Entries by Maura

Show Me the Door

One issue I see a fair amount in both published and unpublished manuscripts has to do with how doors are used and their orientation.

Doors have a fairly standard direction that they open, depending on the type of building and what the door accesses (and what country you are in). In the United States, it follows this pattern:

  • Commercial Buildings
    • Exterior doors open outward (into the street).
    • Restroom doors open into the restroom.
    • Restroom stall doors open into the stall EXCEPT handicapped stalls, whose door is required to open outward, into the room, to make it accessible.
    • Interior office doors tend to open into the office (away from the hallway).
  • Residential Buildings
  • Exterior doors open inward (into the house).
  • Interior room doors open into the room.
  • Bathroom doors open into the bathroom.

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Hall of Shame: Definition of Zenith

Today’s Hall of Shame entry is brought to you by a book published by one of the Big Six New York publishers.

…the sun was high in the sky, well past its zenith.

Finding errors like this pulls me out of a book. This book’s editor should have caught both this error and the one that shortly followed, all leaving the reader with no real idea of what the heck time of day the author is talking about.

If you look up the definition of “zenith”, you will find the following in the online version of the Miriam-Webster Dictionary:

the highest point reached in the heavens by a celestial body

So if the sun was high in the sky, it could not have been well past its zenith. If it was high in the sky, it would have been near its zenith.

Editors must respect the author’s “voice”

Have you ever read a story and known, without looking at the attributions, who wrote it? That’s because most authors have a distinctive “voice” that is part of what sets them apart from other authors. It’s a large part of what makes an author unique.

Even though “voice” is a well-known literary term, it can be difficult to quantify exactly because it’s a rather complex mix of punctuation, sentence style, storytelling style, syntax, character description and development, diction and even story length or pacing. Some readers may be able to correctly identify the author of story but not be able to clearly explain why they were able to do so. Other readers can identify aspects of the author’s voice that are particularly obvious to them.

An author’s voice is something readers rely on. They expect Famous Author A to sound like Famous Author A. They buy books based on this expectation and will not hesitate to communicate their disappointment if their expectations are not met.

In the land of fiction, in particular, there may really be no new plots if you distill stories down to their most basic themes. So what allows authors to sell what is basically the same story over and over again? It’s the unique way that author tells that particular story, that author’s voice.

Voice poses a particular challenge when it comes to editing, especially when editing fiction. Works of fiction, much more so than non-fiction, are inherently more subject to “rule breaking” and grey areas that require judgement calls. Editing fiction requires the editor to be ever-mindful of the voice of the author.
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Grammar Tip: On to vs. Onto

How do you know whether to use “onto,” or “on to” in your sentence? I find authors often confuse these two in work I edit, so here’s the tip I use to decide which one would be correct in any particular sentence.

Onto is a preposition that indicates either movement to a position on or in a state of awareness about.

On to is a combination of an adverb (“on”) and a preposition (“to”). The adverb “on” indicates position and the preposition “to” indicates movement.

You can see why these two may be frequently confused. Yet the following two sentences have very different end results:

  • I drove up Broadway and on to the bank to deposit my check.
  • I drove up Broadway and onto the bank to deposit my check.

In the first sentence, I’m just running an everyday errand, taking Broadway to get to my bank. In the second sentence, I’ve still driven up Broadway but I parked my car on top of the bank to deposit a check.

I actually picked up a trick from The Chicago Manual of Style on how to determine which of these two options to choose. If you can insert the word “up” before “on” and the sentence still makes sense, “onto” would be the correct choice to make.

Hall of Shame: Missing prepositions

Today’s Hall of Shame is brought to you by another online newspaper headline.

Rare tumor robs young woman’s voice

My first thought was wondering how the young woman’s voice was robbed? Was it at gunpoint? Maybe it was robbed of a register of vocal range.

No – what really happened was that a tumor caused surgeons to remove the young woman’s larynx. Her voice was not robbed. Instead she was robbed OF her voice. The author of the headline should have used a preposition (“of”) to show the correct relationship between “young woman” and “voice”.