Sunday, November 2, 2008

Far Out

Ideally an author and an editor cooperate to create an even better manuscript. The author offers the product of her imagination and experience. The editor reminds her of her audience and the standard rules that will help readers understand her book. My finest and most memorable editing usually occurs when I dialogue with an author.

Several years ago I was honored to copyedit Lee Lynch’s novel Sweet Creek and among my suggestions told her that, according to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (the standard for our book company), the word “far-out” needs a hyphen.

Lee had accepted all my suggested revisions but balked on this one. She insisted that the word was “far out.” I put on my English-professor hat and loftily explained that it has been around since 1954 and that compound words evolve from two separate words (far out), to a hyphenated word (far-out), and eventually to one word (farout). I concluded my mini-lecture but stating, “We’re now in the word’s second stage of evolution, so it should be written ‘far-out.’”

She politely kept insisting that “far out” doesn’t have a hyphen. After several exchanges, I discarded my scholarly mind-set and finally realized what she meant. Chick, the character who uses the term in Lee’s book, still clings to her hippie past, and even though the book is set in 2001 and technically the word had already become “far-out” by then, Chick has been formed by her experience during the sixties and seventies. Therefore, she would say “far out,” with a huge space between the two words.

Lee taught me that an editor needs to listen to the author she’s working with and to allow the author to break the rules when she needs and deserves leeway. To me that’s far out, as is Lee’s Sweet Creek.

Shelley Thrasher has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. She spends most of her time style-editing for Bold Strokes Books. She also enjoys writing poetry and novels, which you can find on Amazon.


  1. Great post! :-)

    Sometimes, we do have to shirk our editorial ideology and think about the character and what he/she would say and how he/she would say it.

  2. Far out!

    We have to know the rule and also know the reason we are breaking the rule.

    Of course, during NaNoWriMo, all compound words are typed as in a way that will yield the highest word count (wordcount, word-count?).

  3. I'm reading a historical novel right now, and wondering about the proper word combos for the time period. Dance hall or dancehall? Belly wash or bellywash? Ditch water or ditchwater? Ink pot, or ink-pot or inkpot? Somehow, hyphenated words don't seem very Victorian to me. Is this my own little quirk, or an attitude rooted in some sort of knowledge, I wonder. How do you handle these sorts of questions when you edit?


  4. Dani,
    Hyphens are such slippery little creatures that it's difficult to apply consistent rules to them. I'm not a linguist but have found the guideline that says two words gradually become one over time to be helpful. And the hyphenated form is generally the middle step in this process, regardless of the time period in which it occurs.

    When I edit an historical novel I rely primarily on my Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 9th ed., and an online etymology dictionary ( I just looked up the word "online" in the online dictionary and discovered that it is "first attested to in 1950 as 'on-line'" and has since then dropped the hyphen to become "online."

    Editing historical novels is a challenge. Does anyone know of any other helpful sources?

  5. Lynn,

    Good point, but wouldn't you want to use the form "word count" during NaNoWriMo?" I've always thought that a hyphenated word counts as only one.

    Sometimes I'm tempted to ignore the dictionary when I'm running short on words, but I'm too anal to actually do so. :-)

  6. Good link, Shelley. I must go check "webpage" as we have a draft that states "web page". Which is correct?

    We can drive each other mad with this conversation!



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