An American Editor

June 30, 2015

The Countdown Ends: Today’s the Final Day

Today is the last day to take advantage of the AAE special discount for the upcoming Be a Better Freelancer™ — Take It to the 10th! conference; the special discount ends at the stroke of 12:01 a.m. July 1 (EST).

For more information about the conference, see “Worth Noting: Be a Better Freelancer – The 2015 Must-Do Conference.”

If you have already decided to attend but still need to register, go to the special registration page for An American Editor subscribers now and lock in your AAE rate! (Remember to use the password: 4AAEonly.)

I hope to see you at the conference.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 29, 2015

Lyonizing Word: The Easy Way, Not So Easy

by Jack Lyon

After publishing my last article, Lyonizing Word: We Can Do This the Easy Way, or . . ., Rich Adin, An American Editor, wrote:

As written, your wildcard find and replace reduces four names to three if “et al:” is the ending characteristic. How do you write it so that it can handle any number of names, say up to seven?

Good question, and a nice challenge for a wildcard search. Let’s say we have citations with strings of names like this:

Lyon J, Adin R, Carter TO, Jackson TT, Doe J, Smith K, Winger W, et al: blah blah blah

That’s seven names, but let’s see if we can make a wildcard string that will find any number of names and cut them down to three. My first impression is that this might be difficult or even impossible. But let’s try the following wildcard string:

([!^013]@, ){3}([!^013]@, ){1,}(et al:)

Here’s what that means:

Find any character except a carriage return: [!^013]
repeated any number of times: @
followed by a comma
followed by a space
and enclosed in parentheses to form a “group.”
Do that three times in a row: {3}
Find using the same group: ([!^013]@, )
if it occurs once or more (as indicated by the comma): {1,}
followed by “et al:” in parentheses to form a group.

There’s just one problem: It doesn’t work. And that’s how it often is with wildcards — sometimes you have to fiddle around to get the result you want; trial and error are key. So let’s see if we can find just three instances of text using our group:

([!^013]@, ){3}

That doesn’t work either. What in the world is going on here? Let’s try using the group three times in a row:

([!^013]@, )([!^013]@, )([!^013]@, )

That does work. So why not this?

([!^013]@, ){3}

Could it be that {3} doesn’t apply to the wildcard pattern ([!^013]@, ) itself but to the first instance of text that pattern finds? In other words, would that wildcard string  find the first three names in a citation like the following?

Lyon J, Lyon J, Lyon J, Lyon J, Lyon J, Lyon J, Lyon J, et al: blah blah blah

Sure enough, that works! So we’ve just learned something new about wildcard searches. For clarity, I’ll restate it here:

Specifying how many times to find something (using {3}, for example) doesn’t apply to the wildcard pattern it follows but to the first instance of text that pattern finds.

Unfortunately, that means we need to work out a different approach to our original problem. How about this?

([!^013]@, [!^013]@, [!^013]@, )([!^013]@, ){1,}(et al:)

Here’s what that means:

Find any character except a carriage return: [!^013]
repeated any number of times: @
followed by a comma
followed by a space
repeated three times
and enclosed in parentheses to form a “group.”
Find using the same group: ([!^013]@, )
if it occurs once or more (as indicated by the comma): {1,}
followed by “et al:” in parentheses to form a group.

But no, that doesn’t work either! Why not? Oh, yeah, because of that {1,}. As we discovered earlier:

Specifying how many times to find something (using {3}, for example) doesn’t apply to the wildcard pattern it follows but to the first instance of text that pattern finds.

Well, okay, then. We’ll stop using numbers (such as {1,}) to specify how many times a pattern should be repeated (at least for our current purposes). Let’s try this instead:

([!^013]@, [!^013]@, [!^013]@, )[!^013]@(et al:)

Here’s what that means:

Find any characters except a carriage return: [!^013]
repeated any number of times: @
followed by a comma
followed by a space
repeated three times
and enclosed in parentheses to form a “group.”
Then find any character except a carriage return: [!^013]
repeated any number of times: @
followed by “et al:” in parentheses to form a group.

Well, son of a gun; that actually works. So now we can use the following in the “Replace With” box:

\1\2

Here’s what that means:

Replace everything that was found
with the text represented by group 1: \1
followed by the text represented by group 2: \2

Group 1, you’ll remember, was this:

([!^013]@, [!^013]@, [!^013]@, )

It finds the first three names in our citations. And group 2 was this:

(et al:)

It finds the end of our citations.

And so, finally, we’ve succeeded in fulfilling Rich’s original request:

As written, your wildcard find and replace reduces four names to three if “et al:” is the ending characteristic. How do you write it so that it can handle any number of names, say up to seven?

Sometimes the easy way isn’t so easy. Nevertheless, it’s almost always worth pursuing. In Rich’s case, it reduced his editing time from hours (removing extraneous names by hand) to minutes (removing the names with a wildcard find and replace). It also gave Rich a wildcard search that he can save in his fabulous EditTools software for use with future projects. And it provided a deeper and clearer understanding of how to use wildcard searches.

After all these years of editing, wildcard searching is the tool I rely on the most. I encourage you to invest the time needed to learn to use this tool, which will repay your efforts many times over. A good place to start is my free paper “Advanced Find and Replace in Microsoft Word.”

I hope you’ll also watch for my forthcoming Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word. I’m still trying to find more real-life examples for the book, so if you have some particularly sticky problems that might be solved using a wildcard search, I hope you’ll send them my way. Maybe I can save you some work and at the same time figure out solutions that will help others in the future. Thanks for your help!

Jack Lyon (editor@editorium.com) owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.


 

Looking for a Deal?

You can buy EditTools in a package with PerfectIt and Editor’s Toolkit at a special savings of $78 off the price if bought individually. To purchase the package at the special deal price, click Editor’s Toolkit Ultimate.

June 26, 2015

The Countdown Continues: Just 5 Days to Go

Just 5 days remain to take advantage of the AAE discount for the upcoming Be a Better Freelancer™ — Take It to the 10th! conference. For more information see “Worth Noting: Be a Better Freelancer – The 2015 Must-Do Conference.”

If you have already decided to attend but still need to register, go to the special registration page for An American Editor subscribers now and lock in your AAE rate! (Remember to use the password: 4AAEonly.)

The AAE special discount ends June 30. I hope to see you at the conference.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 24, 2015

The Proofreader’s Corner: Using StyleWriter4 Professional as a Proofreading Tool

by Louise Harnby

This month I’d like to share my experiences with StyleWriter4 Professional, a piece of software I purchased some months ago. I use this as a proofreading tool, though that’s not solely what the developers designed it for.

It complements the work I do with my eyes, increasing (1) the efficiency with which I work and (2) the quality of my output. Efficiency increases keep me happy because I can do certain tasks more quickly, thus improving my hourly rate; improvements in output quality keep my clients happy because they want as high a “hit” rate as possible.

What is StyleWriter4?

Essentially, StyleWriter4 is software that aims to help users with proofreading, editing, and plain-English writing. It comes in three versions:

  • Starter: the “cut-down” edition for those on a budget. It concentrates on plain-English proofreading and editing, searching the text, line by line, for long sentences, passive voice, and potential spelling errors. Style categories can be selected that enable the writer or editor to amend complex words, overwriting, abstract phrases or foreign words.
  • Standard: All the features of the Starter edition with additional functions to aid written communication, including identification of “high glue” and “high bog” sentences. (“High glue” sentences contain words that hold a sentence together, for example, prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns. “High bog” sentences contain words that detract from a comfortable reading experience.) There are options for customization such as the ability to create categories for words or phrases that you want to ban or suggest.
  • Professional: All the features from Starter and Standard, plus the Editor’s List. This includes lists of all full words (alphabetically sorted), word frequency, spelling (unknown, questionable, or unusual words), bog (specialist words or words that may detract from readability), wordy (including passive verbs and word phrases), jargon (including abbreviations and jargon words), and pep (unusual or interesting words, and names).

A caveat on this proofreader’s usage

I bought StyleWriter4 because I wanted quick and easy access to the information in the Editor’s List – that, and nothing more. It’s important that I emphasize this straight away.

I’m not an editor, so I’m not in the business of worrying about passive voice, sentence length, overwriting, or overall style. Even though the Professional Edition enables me to use the tools to make amendments in relation to these issues, I’m not interested in them (because that’s not what my clients are paying me for) and I haven’t used the functions. I therefore can’t comment on the degree to which the software is effective in its claims to address these issues effectively.

So, what’s so great about the Editor’s List?

Why I use the Editor’s List

Sometimes we see what we want to see rather than what’s actually on the page. Being an experienced and professionally trained proofreader doesn’t make me immune to this problem. Rather, my experience and my professional training have made me alert to it.  That’s why I always generate a word list to flag up potential inconsistencies that my weary eyes might have passed over. Such a list allows me to make sure I check spelling errors (e.g., poofreader), consistency issues (e.g., Francois and François), context-dependent errors (e.g., behaviour and behavior). Not every issue will need to be attended to, but it will need to be checked. This is where the Editor’s List comes to the fore.

Running StyleWriter4 Professional on a Word document quickly and cleanly generates lists of words that I can use to spot potential problems I want to check, prior to reading the text line by line with my eyes. Generating word lists is all about spotting possible serious snags (e.g., inconsistent spelling of character or cited-author names) before the in-context proofreading starts. Looking through such lists gives me piece of mind and allows me, later, to focus my attention on context and layout.

Step-by-step summary

The following is a step-by-step summary of how I generate the information I need from the Editor’s List:

  1. Create a Word document. If I’ve been contracted to work directly in Word by my client, I’m good to go. If I have a PDF, I copy the text from the PDF proof and paste it into a Word file. (I choose not to use Acrobat’s built-in conversion tool because I’ve found it leads to problems with text flow, and I have to devote even more time to fixing these before I run any Word-based tools, such as macros. However, this is a personal choice.) I remove unnecessary word breaks from the document by using Word’s Find and Replace tool (find “-^p” then “- ^p” then “ -^p”); always leave the replace box blank. You may have a macro that does this for you more efficiently.
  2. Go to the Add-Ins tab and click on the StyleWriter icon. (Click on images to enlarge them.)
Word Menu with StyleWriter

Word Menu with StyleWriter

  1. Click on the arrow next to the Editor’s List icon: that’s the little picture of the chap wearing Men-in-Black shades!
StyleWriter Menu

StyleWriter Menu

  1. Select the list you want to look at. The lists I usually focus on are “All” (which includes the following separate lists of interest to me: “All words” and “Odds and ends”); and “Spelling” (which includes the following separate lists of interest to me: “Unknown words,” “Questionable words,” and “Unusual words”).

In the image below, I’ve highlighted the tabs of interest as they appear in the Editor’s List window, and the option at the bottom of the window to order the chosen word lists alphabetically or by frequency.

Editor's List Sample

Editor’s List Sample

I then scroll through the lists at my leisure, checking any problems I detect. In the image above, I’ve highlighted an inconsistent spelling issue that I’d need to check (behaviour/behaviour) in order to identify whether there is an error in the text. If I was working for a client directly in Word, I could use the “Trace in Text View” button highlighted at the bottom of the window. If I was working on hardcopy or PDF, I’d search for the problem in the PDF and then mark up on paper or on screen, as per the client’s wishes.

Why not use TextSTAT?

I used to use TextSTAT for creation of word lists for my proofreading work. I loved this software. I still love it! See “Revisiting an old favorite: TextSTAT, word lists, and the proofreader,” for more information about how I’ve used this tool in an almost identical way.

And TextSTAT is free, whereas StyleWriter4 Professional costs US$190 (or £123).

So, before buying, I decided to do a cost­-to-benefit analysis. If I was going to spend over a hundred quid on software, I needed to know how quickly I would get a return on my investment. I compared how long it took me to work through all the little bits and necessary to generate full-word and spelling lists using TextSTAT and StyleWriter4 Professional.

With StyleWriter, the process is a one-stop shop. I open and run the software in the Word file. I then click on Editor’s List and choose what I want to look at.

With TextSTAT, things are more fiddly. I have to upload the Word document, create full-word list, export the list into Excel, copy the Excel version into Word, alphabetize and check. Then I run a separate macro to generate possible list of potential spelling errors.

Using StyleWriter4 Professional saved me only five minutes for a 150,000-word file. However, when it comes to productivity in editorial work, marginal gains always count.

  • Cost: £123 (US$190)
  • Value of five minutes of my time based on my average hourly rate 2014/15 financial year = £3.34 (US$5.19) per job
  • On average, I do five large proofreading jobs a month = 5 × £3.34 (US$5.19) = £16.70 (US$25.95)
  • £123 (US$190)/£16.70 (US$25.95) = just over 7 months to pay for itself
  • I decided to buy StyleWriter4 Professional purely for the Editor’s List and haven’t regretted it. The choice for me was about the speed of the functionality, and its fit with my particular business model.

Considerations before you buy

Use the trial version before you buy. The website currently doesn’t indicate which version is available for download. It’s therefore worth emailing the developers to check which edition you’ll be experimenting with. If you’re a proofreader like me, and are considering the software primarily to access the Editor’s List, you’ll need to trial the Professional version.

View the video demos on the StyleWriter4 website, so you can see how the various features work.

Cost – it’s not free. If you are using alternative free software (such as TextSTAT) to generate checkable full-word and spelling lists, do your own cost-to-benefit analysis so that you can work out whether and when you will earn a return on your investment. You’ll need to know the value you place on X minutes of your time in order to do this. You may recoup your investment in a shorter or longer period of time than me because there are differences in our hourly rates, our fee structures, the services we offer, the speed at which we use alternative software, how many separate jobs we do per month, the word count in the files, and so on.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

June 22, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Fiction Editors’ Resource Kit (Part I)

by Carolyn Haley

Folks like me, who are copy and line editors, spend much of their billable time checking manuscript details for accuracy and consistency. The tasks are the same whether editing fiction or nonfiction; however, novels present a colorful and sometimes bizarre mix of language and subject irregularities that require an editor to have a big library.

But if I owned all the books needed, my house would collapse under the library’s weight! So I take advantage of the Internet to augment my print references. It lets me keep them to a manageable number while eliminating the travel to city and university libraries that once was vital. Although it takes time to determine which websites are accurate and reliable, I’ve been able to build a suite of online bookmarks for regular consultation and search for items unique to a story.

The two combined make a powerful toolkit. Here are the resources I have compiled for working on novels. The list is a work in process, illustrating the scope and specifics that equip an editor to operate in this field.

Books

Many core reference books now come in both print and electronic form. I acquired several of mine before a nonpaper option came along, so I stick with them. But I’ve learned that using the electronic form can be faster, such as when looking up words in the dictionary — which I might do several hundred times for a given project. The difference between manual and electronic lookup may only be seconds, but seconds add up to minutes then hours, which can influence whether one breaks even, makes a profit, or takes a loss on a job.

Dictionaries

The American English dictionary used by most traditional fiction publishers is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW), followed by The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD). I keep The Concise Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage as launch points when working with British English, along with lesser-known texts such as British/American Language Dictionary and British English A to Zed. Canada and Australia have their own version of the language, so I’ve acquired the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and Editing Canadian English. I’ve not yet had to work with Australian English, but toward that eventuality I’ve bookmarked the online Australian English Glossary from A to Zed.

I work mainly with American English, so I stick with MW for consistency’s sake. And I’ll adhere to first spelling with any words that have variants, unless the author shows a strong preference (leapt vs. leaped seems to be popular). The majority of authors I work with are willing to have their spelling corrected without query; thus I only deviate from MW when I need to crosscheck something. Then I’ll sample the online AHD and/or Dictionary.com, The Free Dictionary, and the Urban Dictionary. This last is particularly helpful with contemporary novels. For vintage terms, I’ll check vintage MW and do a Google search for other sources.

When it comes to foreign words, I rely mostly on the Internet, because no language has appeared often enough in my clients’ novels to justify overloading my bookshelves. But being monolingual, I must check every non-English word, if only to know whether to italicize it or if accent marks are used correctly. Many foreign words and phrases have been absorbed into American English and are listed in MW. If not, I’ll check a dictionary of the language in question if I own it, or go online, or both. While at it, I confirm the word’s definition, because I add all foreign terms and their meanings to my style sheet. I need to skip around between online translators; they vary in thoroughness and reliability and I’ve not yet settled on one as a standard (suggestions welcome).

Same with slang and idiom, which appear frequently in novels. Google is really helpful here, as are the dictionaries mentioned above and others dedicated to idiom and slang. On the grand scale, there’s the Dictionary of American Regional English (aka “the DARE”) — five volumes in print plus an online version by subscription, all heftily priced. Investment in the DARE parallels that in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is available in book and print and sometimes through one’s local library.

Style Guides

As with dictionaries, there are multiple style guide options, and some publishers or authors will specify their preference. The generally accepted standard for fiction is The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), now up to the 16th edition. Some editors supplement it with Words into Type (WIT), but that hasn’t been updated since 1974. CMS comes as a big, fat tome or CMS online by subscription. WIT exists in book form only, stopping at the 3rd edition, though there seems to be a phantom 4th floating around online whose existence I can’t verify.

Numerous other style guides are out there, but I have yet to need them for novels. Still, it’s good to have as many in your library as you can get ahold of, both to track down details not offered in CMS/WIT, or to resolve contradictory issues, or to be able to say “yes” to a job that requires something nonstandard.

Publishers hiring freelancers to copy/line edit usually state their style guide preference. They also tend to have a house style, which takes priority over any “official” industry style guide when they conflict. Independent authors often don’t know or care about style guides, leaving editors free to select their own. If an author specifies a preference, however, you of course accommodate it unless there’s a good reason not to.

Grammar/Usage Guides

A host of options here, too. I’ve recently added Garner’s Modern American Usage to expand upon the grammar/usage sections of CMS and WIT. For quick online lookups, I’ve done well with Grammar Girl and posting queries on editorial lists and forums.

Most often I need to check phrases that include prepositions, so I use CMS’s and WIT’s sections pertaining thereto plus a quick check of online preposition lists (e.g., The English Club) when I just need to confirm which prepositions to capitalize in chapter names or publication titles.

These books will get you through the language aspect of editing most novels. The rest of the job involves story structure and quality control. Part II of this essay discusses editorial software, writing-craft resources, and continuing education. For now, please share any reference books I’ve missed that you use to make editing fiction easier, more accurate, and thorough.

Carolyn Haley 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 two 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.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

Related An American Editor Essays:

June 19, 2015

The Countdown Continues: 12 Days Left

Only 12 days left to take advantage of the AAE discount for the upcoming Be a Better Freelancer™ — Take It to the 10th! conference. For more information about the conference, see “Worth Noting: Be a Better Freelancer – The 2015 Must-Do Conference.”

If you have already decided to attend but still need to register, go to the special registration page for An American Editor subscribers now and lock in your AAE rate! (Remember to use the password: 4AAEonly.)

The AAE special discount ends June 30. I hope to see you at the conference.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Worth Reading: Onscreen Proofreading Tips: Reorganizing Your Stamps Palette in PDF-Xchange

If you proofread or edit on PDF, you should know about Louise Harnby’s free PDF proofreading stamps. In her latest essay on The Proofreader’s Parlour blog, Harnby describes how you can reorder the PDF stamps palette so that it better reflects your needs. Harnby’s article focuses on how to reorder the stamps palette in PDF-XChange (Acrobat doesn’t offer the same flexibility currently).

If you don’t already use her stamps, get them — they are free. If you do use them, reorganize them because, as Harnby writes,

Every second you spend scrolling to find the stamp you want adds up. Seconds become minutes, and minutes become hours. If you’re being paid per hour, and your client doesn’t have a top-line budget, it may not matter how long it takes you to do a job, nor that you’re working inefficiently. However, many clients do have a top line, and many editorial professionals are working for fixed fees. Efficiency matters. Furthermore, some of us need to attend to the way in which we use our hands, wrists and arms repetitively when working onscreen.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 17, 2015

I Can Say It Better

A constant question among professional editors is “What is the editor’s role?” There are lots of aspects to this question, but one that has recently made the rounds is this:

Is it the editor’s role to say it better if how it is already said is understandable, clear, accurate, not misleading — that is, imperfect but…?

I have pondered this question many times over my 31 years as a professional editor, yet it has come home to roost once again in recent weeks. Editors have been asking on different forums whether something the author has written (said) can be rewritten (resaid) in a better way. Sometimes it is clear that a restating would be greatly beneficial; other times I wonder why resay what the author has already adequately said.

What the author has written may not be the best way to say something but if we accept that clarity is the key editing job, then the second best way to say something, if it is the author’s way, should be sufficient. Too many editors believe they must make changes to justify their fee, and that is wrong. Have you never come across a chapter that is sufficiently well written as to need no editing? I have and in those cases I send the author a note saying how well written the chapter is and that I saw no sense in substituting my word choice for her word choice when her choice did the job.

This will, to some editors, fall under the rubric of “do no harm.” But it isn’t harm about which we are speaking. Rather, it is seeing an adequate choice that could be made better but still not so memorable that it will be repeated decades later by an adoring public (the “Ask not what your country…” and the “I have a dream…” type of alterations where the mundane becomes the unforgettable) and deciding to leave it as is.

The idea that “I can say it better” and should do so for the client is a flawed notion of our skills and our role as editor. First, whether I can really say it better is opinion; how can we objectively determine that our clear statement is better than the author’s clear statement? Except for ego, we cannot. This balancing is different when what the author has written is confused or difficult to understand or causes a reader to pause and wonder what he just read means. But in the instance where the reader does understand what the author has written and doesn’t pause to ponder meaning, there is no justification for the editor to rewrite.

When we believe that we can say it better and should do so, we change our relationship with the author. We proclaim ourselves the arbiter of correctness, yet we debate amongst ourselves word choice and correctness. It is similar to how we view style guides (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often? and Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). We tend to put them on a pedestal and forget that they are collections of opinion and suggestion, not necessarily the best way to do something. And that is the key to answering the question of whether we should say it better. If it isn’t clear-cut that our way is much superior to the author’s way, then we are just substituting one opinion for another opinion. We tend to value our opinion more than the author’s because — it is our opinion.

A difference between a professional editor and an unprofessional editor is knowing when to substitute one opinion for another opinion. It is the ability to recognize levels of clarity (not all clarity is equal) and determining whether the clarity of the author’s writing is sufficient or if it needs a boost. Too often editors misread the balance and decide that “I can say it better!”

Not too long ago I was asked to reedit a book originally edited by someone else. The author was very unhappy and the publisher wanted to determine whether the original editor’s edits were necessary, if they were necessary were they an improvement over the author’s original, and whether the editor missed important edits by focusing too much on text the editor thought “I can say it better” and rewrote.

It was an interesting experience. The reasons for the author’s displeasure did not take long to become evident. In rare instances, the editor wisely made changes; in most instances, the editor misinterpreted the balance — the author’s original text may not have been memorable (but then neither was the editor’s contribution), but there was no mistaking what the author was saying. There was no stopping and pondering.

What the editor clearly sought was perfection (a very elusive goal); what the editor “created” did not come close to that holy grail. It was not that the editor did a “terrible” job, it was that the editor failed to improve the author’s writing, failed to bring greater clarity to the writing, and failed to understand the editor’s role and appreciate its limitations. In other words, the editor thought her opinion as to how best to make a point was in fact how best to make a point, when it wasn’t any better than the author’s opinion.

Most interesting was what the editor — in my opinion — failed to rewrite. There were several instances where she should have said “I can say it better” and done so, but didn’t. Yet we fall back to the big bugaboo: Why is my opinion any more valuable or accurate than her opinion? I do not know if my alternatives were truly better than the author’s — I certainly think they were — but I do know it was problematic to leave the author’s writing as it was because of the difficulty in determining what he meant. (For a discussion of clarity, see Editing for Clarity.)

Professional editors are able to draw that line between improving and not improving writing and not cross it often. Just because we can say it better does not mean we should. The editing a professional editor does needs to balance against the author’s voice; only when the balance tilts toward improvement should we upset it.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 15, 2015

On the Basics: Newsletters as a Writing or Editing Service

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

At some point in the recent past, predictions were that newsletters would become defunct as people and organizations turned to the World Wide Web to promote their services, products, and activities. But newsletters continue to not only exist but thrive. Some may now be produced in electronic formats only, but print editions are still alive and well in many instances. With both businesses and entrepreneurs looking for ways to engage regularly with past, current, and prospective clients, and companies and not-for-profit organizations aiming to stay connected with employees, retirees, donors, and other important audiences, newsletters aren’t going away any time soon.

With that in mind, it’s worthwhile for publishing colleagues to think about writing for or editing newsletters as a business niche, as well as publishing our own newsletters to promote our freelance services.

Voice and scope

Writing for a newsletter is a skill like any other — it has its own conventions beyond good grammar, usage, spelling, and punctuation, and even beyond good writing in general.

What many people forget when they prepare to put a newsletter together is that a newsletter should focus on news. Not fluff; news. Not weddings, babies, bowling scores, etc.; news (although some newsletters do find a rationale for including some levels of such fluff — small chapters of larger organizations, for instance, might include personal news about members as a way to build connections and closeness, but a lot of professionals will find such information a little off-putting).

There are times when longer articles are appropriate for a newsletter, but the other key characteristic is that most newsletter stories are short. If a topic deserves more depth, it might make sense to keep the newsletter version short and tight and use the publishing entity’s website to provide additional details, insights, quotes, charts, and other material to flesh out the topic.

The writing voice of a newsletter is usually informal, although some organizations in the sciences and some businesses use a denser and more formal approach to newsletter content. The active voice is the best choice, and it’s fine to use the second person (you, we, us) to build connection with the readership.

Newsy and short: That’s the winning combination for newsletter writing.

Planning and process

If you are thinking about launching a newsletter, whether for your own business or someone else’s, plan to start small and to expand over time. If you aren’t sure there will be enough information to produce an eight-page monthly newsletter, start out with four pages every month, or four or eight pages every other month. It hurts reputation and credibility to have to scale back from an overambitious publishing plan, and it builds reputation and credibility to expand to more pages or a more-frequent publication schedule if the newsletter takes off.

If you have the opportunity to edit or produce a newsletter, fall back on one of our commandments for editors: Be prepared (see “On the Basics: A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared”). If it’s for a client, ask for and read through everything about the organization you can find — old newsletter issues, if any; annual reports; the website; news clippings; grant proposals, etc. — both to see what’s been done before and to absorb something of the culture of the organization. Research the field or niche of the organization in general, and any national level if you’re working with a local or regional chapter. Talk to everyone — staff at all levels, clients, donors, volunteers.

Develop a story list for the first few issues — ideally, a year’s worth — and be sure to include a few “evergreen” or timeless topics that can be used if a planned article falls through for some reason. Popular evergreen topics include profiles of leadership, staff, volunteers, and clients/customers; trends in the appropriate industry or profession; new resources, from books to websites to events; unusual holidays; etc. Distribute the list to staff and other potential contributors — and invite them to add their ideas for articles.

In many organizations, a letter from the leadership is expected to appear in every issue of the newsletter — but the individual responsible for the column often doesn’t give the deadline much heed. Be prepared to draft a “from the president/executive director” column for approval; it will save you time and hassle, and should strengthen your value to the organization.

To put your stamp on the publication, look for people and topics that have not been covered recently. There is bound to be a pocket of people who feel left out and will be thrilled to be included in some way, whether you write about them and their programs or use their ideas for articles.

If employees or volunteers are expected to write for a company or organization publication, make sure they feel welcome. Provide brief style and writing guidelines. Give contributors bylines and consider including their photos, if they’re amenable. For those who are nervous about writing, assure them that you’ll make them look good in print by catching any errors. Suggest to management that contributing articles to the newsletter will be a factor in merit increases.

For a promotional newsletter of your own, keep the “me, me, me!” elements to a low roar, as the saying goes. Do let readers know of your recent achievements or news, but couch the information in ways that make it useful to others. Include how-to tips and resources of interest. And be sure to include an opt-out function so you don’t annoy people by sending something they may not want to receive.

The look of the book

Design is key to a newsletter being read and remembered, so don’t skimp on that element. There are plenty of template-based newsletter resources available these days, but the best course is to invest in having a graphic designer create a unique look for yours, whether it’s for a client or yourself. If you want to do the whole process, from planning to writing to editing to layout to proofreading, have the designer create a format you can replicate from issue to issue after the launch, so you only need the designer for that first issue. If you only want to do the writing and editing, and perhaps proofread the layout before posting or printing the newsletter, budget for someone to handle design and layout. A professional designer can provide a format that relates to the publishing entity, is easy and fun to read, yet still looks professional.

Newsletter design should be clean, uncluttered, and lively. That doesn’t mean a dozen typefaces, box styles, column formats, and other variables per page or per issue. It does mean an active writing voice and an interesting design that is easy to read and follow, with photos and graphics to brighten up pages.

The two computer programs best suited for designing, laying out, and producing newsletters are InDesign and QuarkXPress. Other programs may suffice, but aren’t considered professional-level publishing tools.

Version decisions

Producing and distributing an electronic newsletter is essentially free, while printing and mailing costs money, but don’t let that factor rule in dismissing the idea of a print edition. Keep in mind that many audiences have varying preferences for how they receive a newsletter. In any one company, association, or organization, some readers will still prefer a print edition while others will want an electronic one. Most organizations create one look and produce it in both formats. That’s easy to do; for my newsletter clients with dual format preferences, I work on the print version first, finalize that for the printer, save it as an interactive PDF, and provide the PDF for sending as an e-mail attachment or posting to a website.

Producing newsletters for clients can be a lucrative addition to a freelancer’s services; creating one to promote your business can lead to lucrative new clients while enhancing your reputation as an expert. Either way, the newsletter niche is well worth considering as you look for ways to expand and invigorate your freelance business.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

June 12, 2015

The Countdown: 19 Days Left

The final countdown has begun. There are 19 days left to register for the upcoming Be a Better Freelancer™ — Take It to the 10th! conference at the special An American Editor discount. For more information about the conference, see “Worth Noting: Be a Better Freelancer – The 2015 Must-Do Conference.”

If you have already decided to attend but still need to register, go to the special registration page for An American Editor subscribers now and lock in your AAE rate! (Remember to use the password: 4AAEonly.)

The AAE special discount ends June 30. I hope to see you at the conference.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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