BUSINESS OF WRITING: that track-changes stuff

Just got a tip while talking to a writers’ group, and I felt it might be useful to others.

A group member said that she got a rejection that mentioned the confusing-ness and messiness of her copy. She’d submitted with her query a three-chapter partial as an attachment, because she was invited to do so at a conference. Alas, there must have been something going on with that copy. Because her copy had been declared clean by the critique partners and even by a paid copyeditor. What had happened?

She opened the file she’d attached and looked again. She noticed that she’d turned on the “track changes” option some time ago, and furthermore that she’d sent the editor a segment that she’d circulated among several beta readers for electronic comments. The newer versions of Word can be confusing, because you have the option of viewing the “final” copy only–in which case the changes and comments won’t appear on your screen, but they’re still there and will appear on the recipient’s side if he or she has it set to show “all” or “show comments.” In fact, I think the default is showing “all.” This writer learned this the hard way, to her dismay. When she turned off the “view final,” all the comments and change bars were there in all their glory. That must have been the version that popped open on the editor’s screen, and it must have torpedoed this writers’ sub(marine).

We’ll never know whether the editor would have gone for her mystery in a big way, because she has blown her chance with that editor. They didn’t suggest that she re-submit, and possibly that’s because they got the impression that she was an unprofessional dum-dum for sending the copy with all the “junk” in it. Oops!

(NO . . . this time, it wasn’t me. No, really! Honest. This is one of the things I haven’t done yet to screw up. But I thought it was worth sharing about.)

So . . . if you do use later versions of Word, take heed. I use Word 97 (and would still be using old WordStar 3.3 if I could! I don’t need “insert graphics” and all that rot, and it just makes the software bloated, IMHO. I could go with far fewer features, perhaps a “manuscript mode.” But anyhow) because I don’t want all those extra things for desktop publishing that I’ll never use. I did resolve to watch for such errors from now on, however. I remember in the Dim Faraway Past that I sent someone a chapter as an example of my work, and from then on he went around telling people how incoherent I was and how I wasn’t a writer at all. I suspect the problem THERE was that I had a lot of “hidden text” in the document, and his default setting was “show all” or “show hidden text.” Never again!

The “hidden text” thing is listed in your Word menus under font formatting, and it IS useful. It means that the software will “dim” that text and put little dots under it to show that it’s “hidden,” or it will hide it completely if you don’t want to show it on the screen. You’d have to try it to really understand why it’s useful at all.

I got into using it years ago when my boss at E-Systems Garland recruited me to help write and edit the software test plan and the PPS&C guide (Programming Practices, Standards, and Conventions guide–it told you things like, “Use comments every ten lines in your code, and don’t make them like “increment X,” and “No jumping out of the middle of a loop with a GOTO or other trick”). He would write a ton of stuff and edit it down somewhat, and then I would go in and edit that and put a ton of stuff back in. We were copying (“in our own words!”) from a number of example documents and also circulating the document among software developers in the office for suggestions, so as you might imagine, we had several ways of phrasing each item. We had to choose the “clearest” or “most precise” phrasing. This led to a lot of stuff that the boss didn’t want to delete outright lest he want to go back to a previous way of saying something. (In case you didn’t know, when you work for the government, in a contract the word “shall” means something different from the word “will,” and we had to avoid “will” sometimes because of that. People would point this out when we’d circulate the document. It was important contractually, because we could be bound by something we accidentally promised, and the company would be held to doing it that way. And other idiotic stuff.)

His brainstorm was to use Hidden Text! We used it not only to hide the alternative phrasings, but also to do notes to each other and to ourselves. (At that time, the “comment” function did not exist. Hidden text was pretty obscure to everyone but us.) When we wanted to see the full spectrum, we’d “show hidden text.” When we wanted a final document onscreen, we’d NOT show hidden text. You had to check a special box back then to get the program to print hidden text, so we were covered with hardcopy. It actually worked pretty well for our purposes. (“John–remember to ask Ron if he is still using C or if he is going to go object-oriented with this version” “Shalanna–check my verb tenses in the next three paragraphs”)

But if you sent a chapter to an engineer whose Mac Word was set to “show hidden,” you got back scathing remarks about how you needed to go back to school and you didn’t know what you were doing. My boss only had to suffer that ONCE before he realized that we’d have to do something before sending out any final drafts.

I discovered that you can (and STILL can, BTW) do a search-and-replace and put “formatting/font/hidden” in the “find” field and nothing (not a space! NOTHING AT ALL) in the “replace with” field and get rid of all hidden text. I got used to doing that with any excerpt we e-mailed out or anything I wanted someone else to look at.

I even used hidden text in my fiction. After a while, though, I realized that it was an enabler. It allowed me to dither forever between two words or phrasings, and keep lines in the book way after they had outlived their welcome. I quit doing it several years ago, and I haven’t really missed it.

But if you use this or “track changes” or anything else like that, remember to create a new file or clean copy before you submit your work. It could give the wrong impression to an editor/agent who is too busy to worry about WHY your stuff looks different from the expected and just turns around and rejects!

Thought for the day: Your words have the power to change someone’s life for better or worse. Your angry words will go with the child whom you just scolded or corrected–and if you taught something instead, your helpful words will go with him or her as well. Your words (if you are a believer) will be something you are held accountable for in the end by the ultimate Powers That Be. What will your words do today?


Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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