I give a f about an Oxford comma

“Are you an editorial agent?”

I’m never quite sure how to answer this question, as there’s really no industry standard for considering yourself to be one. But generally when asked, I answer yes.

I like to get down and dirty with a manuscript. Maybe I need better hobbies, but I find a certain level of satisfaction not just in giving big-picture editorial advice on a manuscript, but in doing line edits. I do feel that the devil can be in the details. While doing a line edit once, for example, I noticed that the author had a tendency to begin almost all of the dialogue with conjunctions. Little things like this can really add up and take the overall quality of a book down.

My procedure for editing usually goes something like this:

  • Read the manuscript as is, start to finish.
  • Go back to the beginning and start line edits.
  • Fix incorrect SPAG (spelling, grammar, and punctuation)
  • Suggest changes to dialogue, flow, paragraph structure
  • While doing this, keep a separate sheet for notes on plot, characterization, and big-picture ideas
  • Repeat until I reach the end of the book.
  • Write an editorial letter talking about both the small and big picture edits.

In short, I explain my editorial philosophy as such: I don’t want to change a book. I want to make it the best possible version of what it already is. I take on clients’ books because I love what’s at the heart of them, whatever that may be. When writing an editorial letter, I do my best to be prescriptive, to offer solutions for the problems that are keeping the book from being the best it can be.

I’ve been asked if I have any special training in editing, and the answer is no. When I was in elementary school and junior high (yes, I went to an actual junior high, not a middle school), my English classes taught grammar and editing, and I not only found it interesting, but I had something of a natural ear for proper grammar. (This was a good thing, as I needed my English grade to offset my math grade so I could still come out with a decent GPA.) All I do when editing is mark what sounds right or wrong to me, and within that framework I consider what the audience for this particular book might like to see. It’s neither art nor science, just something I try to get better at with every manuscript I work on.

And yes, I use the Oxford comma, but I don’t get upset with writers who don’t.


2 thoughts on “I give a f about an Oxford comma

  1. At one of my critique groups, we read our pages aloud then receive comments from other members. Nearly every time I catch a clunky verse or awkward word that seemed fine when I was editing at home. The downside, of course, is that the group feedback is ‘big picture’ rather than a true line edit.

    It’s so freakin’ hard to see your own work objectively. I can spot other writers’ errors but completely blow past them in my own ms. Time away from a ms, reading aloud, and even printing in a strange font can help, but there’s no substitute for a fresh pair of (knowledgeable) eyes. Glad to see you care about putting out quality material. Way to go!

  2. Mrs. Sowell, my 7th grade English teacher, plus jobs using APA, AMA, and CMS make it difficult to use anything but the Oxford comma. My latest ms is probably a hodge-podge as the publisher doesn’t like it.
    I like your guideline to listen to the writing.

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