Make It Clear To Everyone

Last week I received my manuscript back from my editor with a list of requested revisions. Actually it’s not a written list/letter (what I used to receive when manuscripts were submitted and edited in hardcopy) but the electronic version of the ms with “comments” and “track changes” editing.

editing cartoon

Some of the requested changes are because my editor fears readers won’t understand or believe what I’ve written.

Also, last week and this week, on crimescenewriter@yahoogroups.com, several law enforcement officers (active and retired) and forensic experts have been commenting on revisions they’ve been requested to make in the books they’ve written. Editors have actually told these writers who KNOW what they’ve written is accurate that they were wrong. (Due to the CSI effect, law enforcement often find themselves having to defend actual situations when juries or readers argue that they know better…they’ve seen how it’s done on TV.)

So it doesn’t matter if I or the experts know what we’ve written is correct. If your editor (or a reader) doesn’t understand or believe what’s being said, it needs to be fixed or explained in a way that will make it sound reasonable or correct.

There are some words, terms, and colloquial sayings that I forget aren’t common everywhere. Usually all it takes is for me to substitute another word or write a short sentence to clarify the word(s). For example, in Michigan people often ask for a can of pop. Once I’d moved here from California, I quickly got used to using the word “pop.” It wasn’t until I started writing that I discovered people in other parts of the country used the word soda. Now my characters always ask for a can of soda.

Also, in Michigan, many houses have what’s known as a Michigan basement. (These are especially common in century-old homes.) My main character inherited an old house. She’s afraid to go down into the Michigan basement. (Since they’re simply a hole dug in the ground under the house that holds the furnace and hot water heater, they’re usually damp, have a musty, mildewey smell, and harbor spiders.) My editor lives in Canada. He has no idea what a Michigan basement looks like. He figures if he doesn’t know what I’m talking about, probably others won’t either.

And he’s probably right.

So now, in the book, I have a short description of a Michigan basement.

Also, I’m quite familiar with marinas in Michigan, but from a comment my editor has regarding one scene in the book, it’s obvious I haven’t described the setup well enough for him to see the marina as I do. Time for a rewrite there.

What the writers on the Crimescenewriter list have been saying is it doesn’t matter if you’re right. If your reader doesn’t understand what you’ve written or doesn’t believe you’re right, you need to rewrite it so they will believe it…or are willing to suspend belief.

So how do you make sure the majority of people understand what you’ve written?

editing hamster

Well, one think I’ve learned is don’t ask ONLY people who live in your area to critique your ms. Find someone who lives in another part of the country. They’ll, hopefully, pick up on the words and ideas that won’t be clear to everyone.

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19 Responses to Make It Clear To Everyone

  1. Diane says:

    You are so right about finding someone from out of your geographical comfort zone to do a critique or beta read. I often work with a gal from Texas and we’ve managed to stump each other with local slang plenty of times. There are some phrases I’ve repeated my entire life that left her scratching her head. My childhood home had one, and I hope to never again see another “Michigan basement” — they’re creepy. Great advice Maris.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Diane, my mother-in-law’s house has a Michigan basement, which is of course why I’m using it in a story, but I’ve only been down there once. That was often enough.

  2. I find the same thing with historical detail or phrases. If a word isn’t used today, I need to make sure I describe what it is or that the meaning can easily be discerned by context. Or, if there is a historical fact I know to be true, but there is a common myth about it, I need to be able to defend the myth with the truth. Because of that, any historical fact I research, I keep a notation of when I researched it, the website or book information, and quote the book in my notes or copy the page if I’m at the library. That way I have a reference–and if I forget I can look it up again, too! Great post, Maris!

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Good idea about keeping an index of where the information/facts are located. I once had to mail “proof” to a copy editor. I was glad I had it available.

  3. Melissa Keir says:

    That’s very true about edits. I was born in Ohio and moved to Michigan. People used to laugh about my Ohio twang. They sometimes couldn’t tell what I was saying. Now I try to make sure people understand what I’m saying… even if it takes a little longer to explain. 🙂

    Best of luck with your edits!

  4. Cheryl Peck says:

    My New York editor nixed ‘outbuildings’, assuring me my readers would never know what they are. I had already excised ‘dooryard’. In Alabama, where my father lived for 12 years, they are always ‘carrying’ people to Birmingham or Florence. My folks had a Michigan basement. We also have ‘root cellars’ around here, which are never as elaborate as they might sound. Oh, yes, and my favorite Southernism: “mash that Lee-ver” (as opposed to ‘push that button’ or ‘push that lever’.)

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Ah, yes, Cheryl. New York editors do live insulated lives. I once had one ask me why my heroine couldn’t simply unload her horse from her stalled vehicle and ride him to find help. Of course, the stalled vehicle was on I-94. I had to explain that Michigan might be in the midwest, but there were fences all along the sides of the freeway, an my heroine certainly wouldn’t ride her prize winning horse on the road with semis going by at 80 miles an hour.

  5. Thanks for the reminder, Maris.
    A friend of mine mentioned in a recent critique that I might want to more clearly describe the Pince Niz (glasses held on only by the nose piece) I mentioned or the pepper box (a three barreled handgun).
    I love using common items from history that are unusual to twenty-first century USA, but, as you mentioned, it takes some writing technique.

  6. You are exactly right about the accuracy – CSI effect, Maris. My son, who is a police officer, had given me an actual law enforcement terminology word for a pivotal sentence in a mystery story I had sold to Woman’s World. When the story came out, that particular word was the only change they had made in the entire manuscript. Unfortunately, writers don’t get to do line edits with them.

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Margo, that’s always irritating when they change a word (or the spelling of a word) and you haven’t had a chance to explain that what you wrote was exactly right.

  7. Dianna Morris says:

    Wow! I come from Michigan. My grandmother’s basement was an open room the size of the house’s footprint, cement floor and windows in window wells. A combination storage room and play room. There was even a separate, insulated room where canned and other food goods were stored. A friend of mine in South Carolina has the “Michigan basement” you describe. It opens from a smallish hinged door in the floor of her kitchen. The first time we looked down into that facinorous hole she looked at me and said, “Close that up and we shall never speak of this again.”

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      Dianna, that’s the type of basement we’ve always had in the houses I’ve lived in. Even my grandmother’s “basement,” which was a room under the house reached through a trapdoor, had a cement floor and walls. It wasn’t spooky, not like the “Michigan basement” in my mother-in-law’s old house. But my grandmother’s house was located in Oakland, California…not Michigan.

  8. Grandma E says:

    Around Virginia “Florida rooms” are quite common. I had to be told what they were…

    • Maris SouleMaris Soule says:

      You’re right, Enid. Michigan isn’t the only state with basements like I described, but I sure wasn’t familiar with them until I moved to Michigan. I thought “Florida rooms” were the lanais all houses in Florida seem to have. Am I wrong?

  9. Joe Novara says:

    Will there be a pop quiz after this blog?

  10. Jane and Walter Ward says:

    Walt had a similar problem but he knew non one would understand he took the time to describe a “Michigan basement” in South Bend, Indiana, LOL!

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