An American Editor

May 28, 2012

The Business of Editing: Consistency

One of the directives I regularly get from clients is that they want consistency. For example, they do not want a word spelled out sometimes and an acronym used in place of the word at other times. In books, they want consistency across chapters whenever possible.

Years ago, when I edited journal articles, each journal had a style to be applied consistently across articles, regardless of whether I edited one article or 100 articles.

This drive for consistency is likely to have been the mother of the editor’s stylesheet. The stylesheet serves multiple purposes, two being to let the editor check treatment of a term in hopes that treatment is consistent across a manuscript and for a proofreader to see what decisions the editor made (e.g., is it non-negotiable or nonnegotiable; distention or distension?) and apply those decisions where the editor may have been inconsistent.

We know as readers that consistency is important, even in fiction. I find it distracting and annoying when the heroine is “nearly six-foot tall with strawberry-blond hair and jade-colored eyes” in chapter 1 but has become “five-and-a-half feet tall with dirty-blond hair and hazel eyes that change color” in chapter 3. Going from Amazonian to ordinary in three chapters can alter a plotline significantly.

Knowing that consistency is important, what steps do editors take to ensure it? In my olden days of editing, I relied on the stylesheet; I had no other tool in my arsenal that was as facile for the purpose, especially not with the size of projects on which I generally work. The stylesheet worked well when it was small (relatively speaking), but as it grew in length, it became a cumbersome tool for ensuring consistency. It became cumbersome because of the need to check it so often, and because, in the early days, the stylesheet was handwritten, which meant not alphabetized, making finding things difficult.

So I began experimenting and found ways to automate the stylesheet using programs like Macro Express, a program I still use (but not for my stylesheet). Ultimately, I designed an online stylesheet (see Working Effectively Online V — Stylesheets for a discussion of my stylesheet), which remains open in my web browser and gives me quick and easy access. Yet, I discovered that, as much of an improvement as the online stylesheet is, it was not enough. Consequently, I created two of the macros that appear in EditTools: Never Spell Word and Toggle. Using these two macros means there are fewer inconsistencies across long manuscripts.

When I get a project from client Y, I usually know that the client wants certain things to appear in its publications, or, if not across its publications, within the particular project I am working on. For example, the client may tell me that every time I see the head REFER, it should be changed to REFERRAL, or that a common acronym such as WHO never needs to be spelled out. (Usually the directive is that “common acronyms need not be spelled out at first use” without providing a list of those common acronyms; it is part of my job as an experienced editor to recognize which acronyms will be readily understood by readers of the book.)

Never Spell Word (NSW) lets me add words and phrases to a project-specific list and apply a specific color highlight to those words and phrases so I can be consistent across chapters. For example, if I enter WHO and assign it the highlight color magenta, and run NSW on the manuscript, I know each time that I see WHO in magenta that it does not need to be spelled out. If I come across “World Health Organization (WHO)” in the text, I’ll see WHO in magenta and I’ll know to delete “World Health Organization” and the parens around WHO.

Similarly, I can enter into the list to change World Health Organization to WHO. When I run the NSW macro, not only will the change be made (with tracking on), but WHO will be highlighted to indicate to me visually that this is correct.

The advantages of NSW over similar macros are basically twofold: (a) the highlighting, which gives a visual clue; and (b) the ease with which new items can be added to the list while editing. This second point is important; it means that the list is not static and it can grow as I find things to add to it.

NSW is only a part of the consistency equation, however. Toggle is another important tool. NSW is run on a file after basic file cleanup but before editing. It is run only once on a file, although I may add to its list as I edit a file. Toggle, in contrast, is not run on a file. Instead, it is used to change a word or phrase while editing. My current Toggle list has more than 1,500 entries in it. These are the things that I do not want to change universally (i.e., correct using the NSW macro); instead, I want to decide whether to make a change as I come to the item.

Using the WHO example, again, if I need to spell out WHO the first time it is used in a chapter but not on subsequent uses, then I want the information in my Toggle macro, not in my NSW macro because NSW will change it every time and I’ll have to undo some instances, whereas Toggle will make the change only when I tell it to do so. Like NSW, Toggle can have and access multiple lists. There is a primary (or universal) main list and then there are supplemental project-specific lists that can be accessed simultaneously with the primary list.

In a Toggle list, I would enter “WHO” and ask that it be changed to “World Health Organization (WHO)”; it would appear in the Toggle list like this:

WHO | World Health Organization (WHO)

Now, when I come to WHO in the manuscript, if I want to spell it out, I place my cursor in WHO and run Toggle; it deletes WHO and enters World Health Organization (WHO). This is done with Track Changes on.

I’ve used a simple example, but Toggle can be used for both complex and simple changes. For example, an entry in my primary Toggle list is as follows:

1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine | methylphenyltetrahydropyridine (MPTP)

Toggle promotes consistency in two ways: (a) it reduces spelling errors that occur when typing a replacement and (b) it is easy to use and fast.

If you know that a client wants to avoid “due to,” it is difficult to create a universally applicable substitute. Toggle gives you as many options as you create. If a client always wants World Health Organization referred to as WHO, NSW can make that happen. It is easy to remember what a client wants when there are only a few things, but the more things a client wants and the more inconsistent an author is, the less valuable the stylesheet is to an editor and the more valuable macros like NSW and Toggle are — they increase consistency and reduce the time required to be consistent.

Postscript (added after article was published): Last night I finished a novel published by a major publisher in which, within three lines, a character’s name appeared three times and each appearance was a different spelling. If the editor had used used Never Spell Word, this would not have occurred. The editor would have entered the character’s name at its first appearance into the NSW list (or, better yet in the case of fiction, the author should have supplied a list of characters with correct name spellings and ll the names would be entered into the list before any editing began) and then as the editor ran NSW on each chapter, if the character’s name was not highlighted in green, the editor would know immediately that the name’s spelling needed to be checked. Granted that the errors occurring in such close proximity should have been caught regardless of the use of NSW, but it does point out how such things can slip by and how the proper tools can help improve consistency.

3 Comments »

  1. […] you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn’t do in the article was discuss the problems of […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice « An American Editor — June 11, 2012 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  2. […] is an editorial classic.If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn’t do in the article was discuss the problems of […]

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    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice - The Digital Reader — June 11, 2012 @ 6:24 am | Reply

  3. […] discussed the Author Query (The Business of Editing: Author Queries), Never Spell Word and Toggle (The Business of Editing: Consistency), and Journals (The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online IV — Mastering Macros) […]

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    Pingback by Editing Tools: MultiFile F&R and Search, Count, Replace « An American Editor — February 13, 2013 @ 4:03 am | Reply


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