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Raising Standards

by Don Webb

Our News brief reminds contributors that the on-line versions of their works are — in almost every case — more accurate than their own copies. Now why might that be?

When preview notices are sent to contributors — normally on a Thursday, although they may come a little later — the Review Board gets a preview notice for the entire issue. Most of the time, contributors say the on-line version looks okay. Meanwhile, errata reports are coming in from the review editors. Between Thursday and Monday, most of the files in the issue are amended, some several times.

Ideally, your Managing Editor, who formats the issues, would proofread and correct each file, thus saving our review editors a lot of work. But if I did that, the issues would become vanishingly small, and the waiting time for short stories, which is now approaching six months, would stretch out to a year. Neither we nor our contributors want that. What can be done about it?

Our Coordinating Editor, Bill Bowler, has three main tasks:

  1. Acknowledging submissions promptly.
  2. Distributing submissions to reviewers for critiques without overloading any one of them. Fortunately we have been able to recruit some very talented reviewers, and they are given due credit on our Bewildering Info page.
  3. Having the acceptances proofread. Again, we have been fortunate in recruiting two new proofreaders to take some of the load off of the review editor who has so far been doing it all.

What does this mean for our contributors? First, we have to keep in mind that critiquing and proofreading are two different skills. Some people can do both well; others can do one or the other well. That’s normal. But our reviewers are now being encouraged to take a close look at the most common problems, namely punctuation, spelling, and coherence.

The most common punctuation problem is speaker tags. Some contributors aren’t aware that a speaker tag has two important features: it contains a speech verb, and it is part of the sentence that includes the quoted speech. As a consequence, they set off speaker tags as complete sentences. Here’s a somewhat far-fetched example of the kind of thing we see too often:

“The time has come.” The Walrus said. “To speak of many things.”

Now, how should that be written? Our Style Manual — an open secret in the menu bar — explains how to do it.

The most common problem with coherence is the agreement of verb tenses. Another example:

“As George goes whistling past the graveyard, he wanted to think of anything but the ghosts he will see playing pinochle by moonlight.”

What should the tense of the sentence be? past, present, or future?

Trouble is, that example is not far-fetched. Writers can catch such mistakes only by rereading their texts not as authors but as readers. All writing is rewriting, it’s been said. Nonetheless, writing is one thing; reading and proofreading are quite another. The mental focus required in proofreading is not the same as in the process of composition.

Fortunately most of our contributors do not have these problems, and we thank them for their excellent work. But the word is now officially out: if our reviewers and proofreaders find three botched speaker tags, they will almost surely find more. If verb tenses don’t agree in one place, they’ll probably be incoherent elsewhere, too. And if pronouns begin to play the role of proper names in one place, that means the writer has lost control of the text.

We need to lighten the load for our reviewers and proofreaders. From time to time we may have to call on our contributors to help out. We’ll tell them what the problem is and ask for a rewrite.

Copyright © 2007 by Don Webb

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