An American Editor

July 30, 2021

Indexing Arabic Names: Compound Names that Cannot Be Split

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 9:20 am
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© Ælfwine Mischler

Arabic names can be tricky to index and alphabetize in references. In previous posts, I discussed how to handle the definite article al- and family terms Al, Ba, and ibn or bint between names. Unwitting indexers and editors (and even authors) often err by inverting Arabic names that should be left as they are, or splitting compound names and inverting names in the wrong place.

Arabic has a lot of compound names that are identifiable by one of their elements. This column discusses the most common ones. Whether you are indexing or alphabetizing references, do not split these compound names. That is, do not invert — do not move only one element and not the whole thing. The identifiable compounds are based on the genitive construction (iḍāfa) and often, but not always, the second element begins with the definite article al-, which should be ignored in sorting.

I have collected these common compound names by recognizable elements. For the sake of simplicity, I have not used diacritics on the names.

Ibn + [something]

In pre-modern names and names of royalty, ibn (son of) or one of its variants may come between two names. These names are indexed as they appear and are not inverted (see Indexing Arabic Names: Family Terms).

However, when Ibn comes at the beginning of a name rather than between two names, it is capitalized in English, is not inverted, and is sorted on Ibn. Many medieval personalities are known simply as Ibn + [something]. The “something” might be the name of a father or ancestor, or the whole name might be a nickname. For example, the nickname of the 15th-century Egyptian hadith scholar Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani means ‘son of stone’; al-ʿAsqalani indicates that the family originated in ʿAsqalan some generations before him. He is indexed as “Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani,” sorted on I.

Here are some other names of this type — alphabetized as they should be, with the ignored al- shown in angle brackets (see “>Indexing Arabic Names: The Definite Article):

Ibn <al->ʿArabi, Abu Bakr Muhammad*

Ibn ʿArabi, Muhyi al-Din Muhammad*

Ibn Battuta

Ibn <al->Hajib

Ibn <al->Hajj

Ibn Hazm

Ibn Khaldun

Ibn <al->Tabban

Ibn Taymiyyah

*Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ʿArabi (d. 638 AH/1240 CE) is a Sufi scholar who is known as Ibn ʿArabi or, sometimes, as Ibn al-ʿArabi (with the definite article). Follow your author’s practice to include or exclude the definite article. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 543 AH/ 1148 CE) is a Maliki scholar and judge known as Ibn al-ʿArabi. Your author might refer to them as simply Ibn ʿArabi or Ibn al-ʿArabi, without the other names.

Bint + [something]

Bint (daughter of) is the feminine counterpart of Ibn and can occur as the first element of a compound name that is not split. Bint al-Shatiʾ (literally Daughter of the Riverbank) is the pen name of Aisha Abd al-Rahman. You should index it as written, without a comma and sorted under B. Your index might also include her real name (indexed as Abd al-Rahman, Aisha), with locators double-posted or a See cross-reference to her penname.

Abu (or Abū) + [something]

Abu + [something] (literally father of [something]) forms a type of nickname known as a kunya. The “something” is usually the name of the man’s eldest son, but the kunya might be used to indicate a trait. In the medieval period, people were addressed by their kunya and might be known primarily by it instead of their real name.

This form of name is still used in some Arab cultures today and may appear as a surname, nickname, or penname. Like other compound names, you should not split it, and if there is an article in the second element, you should ignore it in sorting. Thus, the Egyptian writer, poet, and historian Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid (1893–1967) is indexed as “Abu Hadid, Muhammad Farid.” The Palestinian Abu Nidal is indexed as written, possibly with a gloss of his real name (Sabri Khalil al-Banna), possibly with an entry at al-Banna, Sabri Khalil (sorted under B) with a See reference to Abu Nidal.

If Abu is preceded by ibn or bint, it becomes Abi (or Abī), and the entire sequence of Ibn/Bint Abi + [Something] should not be split.

Umm + [something]

Umm + [something] (literally, mother of [something]), is the feminine form of the kunya. Like the masculine form, it may refer to a woman’s eldest son, as in the case of Umm Salama (mother of Salama), or it may indicate a trait. The given name Umm Kulthum (also spelled Kulsum or Kalsum) means “one with chubby cheeks.” It was used as the stage name of the Egyptian singer Fatima Ibrahim el-Sayyid el-Batagi, whose stage name is indexed as “Umm Kulthum.” If the second element has the definite article, as in the case of Umm al-Qura (“mother of towns,” a nickname for Mecca), the article is ignored in sorting.

ʿAbd + [something]

This compound, meaning “servant of” or “slave of,” is probably the most common. The second element is usually, but not always, one of the names of God, and there is usually a definite article in the second element, which leads to various spellings in modern names. To bring common spellings together, sort word by word and ignore the definite article if it is not attached to the first element:

ʿAbdallah, Jamil

ʿAbd <al->Hamid II

ʿAbd Rabbihi

ʿAbd <al->Rahman III

ʿAbd <al->Rahman, Sayyid

ʿAbd <al->Samad, ʿAbd al-Qadir

ʿAbdel Ghani, Mahmoud

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem

The one exception to this, by convention, is the name of the Egyptian president Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser, who is usually referred to in text as Nasser and indexed as Nasser, Gamal ʿAbd al-, rather than as ʿAbd al-Nasser, Gamal. If your author ignores this convention and refers to him as ʿAbd al-Nasser, index him as the author has him, but also put a See cross-reference under Nasser.

It is common practice for an author to use only a surname on subsequent mention. However, twice I have caught an author using only the second element without ʿAbd; for example, referring to Sayyid ʿAbd al-Rahman as al-Rahman rather than ʿAbd al-Rahman. Al-Rahman is a name of God and cannot be used for a human. If you come upon such a mistake in a book, index the name correctly with ʿAbd and tell the client to correct the text.

[Something] + al-Din

Several compounds made of [something] + al-Din ([something] of the faith) are common names in modern Arabic, and served as a form of honorific in medieval names. In modern names the al- might be spelled ad-, ed-, or ud- to show the assimilation of the letter l, and the article might be attached to the second word. Din might be spelled Deen or Dine.

Common modern compounds are Nur al-Din, Saif al-Din, Salah al-Din, and Shams al-Din, all with various spellings (see “Romanized Arabic in English Texts: Sources of Variation” and “Romanized Arabic in English Texts: Other Challenges for Editors”).

[Something] + Allah

A few names, now primarily surnames, are formed with Allah as the second element: Farag Allah, Faraj Allah, Hasab Allah, Khair Allah.

Dhu (or Zu) + [something]

Dhu or Zu is a combining word in a few names. The u is a long vowel here, so the vowel of the article elides in pronunciation and this might be shown in various spellings, or the names might be written as one word: Dhu ’l-Qarnayn, Dhu’l-Qarnayn, Dhu-l-Qarnayn, Dhul Qarnayn, Dhu al-Kifl, Dhul Kifl, Dhu al-Faqar, Zulfaqar.

Miscellaneous genitive compounds

I have seen a number of names of prominent people incorrectly indexed. These names are also genitive constructions and should not be split.

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan, appeared in one index as “ul-Haq, Zia” with no sign of the first name. I could not access the text to see how the author had written the name, and I always see the surname hyphenated. This should be indexed as Zia-ul-Haq, Muhammad.

The former president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has Ben Ali as his surname. His given name is also a genitive-construction compound, which I have also seen used for other people with different spellings: Zine El Abidine, Zain al-Abidin, Zayn al-ʿAbidin. These should not be split.

Examples of Modern Names

A modern name might have two or more given names rather than a given name and a family name. The second name is usually the father’s name; the third name, if there is one, is the grandfather’s. Look at the last element and determine whether it is part of a compound name that cannot be split. Treat any compound names as a unit, then use the final name (simple or compound) as a surname and invert. Ignore the articles in sorting, as shown by the angle brackets.

ʿAbd al-Rahim ʿAbd al-Jalil >> ʿAbd <al->Jalil, ʿAbd <al->Rahim

            NOT <al->Jalil, ʿAbd <al->Rahim ʿAbd

Abu al-Hasan Kamal al-Din >> Kamal <al->Din, Abu <al->Hasan

            NOT <al->Din, Abu <al->Hasan Kamal

Aisha ʿAbd al-Rahman >> ʿAbd <al->Rahman, Aisha

            NOT <al->Rahman, Aisha ʿAbd

Ali Samir al-Dumyati >> <al->Dumyati, Ali Samir

Ali Moustafa Mosharafa è Mosharafa, Ali Moustafa

Mohamed Salah Eldin >> Salah Eldin, Mohamed

            NOT Eldin, Mohamed Salah

Mustapha Zine El Abidine >> Zine <El> Abidine, Mustapha

            NOT Abidine, Mustapha Zine El

Nasr Abu Zayd >> Abu Zayd, Nasr

            NOT Zayd, Nasr Abu

Noura Ahmad Dawud è Dawud, Noura Ahmad

In a recent book about Yemen, I found several modern, nonroyal names with “bin” between two names (for example, Ahmad Hani bin Dawud). I had to query the author about them because modern names don’t usually contain “bin” unless the person is royal. She replied that “bin” was part of the family name, so I told her to mark it to be capitalized and I indexed them on Bin: Bin Dawud, Ahmad Hani. If you find similar modern names, query the author.   

Titles and honorifics can appear in both medieval and modern names, and cause more problems for indexers. That is a topic for another post.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology. She has presented a webinar on indexing Arabic names for the American Society for Indexing (https://www.asindexing.org/webinars/mischler-arabicnames/). This post is based on the submitted version of “Indexing Arabic Names: The Basics,” published in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing, March 2021, https://doi.org/10.3828/indexer.2021.7.

July 7, 2021

On the Basics: Marketing while uncomfortable

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 8:47 pm

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A journalism colleague recently tagged me in a Facebook post about his discomfort with marketing his freelance services, saying he believes in “privacy, humility and discretion” and that posting about his work distracts him from doing the next project. He’s reluctant to post social media messages because he finds most of them “banal and narcissistic,” but he knows that at some point, he’ll have to market his business to succeed.

I suggested that he “think of social media posts as advice to and support of colleagues, and it might be easier to use that resource to promote your freelance business. Privacy, humility and discretion are valuable principles, but we have to do at least some marketing to be found and hired for projects!”

How does using social media to advise and support colleagues play into a marketing plan? When you answer questions, suggest resources, present solutions and otherwise come in handy in LinkedIn, Facebook and related platforms, including discussion lists and other forums, you establish yourself as professional, skilled, knowledgeable — and the people you help will remember you that way. They’ll think of you when a project comes up that they can’t take on for some reason. They’ll contact you to subcontract or refer you.

This colleague’s post, and my response, got me thinking about how hard it can be to take a business-like approach to freelancing and engage in marketing when we’d much rather be writing, editing, proofreading, etc. We like to think of ourselves as creative types (especially those of us who are writers or graphic artists), and the idea of being businesses or business-like is antithetical to that creative self-image.

But as freelancers, in business we are and market we must. (And even some in-house colleagues have to market themselves — to get promoted, to have their work recognized and appreciated, to find a new in-house job.)

Your first step is to create a website. Once that’s up and you remember to refresh it regularly (which I admit I’m very bad about doing), it will do a lot of your marketing for you. Potential clients will find you before you have to go looking for them. Add the URL for your website to your “sigline” (the contact info at the end of every e-mail message you send), and it becomes even more powerful as a marketing tool.

As colleague John H. Meyer said in a post to the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) discussion list, “Think of your online presence as a wheel, with your business website at the center, and everything else (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc., etc., etc.) as spokes. Whatever appears on any of the spokes can bring attention back to the hub, which is the permanent repository for all essential info about you and your service.” He has found that “even a non-business presence on various media has brought me clients.” As a result of having several opinion pieces published in local news media with a tagline that identifies him as a “free-lance editor,” several authors “went a-Googling,” found his website and are now clients. “Even if you’re not directly marketing, how you present yourself publicly can still help build your brand.”

(For tips on creating a website, see … or order a recording of my webinar about that topic from the EFA.)

In that online conversation, I also noted that “Cold queries do still work, though.” And they do. If marketing makes you uncomfortable, don’t think of them as marketing. Think of them as pitches or leads for new work. The advantage of cold queries is that you initiate contact with a potential client: You do some research, through Writer’s Market, library or bookstore visits, Literary Marketplace, LinkedIn, etc.; come up with an idea for an article or a perspective on how your skills and experience might meet their needs; and send your message. It’s essentially one on one, which doesn’t feel as much like marketing as being visible in social media. It doesn’t feel promotional. It is business, but it’s on a smaller scale. It’s, well … private, humble and discreet.

You can also create a blog, although finding new things to say on a regular basis might be a challenge.

You can write a book or booklet, which provides credibility and passive marketing backup and income.

You can set a schedule for social media posting and activity, or simply remember to scan groups and colleagues of interest occasionally and respond to some of their posts. I’m a big believer in answering questions in social media groups not only of colleagues, but of potential clients — people looking for editors, proofreaders, writers, etc.

You can also set a schedule for more-direct marketing activity, such as sending out query letters/messages on the first Monday of every month.

You can join and be active in professional associations, show up at events, speak up in discussions, present webinars, write for their publications, etc.

It’s all marketing. Resign yourself to the necessity, find a level of activity that you can live with and go for it. The results might not only be a pleasant surprise for your bank account, but more manageable, and eventually more comfortable, than you ever expected.

Above all, tell yourself that marketing isn’t bragging, posturing, being indiscreet or overly public about your life. It’s good business. Marketing is about letting the world know who you are and what you do, which you can do quietly and with subtlety, while still being effective in bringing clients to your door.  

Even rock stars — literal rock stars, that is — do marketing. Think about the rock band Kiss and their multiple commercial projects, which I just learned about: 5,000 licensed products that have nothing to do with music! We should keep our marketing efforts focused on our editorial business skills and services, but that’s not a bad example to follow from the perspective of marketing as a core element of a successful business.

What have you done to market yourself and your work effectively, whether you’re a freelancer or in-house employee? What have you overcome to make yourself be more marketed and marketable?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

June 3, 2021

Copyright reminder

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:37 pm

This is a reminder that all content in this blog is © An American Editor and may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

May 28, 2021

On the Basics — What is editing? What is it supposed to do?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot of sites and groups purport to offer expert advice about writing and editing. Some of it is good, some of it is bad and some of it inspires additional conversation. A recent online conversation discussed whether editing is supposed to make a piece of writing shorter vs. longer after a colleague saw a statement in a writing group that editing means making things shorter; when he responded that editing can also make things longer, he was told that’s revising, not editing. Other participants responded with the classics: Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit” and Mark Twain’s “I’d have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”

Yes, making a work more concise is often part of editing, and usually a good thing, but that isn’t all there is to editing. I’m with the colleague who sees editing as sometimes making something longer. Authors can be so familiar with their topics that they don’t realize their readers might need more detail, untrained in writing and apt to over-write or write without organization and structure, or in such a hurry to meet a deadline that they leave out important aspects of a topic. A skilled editor can help make the document meet its goal of completing incomplete material, and that usually requires adding to it.

There are also writers who just open the mental floodgates and write without planning, expecting their editors to make sense of the material or battle it down to meet a required length for them. Sometimes I do that to myself: I’ll write out everything I have for an article, then go back and cut it down if I have to meet a specific word count. (I save the longer version in case I find a use for the material I’ve cut to fulfill the assignment.)

When I’m wearing my editor hat, I cut a bit or add a bit, whichever is appropriate (with the caveat that I provide copyediting; I’m not interested in the much-harder work of developmental or substantive editing these days). Every document is different, and likely to require a different approach. To me, editing simply makes a written work better, which can mean cutting it down if needed; making it longer if needed; or simply making it clear, consistent, accurate and readable without changing the word count — perhaps by changing some words for ones that are a better fit but keep the manuscript at the same overall count — all while respecting the author’s voice. And even “better” can be a subjective matter, just to add to the complexity of the process.

What colleagues say

A recent issue of the ACES: The Society for Copyediting newsletter offered these perspectives about the meaning of editing, all of which ring true, at least for me:

Charita Ray-Blakely in “Editors should understand the possible pitfalls of anthropomorphism”: “One fundamental task of editing is to promote clarity in content”

Christine Steele, quoting or paraphrasing John Russial’s Strategic Copy Editing (Guildford Press, 2004) in “Critical-thinking copyediting”:

“Editing is not about nitpicking and finding mistakes — it is about making choices”

“Editing is about critical thinking”

“Editing is about working together and respecting others”

“Editing is about balancing perfection and pragmatism”

“Editing is about ethics”

The owners of the Editorial Arts Academy, judging from a recent Facebook post, lean toward the brevity perspective: “‘Less is More’ is the guiding principle when it comes to line editing. Authors don’t pay editors to rewrite their words but rather to improve on what is already there.”

And finally, Ally Machate of the Writer’s Ally posted that “Debut books often have shorter word counts than those from successful authors” and provided some comparisons between genres, career stages and more at: http://wordcounters.com/?fbclid=IwAR0rxdeLOjhI93UHdT4dcYaavtWNtxe4-OyJAMxODebu4q5dX6i3uUD4TMs.

Managing challenges

One of the challenges for many of us is not just defining substantive, developmental, line and copyediting to make it easier to establish what we’ll do with (or to) a manuscript, but to educate clients about the difference between editing and proofreading. How many of us have been asked to “just proofread” a document, only to see that it desperately needs editing? I’m sure that’s happened to many, if not all, of us, because a client either honestly doesn’t understand the difference or is less honestly trying to get editing work done for the price (perceived as lower) of proofreading. Establishing and hewing to these boundaries is not just a matter of defining levels of editing or what editing means, but a huge factor in figuring out how much time, effort and money will go into any given editing project, whether you’re working freelance or in-house.

Cutting extraneous, redundant or unclear material is part of editing. Fleshing out incomplete ideas can be part of editing, although it’s often more appropriate to suggest to the author that they should expand or complete something, especially if you’re copyediting. There’s more room to do that kind of revision with substantive or developmental editing, although too much actual added wording by the editor can become co-authorship or ghostwriting. 

One area where cutting vs. adding words can make the editing life more complicated is (for freelancers) on the financial side: If you charge by the word, you have to decide which word count to use for your fee. Most of the people I’ve seen discuss this pricing model use the original word count, but if you’ve done a lot adding to the manuscript, you might feel cheated of your rightful fee if you can’t charge for doing so. You might need language in your contract to cover that eventuality.

There’s also one occasional headache in the area of word count: how to account for the actual number of words. As I found out this past week, Word can’t always be relied upon to provide the correct count. My version suddenly showed what I knew was a 700-word document I was writing as having only 187 words; apparently the program got stuck at some point in the manuscript and didn’t “see” the rest of it. Copy-and-pasting into a new document cured the problem (and it helped that I save frequently as I work, whether writing, editing or proofreading), but it was a heart-stopping moment to think that I had somehow deleted most of my hard-written words! To an editor addicted to cutting out words, that might have been a good thing to see, but it certainly wasn’t a good moment here. When I asked colleagues what might have caused that glitch, nobody knew but everybody said something similar had happened to them at least once, if not often.

Experiences among us

How do you define editing, and your role as an editor, in terms of when/whether to cut and when/whether to add? What challenges have you had in establishing a definition and communicating it to clients or colleagues? How often has cutting vs. adding words been a factor?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

May 24, 2021

On the Basics: What do experienced, successful freelancers “owe” to the newcomers?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Someone recently posted an opinion in a journalism group that successful freelancers should give up their businesses for the sake of new freelancers. It made me think about what, if anything, successful and experienced people owe to those who are new to a profession in general or type of business in particular.

As most of you know, I’m a huge believer in being helpful to colleagues — at all levels of their careers or businesses, whether established or just starting out, working in-house or freelance, and any other aspect of their business lives. Not just out of gratitude to colleagues who have been helpful to me, but that “rising tide lifts all boats” theory, you know.

I’ve felt a responsibility to give something back in return for the advice, camaraderie and support that I’ve received from colleagues, especially fellow freelancers. I started freelancing on my own, almost serendipitously, and finding a supportive community of colleagues (primarily through the late, lamented Washington Independent Writers; sob) was a real gift. The people who were helpful to me then didn’t need my help, but I realized I could pass on what I had learned from them and from my own experiences to those who came into freelancing — or writing/editing/proofreading, etc. — after I did.

I do believe in helping “newbies” get a firm start on their writing, editing, proofreading, etc., careers. What makes no sense is expecting any of us to shut down for some undefined benefit to newcomers, or to colleagues who have been in business for a while but are not doing well yet. I don’t even know how that would work. I might hand off a project or client to a colleague who has more of the necessary skill and experience for that work than I do, and I’ve certainly referred colleagues for projects that aren’t what I prefer to do, whether because something pays less than I expect, involves a topic I’m not interested in or requires more effort (developmental vs. copyediting, for instance) than I feel like doing these days.

It does appear that the person making this claim hasn’t had a professional-level job in communications or published any freelance work, which could explain why they want successful freelancers to save them from doing the hard work of finding an in-house job or enough freelance work to be successful. The real world, of course, doesn’t work like that.

Newcomers might appreciate mentors to help them learn the ropes of the editorial niche they want to work in, and the ins-and-outs of successful freelancing — and many of us do provide that kind of support. Some of us have been mentors, either formally or informally. Most of us share advice and  insights through our blogs, books, classes or webinars, memberships in professional associations, or visibility in various online groups (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.). Some of us train new hires, or students and early-career colleagues, at our full-time jobs. 

Freelancing has never been easy to do, as most of us here can attest. It takes more than being able to write well; edit/proofread accurately (and respectfully); create effective, readable publications; design beautiful images and documents, etc. It takes a business approach and a lot of persistence to find clients or assignments, manage finances and taxes, balance varying deadlines, and handle everything else that leads to success.

Whether someone wants a traditional publishing career or a successful freelance business, it takes time. It takes training. It takes a little humility when starting out. Those of us who are successful have put a lot of time, effort and expense into building up our careers or businesses. Most of us love what we do and thrive on doing it well. We plan to keep going as long as our physical and mental capacities make it possible. Few, if any, of us are interested in new careers or premature retirement.

Being supportive doesn’t require closing our doors to support some vague “help the newbies” vision.

How to help

Once successful, it does make sense to give back, pay it forward or however we want to think about encouraging newcomers who might need a little backup as they get started. Some of us may no longer need advice about the basics of being in business, but we can — and I think we should — pass on the benefit of our experience to others.

We were all new to our work and — for those who aren’t working in-house — to freelancing, and we all learned from others. Passing on our knowledge is a mitzvah (a good deed) or investment in good karma. But that’s very different from closing down a business for some vague idea of helping less-established or less-successful colleagues.

Which brings me to how we who are established and successful can help newcomers to editorial work, especially people who are new to freelancing. We can:

Teach — through classes, webinars, conference presentations. Advise — through blogs, publishing, discussion lists, social media outlets, presentations. Share — by suggesting books, degree or certificate training programs, webinars, organizations, tools, other resources, answers to questions. Mentor — if you have the time and energy.

Helping a colleague is rewarding in many ways. Not only is giving back an investment in the future of our profession and our own successful businesses, it is good for the soul — and it feels great. It might seem selfish, but doing good feels good, whether through advising colleagues or supporting a charitable cause.

Colleagues’ perspectives

When the time comes for me to hang up my shingle and retire from my writing/editing/proofreading/publishing business, it won’t be newcomers who will hear from me about taking on some of my clients or projects, and I won’t do it by simply closing down in the hope that someone unknown and less-established will magically benefit from my disappearance from the scene. I’ll let my clients know my plans so they can start looking for a replacement, and I’ll contact colleagues I know to see if they would like to be referred to those clients. The colleagues I contact will be experienced in the appropriate editorial niches. From the freelancing perspective, my preference will be to offer such opportunities to established, professional freelancers with successful businesses. That’s what my clients are used to and whom they would prefer to work with.

If you’re experienced and successful, how do you see your role with newcomers? If you’re new to the editorial field or to freelancing, what do you expect to receive from established, successful colleagues?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

May 21, 2021

Indexing Arabic Names: Some Family Terms

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 6:43 pm
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Ælfwine Mischler

This blog post is based on the submitted version of “Indexing Arabic Names: The Basics,” which was published in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing, Vol. 39, No. 1, March 2021, and is available at https://doi.org/10.3828/indexer.2021.7.

Arabic names can be tricky to index and to alphabetize correctly in references. In my previous post about indexing (and alphabetizing) Arabic names, I presented some tips for dealing with the definite article al-.

This post is about how to index a word that is sometimes mistaken for the definite article, and some family terms that turn up in Arabic names.

Al and Ba

The word Āl or Al means “clan” or “dynasty.” It is usually capitalized when transliterated, although authors (and copyeditors) sometimes mistake it for the definite article and lowercase it. Āl is never suppressed in sorting or moved to the end of the name.

It looks like this in modern Arabic: a squiggle similar to a tilde (~) over the alif on the right, and the lam on the left not connected to the following word as the definite article is.

Table 1: Modern script

You are most likely to find Āl in royal names or in history books (the Āl Faḍl Bedouin appeared in a book I recently indexed). An indexing colleague once asked how to sort Jalal Al-e Ahmad, an Iranian novelist. Wikipedia provided the Farsi script of the name (Farsi uses the Arabic alphabet), and from that, I knew that the Al here was “clan” and the name should be indexed as Al-e Ahmad, Jalal.  

Table 2: Jalal

In modern royal names, Al often comes near the end, followed by the name of the dynasty. The Emir of Qatar, for example, is Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Royal names are not inverted, so his should appear in an index just as I have written it. If your author treats Al there as the definite article and writes al-Thani, you should correct the author.

I have encountered the word or Ba in Yemeni names, sometimes hyphenated with the following name. It has a similar meaning of “family” and should not be split from the following name.

Ibn, bin, ben, b., bint, bt. between names

Ibn, bin, ben, b. mean “son of,” while bint, bt. mean “daughter of.” In modern Arabic names, these are not used except in names of royalty, and they are usually lowercased. You might find them, however, in Muslim names in non-Arab countries such as Malaysia.

In pre-modern names, you might get a string of names like Iman bint Yusuf ibn Ahmad (Iman daughter of Yusuf son of Ahmad) or Mustafa ibn Hisham ibn Yahya (Mustafa son of Hisham son of Yahya). Simple pre-modern names such as these — that is, without honorifics or epithets — should be indexed as you see them, without inverting. (More-complex pre-modern names will be discussed in later posts.) In modern names, such strings are usually only seen in names of royalty, which are never inverted.

The variations in the spelling of the term for “son of” may be based on Arabic grammar or on style choices. One publisher that I often work for uses bin for Gulf royalty, ben for names from North Africa (where it is the usual spelling), and ibn for other cases. Other publishers might consistently use b. Authors might be inconsistent, writing the names as they found them in their sources.

Ignore ibn, bin, ben, b., bint, bt. in sorting when they come between names. If they come at the beginning, that is another case to be discussed in another blog post. In the following examples of pre-modern names, the angle brackets surround text that is ignored in sorting.

‘Abdallah <ibn >Abi Bakr

‘Abdallah <b. >Salim <b. >Yusuf

Ahmad <ibn >Hanbal

Ahmad <b. >Ibrahim <b. >Samir

Ahmad <ibn >Idris <ibn >Yahya

In modern names, Bin and Ben might be part of a family name and should be capitalized. Do not ignore these in sorting, and do not split them.

Ben Ali, Zine El Abidine

Bin Laden Group

Bin Laden, Osama

Modern Arabic Names

European-style names — with a given name and a family name that passes from one generation to the next — only appeared in the Arab world in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and at different times in different places. Even today, many people use their father’s given name as a second name, rather than a family name. In Egypt (the country I am most familiar with), people use their given name, their father’s name, their paternal grandfather’s name, followed by either their great-grandfather’s name or a family name, on legal documents requiring four names. They do not use bint (daughter of) or ibn/bin (son of). In other contexts, people might use only their own name and their father’s name; or their own name and their grandfather’s name; or their own name and the family name; or their own name, their father’s name, and the family name. Many Egyptians are inconsistent in this and use different forms of their name in different contexts. In a modern book, however, I would expect to see modern people called consistently by the same names.

To alphabetize modern names, you need to recognize compound names that must not be split, which will the topic of another post.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology. She has presented a webinar on indexing Arabic names for the American Society for Indexing (https://www.asindexing.org/webinars/mischler-arabicnames/).


May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

May 15, 2021

On the Basics — Contract tips for freelancers

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:51 pm
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Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Please do not share or reprint without prior permission from and credit to the author

 and owner of An American Editor.

One of my local professional groups recently held a session about contracts for editorial work that I couldn’t attend, so I put together a few suggestions that colleagues could use despite my absence. I ended up expanding those tips into this column.

Many freelancers work for years without contracts and have no problems. Others need a contract from their first client and day in business, while still others only need a contract once in awhile. Because we never know what could arise, it’s a good business practice to have your own version of a project contract, just in case. If a client offers a contract, read it carefully (especially if it’s full of legalese) before signing it, and make sure you understand everything you’re committing to. If a client doesn’t have a contract, ask them to sign your own. If they hesitate, assure the client that it doesn’t imply distrust but protects both you and them. You can also use the language “letter of agreement,” which can sound less scary or off-putting than “contract.”

You don’t have to hire a lawyer to produce a contract. Professional associations and online services provide templates that you can tailor to your business or assignments/projects (see below).

What you don’t need

Check every contract offered to make sure you don’t accept anything that works against you, such as an unnecessary liability clause.

If a contract includes a liability clause, be aware that most freelancers do not need liability or accident coverage. That’s usually boilerplate language that relates to large contractors or subcontractors working onsite at a client’s facility or operating heavy/dangerous equipment on behalf of the client. In some states or municipalities, freelancers can’t even get liability insurance. You can usually ask to delete such a clause from a contract, but if the client insists and you want the job, add the cost to your fee. Most of us also don’t have clients coming to our home offices, or employees, subcontractors or vendors at our locations, so we don’t need that kind of liability coverage. You should have homeowner’s or renter’s insurance, and added coverage for your work-related equipment, furnishings and supplies, but that would be about it.

A liability clause that says you’re responsible for anything that goes wrong with an editorial project is bad news. We rarely have control over what happens to a document once we finish writing, editing or proofreading it; other people in the publishing process can introduce errors, change quotes, leave out important details, add new but inaccurate information, etc. Don’t be bullied into saying you accept responsibility for the published version of something if you aren’t in total control of the material. You don’t want to be sued for something done by someone else.

Items to include

Start a checklist as a template for the contract elements you want to remember to include in any given project. Try to think of everything that could possibly be part of any project — hope for the best, but assume the worst. You can save it as Contract-Project X every time something new comes in and then tailor that version by deleting items that don’t apply to the specific project or assignment, but the template will ensure that you don’t leave out a crucial item that could cost you money or create other issues.

These are the minimum items to include in your contract template:

√ Nature/Type of assignment (writing, editing, proofreading, indexing, layout, etc.)

√ Scope (number of words, pages, hours, etc.; number of passes; whether fact-checking or plagiarism-checking are expected)

√ Pay rate or amount (by the word, hour, page, project, etc.); if by the page, define page

√ Deadline

√ Expenses covered/receipts required

√ Revisions

√ Protection against scope creep (spell out extra payments to be made if work goes over agreed scope)

√ Copyright/Rights/Ownership

√ Credit (work-for-hire projects generally don’t give you a byline or publication credit; editors and proofreaders often do not get credit, although you can always ask to be named)

√ Payment timing (on acceptance, on publication, X number of days after invoice)

√ Payment method (check, direct deposit, PayPal/credit card, etc.)

√ Late fee (charge to client if payment doesn’t arrive by X days after invoice date)

√ Kill fee (percentage of fee you receive if assignment is canceled for reasons beyond your control)

√ Format or program (Word, Google Docs, Pages, PDF, PowerPoint, Excel, InDesign, InCopy, etc.)

√ Confidentiality

√ Subcontracting (some clients will not accept having subcontractors work with you)

√ Complimentary copies

√ Permission to list or link projects/clients on your website

√ Emergency contact/process (in case something happens to you or the client, or the client’s client, that could affect being able to finish the project)

√Dispute jurisdiction/Mediation option

Adjustments over time

• Contracts can be evolving documents; you can add new items to your template that arise with any new contract of project. There’s often something you never thought of. On my first freelance newsletter contract, for instance, I included managing printing and mailing in what I would provide, but didn’t realize the client would read that item as included in what I would provide. Guess who had to pay for printing and mailing.  

Some editing and proofreading clients might expect or request guarantees of perfection or a specific percentage of perfection. Try not to be tied to such demands, which are usually impossible to meet, or to be bullied into a refund for any errors you might miss.

Resources to consult

The Paper It’s Written On: Defining your relationship with an editing client by Dick Margulis and Karin Cather; despite the subtitle, it can be used for all kinds of editorial projects (and is an excellent example of how a presentation can turn into a profit center; the book grew out a presentation by the authors at a Communication Center “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference)

√ Professional associations for samples or templates, as well as advice about creating or responding to contracts (Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) sample agreement for services: https://www.the-efa.org/resources/; Editors Canada contract template: https://www.editors.ca/hire/agreement-template-editing-services)

√ Websites for legal services, including contract samples or templates, such as LegalZoom.com and Nolo.com

√ An attorney (local bar associations can provide names)

√ Lawyers for the Arts (local chapters)

What other contract terms or items would you add to a template? What kinds of contract headaches have you experienced, and how did you resolve them?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

May 10, 2021

On the Basics — Knowing why and when to let go

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

There comes a time in every person’s life, no matter what their career, to at least think about letting go of the work life, or some portion of it. For those of us in the editorial field, that can mean anything from finding a new full-time job to not renewing an association membership; dropping a certain client, project or topic; changing freelance service offerings; taking a vacation from social media; or retiring. It can be a challenge to know when to take such actions, especially because what we do — or want to do — in the heat of a moment can be very different from what we wish we had done after some reflection.

Boredom and burnout

It happens to all of us at least once: A previously interesting topic or type of project becomes dull and deadly borrrrring. Maybe you’ve written about, edited or proofread the same topic or the same organization for the 100th time — that feels like the 1,000th — or one year too long. Maybe the material was always dry and unexciting, but you kept going because the money was good (or desperately needed). You could just be tired of dealing with a routine, a commute (well, in pre-pandemic days) or certain co-workers. Burnout takes many forms.

Either way, you kept going because it was your job, it was a freelance gig that paid well, you thought it might somehow become livelier … Whatever kept you plugged in, it’s no longer working and you need a change; maybe even the drastic change of changing fields or retiring entirely. Before going that far, though, look at where you are and see if there are ways to make it more interesting. You might be able to switch departments or handle different aspects of what you do now. Ask, and you might receive.

If making a major change is nerve-racking or somehow not possible, you might be able to use volunteer or hobby activity as a counterbalance to the draggy work situation. Create time to do things that are fun and fulfilling, and the dreary routine might become more bearable.

Working isn’t working

One sure sign that it’s time to think, or rethink, a career is when you find yourself missing deadlines even though there’s no real reason for that to happen. You aren’t sick (thank goodness), there aren’t family crises to handle (also thank goodness), you’ve done the research and interviews, you’ve reviewed the latest style guide, you have the information and tools you need … but you just.can’t.get.it.done. You know that even long-time clients will only put up with so much delay on their projects, but you’re sabotaging yourself, and you don’t know why.

That could be one aspect of burnout, but whatever we call it, it’s a bad sign. And it means you need a change. You could try convincing yourself that there are rewards for getting these things done as needed, or setting false (early) deadlines to trick yourself into doing the work, but this kind of situation is hard to fix. Sometime just switching to another project or a non-work activity that is more fun can reset your interest in finishing whatever is stuck.

Age is kicking in

We also will all reach a point when we’re ready to — or must — retire due to age, among other considerations. Younger colleagues might want to keep this in mind as a reason to put money aside regularly to support yourself at that seemingly far-distant point (also worth doing just in case you get injured or ill). I hope that those of us who are approaching that point, or already there, have a healthy financial cushion in place so you can apply the brakes to your work life without worrying about how you’ll pay the rent or mortgage, and eat something other than cat food.

The good thing for many (I hope all) of us is that a certain age means Social Security income, and that might just be enough to call it a day and do something new. Or nothing!

Networking not doing the job

We join professional associations to meet colleagues and leaders in our fields, and many of us — both freelance and in-house — join one solely for its work-finding value: access to postings of job openings, often before or instead of such opportunities reaching the help wanted ads or recruiters. 

As most of you know, I’m a big fan of belonging to and being visible/active in professional associations. I belong to almost a dozen and hold leadership roles in six at the moment. I’m at the stage of my career where I don’t need them for training; in the two-way, give-and-take nature of networking, I’m usually giving more often than taking. I remain active, though, in part because I do continually learn new things from colleagues through association forums and discussion lists; some of my groups provide opportunities for members to make a few bucks through presentations and publications; having that network of colleagues to turn to when I do need help or advice is invaluable; and — as the poster child for extroverts — I love interacting with colleagues.

However, if belonging to an association isn’t working for you, it might be time to look for a new one to join. Don’t base the decision on whether you’ve gotten work by being a member. Some organizations are so large that you can go a full year or longer without nailing a listing from a standard job service post or message. The value is often more in the colleagiality, advice, resources, support and events. But again, if none of that is resonating, look into other places to get those benefits. There are a lot of associations. There should be at least one that works for you.

Just keep in mind that the people who get the most out of association memberships are the ones who participate actively. If you’ve never contributed in any way, even just by asking questions, you might want to give it a little more time, and effort, before leaving. 

More aggravating than energizing

Not quite the same thing as retiring or changing careers, but it’s probably time to leave an online group or discussion list when:

• You’re really, really tempted to say things like, “How does someone who calls themself a writer/editor/proofreader/whatever not know that?” or “Have you never heard of a dictionary?” in response to a question.

• You are beyond tired of seeing the same questions again and again. And again. Even though you know that many times, the askers are new to either the group or the profession.

• You don’t bother to respond to questions or comments because you’re so tired of repeating the same advice, no matter how useful it is and how helpful you want to be.

Whatever your work niche might be, there are lots of other places to meet, learn from and interact with colleagues. If a given group or list is more aggravating than enjoyable, look for a new community to join where you might feel more comfortable and energized.

Preparing to leave

The most-important aspect of leaving a job, project, client or organization is the how: how you leave, and what you leave behind.

The ideal is to be the one who controls that moment or process, although we can’t always do that. Like most people in any field, not just publishing or editorial work, I’ve been in one of those “I quit/You’re fired” situations with no time to prepare myself or my co-workers for my departure (luckily, though, with everything I was responsible for in good shape, and a colleague eager to step into my shoes; too eager, in fact).

I try to organize my projects so someone else could step in fairly easily if I were to leave. My computer files are pretty easy to understand. I also have a strong base of colleagues whom I could recommend for most of my current projects. I can afford to stop working whenever I’m ready. I’m not sure what I’d do with myself if I weren’t working, but I do have hobbies I could spend a lot more time on and a few other ways to fill my time when that moment arrives.

On the personal side, whether you plan to job-hunt, change careers or retire, be sure you have that financial cushion in place so you can make the decision that makes you happy.

What aspects of your editorial career are pushing you toward making a change? What do you think your next life will be like?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She also created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and An American Editor. She can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com or Ruth@writerruth.com.

April 20, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 2

Geoffrey Hart

For Part 1, go to

Things to expect during peer review

If English is not your author’s first language or if the author has a foreign-seeming name or foreign address, you may encounter language prejudice. This is less often racist than it is the result of such authors believing they don’t need to be edited and submitting poorly written manuscripts as a result. Publishers who receive large numbers of such manuscripts naturally seek shortcuts to reduce their workload, and may only glance quickly at the author’s cover letter or address to form an opinion. If they don’t like what they see, they may reject the manuscript or return it for revision without ever reading it, and not because it lacks merit. Thus, authors should always have their cover letter edited, not just their manuscript.

Peer review has certain recurring themes that authors must deal with, ideally with an editor’s help:

· Multiple revisions: Reviewers are chosen because they are highly educated in their fields, and because they are highly opinionated. Thus, they’re asked to be critical of manuscripts and may insist on multiple rounds of revision until they’re satisfied.

· Contradictory reviews: Reviewers have different backgrounds and biases, and this leads to very different critiques by different reviewers. You can expect reviewers to agree on major problems, since such problems are hard to miss, but you’ll often find that something one reviewer loved is anathema to another reviewer.

· Academic politics: Academic fields have many theological disputes over different points of belief (e.g., the value of social construction), and it can be difficult to satisfy a reviewer who comes from a different academic sect.

Helping authors respond to reviews is something editors do well, since we have long experience with getting inside an author’s head, and that skill translates equally well to understanding what bothered a reviewer and what changes will remove that irritation. Editors are also skilled negotiators, and can help authors find ways to reach a consensus that satisfies both the author and the reviewer. Being aware of the prevailing dogmas in a field will help editors to guide authors around the worst minefields and to build bridges over holes that would otherwise trap the unwary author and provoke a reviewer. As you gain experience in a field’s language, ways of framing arguments, and standards of evidence, you can increasingly help authors revise their work to avoid these problems.

The review process can take a long time, and if you don’t submit the best-possible manuscript, a potentially important contribution to the literature may be rejected by a prestigious publisher without the option to resubmit. Thus, one important tip is to persuade the author to work with their colleagues before they submit their manuscripts for review.

There are two good reasons for this. First, the review is likely to be done faster. Second, a rigorous and critical review by a colleague may sting, but it has no consequences other than the need to rewrite. Solving those problems before a publisher sees the manuscript means it won’t be rejected because of those problems. (It may, of course, still be rejected for other reasons.) A publisher’s reviewers are also more likely to respond positively to a manuscript that has been edited professionally.

Academic vs. non-academic audiences

Early-career academic authors tend to have a laser-like focus on writing for their peers, since they know that their peers determine how successful they’re going to be in their chosen field. However, over time, authors may gradually expand their publishing efforts beyond their circle of fellow specialists. Often, they aim to turn many years of peer-reviewed publications into something a reasonably intelligent but non-expert reader can understand. They may be writing to funding agencies to beg for money, producing op-ed pieces for the general public in newspapers or on websites, or crafting textbooks for students. Yet unless they are professional writers and well-trained in writing for different audiences, they’ll need an editor’s help to make their thoughts comprehensible to an audience that isn’t dominated by their peers. I often joke that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the general public without adult supervision. It’s funny specifically because it’s so true.

Editors understand that different audiences require different writing styles, and can help an author learn and use the most-appropriate style or modify their approach to account for a given audience’s unique characteristics. For example, academic readers expect and are skilled at interpreting formal, jargon-heavy writing that relies on many assumptions about what readers already understand — because the readers are experts in the author’s field. In contrast, non-academic audiences require less-formal writing styles, with less jargon, and assumptions must be explained — because general audiences are experts in a wide range of things, most of which are not the author’s field of expertise.

Note: Although most academic publishers now accept manuscripts in the first-person point of view, some are reluctant, particularly when they rely on older and more-conservative peer reviewers who haven’t yet entered the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Passive voice is no longer required, but you may be called on to help an author defend the choice of first-person. An acceptable compromise is generally to emphasize active voice wherever possible and minimize the use of “I” and “we” constructions; for instructional or procedural material, imperative voice is another good alternative.

That being said, one thing remains true for almost any audience: Write simply, concisely, and clearly. Although I once (true story!) had a manuscript rejected because “it was too well written,” that’s rare these days. Even the most turgid and constipated fields of study are increasingly willing to accept a well-written manuscript. The argument and conclusions may be complex and nuanced, but the writing never should be.

Responding to peer reviews

The end of the most-difficult stage in publishing an academic manuscript comes when your author receives the comments from the reviewers. These generally fall into three main categories: acceptance with minor revision, which will mostly require minor tweaks of the text; acceptance with major revision, which requires significant additional work (e.g., more lab research, more library time, reorganization) before the publisher will even consider reviewing the manuscript again; and rejection, which may be absolute or which may (if the author has a strong argument and a sympathetic publisher) be considered the equivalent of major revision.

As an editor, I’ve helped many authors persuade the publisher that a rejection really only requires major revision, or that an acceptance with major revision really only requires minor changes. A common reason for the latter is a reviewer who says, in effect, “I know that you wanted to write about dogs, but you really should have written about cats, so I reject your argument,” Most publishers will accept a counterargument along the lines of “No, I really can’t write about felids in an article about canids that was written for a journal that publishes only shaggy dog stories,”

Note: There is a thus-far theoretical fourth response, which is “acceptance without revision.” In more than 30 years of editing, I’ve never seen that response from the reviewers for a reputable publisher, largely because reviewers often go to heroic lengths to ensure that the publisher believes they rigorously reviewed the manuscript. To prove this, they will find ways to list some specific problem, however minor, that must be fixed.

Reviewers almost always have the final say — if your manuscript represents a hill they’re willing to die on in defense of some point of dogma. Because peer review is unpaid work, experts can easily refuse a request to review a future manuscript if a publisher irritates them — and ignoring their recommendation can be very irritating to a reviewer, especially one with an agenda. If enough authors stop agreeing to work with a specific publisher, that publisher will soon find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having no more peer reviewers, and thus, will no longer be able to refer to themselves as a peer-reviewed publication. They might even (horror!) have to pay experts to review their future publications.

Thus, publishers are reluctant to overrule a reviewer out of fear the reviewer won’t work with them again in the future, and may even warn their friends and colleagues to do the same. Sometimes you just have to accept a publisher’s verdict and move on. Fortunately, there are a great many academic publishers.

Most reviewers and most publishers are reasonable people who are willing to listen to an author’s responses and counterarguments. Although academic authors who have survived their thesis defenses tend to acquire a certain measure of skill at explaining and justifying their subject and responding firmly to critiques, for some reason, they completely lose that skill when it’s time to respond to a publisher’s review. Editors can be remarkably valuable allies when it comes time to respond to review comments, which is why I always offer to help my authors write their responses.

There are several things to keep in mind.

· Authors take their writing seriously, and are often offended or even enraged by critical comments. Although this is perfectly understandable, it’s unprofitable, because expressing those emotions to a reviewer is like throwing catnip to a cat: It only encourages a strong response. Help the author take a step back and seek ways to treat criticism as a means of improving their manuscript rather than a personal attack.

· Similarly, it’s unprofitable to argue with a reviewer, particularly if that argument can be seen as an attack. Instead, help the author find ways to acknowledge the reviewer’s point, explain what they were hoping to achieve, find a way to incorporate that point in their revision, and provide a persuasive response that satisfies both the reviewer’s objection and the author’s goal.

· Where possible, help the author find ways to implement each suggestion. The more suggestions they accept, the more willing a reviewer will be to listen to counterarguments for other points. For example, if a reviewer asks the author to cite five additional references, ensure that they have cited those five references. If the reviewer asks them to cite a specific journal paper (often one written by the reviewer), ensure that they have cited that paper. It costs the author nothing, particularly if the reviewer is correct that the references are relevant and worthy of citation.

· Never cave in on important points! If the reviewer is simply wrong, and won’t accept any argument to the contrary, move on and find somewhere else to publish. There are many, many publishers. If the manuscript has merit, some publisher will eventually see its value.

· Always thank the reviewers politely at the end of the response letter, even if you disagree with them. One standard wording that has worked well for me and that I encourage you to copy and modify to meet your needs: “Thanks for your efforts to improve my manuscript. I hope that my responses and the resulting changes will be satisfactory, but I’ll be happy to work with you to resolve any remaining issues.” This acknowledges the reviewer’s effort, and attempts to shift the review process from confrontational to collaborative.

· Only thank each reviewer once, at the end of the responses, other than for particularly important comments. If you repeatedly thank a reviewer for insulting your intelligence, critiquing your upbringing and moral character, and savaging your writing style, thanking them for each body blow quickly becomes seen as sarcasm, and that tends to make the reviewer more critical.

A final comment

I’ve been helping authors for more than 30 years by using these techniques, and as a result, have facilitated the publication of more than 6,000 journal manuscripts and scientific monographs, so it’s clear that these techniques work. Interestingly, they’ve also helped me greatly when I served as a peer-reviewer or as a journal’s review coordinator. The same approaches help me put my head in the right space to work with both authors and reviewers to achieve consensus and to change the review process from confrontational to a mutually supportive way to improve the quality of an author’s contribution to the literature of a field.

Reference

Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines. NAIWE website (https://naiwe.com/).

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories so far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

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