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Words to the Wise

Let’s Turn to the Big Picture

Those of you who have faithfully followed my articles in The Beacon will have noticed that I have focused on the minutia of editing—punctuation, verb style, word usage—detail that I said in my inaugural piece makes writing flow, smoothes the reader's way, spares the reader the irritation of interruption and confusion. But minutia, defined by the Canadian Oxford Dictionary as "a precise, trivial, or minor detail," is only one part of editing (though it is often the part that makes for the best debate; in fact, the debate can get downright dirty!). Another part is "substantive" or "structural" editing, what I like to call the "Big Picture."

When an editor looks at structure, she asks herself, Does the structure of the manuscript work as whole, given the nature of the publication? A personal essay or opinion piece for a local newspaper will be structured differently than a short story, website, or how-to book. A letter to the editor cries out for a logical sequence that the reader can grasp in seconds without effort. A novel calls for a compelling sequence that will captivate and hold the reader for many hours. Structural rules are not carved in stone, but readers and publishers have expectations. Whatever your piece its organization must be easy to follow, without gaps, missing steps, or unclear transitions. Readers look for prose that is clear, concise, and a pleasure to read. Few will backtrack to figure out your argument or make sense of what your characters are doing. What matters most is a structure that, combined with all the other elements of good writing, draws your reader right to the last sentence.

In my last piece I promised to let you know the outcome of the West Coast Editor’s survey on the serial comma. Final results: For—84.3%; Against—12.7%; It doesn’t matter—1.5%; Only as required—1%; I abstain—1%. Let’s hear it for the serial comma!

Recommended resource on substantive editing:

Editors’ Association of Canada Professional Editorial Standards

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