Tag Archives: Editing

Hiking trial

A hiking trial? Sounds like a grueling hike. This caption was in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 23, 2017.

Don’t let this happen to you: Maintain a list of “bad words”—words that probably shouldn’t be in your documents but that a spellchecker won’t catch. Search for these words as part of copyediting. Trail happens to be in my own list but in reverse: that is, trial is more likely to appear in the work I edit, and trail is more likely to be a typo.

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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.

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.

When It’s Time to Restrain a Writer

The editor “will see to it that the sensibilities of the readers of the book have been respected and not unnecessarily offended,” says Words into Type (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 57). I earnestly wished that the editor had followed this instruction with Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Bryson is an entertaining, best-selling, humorous writer who occasionally has been a bit crude. In this book he went beyond being occasionally crude and used the f-word a lot, along with a bunch of crude and obscene terms. I’ve enjoyed some of his other work, but I was sorry I borrowed this one from the library and glad I didn’t buy it.

Words into Type doesn’t say never to let an author offend readers. Sometimes controversial content needs to be published, and some people won’t like it. In The Road to Little Dribbling, there was no need for Bryson to be a potty-mouth. Probably some readers didn’t mind, and probably some found it funny. But his humorous observations didn’t require crudeness, and the book would have been better and just as funny with more restraint.

So how does an editor see that readers are not unnecessarily offended and that their sensibilities are respected? I’ve never personally had to remove obscenity while editing, but I have occasionally had to keep authors on course. My advice is to respect the author’s sensibilities and not unnecessarily offend the author. Where editors recognize a digression, the author may see a jewel of writing. The editor can point out which portions detract from a piece of writing and how they may limit the readership. In my experience, the best authors are open to correction. Still, you may present your advice politely and respectfully and have it rejected. And if the author is a best-seller, the publisher may come down on the side of the author. When Words into Type says, “See to it,” that presumes some authority that an editor may, in reality, lack. Nonetheless, it’s important to try—for the sake of the readers, the author, and the publisher and to do your best work.

A time to clean up quotations

“You never alter a direct quote: that’s the strict editing rule,” wrote Ed Latham on his Ten Minutes Past Deadline blog on May 24, 2016. “Reported speech can be tweaked, but if it’s inside quotation marks, you don’t touch it.” That’s what I was taught, and I have always made it a point to follow that rule.

However, Latham, a sub-editor (British for “copy-editor”), has recognized a situation that may call for cleaning up quotations: when speakers have trouble communicating in English because it is not their native tongue. Latham doesn’t agree with “forcing quotes into standard English.” Sometimes speakers “may have made a conscious choice about using non-standard English; sometimes they may be talking in their natural voice. But, in many cases, they may not speak the language well enough to distinguish one register of English from another, and what they end up saying may be far from what they intended to convey.…”

“The risk of being seen to patronise interviewees by cleaning up their quotes is at least partly balanced by the risk of being seen to have ridiculed them by leaving them untouched.”

Latham gives several examples and discusses the nuances. His post “Ya Gotta Be Championship” is well worth reading in its entirety.

On June 7, Latham followed up with another column, asking, “When a player gives you this as a quote:

For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.

“What’s the correct way to proceed?

  1. Run the quote verbatim …
  2. “Clean up” the quote? …
  3. Take some the words out of direct speech? …</li
  4. Just not run the story at all?…

“After two weeks of thinking about it, I’m still not sure what I would do.”

Listing acronyms from figures

When editing a document that has a lot of acronyms (initials or abbreviations pronounced as a word, such as Nasa or radar) or just plain initials (such as FBI, pronounced not as a word but by saying the letters F-B-I), I try to reduce their quantity by eliminating as many as I can. If IOTs* (initials of things) appears only once, I would delete it. When the reader comes across initials of things (IOTs), it might be useless trivia or it might be essential to memorize it in order to understand the rest of the document. The reader doesn’t know, but I can search for it with Microsoft Word’s find & replace tool and see whether it ever appears again in the document. If not, I delete it.

However, a lot of documents I edit have charts, graphs, or other figures that have been placed as pictures. Word can’t search the text in these pictures, so my practice for years has been to go through them and write down any abbreviations, initials, or acronyms that are not defined in the figure where they appear. All of them get listed in a note or glossary. When editing, I would continually refer to the written list to see what has to remain in the glossary even if it appears nowhere in the document’s text. This has involved a lot of back-and-forth referring to the written list.

Last month I thought of a better way to make that list of terms that appear in figures. It is so obvious that I am kicking myself for not thinking of it years ago: instead of writing down the abbreviations, initials, or acronyms in a separate list or file, I just add them to the document I’m editing. They can be the starting material for a glossary, simply a separate list, or added to an existing glossary, in which case I add a note to myself indicating which figure the term appears in so that I know not to delete it from the glossary.

Then when I come across initials of things (IOTs) in the text, I can search for IOTs. If it appears anywhere in the document, even just in a chart, Word should find it. If it turns up only in the glossary, with a note such as “(fig. 4),” I will know to keep IOTs in the glossary. If it turns up nowhere, I can safely delete it.

If I’m the last editor in the world to think of this, you can say, “Ha, ha! Steve has been using a handwritten list of terms that appear in figures!” If, like me, you’ve been wading through a mire of abbreviations, initials, and acronyms and struggling to cope, this may help you out of the quicksand.


*This is a silly string of initials I made up; it doesn’t belong in any serious document.