What An Editor Can Do For You

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Lyla-photo200xThis week I’m presenting you an interview I did with my own editor, Lyla L. Haggard. We cover some common mistakes writers make (with examples and fixes), the best writer-editor relationship and flow for her, and what an editor on a long project like a novel actually does with you.

1. Overall, what are the most common mistakes you usually correct in a writer’s work?

I would say that most beginning writers create sentences that are too long and too complicated, which leads them to make punctuation errors. Either too many commas or commas not in the right place.  They have no idea how to use a semicolon, or they misuse it…and all of that is based on the fact that they are writing sentences that are too long.

2. Do writers of different genres produce a common type of error specific to that genre? 

The only real error that I can think of might be specific to a genre where there is a lot of conversation involved, so you have to know when and how to use the quotation marks and whether the period is inside the quotation mark or outside. For example, a period is always inside, and a semicolon is always outside of a quote mark.

And as an editor I need to know the tone of the writing and the potential reader.  I don’t want to be correcting and making something sound stilted when it needs to be conversational or vice versa.

3. What’s your favorite type of relationship to have with a writer?

A lot of the editing I do, the writer never sees it until it’s published, and then I don’t know how they feel about it unless they say something to me. But the better relationship is when you’re working on a longer piece, a novel or something, where there is a back-and-forth between the writer and editor.

I would definitely say that at the beginning I need to know exactly what the project is. A novel? If so, what age group? What’s your target market? Niche? Is it a brochure that’s going to be handed out to the public at large, so that you write differently than if it’s something that’s very scientific and only a few very well-educated people will read it, So you have to know who the reader is.

I have to know the writer’s personality as well as what I think the type of reader’s going to be. And somewhere between those two, it’s like I’ve got a foot in both camps. I want to make sure that the writers feel good about my editing, so I’ll put some little jokes in there occasionally or give them gold stars if they do something correctly that they’ve been having trouble with… but I also have to keep thinking about who’s reading it.

4. What simple rules or mnemonic tricks do you suggest a new writer keep at the ready?

Don’t always believe spellcheck, because it is not always correct.

I think they need to understand why certain punctuation marks exist. Why are they there? Why even have them?  Once you understand why you have them, if you can get that in your head, then you’ll be able to proofread your own work better and, over time, you will write your initial work with fewer errors.

You and I have talked about how when you get in the flow, and you get to going fast, and you like what you’re writing, you’re not really thinking about commas and semicolons and spelling.  Okay fine, but then reread it, rather than just relying on me to do it. But, of course, I want to keep a job, so I’ll be glad to read it for you (laughs).

If you make an effort to learn why there’s a comma there and why an apostrophe here, and if you take the time to learn when to use its and when to use it-apostrophe-s and understand why that apostrophe is there—then you’ll do lots better.

5. Okay, so give me a baseline example for the meaning of the comma.

The comma does not mean a pause in your speaking. Most people think that’s what it’s there for, and it has nothing to do with that at all. The most common use of the comma is to show that there are two complete sentences being connected by a word like and or but or because—they’re called connecting words. You always use a comma before the word connecting two complete sentences.

Where people get confused is when you have one subject and two verbs: He ate the apple and read the book. No comma. If you say, He ate the apple, and he read the book, Yes, use the comma, because those are two complete sentences. (He ate the apple.  He read the book.) The first example was one sentence with two verbs. The second example was two complete sentences that could stand alone on their own that you’ve connected with one of these words, and so you put a comma in front of it.  It’s a rule. You may think it doesn’t make any sense, but it is probably the longest standing rule in writing.

Now other times that people often don’t put in a comma that they should:  When you say: “Cincinnati, Ohio, was my hometown.” you put a comma before and after Ohio. You’ll see a lot of people these days that don’t use that second comma, but it’s definitely the correct way to do it.

Now you say, “Why?”  It’s because it’s a state. One single comma should never be inserted between the subject and the verb, so in that sentence the subject is Cincinnati with Ohio being kind of like a modifier of Cincinnati and the verb is was. So you don’t put one comma between the subject and verb. You can put two commas by using Ohio the same way that we use two commas for the word, indeed, but from a punctuation standpoint they could come out of this sentence, and it would still be complete.

6. The semicolon.

Use the semicolon when you have complex sentences, each of which already have several commas and the commas need to be there. Let’s say you have a long list of four concepts and one or two of those concepts have commas within them.  Here’s an example:

When I am writing a biography, I like to interview the subject himself; his current wife, Eloise, and his two ex-wives, Joan and Melissa; his children John, Peter, Sara and Sally; and his many business colleagues. 

I like to interview:  subject himself

his wives (current and former)

his children

business colleagues

I put a semicolon in this sentence to make each “type” of person I want to interview an equal part of speech.  This is called parallelism, and not structuring a sentence this way is a very common mistake.  It’s not so important in conversation; it is essential, however, when writing.

7. What do you have to watch out for in your own writing?

Listening to my teacher’s instructions (laughs). Making sure I totally understand what he wants.

I have the typical problems; I need to reread my stuff when I get going on a flow.  I think a common mistake nearly everybody makes (and I make occasionally) is when I use a plural verb because the words right next to it are plural, but really the subject of that verb is singular. For example, you might say, “A basket of apples is on the table,” not “A basket of apples are on the table,” because the subject of the verb is basket, not apples. Now if you want to say, “The apples are sour.”  Yeah, apples is the subject and are is the verb; both are plural.

So you just have to watch for that particular mistake; it’s a very common one. I know I’m repeating myself, but on television or podcasts there are so many errors used that it no longer sounds wrong to your ear. And this is really scary for me, because I rely heavily on my innate ear for what something should sound like as I’m writing a sentence. If you hear too many people say, “They invited Jim and I to go to the dance,” and you hear that a lot, when people use the pronoun I incorrectly; it should be, “They invited Jim and me,” because if you deleted Jim, it would be, “They invited me.” You would never say, “They invited I.”

8. What do you ask writers before you work on a project with them?

Does the writer want me to help structure his or her sentences? Shorten them? Or not? I always try to find out how sensitive a writer is to changes. I mean, it’s not a question you can just ask somebody, “How sensitive are you?”  But I try to figure that out within the first few weeks of working with somebody. How do they respond to a change I suggest? Do they see it as helpful or see it as inserting myself into the writing, being intrusive?

I think you’ve noticed I try to say “What about this?” or “Would you consider this?” rather than changing it without asking permission. I think most of the time, when they’re not professional writers, people appreciate an editor that makes them look good.

9. Is there anything you want to say about the editing process?

To work with an editor, time is an important thing. If you, as a writer, have a certain deadline that has to be met, don’t give me the manuscript the day before. The faster I have to edit, the more likely I will miss something. I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m not perfect (chuckles).

As far as time to edit something, it varies greatly. If I just have basically to proofread, correct grammar, spelling and so forth, it comes easily to me and will go quickly. If it’s more sophisticated editing, and the author has allowed me to suggest, not to do, but to suggest some rewrites or a different way of saying something, that takes longer. I give it more time.

And also, it’s okay to give the editor half of the book, depending on what you’re writing. If you’re relying on the editor mostly for punctuation, grammar, spelling, those kinds of things, he or she does not have to have the entire manuscript in order to get started. However, if you’re using the editor more as a partner in helping you think through the structure of the novel, character development, etc., then maybe you’d want to wait until it’s finished or have them early into the process. You’d have to decide on the timing. What is it you want the editor to do?

I think you should look at the editor as your friend and don’t worry about making mistakes, especially if you’re just getting back to writing or you’re just starting as a new writer. You should say to the editor,  “I want to improve my basic grammar, spelling (whatever the issue is that you think you have).”  That way the editor can help you quite a bit.


Eric:  I know one of the fears I had with editors in general was that they would alter my message as I wrote it, change my particular way of expression, my style, not only with what I had to say, but how I said it.

Lyla – And did I? Even inadvertently?

Eric: No. No. You were very cautious with me when we started, wanting to know exactly what it was I wanted from you. And you adhered to that. As our relationship developed, and I was a little more trusting and secure that you aren’t out to make it your story rather than to help me tell my story better, I’ve learned to trust your advice. When you make corrections now, or suggestions for certain things, I trust that, yes, that’s a great choice; it helps the thought, the sentence structure and helps the story flow a little better from the reader’s perspective.

Since I have dyslexia, there are certain things about sentence structure that sounds perfect to me but might be confusing for the general reader… and you understand that. You see those common things, and you tell me something has to be switched in order for the thought to flow better.

Lyla:  I usually say, “To my ear, this sounds better.”

Eric:  Yes. You put it in a way that makes for an easy work flow between us. You let me hear it from a “normal” perspective that ends up making sense for me.

Lyla:   And I wish you would take that approach and do the same on my stories that you edit (we both laugh). You cut out entire paragraphs (more laughter).

(In truth, I cross them out and show specifically why it was done. This is a completely take-it-or-leave-it process, but she usually listens to me and makes the changes I suggest.) 

Eric:  My approach to editing your work is only from a creative aspect: the flow of continuity, the emotion of the story, and the pull for the reader…because I’m actually fairly good at that.

Lyla – Yes, you are indeed.

Eric: And so your being new to this particular type of  “expressing yourself,” I can help with that.

Lyla – Well, you’re actually in the role of a teacher at this moment on the subject of my personal writing. Whereas I’ve not been in the role of a teacher of grammar and punctuation for you. It’s not what you have me for particularly.

From my perspective, I very much enjoy going over edits with you. For one, we laugh a lot. So I enjoy that, but I also think that it gives me the opportunity to point out patterns, where sometimes my editorial comments will be, “We need to talk about this.” because it’s too complicated to explain in just a small editor’s comment box. I learn a lot about you; you learn a lot about me by doing that. But, of course, not everybody would want to spend that kind of time with an editor (unless, of course, they knew it was me.)


Lyla L. Haggard has more than twenty-years of senior level management in marketing, strategic planning, advertising, public relations and market research. She’s worked in large organizations producing more than a thousand various publications a year and even provided in-country marketing and business consultation for an American start-up company in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She is fluent in French and reads German and Spanish.
After an early retirement, she now consults through her own firm, currently as Editor of the monthly magazine “Hyde Park Living” and writer for “HouseTrends” magazine. She is also an accomplished fine artist and painting teacher.
Contact her here
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