“Gift Horses”


When I was a kid, I frequently was advised to “not look a gift horse in the mouth.” I knew it meant I should be grateful for gifts and not look for reasons to complain. The idiom was so old it had lost connection with its origins, however. But it stemmed from looking at a horse’s teeth to see if it was worth acquiring. If it was a gift, one shouldn’t be so rude as to check its teeth.

I occasionally receive advanced reader’s copies of books. In the case illustrated above, I was able to review Anne Tyler’s latest novel before its release today. This review did not challenge me, since I appreciated this addition to her long list of novels about the overlooked people in Baltimore. I was able to write truthfully praising the book.

My difficulty comes with gifts of books to review that I don’t want to praise. Years ago, a book went through editors before being published by a commercial firm. In those days, “vanity presses” existed for writers to self publish by paying for the service. Today the line between commercially produced books and self-published books is less clear. Self-publishing, no longer called “vanity,” has allowed many writers to get their work into print. Many, skillfully edited, are equal to commercially produced books. However, some writers bypass the editing step. The result reminds me of the value of editors!

I am choosing to follow the other advice I was given as a kid , “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” when I read self-published books. But I continue to offer, free of charge, my editing advice to any of my followers who would benefit from it. I am delighted that one blogging friend is taking me up on the offer. Let me know if any of you would like to pick my editing brain too. I can’t promise perfect help, but I can share what I know after a long professional life teaching English.


39 thoughts on ““Gift Horses”

  1. That offer is super nice of you! I will definitely keep it in mind. I have more than a few years in the classroom myself, but I occasionally come across something that stumps me.

    And isn’t it the truth about the need for editors. Even the best of us make mistakes, and sometimes you just need that fresh set of eyes. And even still you will occasionally run across a mistake in a well-edited, mainstream book.


  2. I think that Nanowrimo has a lot to answer for, in urging p[eople to simply glue together brain products in order to accumulate x number of words in x time period. Many then publish them, and I would go so far as to say that the majority of modern books seem rather rubbishy to me. I don’t point out which individual ones those are though–!


      1. I have not either, which means my book is dribbling along like poor plumbing. I think the concept of Nanowrimo could be good, but simply to disgorge in order to disgorge doesn’t seem practical. To disgorge in order to learn how to edit, or how to discrimiate might be wiser, in my view.


        1. I agree. I used to love that, and even now find many errors of style in the Regency romances that I read at night. It appears to me that Signet had an editor in the 80s-90s who was a fan of the unnecessary comma. Whenever there was an obvious who-what-when-where-why question answered by the clause, or someplace where ‘that’ could have been used or was understood, a comma was stuck in. “She was the most beautiful woman, that he had ever seen.” “They ran to the pond, where the fish were.” “She had a little, brown hat, and, a handsome, dark purse.” “He wanted so much to kiss her, he could imagine it.” There are some lengthy, silly sentences which I can’t find or make up right now, but there have been six or more commas in one sentence, and in most cases that would be too many for me. Our editor might have made that: “There are some, lengthy, silly sentences which I can’t find, or make up [she would not put one here] right now, but, there have been six, or more, commas, in one sentence, and in most cases, that would be too many, for me. ”

          I just delete them with my pen if they get to be too much! I believe part of it might be that Georgette Heyer was quite the user of commas, so perhaps this editor felt it was in the tradition of her work. I err on the side of too few these days.


        2. I used to joke with my students that they seemed to have scattered commas as if they were sprinkling salt on the page with no attention to where they landed. They really had no clue about commas.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. Somehow I loved grammar, since it made a reliable structure and I appreciated that in my chaotic life. It was right when it was right, and there was little room for debate. Even that last sentence has a little room for debate about whether to include the comma or not, but it was something that was easy for me to understand and either abide by or to choose otherwise.


        4. It’s possible. Our household was not calm, and both parents drank to excess daily, one openly, and one secretly. Only one of them was abusive though, so we got off easy in some ways. Sadly, the nice one was the one who passed on through alcohol-related illness twenty years or so back, and the less-nice one is still alive, but became a little nicer as time went by.


        5. It was what everybody did, except for me even when I grew up. Our Irish Catholic family had a lot of drinkers, although some did stop voluntarily eventually.


        6. Watching that show “Mad Men” I felt very at home with my parents’ generation of drinkers and smokers. I had to stop drinking in my 40’s since I was headed down that same family road.


        7. Good for you to stop. It just never appealed to me, although I was addicted to sugar, which I understand metabolises similarly in some with genetic disposition to alcohlism. Smoking never appealed to me at all, and I am so glad it seems less popular now. It startles me to run into folks who still smoke.


  3. The line has blurred somewhat in the publishing world. It is kind of you to still offer help to those trying to get greater skill in writing. I can remember my Mother explaining to me, the meaning of not looking a gift horse in the mouth.


    1. They are character, not plot, focused. She may be an acquired taste. It took me a while to see what she was doing. She really does like the people in the background of life, working class usually.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Elizabeth, I rarely read blogs but I read yours nearly every time one shows up in my mailbox – and yes, I call my emails my mailbox. Your many remembrances of times past bring smiles to my day. So it is with uncharacteristic courage that I am even writing this note. I’ve recently self published a novel about two friends in their early seventies who reconnect and decide to re-create themselves in their later years. Both characters are also lapsed Mennonites who discover how those deep roots continue to hold them steady as they face the challenges of aging. Anyway if you’d have any interest in even skimming it, I’d surely share it. I am interested in how non-Mennonite women might react to it – because it has many controversial angles which play out in various characters. If this feels too intrusive I understand. The book is entitled Ida and Martha, A Montana Story – available at most online book stores. Thanks for your honest writing. I appreciate the wise woman’s experienced voice. -Sara Fretz-Goering



  5. I agree with your words here, Elizabeth. I would love to take you up on your editing offer if you are interested in reading While the Bombs Fell. It is aimed at older children but I think an adult can enjoy it too. I had it developmentally edited by Charli Mills and proof read twice. I am waiting for the final corrections. Unfortunately, even when you have it professionally edited and proofed, sometimes a typo or grammatical error slips thought.


  6. We did have a little chat about this last week. I always say a writer is only as good as their editor, so I will never understand how people skip such an important step and believe they alone can do it. I once helped edit a professional book editor’s book and believe me, I found a lot of typos. I am sure he is an excellent editor of other people’s work as he’s been very successful in his field, but it’s different when the book is our own.

    I look forward to working with you soon! Look out for an email from me between today and the end of the weekend! 🙂


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