An American Editor

February 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Does Spelling Really Matter?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:18 pm
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Carolyn Haley, Columnist

When it comes to creating books, there are three answers to the question of whether spelling really matters: yes, no, and “it depends.” Usually all three come into play over the course of a book’s life.

At the draft and revision stages of composing a book, spelling doesn’t matter. That’s when authors focus on content — organizing ideas, devising plots, developing characters, turning sentences, building worlds. Prose changes constantly during composition, and only the author (and perhaps a personal support team) sees the work in progress.

By the time a manuscript is submitted for professional consideration, however, or released to public readership, spelling has come to matter a lot.

In between composing and publication lie the variables and decisions that fall under “it depends.”

It depends on the author, the editor, the publisher, the country in which all or any of them live, and the countries in which the book will be distributed. It also depends on which resources the various parties use for reference and guidance. In English alone, alternatives abound.

Most authors expect editors to be expert spellers, grammarians, and evaluators. Most editors are, which is why authors and editors have long formed a yin/yang balance that results in great books. Editors are expected to recognize not only a true misspelling (typo), but also a word that is legitimately spelled in different ways.

What authors may not know is how editors determine which variant is correct. Fanning through any few dictionaries shows that not every authority agrees on how to spell a particular word. It often happens that an author refers to Dictionary A, which spells something like non-disclosure or e-mail with a hyphen, while Dictionary B, used by an editor, spells both words solid (nondisclosure, email).

Even within an individual dictionary, one or more variations may be allowed, such as ax and axe. Nowadays, with online dictionaries available, there might also be differences between a print edition and an online edition of the same one, owing to the online version’s ability to update faster. Thus, for example, the initial cap in Internet, shown in the latest print edition, may appear in lowercase in the online edition. Common usage drives changes in caps and spellings as well as meanings, and even coins new terms (e.g., some dictionaries now allow Google the company name to be used as a verb, to google). Changes are likely to appear in the next edition of a print dictionary, but that might not be published for several years and so will always be a step behind its rapid-response online version.

Meanwhile, different countries favor different spellings. Sticking with English, there are American, British, Canadian, and Australian variants, as well as local and regional versions within each country.

Editors understand this, and recognize that it’s not so much “correctness” that matters but consistency and context. For instance, American editors working on American authors’ novels will draw upon American-English dictionaries and style guides, whereas Canadian (etc.) editors will refer to dictionaries and style guides preferred in their country. In crossover situations, such as an American editor working on a British writer’s book, the editor normally consults with the author or the author’s publisher to determine which standard to apply.

That’s why we see American books with favorite and color and British books with favourite and colour, along with differences like gray and grey, check and cheque, while and whilst, toward and towards, plus prefixes and suffixes added to root words with and without a hyphen.

None of these are wrong unless they switch around in an individual manuscript, or appear in an inappropriate context, such as an American novel released in the United States using British spellings, or vice versa. Most books are reedited (or re-edited) before being published in other countries, and often retitled (or re-titled). Conversely, self-published books that are globally available online (or on-line or on line) the moment they come out tend to be edited in the author’s native English, and stay that way.

Editors on staff at a publishing house generally use the preferred house spelling and style guides for editing manuscripts. Likewise, independent editors working in a narrow niche use the guides that dominate in their arm of the industry. Independent editors working with independent authors have free rein in their choices, but most educate themselves in the guides that are predominant in their channels, and stock their reference libraries accordingly. Editors by nature are inclined to load our libraries with all the reference works we can get their hands on, so we can almost always accommodate whatever language issues come our way.

Consistency is the aspect that really counts in spelling. When there are multiple variations for a word, the editor’s task is to decide which one to use and stick with it. This level of detail grooming usually occurs during copyediting (or copy-editing or copy editing). Many copyeditors (or copy editors) prepare a style sheet for each project in which they specify the reference works guiding their decisions, and use the style sheet to note any variations used in the manuscript. This shows the author what was done and why, without the editor having to load the manuscript with explanations or extra markups.

Authors who have preferences that they care about deeply — regarding either the reference resources they want used or specific personal preferences like that e in axe or grey — need to let their editors know before work begins so misunderstandings don’t occur, and work doesn’t have to be undone or redone. In the absence of author direction, most editors will follow the dictionaries and style guides they’ve determined are suitable for the project.

The purpose of consistency and correctness in any aspect of a book is to present a clean and professional product to the people destined to read it. Typos and irregularities distract readers from content, and in some cases cause negative reactions. Manuscripts being considered for publication might be rejected if the material is sloppy and inconsistent, because those issues give the impression the author hasn’t done their homework and the work isn’t ready to be published. Sometimes sloppiness means rejection simply because the extra work required to bring the material up to the publisher’s standard will cost too much time and money to warrant accepting the book. Other times, manuscripts are winnowed out of contention without even being read, solely because of errors and irregularities that are visible in a quick scan — and spelling errors are very easy to spot. An agent or acquiring editor whose desk is piled high with submissions might reduce that pile to manageable proportions by automatically rejecting any manuscript that looks messy or amateurish, as much due to spelling issues as to presentation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Readers on the consumer end judge books by their interior presentation as well as by their covers. Many a book has been skipped over by potential readers in response to reviews dissing it for sloppiness. Even Amazon, which opened doors to so many self-publishing writers, has responded to reader complaints by instituting quality standards that may result in a book being removed from Amazon’s site until the problems are fixed. The most brilliant, creative, informative content can be unappreciated or unread if it’s riddled with misspellings or other issues. Readers want and deserve the respect that’s signaled by material as well written and well edited as the parties involved can make it.

So, yes, spelling matters in the end.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who 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 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

February 3, 2021

On the Basics: Should we work for free?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Disclaimer: This post expands on a conversation I’ve participated in on LinkedIn, so some of you may have seen parts of it already.

Like many of us here, I’m often asked to do writing, editing, proofreading, website or speaking work for free. When such a request comes from organizations or causes I believe in, I’ll consider it and sometimes say yes. From people who aim to profit from the project or my potential role, I find polite but firm ways to say no, and explain — if necessary — that I do this work as my profession, so I expect to be paid. I don’t talk about my need to pay a mortgage or buy groceries; I simply present myself as a business. With newbie authors, I suggest that they start saving so they can afford to hire professional editors or proofreaders, designers, etc. With startup companies, I suggest that they get back in touch once they’re funded/established and can pay for professional services.

While it can be challenging to stand up for ourselves in terms of being paid, I find it easy to talk to people about pro bono or free work. If we don’t value our services, skills and experience, no one else will. I wish people would realize that someone like me does the work as my profession, my living, or at least respect that — I think it’s pretty clear that I write, edit, etc., as something other than a hobby. People probably know that, if they have any sense; they just don’t want to accept or respect it.

It does help that I’ve been in the communications field for long enough that I don’t have to do free work to become established, prove myself, earn paying projects or making a comfortable living. If I were just starting out, my perspective might be different — but I would still put limits on the scope of pro bono work I would do.

The lawyers I work with in editing or proofreading for law firms do pro bono work for charities/nonprofit organizations as part of their and their firms’ commitments to service to their communities. Pro bono is expected in their profession. They also might get awards for such contributions. We in the editorial field don’t usually get such recognition; we do pro bono as a personal service, and sometimes to get established.

The difference is probably that the lawyer or accountant usually has a regular income, so doing pro bono work doesn’t cut into their business the way editing someone’s ms. for free, for instance, would interfere with a freelancer’s income-generating time. I wouldn’t give away editing an entire ms. unless the author were a relative, very close friend or colleague who had done something similar for me — but I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything that substantial for me without compensation. Maybe a skim and an opinion, but not actual work.

Good reasons to donate our time

It should be noted that there are good reasons to do some editorial work for free.

If you’re new to the field, it makes sense to do a few projects for free to get established, build a network, create visibility and prove your skills. If you’re in a rut and want to expand into new types of editorial work or start covering new topics, it might take doing some work for free to get your feet wet and establish yourself on those new levels.

One example of writing for free is, of course, blogging. I don’t profit from the An American Editor blog, much as I enjoy writing here, and many of our subscribers have their own blogs on all kinds of topics that they don’t get paid to write about. These projects are everything from a service to colleagues, or friends and family, to soapboxes to therapy of a sort. Blogs are a great outlet for opinions and insights that you can’t share elsewhere and don’t have a paying client for, and can be an excellent way to get noticed. Even posting to someone else’s blog can be beneficial by creating greater visibility for your work and voice. (Some blogs do make money — there’s a lot of advice about “monetizing” blogs, and bloggers have been known to get book or other paying offers based on their posts.) However, working for free in return for visibility or “exposure” can be iffy. Just keep in mind that exposure can get someone arrested, or killed. 🙂

One of the hardest work-for-free requests for me is speaking. I love to talk, I love to share information, I love to be of help to colleagues, I love to be around people at conferences and similar events. I don‘t love to travel or stay in hotels on my own dime, which is often what’s involved with speaking at out-of-town events. Some organizations even have the chutzpah to expect speakers to pay to attend the events where they’ll be speaking, which I don’t accept. I believe that when someone is providing expert advice, they should get something out of it. That’s why the Be a Better Freelancer® conference that I host (now with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and AAE) covers speaker accommodations, conference fee and meals at the very least, and often has paid for speaker travel as well.

I often recommend that colleagues put limits or deadlines on the pro bono work that they do, but I’ve never come up with a standard for setting the amount of time I might give to such projects. Some of them have involved a couple of hours, some have been ongoing for a long time; it depends on the cause or organization and my connection to it.

Setting boundaries is also unpredictable. Sometimes I say I’ll be available for X hours or Y months; sometimes I just see how I feel after a while to decide it’s time to stop and devote my energy to something else. How long you work pro bono and for whom is a personal decision that you probably have to make on a case-by-case basis; there might be no one-size-fits-all rule. Just be sure to give adequate warning when you reach that point of no more freebies so the recipient can fill the gap quickly.

When it comes to speaking, I often make my decision based on event location: If a conference will be held somewhere that I like or want to visit, especially because I have friends or family there, that tends to tilt the scale toward yes. If you’re an author with books to sell (or an artist or photographer, etc., with works to sell), speaking engagements can lead to onsite sales, which can offset the expense of getting to the event and make the free speech worth doing. Some of my colleagues consider the travel points they accumulate from speaking at out-of-town events as a worthwhile swap for being paid to present.

Doing free writing, editing, proofreading, indexing and other types of editorial work can be fulfilling. It can even be profitable: The connections you make and the work can take you from volunteer to employee or paid contributor. Before you turn down or accept such requests, look at them closely, think about how acceding to them will feel and act accordingly. Set your own limits and go from there.

Have you done any pro bono editorial work? For whom? How did you respond? How did it turn out for you?

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

February 1, 2021

On the Basics: Coping with — and heading off — problems

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Once again, I’ve been inspired by recent posts in various places, this time ones that focused on complaints — either how a writer or editor can respond to a client’s complaint about their own work, or how an author or their editor can respond when someone else creates problems with a project.

Heading off problems before they arise

Of course, the best way to eliminate client complaints is to do great work, regardless of your niche — writing, editing, proofreading, layout, production, etc. Just be very careful about what you offer. Guaranteeing or promising perfection is a landmine. Many of us do turn around essentially perfect work most of the time, but we’re all human, and mistakes happen — our own, on occasion, and by people farther along the publication process whom we can’t control. There also can be differences of opinion about style and voice that create appearances of imperfection in the eyes of clients, readers and others who see the work.

One preventive option is to use your website, and maybe even your e-mail sigline, to say that you don’t guarantee perfection. Most of us provide results that qualify as perfect, but I never guarantee such a level of performance — I promise excellence, but I don’t guarantee perfection. Too many things can interfere with achieving perfection on every single project, no matter what your editorial niche might be and how excellent your skills.

Depending on the editorial service(s) you provide, it’s also smart to include contract or agreement language saying that you do not guarantee perfection, and are not to be mentioned in a dedication or acknowledgment unless you’ve seen the final-for-release version of a client’s document and are assured that it won’t be changed after that point. Being thanked for work that gets changed for the worse after it leaves your hands can be horribly embarrassing.

When the complaint goes against you

Many writing, editing, proofreading and other publishing-world colleagues wonder about how to handle client complaints. Some say they can see themselves “firmly yet politely providing an explanation,” and possibly offering a (reasonable) refund or a discount on a future project if they were responsible for the problem. If the issue appears to be major and the client is furious, though, then what? And what if the error is someone else’s doing?

First and foremost, don’t panic. We all make mistakes, and many complaints are much less major than they seem at first. And the problem might not be your fault.

Sometimes all the client wants is your acknowledgment that you goofed, so it makes sense to apologize — but without offering anything until you have a better sense of what happened and what the client wants. A response might also depend on what the client thinks went wrong; the problem might have been caused by someone other than you (including the client!) or not even be a real deal, merely a difference in perspective or definitions.

Once you’ve identified the problem or issue, you can respond effectively. If you missed a couple of misspellings or similar somewhat minor errors in a document, apologize and consider offering to give the manuscript one more look at no cost, assuming it hasn’t already gone out into the world.

If the piece is already in print, the apology and refund or discount might do the trick. With some projects or publications, it also might be possible to redo the material and give the client a new version to republish or reissue. Bigger issues call for bigger approaches.

There have been plenty of instances of self-publishing authors finding a lot of errors in their published books, or being alerted to or criticized for errors by readers. One of the most-common reasons: Somehow the author, or someone on their behalf, uploaded the wrong file for publication. Maybe the author didn’t know how to accept an editor’s input and changes. Maybe the author misfiled the corrected, final version of the manuscript.

Another common reason for errors in published work is that a well-intentioned layout person or designer made changes in the text that introduced errors. Or that the author didn’t have the project proofread before publication.

That doesn’t only happen to independent authors, by the way, although it’s more rare in traditionally published books. I bought an expensive hardcover traditionally published book a few years ago that started with a missing map and was rife with typos on almost every page. It was so egregious and outrageous that I contacted the publisher and author, who were mortified. The publisher said the wrong version of the manuscript somehow got into production and publication, and that they’d reissue the correct version. (They sent me a different book by the same author to make up for it, and I have no idea whether they ever did a reprint of the messed-up one.)

Of course, readers find and comment about errors in published works because many independent authors don’t pay for editing or proofreading before leaping into print. That’s why it’s important for us to identify the actual problem and who was responsible for it — not to mention whether there even is a real error — if we do get a complaint.

When errors aren’t your doing

An editing colleague recently encountered a problem with work on a client’s book that had nothing to do with the editor. The colleague had completed a copyedit for a client who then used a book designer to complete the final layout and files for self-publishing on Amazon, and the designer made changes that created errors in the published version. The errors weren’t in the original draft that the author gave the designer, nor in the first proof. The copyeditor thought they were the result of a sloppy find/replace by the designer, and wanted to know how “egregious” this was.

My response:
“VERY!”

(Please note that I know a lot of talented, skilled designers who would never do something like this.)

I suggested that the author tell the designer something like: “I am very upset that you made changes to my book that introduced a substantial number of errors. This is not acceptable. I expect a refund for your services or a revision at no charge.”

I would advise an author to ask such a designer for a refund rather than a redo. Asking them to redo it at no cost is a big maybe, because that designer clearly can’t be trusted, maybe even with very clear, firm guidelines about not making any changes that you and the author don’t see. It would probably be smarter to find a new designer, and to insist on seeing the final version before letting it go into production and release.

If such a designer has control over the files of the error-filled edition, tell them to send the files to you (so a new designer can handle the new edition), but don’t say that you won’t use the designer again until you have the original files in hand or know whether the files will be provided. If they refuse, you and your author will have to correct the first edition and do the new edition yourselves from scratch, but that might be safer than trusting it to someone who has proven to be problematic. 

If you find yourself in a similar situation, make sure that (a) you and your client(s) don’t use that designer again and (2) all future projects include language requiring that you and your client(s) see any versions that a designer has changed before publication! 

No one should have to search for errors in their publishing projects caused by changes they don’t know that someone made. 

Other people’s errors in our work are painful. I recently had to explain to someone I wrote about for a newspaper profile that the typo in the article’s headline was introduced in production, when someone changed it from what I submitted; at least it could be fixed in the online version, but it lives on in the print copy. And I still bristle over a misuse of “its/it’s” — something I would never get wrong — that someone else introduced years ago in a big, bold callout quote for one of my favorite magazine projects back in the days before digital publishing; I felt that I couldn’t use it as a portfolio sample because there was no way to let prospective employers or clients know that it wasn’t my mistake.

Possible responses

When colleagues ask for strategies for dealing with upset clients, I’ve responded along these lines:

“I tend to work fast, so I consciously slow myself down and give everything a second look before sending projects back to reduce the likelihood of upsetting my clients by missing something. I also take time to go over details before I start on a project, ask about or check for style preferences, etc. In more than 35 years of writing, editing, proofreading and freelancing, I’ve only had a couple of bad experiences that were my fault. If an issue were to come up, I would remind the client that I promise and provide excellence, but don’t guarantee perfection.” 

If a client wants a refund or discount, look at the context very, very carefully before responding or acquiescing. I’d rather not set a precedent for a refund or a discount. If something really were my fault, I’d consider providing a partial refund that represents a reasonable response, or offering a discount — again, on a reasonable level — for a subsequent project. Some of us will provide a refund at a few cents per error; others offer a discount (I wouldn’t go higher than 10%) on a new project.

A sad reality

Today’s online world makes moments involving client or reader complaints very challenging. It can be difficult — sometimes impossible — to respond to allegations of poor performance, and some complainers won’t stand down even if you can show that an issue wasn’t your doing. We also can’t always know where someone is complaining or even attacking us; there are so many platforms where these things can appear that it might not be possible to counteract every instance of a problem. Engaging with complainers or attackers also can make them escalate their behavior; even when we’re right, we might not win.

It’s smart to do occasional online searches of your name to see if there are any issues “out there” that you might want — or need — to respond to. Testimonials at your website from clients whose projects went smoothly also can help balance out baseless complaints or criticisms.

In whatever role anyone here might play in a publishing project, we can only do our best and network together to maintain our reputations. Complaints might be one of those inevitable, but ideally rare, headaches that come with being in business and living in the current era of online visibility, with all of its unpredictable aspects — some that are scary, but many that are beneficial.

Have you encountered complaints about your work, or that of anyone else who’s part of one of your projects? How did you respond? What would you do differently in the future?

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.

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