Honouring Ruth Walker

Honouring Ruth Walker

Ruth E. Walker

I’m here to pay a bit of tribute to Ruth Walker. No. Not me. The other one. One of two reasons for the E. in my writing name. The international influence that put the “tentative” in my early writing career. My secret nemisis.

PHOTO: John Nordell / The Christian Science Monitor

Because every time I hit up Google for Ruth Walker (go on…admit it…most of us did it when we started out) there she would be: Ruth Walker. Seasoned journalist and editor. Decades of reporting in the U.S. and abroad (including a stint in Canada), and editing for The Christian Science Monitor.

Sadly, Ruth passed away this past September. The Society of Professional Consultants, of which she was the 2017 President, offers up this as part of her obituary:

[Ruth] served as the Monitor’s deputy editor, editorial-page editor, and online news editor before leaving to pursue a freelance career as a writer, editor, and consultant in 2006. Ruth was currently the author of Verbal Energy, a popular weekly column on language and etymology in the Monitor.

Had they asked Ruth, I suspect she might have suggested that “was currently” could be replaced with “was most recently” but that just proves she and I shared some interests.

Adding ink to your porridge

Here’s another reason to like Ruth. From a January 2010 Verbal Energy column, she takes on the misuse of the apostrophe, referencing The Oatmeal and the delightful spelling and grammar posters you’ll find there. There was no link to the Oatmeal from Ruth Walker’s article in the Monitor, likely due to the decidedly non-PG13 state of some of the work there, but I have no such qualms. Nonetheless, she offers:

Ah, thou apostrophe! Thou useful but so oft misused mark! (The foregoing is an example of apostrophe in another sense: “address to an absent person or personified thing.”)

The Oatmeal opus, in the form of a flow chart, walks the would-be punctuator through some basic if/then steps. “Is it plural? DON’T use an apostrophe.”

The misuse of apostophe also makes me crazy. But I know it’s one of many common errors that editors stumble across. So I really liked the quickie grammar references at the end of her column, “How to be possessive about apostrophes:”

In the Oatmeal spirit of “just enough” grammar, here are some hints to use as editorial first aid until a professional can make it to the scene:

1. If you aren’t absolutely sure about who and whom, go with who. Use of whom in the wrong place looks much worse than failure to use whom in the right place.

2. Forgo and forego are both real words; they mean “give up” and “precede,” respectively. But “forego” (as distinct from foregoing) is almost always wrong. “I will forego you out of the room”? Yeah. Right.

3. Both affect and effect can be either a noun or a verb. But you could probably live your whole life without using effect as a verb or affect as a noun. Many people do – and quite happily, too.

I am only sorry that I didn’t actually read her work until now. I rather like her wit and direct style.

Power in a name

At the beginning of this post, I said that Ruth Walker was one of two reasons for the E. in my professional writer’s name. (possessive, not plural.)

Before I discovered my life as a writer in 1996, I spent a couple of decades in Human Resources. Yes. That department. I had a lot of bosses over the years. Many of them women. Some of them so insecure or poorly trained/supported that they made my working life challenging at best, hellish at worst.

But then In the late-80s (plural, not possessive) the hospital hired a new HR manager. A woman genuinely interested in work-life balance long before it was an HR buzzword. A revelation, in fact.

My boss demonstrated the best kind of management qualities for the women and men in her various departments: mentoring and modelling in a positive and instructive manner. I learned how to ask with confidence. She nudged me forward, until I discovered I could actually talk in front of groups without fainting. And I learned that kindness and empathy could open doors in even the most difficult situations.

She was the most self-assured manager I’d ever worked for, so I looked for all the ways she pulled it off. I believed (and still do) that one of her secrets was to use her middle initial in her professional capacity. It was, to me, something of a statement, a Here I am world, more than Mary Smith. I’m Mary D. Smith. How many times in my clerical years had I seen men use their middle initials on the letters I’d typed for them? Lots. And the women? Never. Not until this boss.

Taking on the power

As soon as I had the opportunity to establish myself professionally, I considered the E. I, too, would make that statement. Finding another well-known and respected Ruth Walker in the world of writing sealed the deal.

So there you have it. The desire to be someone different from a noted writer and editor, coupled with my nervousness when I first started writing, drove me to my middle initial. Do I regret it? Not one bit. On the one hand, I feel like I’m honouring a woman who stood out as a wonderful model to the other women in her orbit. And on the other hand, I wanted to stand out in the art of words among other Ruth Walkers as me, the one with the E.

Did You Know?

Many writers choose not to publish under their own names, using pseudonyms instead. Their reasons for writing with a pen name are as diverse as their narrative voices. Some, like 19th century French novelist and memoirist Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin wrote under the name George Sand. Canadian author and filmmaker Leslie McFarlane wrote 20 of the Hardy Boys adventure series as Franklin W. Dixon. When he moved on, the Dixon name continued under a series of other Hardy Boys writers.

At our most recent retreat, participants were given a series of clues at every meal, all leading to the final clue and answer. It seemed fitting as our Turning Leaves guest author, Vicki Delany, writes mysteries and thrillers. The answer to each clue was a pen name for a famous author. From Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) to Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), participants were challenged to use their sleuthing skills to discover the answers.

At each retreat, we find ways to stretch your thinking and take you outside of the box. Next retreat: Spring Thaw, April 20 – 22/25, 2018.

Paging Dr. Edit: Line or copy edit?

Paging Dr. Edit: Line or copy edit?

Ruth E. Walker. When I first started writing, I didn’t know the difference between a line edit and a copy edit. After some workshops and lots of reading, I learned there’s similarity between the two. Which is good to know because not only do I edit my own work, I edit other people’s work.

Both line editing and copyediting skills zero in on how you are using words. When done properly, they both give you helpful notes and editing marks on your manuscript. Check out some of those marks with a free download from Writer’s Digest of 11 Editing Symbols All Writers Should Know.

It’s so easy to miss errors in your own writing. That’s why I’m immensely grateful to have a consistent critique group. Even so, my editor at Seraphim Editions caught things my colleague writers missed. But he commented that mine was a cleaner manuscript than he often sees. Yay critique group! Yay me!

EditingMy editor, George Down at The Book Band, still asked some tough questions and challenged some of my choices. But a good editor is supposed to make you think hard about your work. I was pleased that he didn’t have to spend too much energy on copyediting and line edits. Instead, it was more about substantive editing: he pointed out missed opportunities in the manuscript — areas where I needed important connections, transitions or back story. More on substantive editing in a future post.

So what is the difference between a line edit and copy edit?

A line edit focuses on the creative side of writing: your style, how you use language in each sentence and paragraph. A line edit helps you achieve clear meaning that helps you connect with your reader.

Line edits eliminate unnecessary words, phrases, sentences:

          • weak modifiers (such as: very, really, so)
          • adverbs (such as: suddenly, slowly, allegedly, terribly, utterly)
          • vague references (such as: this, that, those)
          • repetitions (such as: saying the same thing in different ways)
          • clichés (such as: straight as an arrow, dead as a doornail)

Line edits identify weak verbs that could be more active:

• she walked by
becomes
• she sauntered; she ambled, she strode…etc.

Line edits alert you to awkward sentence structure and unnecessary details:

• He looked up into her face above him, for a moment.
becomes
• For just a moment, he looked up at her face.

Look closely at your own work. Is there clarity in how you’ve constructed those sentences? Are you connecting with your reader in the way you intend? Have you avoided tired, overused clichés?binoculars-1015265_640

Copy edits zero in on the technical aspects of all writing:

  • grammar
  • punctuation
  • spelling
  • typos
  • syntax.

Are you correct and consistent in when and where you capitalize words? Have you missed hyphenations, quotation marks or commas?

If you’re writing non-fiction, a copy edit should catch where you don’t have your facts straight. Accuracy and consistency is important for fiction too: If the moon is out in the beginning of the scene, how come it’s snowing at the end of the paragraph?

I have a confession to make.
I cannot keep my editor’s eye on only one kind of edit. If I’m doing a line edit on someone’s manuscript and I notice a typo, I’m going to point it out. I’ve tried to look the other way, but I want the work to be as good as possible, so I mark the error. Similarly, when asked for a copy edit, well, if the sentences are stumbling over clichés and characters are moving through physical impossibilities, I will mark that too.

But my first pass on my own work is to bring a line edit focus. And it should be the same for your work: focus on the craft, on the language you’ve used, on the images you’ve included, on the mood you want to convey. This focus strengthens your creative voice. You are the chef, so help your sentences offer the kind of magic that swallows your reader’s imagination whole.Imagined Book in Paris cemetary

Don’t spend your energy (or editing budget) on just getting the spelling perfect. That won’t matter if your story doesn’t hold anyone’s attention. And it won’t reflect what you want it to: a great story that connects with the imaginations of readers, editors and publishers.

At our Spring Thaw writers’ retreat, we kick off the weekend with a feedback session. Both Gwynn and I receive, in advance, up to ten manuscript pages from the writers attending the retreat. We each review those ten pages and make line and copy edit notes for the writers. And then we meet with them for a one-on-one chat about their work. We love hearing more about each writer’s plans. We talk about plot, about character development, about markets and agents. And sometimes, writers use that one-on-one to discuss an outline or query letter.

I think Gwynn and I enjoy it so much because we have both benefited whenever an editor or mentor met with either of us to comment on our work. It can make all the difference to be able to ask a question and feel safe in doing so.

Dr. Edit has the answers.radiation-33438

If you have any editing questions, why not write to Dr. Edit? The Doctor is always “IN” and ready to take your questions. Send an email to info@writescape.ca with Dr. Edit in the subject line; the Doctor will answer you directly and we’ll feature your questions and our answers in upcoming posts.