  • People who worry about the passive tense have a lot of time on their hands.
  • There is no bottom to editing, you can go on forever; the trick is knowing how deep to plumb for each job.
  • English grammar is a gloriously supple beast that is born of the spoken language, not the other way around.
  • Usage trumps grammar.
  • Dialect trumps usage.
  • Clarity of intent and expression trumps everything.
  • In the Great 21st c. Publishing War, I am an NCO in the Legion of Extraordinary Freelance Editors, assigned to defend Fort Any Fool Can Spell**.

At the turn of the century, shortly before I moved back to the US, I shifted my focus from language and technical editing (which is what I called what I did) to include more substantive editing and more private clients. I consider myself a writing coach***, someone writers can hire as tennis players hire tennis coaches: to help them improve their game, for consultation about whatever it is that's the problem of the day, from cover letter to character development.

These days, I spell success h-a-p-p-y-c-l-i-e-n-t-s. I've been lucky enough to work with myriad wonderful writers who have seen their work published by major and minor publishers, in print and on-line. I've developed an approach toward substantive editing that has stood the test of time and I've amassed a lot of practical experience about how to write things. I've seen writers make the same bad choices again and again, and had some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. In this blog, I hope to share such wisdom as I have with other writers and editors, for the love of the writing profession, and for the joy of it.

* Words in this entry I spelled wrong the first time: sidled, charlatan (had to look it up).

** A less offensive title, Fort Spelling Ain't All It's Cracked Up to Be, was rejected by a narrow vote as too long and less punchy. Small skirmish over the merits of Any Fool vs. Any Idiot.

*** Not a book doctor--not ever a book doctor. Not only is the term synonymous with charlatan in some professional circles, but the notion that a piece of writing has to be "fixed" in some way is repugnant to me. I don't "make books publishable" (the definition of a book doctor that has stuck with me); I work with the writer to get a piece of writing as close to what she intended as possible. Follow theconstantpen on Twitter


  1. Hi there Ellen, welcome to Blog world! I always assumed you had to be able to spell to be an editor...

  2. Hi Albi! Nice to hear from you. :-) Now I know where to go to for help with's currently keeping me from commenting or following. I'm working on it. As for spelling...that's what spellcheck is for (but try using it to write a book). And speaking of books, when are you gonna do a horse book?

  3. Ellen, the best of luck on your blog! Your knowledge of the language and your ability to use it well in books and stories is a constant delight.

  4. Thanks, Bob, you're very kind. I hope you will have the time to stop by occasionally and share your thoughts. I hope to write about something meaty soon.

  5. Good luck on the blog. This post was interesting. I can identify, since I can not spell either and I taught classes in technical writing at one point in my life.

  6. Gud to si yu haf a blog Ellen; bout time ackshley.
    Looking forward t'reedin it. Mite even right correctly nextime. -Bob's spouse in Wrupert.

  7. Thanks for following my blog. Interesting material here. Janet

  8. Likewise, Janet. I've recently joined BU and saw your post about your blog there, so I went to take a look. So much great stuff with BU.

  9. Bless you, you used "myriad" correctly. Are you on Twitter where I can follow you easily?

  10. Hi Nellie -- LOL Yeah,"myriad" is one of those usage issues I will always flag as "get it right or don't use it."

    No I'm not on Twitter -- should I be, in terms of promoting the blog? All advice welcome.

  11. Obviously we could spend all day reading blogs and never get anything done! I love it when I find a good blog that will deliver articles directly to my email. Another option that works for me is getting reminders on Twitter. What does not work for me is RSS feeds - I signed up for so many interesting blogs that I ended up with a zillion articles to read and could not keep up. I finally deconstructed the feed! I may well be the only numbskull with this problem.

  12. P.S. Actually you should get on Twitter anyway. There is a LOT going on there specifically for writers and editors. Start by following your favorite people. After that, go see who THEY are following and follow some of the same folks (writers, editors, news sources). Before long you'll have a steady stream of really interesting news and articles coming your way that have nothing to do with Justin Bieber.

  13. Responding to your opening paragraph: they don't call editing "the accidental profession" for nothing. Most editors I know wandered onto the editing path from non English-major areas. I came to editing through public health (and a fiction addiction). Now I edit everything that doesn't have math, physics, or chemistry equations!

  14. Here is another editing site of interest: Minnesota Editor ( You're welcome to contribute!
    Barbara Davis, editor