Chip MacGregor

February 10, 2014

What Drives an Editor Crazy


Someone wrote to ask a favorite question: “Are there certain editing errors that drive you crazy?”

Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work on their keyboard! I hate this! Really! What’s worse is the writer who needs to use several at once!!!!

Here’s “another” one: Occasionally you’ll find “authors” who feel a “need” to put any emphasized words in “quotes,” since they think it makes them look “official.” This is particularly tiresome when a “funny” author decides to put his “punchline” in quotations. An “idea:” cut the quotation marks.

And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.

Number four: The serial comma. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. Let me offer an example… “Farnsworth visited Italy, Spain, Bermuda, and Angora.” Note that there are four countries and three commas — one less than the list. Writers will often drop the serial comma, in an apparent attempt to make “Bermuda and Angora” one country (sort of like Trinidad and Tobago, if you need a geography joke).

5. Notice the unclear way I’ve used to create this list. I didn’t number the first or second. Then I used “third” and “fourth,” followed by the number 5. An editing error that drives me up a tree is jumbled numbers in a list. For some reason, Number-Impaired People will make an outline that reads, “First,” followed by “Two,” then “C,” and then “4.” (Or, occasionally, “13.”) Make all your numbered lists consistent. And try not to put a numbered list within another numbered list. Too many numbers drives editors insane.

Sixth: Please notice I didn’t write “sixthly.” From a strict editorial viewpoint, there is no reason the word “firstly” or “secondly” exists. To number a list as “first” or “second” is to adverbialize them. To add “ly” is to adverbialize them. Therefore, why in the world would you adverbialize an adverb? Why write “firstly” when all you really need to write is “first”? Besides, if it’s a long list, can you really defend “thirteenthly”?

Seventh: Figure out the difference between “your” and “you’re” before writing you’re book. Ditto for “its” and “it’s.” And “there” and “their.” [Warning to the humor-impaired: there is a deliberate error in that first sentence. Ask your mom to explain it to you.]

Eighth: Your spell-checker is not to be relied upon. Ewe can knot really on it too pickup ever thin.

Ninth: Print out a copy of your proposal or manuscript and look it over. If the FIRST WORD of every paragraph is the same, you need to go back and change it. (Unless the first word of every paragraph is the word “I,” in which case you need to be slapped by the person sitting next to you, THEN go back and change it.) The same holds true for authors who use five different types of font on the cover page. I sometimes get queasy looking over the waves of font attacking me.

Tenth: Maxwell Perkins once said that “style” is nothing more than one author’s decision to misuse the rules of grammar. A good editor will let you misuse it in order to help you create voice (any reading of William Faulkner is evidence of that). But that same editor will notice when you’ve crossed over to misusing it and sounding like a moron. Listen to your editor.

May I suggest two wonderful grammarphiles you can read in order to get a good grasp of the rules of grammar? Take a peek at Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire and Well Tempered Sentence, as well as Patricia O’Connor’s Woe Is I. Both authors actually have a sense of humor in talking about “the rules.”

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  • This is a great post Chip! Truly great! Firstly, you hit some very important but basic errors that I’ve found in poetry, fine literature, biography and nonfiction! Its a great thing that we have you’re “expertise” to help us (and I say that sincerely!!!!!!!!!

    • chipmacgregor

      You, sir, get the point.

  • BTW… I like the new clean look to the site.

    • chipmacgregor

      I shaved. Much cleaner now.

  • Tamara Leigh

    Thank you, Chip. Funny and true (I don’t need a comma, do I?) 🙂

    • chipmacgregor

      Nope, you don’t, Tamara. :o)

  • Janet Ferguson

    Very helpful and funny. Almost scared to post under it. Doing a search of my manuscript for “secondly.” Don’t think I have any thirteenthlies?? Happy New Year. (!)

    • chipmacgregor

      Firstly, there is no reason to be scared, Janet. Secondly, I appreciate you coming on to comment. Thirteenthly…

  • Jaime Wright

    This was NOT nice of you, Chip. I spit my coffee across the table at the coffee shop. Laughter is a great way for me to start the morning, but the not the person on the receiving end of my laugh-launched coffee.

    • chipmacgregor

      You can send me the dry cleaning bill, Jaime.

  • Jodie Bailey

    Here’s to the serial comma!

    • chipmacgregor

      Glad you agree with me, Jodie.

  • Jennifer Zander Wilck

    Love it.

    • chipmacgregor

      Appreciate that, Jennifer.

  • Jill

    A missing serial comma is likely a sign of a journalist. It was against AP style when I was a reporter. I still think it isn’t needed, because there is no natural pause there (IMHO). But I’m with you on the exclamation points. The first Beth Moore Bible study I attended, she described herself as a living exclamation point. I almost walked out. She’s the only exclamation point I admire.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Jill. As to the serial comma: If I say, “Here come the dancers, Mac, and Jimmy,” we all understand a group are coming over. But if I say, “Here come the dancers, Mac and Jimmy,” we all assume Mac and Jimmy are dancers. (They are not. They’re drinkers.) Trust me — the serial comma is there for a reason.

      • Exactly! Those commas in a list indicate parallelism. Contrary to the popular explanation, the comma does not mean and.

      • Katharine

        …a group IS coming over…

        • chipmacgregor

          Correct, Katharine. Thanks — careless comment by the editor!

      • SFGroover

        If you say, “Here come the dancers, Mac and Jimmy,” then you’re not writing the sentence well. Just as with exclamation points. commas should not be used as a writer’s crutch. The more commas in a sentence, the more cluttered the sentence is. Trust me, the serial comma is not necessary.

        • chipmacgregor

          Disagree, SF. And if “it looks cluttered” is your best argument, you’re in trouble.

  • Donna

    I would like to add the overuse and misuse of em dashes and

    • chipmacgregor

      Donna — yes. I see that — thanks. –chip

      • Patricia Daly

        I love em dashes and semicolons. Please write more on their overuse and misuse.

  • Stephen M. Miller

    You know something, Chip? Some of those things you listed are tricks editors pull on writers. I recently had to red-curl some exclamation points, which I never use unless I’m swearing. I’d blog what drives me crazy (like turning active sentences into passive, grinding starch into the jockey shorts of my words, and subbing adrenalin with Ambien), but I write a Bible blog, not a how-to-edit blog. If I can find a Bible verse to hang that rant on, though, I’ll give it serious consideration.

    • chipmacgregor

      How about saying to all those editors you don’t like, “Be fruitful and multiply,” Steve? Only… you wouldn’t have to use exactly those words…

      • Janet Butler

        This might well be the funniest line in this entire entry. Talk about spitting coffee!

  • Sondra Kraak

    I love this post. Hilarious and insightful. Thanks for clarifying about the serial comment because when I was in college, it was appropriate to leave the last two list items together. When I critique in writer’s groups, I still see this done all the time, even though I’d been reinstructed at a writer’s group. It’s great to get an authoritative word on it.

    • chipmacgregor

      The AP Style Book claims it’s correct, Sondra. And, um, the AP Style Book is wrong. They like things for convenience, not correctness.

      • Sherri

        When even Oxford is dropping the Oxford comma…I think that’s a sign.

        • chipmacgregor

          Those crazy Brits… what do they know?

  • *laughs out loud* This is so funny…and true. I love all the case in point paragraphs. I’m bookmarking this just for the laughs.

    As a note, though: “firstly” and “secondly” are actually correct in British/World English. (See Oxford dictionary.) Sure, they still drive me up the wall, but that’s at least one reason for them.

    I’ve also found Janice Hardy’s blog to be a good resource in general for explaining all sorts of writing things in ways that make sense to the average writer.

    But now I have the urge to write a story called “Thirteenthly”… 🙂

    • chipmacgregor

      It’s true, there is support for “firstly” and “secondly.” But there’s also support for not using a serial comma, Carradee. The fact that some people want to embrace an error doesn’t cause me to agree with it. Again, why would be adverbialize an adverb?

      • I do hate those two things—”firstly”, the lack of a serial comma—too, and I grimace at all the well-educated pastors I know who assume that they have to add the –ly to ordinal numbers, but it helps to remind myself that at least some of their instructors are European.

        Because those things actually aren’t always errors. Others have mentioned that journalism omits the serial comma. (It’s my understanding that it started to increase white space on the newspaper column.)

        I find that being aware of and at least acknowledging the circumstances in which certain things can be considered correct makes me more effective when I’m trying to convince someone to switch practices. ^_^

        • chipmacgregor

          But acknowledging those things makes for less discussion and a far less entertaining blog, Carradee.

          • Fair point. 😀 It is a good example of how different communication methods suit some mediums better than others.

  • chipmacgregor

    Okay, I had to re-run this post because the first time I ran it, the system broke down and nobody could find it. So forgive me for replaying this one!

  • Firstly, Chipp, youre a silly poopie head, because of svereal things, youre boring, stinky, dull, and, kookoo. B, I don’t “think” I’m beter than you, I KNOW IT!!! (you remind me of something, but I dont know what it is And 7, just because you drink Guinennes … Ginnesss … Guin … that horse pee from Europe doesn’t make you a hit. I”m the hit, and if you take me on I beleev youll see it to.

    Youre friend,
    A Writter

    So, Chip, did I cover everything, bad spelling and all? 😀 And for full disclosure, Chip’s my agent, and a darned good one; we pull each other’s kilts like this all the time.

    • chipmacgregor

      And let that be a lesson to you, John: NO MORE GUINNESS BEFORE COMMENTING.

    • Lynn D. Morrissey

      About kilts: Have you seen the movie, The Hasty Heart?

      • chipmacgregor

        I have not, Lynn. What’s it about?

  • Your kidding. Right? LOL I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. Great suggestions here, and I will make sure none of these issues are in my latest. I’ve been warned.

    • chipmacgregor

      Firstly, I think your correct, Kirsten. 2, I forgot to mention “LOL.” And C, for those not in the know, that would be bestselling novelist Kristin Billerbeck writing a comment, so you should pay attention.

      • Chip, you’re so good for my ego. Especially today, when I’m nursing a sick dog without the benefits of a backyard to toss her into. Ooh, I ended with a preposition. I’m hopeless.

  • Cathy West

    Thank you, Chip, for the shout-out. Bermuda is indeed beautiful, but nowhere near Angora. Or Trinidad and Tobago, for that matter. And this comma of which you speak, would that be the Oxford comma?
    )(I spelt pretty good here, dident I?)) HaHa!!!!!!!

    • chipmacgregor

      I love Bermuda. Or maybe it’s the Bahamas… Sorry, Cathy. One of those warm islands that is nowhere near Oxford.

  • Jane Gaugler Daly

    Re: Exclamation points – The same holds true for Facebook status updates!!!
    I’m having scrambled eggs! With salsa! Their yummy!!

    • chipmacgregor

      Excellent point! Thanks, Jane!

  • Jane Gaugler Daly

    One more thing: I resubscribed to your blog. Here’s the message I got:
    “Please fill out this form to subscribe! Thanks for subscribing!” WTF?!

    • chipmacgregor

      Um… I didn’t know that. Thanks. I plan to have our IT guy beaten to a pulp.

  • I had no idea you were this humorous when I signed on the dotted line Chip. It’s like a getting a bonus I didn’t expect.

    I wrote features for an editor who messed me up regarding the serial comma. She always added it after I wrote my stories without, so I assumed I was wrong since she was the editor. I second guess myself every single time, two years after leaving that job. Thanks for setting me straight on that one. I feel better now.

    • Lynn D. Morrissey

      Shelly, thanks for telling me about this post. I love it!

  • AnnieC17

    I agree with just about all you’ve written (my pet peeves are the “it’s” and “its” errors, along with “your” and “you’re”) — however, AP (Associated Press) style is to omit that last comma in a series, using only the “and.” Thus, many journalists have that influence when they write. My two cents here. Oh…and the exclamation points do work well in Facebook posts. Really!!!! 🙂

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, AnnieC17!! Its good to have you comment!! Good to read you’re words!!! (etc.) And yeah, I know all about the AP Style Guide. I just don’t happen to agree with them.

  • Katie Ganshert

    I never (or hardly ever) use exclamation points in my novels. I think I use up my exclamation point quota in emails. I’m not sure that’s any less annoying to my editor. 😉

    • chipmacgregor

      I remember my writing instructor in college telling me, “Chip, you only get one exclamation point per chapter,” Katie. Good advice.

  • Katharine

    Wow! Did I ever laugh!
    Two required uses of exclamation points, right?
    Love this post; I must be an editor since all the above irritates the fire out of me, too. Thanks!

    • chipmacgregor

      Nice of you to comment, Katharine. Thanks for dropping by.

  • Richard Mabry

    Chip, Good stuff. I started to include a bunch of exclamation points, poorly punctuated sentences, etc. in my reply, but realized that John Robinson had already covered that.
    Incidentally, one of my pet peeves is getting an email from my agent with exclamation points in it (something she preaches against with almost as much fervor as you). Of course, the exception is that she can include as many as she wishes if they come after the phrase, “You have a new contract!!!!!!!”

    • chipmacgregor

      In that situation, multiple exclamation points are expected, Richard.

  • Isabelle Leroux

    Thank you for the information! I am about to release my first novel at the end of March, and I am editing my own work. But with the information you just gave (which I have to say mad me laugh), I will look it over for the tenth time… to see if I didn’t do any thing that is irritating… Have a wonderful day!

    • chipmacgregor

      You’re welcome, Isabelle. I appreciate you coming on to comment.

  • Donna Clark Goodrich

    My pet peeves when editing manuscripts are the misuse of quotation marks, i.e., “I’m going to the store, said Mother. Do you want anything?” And the three most common misspelled words: lead/led; lightening/lightning; and reign/rein.

    • chipmacgregor

      An excellent addition to the discussion, Donna. And we in the States struggle with the British reversal of single quotation marks and double quotation marks. Ugh… confusing.

  • Patricia Lee

    I’m laughing so hard I need a tissue to wipe my eyes. Wonderful post.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks very much, Patricia.

  • Lynn D. Morrissey

    Shelly just emailed me about your brilliant humor, Chip, and then I just realized a really un-funny thing! (Should I put my invented word in quotes?! Does using both a question mark and an exclamation point, consecutively, drive you nuts?!?!) Back to the un-funny thing: I haven’t been receiving your blog-post reminders in my inbox. I had this vague sensation that something significant has been missing from my life. Now I know what it is: You! (Please permit me that particular exclamation point when referring to someone as noteworthy as you, Chip!!!!!) I must tell you that I love this post. It’s clever, humorous, insightful, and practical. Oh, please don’t get me started on the serial comma. Why did editors, awhile back, think it was chic to remove it? There is a standing joke about an inheritance. John bequeathed his money to Tom, Dick, and Harry, or was that Tom, Dick and Harry? In this case, that one seemingly inconsequential comma had financial ramifications. Thanks, too, for pointing out the difference between the singular possesive pronoun, its, and the contraction, it’s. I might add to your list the topic of subject and verb agreement, and I rue the day when feminists squashed the universal “he.” Now most people think that “they” is singular, and it drives me nuts. Another pet peeve of mine, along the lines of “firstly,” is “importantly.” May we please banish both? I love Woe Is I, and I also use The Chicago Manual of Style and my dad’s old Harbrace Handbook. I think, too, the wealth that you’ve shared here may just be the start of a new book for you. Thanks for sharing, Chip. You made my day. Please come back to my inbox.


    • Lesley Ann Sharrock

      Here are some words of comfort. There, their, they’re.

      • Lynn D. Morrissey

        English *is* crazy, right, Lesley?

      • chipmacgregor

        Or when people are writing about a toast, and say, “Here, here” instead of “hear, hear!”

    • chipmacgregor

      When they updated our WordPress site over the holiday season, they somehow managed to delete all our subscribers, Lynn. (They were “helping us move forward,” I think.) My apologies — it took us a while to figure it out. Now we’re asking old friends to come back and re-subscribe. Appreciate you being part of the conversation.

  • Ane Mulligan

    I love this post, Chip. I had to laugh at the exclamation points. I never use them in my writing, unless danger is the reason. But I sure do use them in my emails and Facebook posts. LOL I get out my penchant for exclamation points there. ;o)

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks for saying so, Ane. Nice to hear from you.

  • Tim Akers

    I love Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire. There’s a deluxe version that’s come out and I use it when I teach Comp 101. There’s another one that I like too is Battlestar Grammatica,

    • chipmacgregor

      There are a bunch of grammar books, of course. But, like you, I like the random humor of Karen Gordon’s book, Tim.

  • Keep spreading the word. (I first used the exclamation to strengthen my sentence, but quickly removed it.)))

    • chipmacgregor

      Good girl, Sandy. You saved yourself from being booted off this blog… :o)

  • Dave Lanson

    Great tips. I think we all know its and it’s, and your and you’re. But the average reader (and writer) probably doesn’t.

    • chipmacgregor

      And, of course, I find myself still making mistakes sometimes. I recently used the wrong version of “there,” even though I know when to use each. From now on, I’m blaming all errors on auto-correct.

  • Robin Patchen

    Love this list!!! The exclamation points drive me crazy, too!!! And the quotes. If I see a sign that says: “Fresh” fish, I assume it’s going to stink.

    I often tell writers they have to understand the rules before they can break them. If an authors uses commas wrong for 60,000 words, that’s not artistic license. That a license to learn the rules.

    • chipmacgregor

      Exactly, Robin. Good advice.

  • Michael Ehret

    God bless and uphold for all eternity the serial comma! (Maybe that’s a little strong, but I’m passionate!

    • chipmacgregor

      Your right, Michael.

  • Elizabeth Ludwig

    Great article, Chip. And hey…loving the newsletters. Nice reminder to hop on over and check out the happenings on your blog.

    • chipmacgregor

      Thanks, Lisa. Nice to see you comment.

  • Love it– but I also love the Oxford comma. Can we still be friends?