“When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME”

By Laura Daly

When you’re editing, whether it’s your own work or someone else’s, you may find there are common problems in the writing that boil down to this: assumptions being made about what readers know.

Readers don’t know what you know. They don’t have plot outlines in front of them, detailed character sketches and descriptions of scenes. With a nonfiction book, other than an index and a table of contents, they may not understand fully what the scope of your book is. They don’t know what’s coming up, what’s happened before page 1, what’s possibly going to happen in the epilogue. If they’re reading a nonfiction book—a biochemistry textbook, for instance—they don’t know that a term that comes up in chapter 2 is going to be fully defined in chapter 6, so they don’t have to worry that in chapter 2 they’re totally lost in the language. Whether you’re dealing with a work of fiction or nonfiction, you owe it to your readers to set up scenes, set up information, fill them in on what you know.

Readers, for instance, won’t know what something looks like until you describe it, which doesn’t mean you have to go into minute detail, but you do have to establish the details so that THEY MAKE SENSE. They won’t know, for instance, why the protagonist, Joe Blow (Who’s he?), got in the car (What car? Where? How? Why?) and drove to Slobville (From where?) to visit a sick friend, Thelma (Who?), who lives on the block near the abandoned factory that has the big ready-to-crumble smokestack that … Where were we? And it’s not because you’re the omniscient narrator and know all, and therefore they couldn’t possibly know what you know. I mean they don’t have the facts, Jack.

{Yeah, I know, creative writers in Iowa are waving minimalism banners right now. But, see, minimalism, or the lack of details, has to have a point. And not providing details—information, definitions, description, context—can be really annoying to readers when there isn’t a point to the writing and when the lack of details is because of a writer’s (fill in the blank) sloppiness/laziness/ignorance.)


Readers don’t know about your characters, for example, their backgrounds and traits. And by characters, I’m not just thinking of fictional characters. For me, living, breathing people in works of history are characters who, even if they’re well known, need to have details established—personality traits, say, or events in early life that can be seen as influencing the person’s later decisions. A common approach taken in historical biographies these days is to assume that readers are already fully familiar with a figure’s general life facts, so there’s no need for the writer to review them. I understand that not every biography should be a multivolume work, but I wonder how helpful it is to not set facts within a context, to instead assume that readers know that context and can make their own connections.

I’ve come across this same problem in memoirs. Now, in a memoir, the reason why details aren’t given may be because the subject doesn’t want to spill the beans on everything or doesn’t quite remember the events or wants to gloss over details that are, oh, embarrassing. But a memoir should feel honest to readers, and that means details should be connected and built on, and readers’ familiarity shouldn’t be assumed. A guy can’t be describing with relish his bachelorhood and sexual exploits with numerous womenfolk in various parts of the country while on the road with his band, say, then throw in, “By the way, I got married.” To whom? When? More importantly, why? Then the wife doesn’t show up again until five chapters later, when wife number 2 comes on the scene after the divorce. Say what?

Set up details early so that later details have a context, have meaning.

This assumption problem reminds me of a pithy rebuke by Felix Unger in an episode of “The Odd Couple”:

“When you assume, you make an ASS of U and ME.”

(A friend of mine recently groused that he never agreed with Unger’s dictum: “The first part makes sense. But how does what U do make ME look bad? It’s on U.”)

Whether we agree with what Mr. Unger says or not, we can all agree that making assumptions can be very bad in writing. Don’t do it.

Oh, and don’t be an ass.


Laura Daly, a freelance editor, writer, and proofreader based in Maywood, NJ, has worked on fiction and nonfiction trade books, textbooks, trade magazines, and journals. She can be reached at laurajdaly@earthlink.net.

It’s Only Logical: part 1 in the series EDITING: MORE THAN I BEFORE E.


It’s Only Logical: part 1 in the series EDITING: MORE THAN I BEFORE E
by Laura Daly

Tomorrow is the last day of Words Matter Week, so it seems appropriate to start a blog entry on editing and writing. My friend Lisette had suggested a while ago that because I’ve been a freelance editor since 1984, I might have some knowledge, tidbits, tricks of the trade, or advice to give on the subject. I believe my initial reaction to her was “Huh?” because, from my perspective, I’m still learning how to be an editor. The longer I work at it, the more I realize how much I don’t know, how much there is for me to learn. But she persisted, and I can never say no to Ms. Brodey, so, what the heck, I’ll give it a shot and put out some ideas and offer some suggestions and probably some two-bit opinions that I hope may be helpful.

Where to begin: Well, I think I’ll start with internal logic and why it’s a very good thing to watch for in any writing. Now, I’m not using the term in the strict Introduction to Aristotelian Logic sense. I mean it in the sense of maintaining coherency and consistency. So, for example, when writing a work of fiction, that means paying attention to the details: the descriptions of characters, their backgrounds, their traits (character A is X, Y, and Z); the main developments in the plot and their relations to each other (plot point B happens because of points C and D, which are foreshadowed by point E); the time, both within the actual boundaries of the plot and before and after the storyline (plot point F occurs at X location on the story’s timeline); the locations—where events in the narrative take place, where characters are from or are going, that kind of thing (character G came from place H and currently is in place I and will wind up in place J); and the influences on the storyline, or why things occur (plot point K happens because of L, M, and N). (Being a J school grad, I resorted, if you noticed, to calling on the 5Ws: the who, what, when, where, and why of the story.)


Writers have different ways of keeping track of these details. Many do up copious lists, outlines, and descriptions, per character or chapter or major developments in the plot. Some do character sketches that may include details that never make their way into the story but that act as biographies for characters and help to keep traits, descriptions, and so on, clear. For a story covering a particular period of time, whether 24 hours or 3 months or 200 years, a timeline showing the plot points is helpful. Not all of these recorded details may wind up in the final story, but they help a writer stay true to the characters and the plot.

Editors can keep track, for instance, of descriptions of characters: Susie, 24, blonde, lives in Aberdeen, Maryland, hates crab, came from Dubuque; Butch, 39, wears flannel shirts, speaks with a drawl, once worked as a carny; plot point O takes place on planet Zoltar, which is two light-years from Boldorf—whatever details the author provides. With an involved storyline, editors may want to keep some notes or rely on the very helpful find feature in Word. Also, quick fact checking is very important and useful (even though publishers these days don’t seem to bother having fact checkers on staff). I’ve been asked to submit lists of characters, with descriptions, along with place names, as part of style sheets. As a matter of course for works of nonfiction, I keep lists of place names and proper names, along with a basic timeline, when needed. I also do fact checks, which are speeded up thanks to online sources. (A discussion on finding reliable sources might be good for another blog entry down the road.)


More importantly, things have to make sense within the context of the work. They have to be logical, even if a story itself is not meant to be realistic. So, for instance, a character who is in his late 20s in a story, which takes place now, can’t have been the set designer for a movie from 1985; that would mean he would have to be at least in his 50s, unless he was a child genius set designer, in which case he could be in his 40s. (This kind of discrepancy actually came up in a recent project.) A villain who is creeping up the stairs to a second-floor bedroom can’t suddenly be downstairs in the basement burying a body unless a gap in time is acknowledged in the story. An Edwardian gentleman can’t recite “In Flanders Fields.” You get the idea.

So, the lesson today is be consistent, be coherent, be logical. Oh, and don’t forget: words matter.

If you’ve come across odd internal logic problems in anything you’ve read recently or want to share some ideas on how you maintain internal logic in your own writing or editing, join the discussion.


Laura Daly, a freelance editor, writer, and proofreader based in Maywood, NJ, has worked on fiction and nonfiction trade books, textbooks, trade magazines, and journals. She can be reached at laurajdaly@earthlink.net.