What it takes to be an editor

Certainly, to be an editor, you must be good at English or whatever language you’re editing. Also, you must care. Be a perfectionist. No one else involved in publishing a document, whether it’s a blog post or a book, may be attuned to the nuances of words and punctuation. The editor may have to compromise or be overruled, but striving for excellence is essential.

Also, pay attention to the details but don’t get mired in them. John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, wrote on his You Don’t Say blog that some people in publishing think that copy editors are “comma jockeys”; he pointed out that by careful attention to content, copy editors had prevented the paper from publishing libel and plagiarized writing. Be aware of the content: is it coherent and complete? Also, unless someone else is doing the fact checking, I recommend verifying anything you can. This takes time and patience, but the alternative—getting names, numbers, and titles wrong—is worse.

One choice for editors is to specialize in certain subjects. For example, Katharine O’Moore Klopf, who maintains the Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base website, is a medical editor. Adrienne Montgomerie, a major contributor to Copyediting.com, edits scientific works.

Copyediting.com has a lot of articles to assist freelancers, and Liz Dexter’s Libro Editing blog has, besides lots of helpful information for editors, a continuing series of interviews with small business owners. Her book How I Survived My First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment: Going It Alone at 40 is available at Liz Broomfield Books. I reviewed it on my website.

Slow as Manasses

In the Virginia Railway Express Ride magazine, November 2016, the chart says both “Manassas” (the correct spelling) and “Manasses.” (Maybe they meant “molasses”?)

Don’t let this happen to you: First, run a spellcheck. My copy of Microsoft Word recognizes Manassas but flags Manasses as misspelled. Second, check repeated information—and here we have the name of a city repeated twice but spelled two ways.

Who owns that photo?

Authors sometimes provide photos that they found on the Web. The photos may be in an open source (that is, publicly available) but not in the public domain (publicly owned). Photos in the public domain (just about all government photos) may be freely used, but we should still give credit.

If you work for a book or magazine publisher, you probably have an author contract specifying that the author has the right to all content submitted: the author is providing original material and has permission to use anything else submitted for publication.

If you are working for a company or nonprofit organization, your writers may be fellow employees who have only vague, and possibly wrong, ideas about photo use. They may supply photos they found online and not know where they got them. After you read these writers the riot act, letting them know that all content is protected by copyright from the time of its creation, you still may need to know where a photo came from and whether you are free to use it.

I discovered (actually, my manager showed me) that Google’s image search can look for a specific photo. Put your cursor over the little camera icon and you’ll see a popup message that says, “Search by image.” One of the choices is “Upload an image.” Choose an image from your computer and upload it, and Google will instantly give you results showing where the image, or something similar, is found online.

(If the photo the author supplied is embedded in a document, you can usually right-click on it and get an option to save the picture somewhere on your computer. Then you can upload it for the Google image search.)

I’ve used this a few times with excellent results. If an author found a photo on the web, then Google can usually find it too. Often I find that the photo has appeared on many websites, often uncredited, but a bit of clicking usually has led me to a site where the photo source is given. For example, one piece I edited recently included a photo that had appeared on someone’s blog, and the writer had credited that blog as the source of the photo. There was nothing on the blog, however, to indicate that the blog author had taken the photo. Google, however, showed that the photo had appeared on a newspaper website too, and there the photo was credited to the Associated Press. I was able to tell the author that the photo was owned by the Associated Press and could be used only after obtaining permission and paying for it.

This function in the Google image search is great for identifying the actual sources of photos that authors found and assumed were free.

Including quotations in a document

“How do I include quotations in my document? Should I change their language and spelling?” In a new post on her Libro Editing blog, Liz Dexter answers these questions. She explains “how to insert quotations into a text, including what to do if they are in a different variety of English, whether you should change the spellings of quotations and when it is acceptable to change a quotation,” to quote the summary.

She also answers the question “When can I use [sic] in a quotation?” and presents “the golden rule of including quotations in your text.”

Her blog post not only will help editors who need the rules for quotations laid out simply and briefly, it is a good piece for editors to provide to writers who may not know the rules.

Steve’s Hall of Shame:* Slained

Getting slained is one of the worst things that can happen to anybody—or to a headline. This was in the Fredericksburg, Va., Free Lance–Star, Sep. 22, 2016.

Don’t let this happen to you: Spellcheck everything—even headlines.


* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.

Steve’s Hall of Shame:* Headling doesn’t go herery

After its June 28, 2016, debacle with a front-page headline mentioning the bribery conviction of Virginia’s current governor, McAuliffe, rather than the previous governor, McDonnell, the Fredericksburg Free Lance–Star said it was hiring more editors and starting a “new process for proofing.” Clearly the process isn’t up to speed, as shown by thiw Sep. 11 headline.

Don’t let this happen to you: Read everything twice, and spell-check everything—even headlines.


* “Steve’s Hall of Shame” is what one writer called my collection of bloopers. I decided to keep the name.

En dashes – from where?

For years I wondered why so many writers and publishers were choosing to use en dashes (which are the width of a capital N) where em dashes (yes, the width of a capital M) used to be standard.

Em dashes have long been used to separate phrases and clauses—groups of words that contain a subject and a verb but aren’t written as an independent sentence. The dash in the previous sentence between the words clauses and groups is an em dash.

En dashes were normally used to separate a range of numbers (such as 50–100) or to join a compound word to another word or words (such as New York–Chicago).

In typing class, back in the (ulp) 1960s, we used two hyphens in place of em dashes–because typewriters didn’t have em dashes.

Microsoft Word has a feature called “Autoformat as you type,” and one of the choices under “Replace as you type” is “Hyphens (–) with dash (–).” (I don’t use it because I do a lot of HTML formatting in Word, and replacing double hyphens with dashes will ruin some of the code.) But if you use this feature (and I believe it’s turned on by default) and if you type two words with two hyphens between them, Word will replace the two hyphens with an em dash. What the “Replace as you type” menu doesn’t tell you, and what I didn’t learn until this month (September 2016) is that if you type a space, a hyphen, and another space, Word will turn the hyphen into an en dash, as illustrated in the title of this blog post.

My guess is that a lot of writers and publishers have not been choosing to use an en dash in place of an em dash. My guess is that a lot of writers don’t know one kind of dash from the other but have been typing space, hyphen, space where they wanted a dash, and Microsoft Word supplied one, and the publishers left it as written, or, to be precise, as typed by the author and as modified by Microsoft Word.

My solution when editing in Microsoft Word is to search for en dashes with space before and after them (in the Find menu, enter a space, then alt+0150, then another space) and change them to em dashes without space if that’s appropriate or to en dashes without space if that’s what they should be.