My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Mailbox: Copyright and Editing

When should a writer worry about editing? Shouldn't editing be an editor's job? What's the best way to copyright work?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And beware that I might not always agree with you.] 

Steven's questions:

When should the writer really worry about editing and grammar? Editing is for Editors, writing is for writers; they should be separate entities, don't you think?

Writers are supposed to worry just about writing; grammar and rewrites, that's what editors are supposed to do, agreed? Writers should be concerned about grammar a LITTLE but Editors do all the nuance grammatical work otherwise, what use are they right?

What is the best way to copyright your work? I'm kind of new at this as I want to copyright my work before I send it out to a publisher. I'm almost ready to sent out my manuscrip (mss.). [sic]

My reply(s):

Note: Steven actually sent me three different questions through Facebook, and I'm going to answer them all. Because I like a little three on one action, if you know what I mean.

Steven, I hope you like the memes and bad puns over there on my Facebook page because you're not going to like my answer today. I'm probably the most outspoken proponent that a writer has to be more than just a grammar codex, and how obnoxious prescriptivism is, but even I know how important it is to the clarity of written communication. You've given me one of those "Sort of...but...." questions.

Like if I came up to you and said "Awesome news! I just met this girl who asked me to marry her after only an hour. That means she's really into me and not afraid of commitment right?" My answer would be: "Sort of, but....." And then I would tell you to run faster than you had ever run from anyone in your life. I might even tell you to change your last name, let your hair grow out and spell your name Stephen while you work at a beach bar in Guam for a few years.

That's just about how not-completely-true your sentiments about editors and writers are right now.

In theory, if you had an editor on retainer who could just walk around behind you everywhere you go and fix your writing, you would never need to really learn grammar. I'm guessing that would get prohibitively expensive for most of us though–especially if they don't do windows while you're watching The L Word and not really writing. They would have to have a British accent though, and say "Very good, sir," every time you gave them something to edit.
"Begging your pardon, Sir, but this Facebook status picture
of your lunch does appear to employ the wrong 'you're.'
Or perhaps you have neglected a noun after 'jealous.'"

For most writers, they will need to learn grammar. Not "a little" grammar, but rather a lot actually. Most writers are wicked good at grammar even if they often miss their own mistakes. (It's got to do with a writer knowing what they meant and reading past their own errors.) When you read a lot and write a lot, you improve. But they at least need enough grammar knowhow to fulfill several key functions.

You need to be able to write most things fairly cleanly without an editor. Having an editor is like wearing your Sunday best, and you want to trot it out if you have a major project like a novel or a very prestigious article. But no one will say you're a good dresser if you wear your Sunday best on Sunday and the rest of the time wear the oversized t-shirt with the holes in it and the pit stains and the sweats with caked on cheese dip and the funky crotch smell when it goes over 72 degrees. There are times when it is impractical to hire an editor, but if you still want to be taken seriously as a writer, you better know at least enough grammar not to embarrass yourself.

Make the work you put out as good as you can. You're on your own for most writing you will do, and it's not always practical to hire an editor for everything. You want the skill set to be able to clean something up as good as you can without passing everything off. People will judge your writing based on your grammar. That's because most of humanity is petty and sucks, but it's just the price of doing business. If your grammar makes your writing hard to parse, it doesn't matter how brilliant the writing is. You can make a few mistakes (I sure do, don't I?) and most people will kindly point them out. (And a few will be total butt nuggets about it.) But if you start making too many mistakes, no one will take your ideas seriously. Creative writing is an art and a craft and a skill and if you neglect the skill, it almost doesn't matter how much of the others you have.

Submissions should be polished, not rough. So since this isn't cranky mail from someone anonymous, I'm going to try to be as nice as I can about this, but based on the questions you asked and some of the grammar mistakes in the questions themselves, I'm guessing that you have finished a manuscript and you've maybe been told that you need to clean up the grammar before you submit. You're thinking that an editor will do that for you. Unless you hire said editor, this will not happen. (Please feel absolutely free to do your own research if you don't believe me.) Many publications might have copy editors who will help you polish something, but you won't get accepted if you make large, glaring mistakes, and they won't bother trying to salvage something that will be more trouble than it is worth.

Most submission readers have a stack to read about as tall as they are, and won't even read past the first page if they see more than a couple of errors. When I worked at Transfer (the SFSU undergrad lit magazine) we considered it an insult if someone didn't care enough to send their best and we just tossed it. Round filed. Sent to shipping. Lost in the maelstrom. "Misplaced" (where we did the scare quotes with our fingers). Rejected with extreme prejudice.

An editor has to know what you meant.  Editors are amazing and wonderful and every time I work with one, I end up sounding way smarter than I actually am. But even when I can count on having one (which isn't often) we work together to clean up my writing. But they are trying to help me say what I want to say even better, and if they can't tell what that is, I just get my copy back with a bunch of question marks and expletives. If an editor can't figure out what you meant, they spend most of their time and energy just getting you to comprehensible.  What you want them to be doing is polishing you. You want to hand them tarnished silver not corrugated steel.

You want to be easy to edit. Unless you want to spend a lot of money on freelance editing, you want to be easy to edit. It makes editors happy to work with you, and it makes your writing much better when an editor is helping you be the best you can be and not proofreading your work like a 9th grade English teacher with an inflamed adrenal gland and a thick, red magic marker. It's good for your end product (the better what you hand them is, the better the finished product will be), and for your professional reputation.

Think of it more like this, Steven. Most editors are writers and so they are helping you by bringing their writing skills to your words, and every writer needs to know a fair chunk of grammar. Your roles are more overlapping than they are separate. The easier you can make an editor's job in the overlap part, the more they can do the work that is distinctly theirs. (You want them in there catching the fact that you made an honest mistake with a homophone error on page 47 and not trying to figure out what the verb is on the second line in page 2.)

What an editor does (or can do) goes far beyond catching your mistakes. They make you better.

Unless you just want a proofreader, an editor is so much more than just a grammar-check.

Most editors are going to mark things you didn't even know were mistakes, and you will get like three pens worth of red ink on a manuscript to work on, and lots of fantastic suggestions, but they can't do that wonderful job if they're stuck mucking through stuff you ought to know already.

Consider this pragmatically too. Even if your ideas are good, if you are going to take hundreds of hours to edit, a publisher won't consider you worth the investment.

The copyright thing is much more complicated, and the laws change depending on where you are. I encourage you (as I encourage any young writer) to spend an afternoon on Google. It's just the smart thing to do. You don't need to be a copyright lawyer to know the basics and way too many people are willing to tell you what they think they know so there's a lot of bad information out there (putting a © on your work is not the same as filing for copyright, for example). Here are some things that are useful for a first time writer to know:

  • If you wrote it, and you didn't write it for someone else (like under contract), it's yours. Period. No one can publish it, say it was theirs, reproduce it for money, perform it, make money off of directly derivative works, or display it publicly unless you give them the right to. It might be tough to prove that it's yours if someone does do one of those things, but they are stealing from you and when you stand on their desiccated corpse and crush their skull under your boot, you'll be totally in the right.
  • Holding copyright because you're the artist and filing for copyright are very different. As an artist, if you create something you automatically hold the copyright. As a not-copyright lawyer, you probably will never completely understand the latter.
  • No publisher in their right minds will steal your story (or allow one of their employes to do so). Seriously, Steven, that's NOT gonna happen. If word got out a publisher had stolen a writer's story, they'd be scandalized beyond any money they ever made. You might even want to hold off putting the little © on your manuscript because some publishers will be insulted by the implication that they aren't absolute professionals.
  • In today's world, anyone who would respect copyright won't steal your work. And almost everyone who would steal your work won't let a little thing like copyright stop them.
  • In today's internet era, the question is less who holds a copyright and more who's going to do anything about it if there is infringement. (And there will be.) One of the reasons to publish with one of the big five is that their legal teams are comprised of Terminator robots with no souls. You can run, but you can't hide. They will find you. It's what they do. It's all they do.


  1. Steven, to add my $0.02, I selected and edited submissions for Ex Post Facto, a college history periodical, for 2 years running. That was a free periodical that published grad and undergrad papers and we didn't pay the submitters. We chose the submissions with the most compelling stories, the best research, and the best writing. If something was compelling but poorly written, we rejected it because it would take too much time to edit and we were on a deadline. We would typically have space for about 10 articles and we would get around 40-50 submissions.

    I also had two of my articles accepted by Ex Post Facto (blind submission; the editors didn't know they had mine and I didn't know who edited mine). I have very good grammar, spelling, and punctuation skills and they still red-inked my papers like crazy. It took a while to correct their edits. And when I went to edit the submissions we selected, I used a lot of red ink, too. Bottom line - no matter how great you write, be prepared to get your copy thoroughly marked up.

    That said, I wouldn't even bother to make corrections on a piece of writing with glaring grammatical errors. I would be insulted anyone had the gall to submit it. Submitting anything less than your best, most cleaned-up work is an insult to the publishing house. It means you think they publish crap. Please consider what message you're trying to send to the people you submit. Would you send out a resume written in crayon on tracing paper and expect to get a job?

    Last, I should mention that I make such a practice of editing what I write that I edited this comment before I pressed "publish." I had two awkward sentences and three grammatical errors in it. This is just a comment on my friend's blog. Please take grammar, editing, and rewriting seriously. It is very important if you want people to take you seriously. Writing is too much work to submit less than your very best.