An American Editor

October 10, 2016

Lyonizing Word: Using Two-Part Buttons

by Jack Lyon

Nearly a year ago, I explained some secrets of Microsoft Word’s Ribbon interface (see Lyonizing Word: Secrets of the Ribbon), including two-part buttons like the one that activates FileCleaner in Editor’s ToolKit Plus 2014.

At first glance, this button looks ordinary, with a graphic icon at the top and a tiny arrow at the bottom:


Click the arrow, and you’ll get a dropdown list of FileCleaner’s features:


What many people don’t realize, however, is that the FileCleaner button is a two-part button. If you hover your cursor over the button, you’ll see a horizontal line splitting the button in two:


The bottom half, with the arrow, works just as before. But the top part is a different matter. If you click it, you’ll get full access to all of FileCleaner’s batch cleanup options:


Microsoft Word’s Ribbon interface includes quite a few two-part buttons, but if you don’t know about them, you may not be using Word as efficiently as you could. There’s no sure way to spot them without hovering your mouse pointer over them, although they always include a tiny black arrow (as do many one-part buttons). A good example is the Paste button on the Ribbon’s Home tab:


If you hover your mouse pointer over that button, you’ll see that it has two parts:


Click the part with the arrow, and you’ll have access to various paste options. Pretty neat!

So what other buttons have two parts? Here is the complete list, along with the default options you’ll see if you click each button’s arrow (as opposed to its icon). Please note that what you’ll see may vary depending on what’s going on in Word.

Home tab




Text Highlight Color




Font Color






















My Add-ins



Signature Line










Document Formatting




Next Footnote



Citations & Bibliography > Styles




Comments > Delete



Tracking > Display for Review



Tracking > Reviewing Pane



Tracking > Track Changes



Changes > Accept



Changes > Reject




Macros > Macros



I believe that’s all of them, although there’s one that’s not on the Ribbon that you should be aware of — the Undo button, which you’ll see at the top left of your Word window:



Here, you can select items en masse and undo them. Is that useful? Maybe sometimes.

One thing you can say about Microsoft Word: It’s not lacking in features. If anything, it has more features than most people will ever use (see Lyonizing Word: The Right Tool for the Job). I hope this article will help you find some useful features that you may not currently be aware of.

Jack Lyon ( 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, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

October 3, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Blame Game

I’ve always thought that the person who makes the decision should stand tall and accept the blame for anything that goes wrong as a result of that decision.

Consider, for example, where an author uses both ton and tonne in a book. If I were to decide to change tonne to ton on the (shaky) grounds that ton is the American spelling, who should accept the blame for having made the decision should it turn out to be a poor one? Usually, I would say me because I made the decision. But suppose I hadn’t made the decision; instead, those who hired me instructed me to make the change, and I did as I was told. When the author rightfully complains about the decision, who takes the blame — me or the person who gave me the instruction? I would have said that the instructor, not the instructed, should accept responsibility, but I am discovering that just as the chain of command has changed in publishing, so has responsibility.

The ton/tonne example is a good — albeit simplistic — example. Both are correct American English spellings because they represent different things: tonne is the equivalent of 2204.6 pounds (or 1000 kilograms), a metric ton, whereas ton is the equivalent of 2000 pounds for the short ton or 2240 pounds for the long ton. (Generally, in American English, ton means the short ton; if the long ton is meant, it is specified as the long ton.) Neither the short ton nor the long ton is the equivalent of the tonne — one is too light, the other too heavy. Of course, tonne could be changed to metric ton, but why is it better to use a word’s definition than to use the word itself?

To blithely change tonne to ton because ton not tonne is “the American spelling” in a book that uses both terms is inviting trouble, especially as both are correct American spellings, just with different meanings. And an instruction to make that change will inevitably lead to shifting of blame to the end of the chain, the editor, and is likely to result in the editor’s loss of a client.

Why does this happen? What can the editor do in this unfair situation?

Unfortunately, once the blame game has started, the editor rarely has a clue that it is on. The revelation comes when a source of work dries up. The cause of the blame game is the change in how publishing produces books. When I began my career, my dealings were with the publisher’s in-house production staff: the chain, in its simplest form, was

author > publisher > independent professional editor

In this chain, the in-house production staff and the professional editor were in constant communication, and decisions like changing tonne to ton were discussed and mutually decided. But the chain, too, has undergone change. The usual chain today is

author > publisher > packager > independent professional editor

When this chain was born, packagers were less confident and often relied heavily on the professional editor to make editorial decisions, even to provide the packager with guidance. But with the passage of time that changed. Packagers increasingly turned inward for advice.

As every professional editor knows (and hopefully would admit), professional American editors are more likely to have fluent command of American English than Indian editors, just as Indian editors are more likely to have fluent command of British-Indian English than are American editors. This is not to say that a professional editor cannot be strong in multiple versions of English, just that most editors are not. Consequently, using our ton/tonne example, for a book that is to be conformed to American English, it is more likely that a professional American editor will make a better-informed decision about replacing tonne with ton than will an Indian editor. Yet an Indian packager is more likely to ask for and accept a language usage decision made by in-house staff without consulting the American editor. And thus the problem arises.

Should the author complain about the substitution, the author’s complaint will be made to the publisher, who will then complain to the packager. But there the trail will stop because the packager already knows that if the editor is asked, the response will be “You [the packager] instructed me to make the change.” So why ask the editor? Instead, blame the editor, because blaming the editor is politic if the packager wants to keep the publisher’s business.

To minimize this blame shifting, which can have negative economic impact on the editor, the professional editor can only marshal her arguments against making such a change and hope to convince her client, the packager, of the rightfulness of her position. If unable to do that, the editor has little recourse, as someone has to be the scapegoat when authors start complaining.

The more distance there is between the professional editor and the ultimate client (the author), the greater the possibility of trouble. Unfortunately, in the current publishing model the editor has no assured position. As editors who work directly with authors know, the direct relationship doesn’t eliminate the blame game. When a negative review comes out, it is not unusual for an author to blame the editor for not recognizing and dealing with the problems raised in the review. Quickly forgotten are the instructions from the author that narrowed the editor’s role and said that identifying and correcting the problems noted in the review were outside the editor’s remit.

What all this means is that to be a successful editor, the editor needs to develop a thick skin, to understand the dynamics of the editor’s place in the chain, and to be prepared to gain and lose clients. The best safeguard for the editor is to actively market herself, knowing that while most of the time everything goes smoothly, sometimes the editor becomes a victim of the blame game.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 29, 2016

Should You Be Calling Yourself a Freelancer?

I just read one of the most intriguing essays I have read in years and it raises a question I hadn’t thought about in my 32 years of professional editing as owner of my own business. And now I recommend it to you:

Why I Hate the Term “Freelance Proofreader”
– A Letter to Newbies
by Louise Harnby

As editors, we know that words matter. Yet how many of us have considered the import of calling ourselves freelancers instead of proprietors or business owners or something similar?

What would you call yourself if not a freelance editor? How would you market yourself absent the word freelance?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 28, 2016

When Authors Look for Editors

I am certain that hundreds, if not thousands, of articles, books, and blog essays have been written to advise authors how to find the perfect editor. Even so, authors continue to ask about finding a good editor, especially if they have already had a bad experience, which tells me that the question of how to find the right editor remains unanswered.

The Plain-English List

There are several recurring problems. The first is that the searching author rarely knows what she wants or needs from an editor and so uses terms like “proofing,” “proofreading,” “light editing,” and “copyediting” with the expectation that the editor’s understanding will equate with the author’s meaning. The two rarely meet.

Rather than using terms like those, it would serve the author better to make a plain-English list of exactly what she wants an editor to do with her manuscript. As detailed a list as possible serves best. When the author gives that list to the editor, they can have a meaningful conversation.

The Editorial Budget

The second problem is deciding how much to pay for editing. Before searching for an editor, the author should decide on a budget. The budget should not be based on going rates or what the author thinks the editor’s services should be worth. The budget should be the maximum amount that the author is willing to spend on editorial help — a number calculated in the same manner the author would calculate the maximum amount she is willing to spend to buy a house or a car before actually shopping for the house or car. This number should be a gross amount; for example, it should be $5,000 and not $50 per hour.

The reason for the gross budget amount is that too often authors decide not to hire an editor they otherwise think is a good fit because they “feel” the cost is too high. An editor will quote a price of $50 an hour and immediately the author’s hackles rise, thinking that $50 is too much because she had budgeted for $20. Sometimes it is better to pay more per hour for fewer hours of work than to pay less per hour for more hours of work. Better editors, as with many things in life, also tend to be more experienced and efficient; thus the higher per-hour fee and the fewer hours needed. Having set a gross budget limit moves the focus of the discussion from the per-hour rate to whether what is wanted can be done within the budget.

The Evaluation Criteria

A third problem is that authors tend to use the wrong criteria to evaluate an editor. It is true that an author should carefully evaluate an editor, but not by applying criteria that do little to answer the questions of competence and fit.

Great editors do not have to be authors themselves, by which I mean writers of books or published in magazines or journals. But in today’s competitive internet world, the editor should be a blogger and a participant in public editorial forums.

If I were looking for an editor, I would begin my search at a place like LinkedIn. Not because LinkedIn is such a great website, but because it provides an opportunity to get a first look at a pool of editors — those who participate in the various editing and writing groups. The first information I would be looking for is the kinds of questions they ask and answers they give in editorial/writing-oriented groups. Editors whose contributions to LinkedIn conversations consist of “Joe is right,” or whose responses tend not to address where the conversation is currently, or whose answers are often not answers, just a lot of smoke, are editors I would avoid. I also would avoid those who need help with fundamentals such as the reasonableness of some request made by a client or what to charge (or what others are charging; while I would avoid someone who asks what is the going rate, I would consider someone who doesn’t want to know what others are charging but how to calculate what she should be charging). I would not want my book to be an editor’s learning experience at my expense.

The editors I would want to consider ask and discuss more “advanced” things, such as questions of ethics, grammar, underlying principles of editing, both as a business and as a craft, and the like. I want an editor who sees more than the surface of my manuscript. Every competent editor can find and correct misspellings or can understand what an orange is, but not every editor can grasp that a word has been deliberately misspelled or that what you really mean, based on the context, is not orange but tangelo. Editors give clues about themselves in the questions they ask and in the responses they write. One can determine with some accuracy an editor’s experience with certain areas of subject matter through their questions and answers.

Equally as revealing are an editor’s blog articles. Blogs are generally intended to sell the editors (bloggers) to their audience. When you look at editors’ blogs, who is the audience they are trying to sell to? What are they trying to sell that audience? If they address an issue, do they do so cursorily or in depth? Does their writing evoke a sense of editorial competence, or is it so casual that it is bothersome? Are there mistakes in their writing? (But be sure to consider “mistakes” in light of blogs’ tendency to be more casual, and remember that few people write perfectly.)

Questions, answers, and blog essays give an insight into an editor’s approach to business — and editing is a business. Note that I haven’t mentioned scrutinizing the editor’s website. The problem with using a website to form an opinion about an editor is that it is difficult to know who is responsible for the website’s content and design. I understand that the editor is ultimately responsible, but authors looking for an editor are looking for editorial skills, not for design skills, which is what the focus on a website is — design, not editing. One of the best editors I know has one of the worst websites to be found short of what pops up with a Not Found error from your ISP.

The Reliance on Recommendations

A fourth problem is that authors too often rely on recommendations — positive or negative —from fellow authors. The smart author avoids hiring or not hiring an editor solely because someone she knows recommended or dissed the editor. If the editor was recommended, the editor should be put on the author’s list of editors to check out. If the editor was dissed, the author needs to ask questions designed to elicit more in-depth detail about why the editor was dissed. It makes a difference, for example, if the dissing is the result of such things as these: editor incompetence; unreasonable author expectations that the editor did not, perhaps could not, fulfill; or a personality conflict between author and editor. Depending on the reason (e.g., personality conflict), the author might add the editor to her list. After all, each author is an individual and has different needs. Different authors have different personalities — some are easier to work with and some harder. Every author needs to find the editor with whom she can work successfully — even if that editor was fired by another author.

The Key to Finding the Right-Fit Editor

The key, I think, to an author’s finding the right-fit high-quality editor lies with the first-mentioned items: seeing the questions and answers the editor posts on editorial/writing forums and reading the editor’s blog. It is the culling done with the help of these items that will leave standing those editors the author should further interview using the first two items discussed in this essay — a description of what the author is looking for the editor to do and keeping within a preestablished budget. Once the author enters into a dialogue with the editor, the author can learn more about the editor’s skills and background in an attempt to find the perfect editor for the manuscript at hand.

Yet I offer one word of caution to authors: your budget can be a very limiting factor. Experienced, high-quality editors are in demand and rarely work on the cheap. Editing is their business, the source of their income, and thus the editor has to and does charge accordingly. If you are unrealistic in your budget, you will cripple your search for your perfect-fit high-quality editor by narrowing the pool of editors from which you can choose. This is why the discussion of money should not occur until you think you have found the editor you want.

Choosing editing for editing’s sake, by which I mean hiring an editor simply so you can say your book was edited, is not a worthwhile goal. Editing by a professional, highly skilled editor will enhance your manuscript and improve its likelihood for success. In contrast, hiring an editor largely because the editor fits within your budget is unlikely to advance your goals. Budgets do not have to be unlimited but they do have to be reasonable in relation to the work required from the editor.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 14, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Kneecapped Editor

We all have goals, whether adding new clients, making more money, or having more time to spend with the grandchildren. Yet you’ll notice two distinguishing features: first, our goals are often not challenging; second, if they are challenging, they are often not met or accomplished.

If we look around, we see goal-attainers like Elon Musk (PayPal, Tesla Motors, Solar City, SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Amazon, Washington Post, Blue Origin) and think “There but for the lack of luck go I!” Such thinking really amounts to self-deception. We deceive ourselves into thinking that the difference between being a Musk or Bezos and being ourselves is something other than vision and self-esteem.

Think about how you tackle your editing work. It isn’t with imagination or vision. You tackle it today just as you did yesterday, last week, last month, last year. After all, how “visionary” or “imaginative” can one be when dealing with spelling and grammar? More importantly, think about how you go about finding new business and increasing your rates and doing myriad other business-focused tasks. All of us are constrained by how we view ourselves — some more than others — but our sense of self-esteem figures prominently in the outcome.

Colleagues who are excellent editors think of themselves as just average — not outstanding and certainly not as “the best.” As a consequence, they struggle to raise prices, to say no, to find new clients, to move outside their lifelong comfort zone. Be assured that this problem of low self-esteem is not unique to editors; we have been taught it since our babyhood, usually framed in the message of how important it is to follow rules and not rebel.

Yes, we all need to follow rules for society to function well, but there are levels and degrees of rebelliousness, ranging from meek acquiescence to outright defiance. The key is to find the proper levels and degrees — the ones that paint a positive portrait of your skills and make you so desirable that clients are willing to at least negotiate with you.

The editor–client relationship is like a mating ritual. We need to be the colorfully feathered peacock who makes clients want to dance with us and not some other editor. As in other aspects of life, the first step is belief in yourself.

When I give presentations, I often introduce myself by saying something like “I am the greatest of all editors.” I am always amused at the reaction, especially as I tend to repeat that several times during the course of the presentation. Some editors take umbrage, some just shake their head, and some get the message, which is that I have confidence and that I believe in myself, which is the foundation to success.

It is important, not because I say directly to clients, “You need to hire me and pay whatever I demand because I am the greatest of all editors,” but because my belief in myself and my abilities gives me the confidence to say to a client, “No, I cannot accept this project at the proposed fee and schedule. If you want me, you must agree to my terms.” And, even more importantly, it gives me the confidence to decline a project because I know — with confidence and certainty — that another project will be coming my way.

How do I know this? Because I message the confidence that I have built in myself when I discuss whether or not I will accept a project. Because I have convinced myself that I am an editor any author would be thankful for; because I have convinced myself and conveyed to clients that I am the superstar of the editing world.

Okay, I can hear your derision even over the internet. But think about it. Do you approach business meekly or like a lion?

Most of us approach life meekly; we want to avoid conflict. And in many cases that approach works fine. But it doesn’t work when you are self-employed, reliant on what you earn, and in competition with thousands of others for the same jobs. It is not that you need to be aggressive; it is that you need to stand tall, even to yourself, and not be led by others.

You also need the confidence to take advantage of opportunities that present themselves. For example, famous author Richard Adin (who, after all, is more famous than the author of the chart-topping book The Business of Editing?) asked you to read and critique his book. It doesn’t matter whether this is paid or volunteer work; what matters is that you were asked. If it were me, I would be adding to my spiel to clients that I helped Richard Adin perfect his book — I do not need to say that I just critiqued Chapter 3. But few editors do that. They think their contribution was too minor or insignificant or that clients wouldn’t consider it important. Or they do not want to sound boastful. Or they offer up myriad other excuses. Yet if you are the world’s greatest editor, it is only right that a great author has asked your opinion or had you edit their book or proofread it or whatever. You worked on it; so boast about it.

Understand the way business operates: money is attracted to money, and greatness is attracted to greatness. Setting aside Donald Trump’s sad campaign for president, he is a perfect example of the concept — not the execution — of the importance of outward self-esteem. What does Trump sell? He sells the image of prestige and luxury. How does he do it? By believing that properties that bear his imprint are the world’s finest examples of prestige and luxury, and by convincing others of the same. Of course, the properties that bear his name need to also meet that standard, but when he started, there was just his self-belief.

And that is what the most successful editors do — they project an image, which they back up with skilled editing. But the purpose of having self-esteem and confidence is to obtain the opportunities to demonstrate that you have the skills. It does little good to be highly skilled but have little work.

Remember that your editorial business is about you and how you, because of your great skill, can and will help clients achieve their goals. Be confident in yourself and your clients will be confident in you. Never forget that low self-esteem can kneecap the best of us. Believing in yourself is the difference between being one of the crowd and one of the few.

And if you do nothing else, watch the following video to its end, and especially note the final words.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 24, 2016

The Business of Editing: Is It Smart to Give Clients Freebies?

Back in the day, when I began my editing career, editors were viewed much differently than they are now. We weren’t gods, no matter how much we wished we were, but we were respected and both editors and clients debated whether editing was an art or a business. The idea was that if it was an art, then pay and work conditions were secondary considerations; the primary consideration was how to improve editing by increasing accuracy and decreasing errors in an endeavor for editorial perfection even at the editor’s expense. In contrast, if it was a business, then the editor needed to approach it like a business, including advertising and striving to produce what the client asked for, rather than to achieve perfection — basically, doing what you were paid for and not seeking perfection at your own expense.

Even publisher clients were in that game. The rate of pay was decent; editors could earn high middle-class incomes, and publishers actually gave raises to freelancers. (I can recall one publishing company was so pleased with my work that it insisted I accept a 20% increase. Those days are long gone.) More importantly, publishers promoted the artisanal approach to editing by being willing to go above the original budget if the striving for perfection required doing so. Publishers did two other things in those days, things that are very rarely seen now — altering schedules so that a manuscript could be edited by a particular editor and offering on their own a higher pay rate to get a particular editor to take on a manuscript. Both those things occurred often in my early editing years; they still occasionally occur, but with far less frequency.

The point is that the relationship between the editor and the client was once governed by the view that striving for editorial perfection was desirable and the primary focus of both editor and client. Which also meant that in exchange, editors would go beyond what the agreement with the client called for and throw in “freebies.” But the winds were changing.

Not long after I began my editing career, the publishing industry began consolidating. Previously family-owned publishing houses were being sold to larger rivals who were themselves being bought by even larger international rivals. Offices were being closed and consolidated; in-house staff were losing their jobs; and, most importantly, the publisher’s view of editing as artisanal was rapidly being displaced by business-centric views. The view that began its striking ascendancy, and which is now the dominant view, was that editing is invisible to the reader, so a less-perfect product at a lower price is all that is needed.

But, as very longtime editors know, although publishers decreased or simply maintained freelancer pay, they also began requiring freelancers to do more tasks in exchange for that pay. For example, things that in-house production staff did became the job of the freelancer.

The profession of editing evolved from an artisanal profession into a business. Many editors struggled with this evolution; for others it was an easy — even welcome — change. Which leads me to the question at hand: Is it smart to give clients freebies today?

In the early years of the evolution, I thought providing freebies, which simply means bonus services not paid for by the client, was a good marketing strategy that might entice the client to call again and do so quickly. The strategy had value then because the freebie reduced the workload of the in-house editor with whom the freelancer had a relationship. The practice seemed mutually beneficial. Unfortunately, not only did it change the expectation level of the in-house editor with whom the freelancer had an ongoing relationship, but it also changed what the rest of the in-house staff expected. What was once a freebie turned into a virtual requirement of the job.

Observing that change in expectation and seeing how much more business-centric my clients were becoming, I began reevaluating the freebie as a marketing tool. My approach has changed greatly. I no longer think it is smart business to offer a freebie per se. Instead, the freebies I now offer are natural products of my constant effort to make my editing business more efficient and profitable.

A good example is my reference renumbering report (see, e.g., “The Business of Editing: Keeping Reference Callouts in Number Order” and “Business of Editing: Dealing with Reference Renumbering”). The Reference Number Order macro in EditTools was created to help me keep easy track of renumbering. The report I can generate for a client takes the information I have already entered for my own use and exports it to a file that I can send as a freebie. The cost to me is virtually zero (to create the file takes a click of a button) but, as clients have remarked, the report is very valuable to their authors and proofreaders, and thus to them.

I steadfastly avoid giving something that costs me time or money or is something that the client should be paying for. I also am careful to not provide anything that will increase my workload and that the client will soon expect me to include at no additional cost.

Another example of a freebie I provide all my clients is my online stylesheet. My stylesheet offers three things to my clients — at no cost to me:

  1. As I am editing, an interested client can check the stylesheet and see whether I have made any decisions that this client would like altered. Perhaps I decided to spell out only numbers one to nine before learning that the client would prefer having numbers one to ninety-nine spelled out; or I used the first spelling of traveler in MW 11, but the client turns out to want the equal variant, traveller. The client can see whatever information I put on the stylesheet (but, no, the client cannot make any direct changes to the stylesheet; the client must tell me what changes I should make. This ensures that I know exactly what the client wants).
  2. Because the stylesheet is current to the minute (i.e., what the client can see is no more than one minute older than what I can see) and because the stylesheet is accessible by the client 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round and is downloadable at the client’s convenience and as often as the client wishes, the client can provide proofreaders with up-to-the-minute copies of the stylesheet.
  3. Five years from now, when the client plans to work up a new edition of the book, the client can access my website and again download the stylesheet for the edition I edited. No more lost stylesheets or even not getting a stylesheet — the client only needs to log in, locate the project, and download the stylesheet. Today, for example, clients can retrieve stylesheets from books I edited for them in 2006 — and doing so is not conditional on my editing the new edition.

The stylesheet is a valuable freebie that costs me nothing. I have to provide a stylesheet with nearly all my projects anyway, so why not take advantage of it? Clients like that they can check on how things are progressing without having to contact me. They also like that they can do so at their convenience. Most importantly, they like that they can give their proofreaders these up-to-the-minute stylesheets without waiting for me to send them one.

The ability to retrieve a stylesheet when preparing to do a subsequent edition is also something clients like, as it helps maintain consistency between editions. I, too, like it because it reminds them that I am already familiar with the book, have the stylesheet readily available, and would thus be a good choice to hire for editing the new edition — it’s a good way to market passively. This, too, costs me nothing because I am already maintaining a website for my business and the stylesheets take up very little server space. Plus the clients do the actual “work” of retrieving and printing the stylesheet; I am just making it easy for them to do.

Basically, the freebies of today need to be passive freebies. They need to cost the freelancer virtually nothing but still have value to the client. What those freebies are will differ for each of us, but the bottom-line principle remains the same: the cost must be almost nil to us so that if it becomes an expectation of the client, it does not result in a reduction of our profits. Freebies should arise out of things we are doing for our own benefit, things that we do or would do to make our own work flow better.

If giving a freebie does not meet those criteria, then the answer to the question is no, it is not smart to give clients freebies nowadays.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 22, 2016

Lyonizing Word: Before Typesetting

by Jack Lyon

I need your help, Gentle Reader. I need your ideas. Back in 1996, when I started selling Microsoft Word add-ins at the Editorium, getting a Word document into QuarkXPress was tricky: Quark was prone to crashes and didn’t handle footnotes at all. To solve these problems, I created QuarkConverter, and NoteStripper. A few years later, when people started switching to InDesign, I created InDesignConverter.

In the past several years, however, both QuarkXPress and InDesign have become much better at importing Word documents directly, without the need for a converter. The crashes are mostly gone, and footnotes come right on in. Nevertheless, I’m wondering what else might be done to a Word document to save time and trouble when importing into a layout program — and I’d greatly appreciate your thoughts about that. Here are some examples of the kind of thing I have in mind:

  • Add nonbreaking spaces to dates and initials.

For example, if the text includes a date like “August 17, 2016,” most typesetters want “August” and “17” to stay together; adding a nonbreaking space between the two elements does the trick. Similarly, if a name like “C. S. Lewis” shows up, it’s nice to keep the “C.” and the “S.” together. (To add a nonbreaking space in Word [Windows] 2007 and newer, hold down the CTRL and SHIFT keys as you press the spacebar. For Word [Mac], press the Option key as you press the spacebar.)

  • Remove formatting “overrides.”

Typesetters typically want to handle formatting with styles, so that changing a style attribute in InDesign automatically changes formatting throughout the document. If an author or editor has applied styles in a Word document, those styles can be imported and used in InDesign. But if an author or editor has applied direct formatting using various fonts, that formatting will be imported as “overrides” on the text, which can be a bit of a pain to clean up.

Override Options

Override Options

In its Styles pane, Microsoft Word offers to “Clear All” formatting and styles from selected text.

Clear All Option

Clear All Option

The problem is, “Clear All” really does mean “Clear All,” including not just font overrides but also such local formatting as bold and italic, which needs to remain intact. InDesign’s “Clear Overrides” feature has the same problem. Do you really want to remove italic formatting from the hundreds of journal titles in that giant manuscript you’re editing? If you’re proofreading or setting type, do you really want to put all that formatting back in again by hand? My FileCleaner add-in includes an often-overlooked feature (“standardize font formats”) that removes font overrides but leaves bold, italic, and other local formatting intact, which is exactly what’s needed.

Standardize Font Formats Option

Standardize Font Formats Option

  • Turn straight quotation marks into curly ones.

InDesign can do this—sort of. But it can’t handle things like “’Twas the night before Christmas” or “A miner, ’49er” (dreadful sorry, Clementine). FileCleaner does a much better job of dealing with this; it properly handles ’til, ’tis, ’tisn’t, ’twas, ’twasn’t, ’twould, ’twouldn’t, and ’em, as well as single quotation marks in front of numbers, all of which then come into InDesign correctly. If you have other items that should be included in this list, I’d love to know what they are.

  • Remove multiple spaces between sentences.

In the 1800s many books were set with extra space between sentences.

Sample of 1800s Typeset Page

Sample of 1800s Typeset Page

But, frankly, the 1800s were not exactly the golden age of typesetting.

1800s Poster

1800s Poster

Modern books include just one space between sentences. Still, many authors continue to use two, following the instructions they were given by their high-school typing teacher back in the twentieth century. And that means the double spaces need to be removed at some point. InDesign has built-in find-and-replace routines that will fix this and a few similar items.

InDesign Find & Replace

InDesign Find & Replace

FileCleaner, however, fixes many such things. And the version that’s included with Editor’s ToolKit Plus 2014 fixes many more.

FileCleaner Options

FileCleaner Options

  • Change italic and bold formatting to character styles.

Using character styles in InDesign provides much more stability and flexibility than local bold and italic formatting. It would be nice to have these styles already applied in Word before the document is imported into InDesign. My tools don’t currently do this, but they probably should.

QuarkConverter and InDesignConverter include some other useful fixes.

Quark Converter Options

Quark Converter Options


InDesign Converter Options

InDesign Converter Options

Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there must be things I’ve overlooked. I’m an editor, not a typesetter, so I don’t really know all of the things that typesetters have to fix that they really shouldn’t have to deal with. (This probably includes the most common errors that proofreaders mark.) So if you do typesetting or proofreading, would you help me out? I’d really like to know what I’m missing — things that could be cleaned up in an automated way in Microsoft Word before a document is ever imported into InDesign. What problems do you routinely encounter that you wish would go away? If you’ll let me know, I’ll try to come up with an add-in designed specifically to fix such things. Your suggestions for this would be most welcome.

Of course, typesetters and proofreaders aren’t the only ones who can benefit from this kind of cleanup. It’s also valuable to editors, allowing them to focus on words, structure, and meaning rather than deal with these tiny but pervasive problems. Little things like double spaces and straight quotation marks may not seem all that bothersome, but like pebbles in your shoe, they create subliminal annoyance that really adds up, making editing much more difficult than it should be. At least that’s my experience. What do you think?

Jack Lyon ( 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, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

August 17, 2016

On Language: The Power of Words

We have all heard the maxim “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Although much older as an idea, the maxim comes from the 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which Richelieu says:

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

I am reminded of this maxim repeatedly as I read Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (2016). I have not yet finished the book and I do not intend to review it here and now, other than to say that I think everyone should read Stamped from the Beginning to understand the origins and growth of racism in America, and that every editor should read the book to understand how powerful words can be and why it is important for editors to be masters of language and to use that mastery in their editing — because the wrong word can lead to unintended consequences.

Consider, for example, the word sacrifice. It’s used by Gold Star parents (i.e., parents of soldiers killed in combat) to mean the death of their child — “I sacrificed my child for the cause of liberty.” In contrast, sacrifice to a narcissist seems to mean “I sacrificed by giving people jobs,” in which sacrifice can be interpreted as equaling not making as much money as I could have. Are these both sacrifices? Perhaps as long as the money “sacrifice” is not used in rebuttal of the death sacrifice or claimed to be equivalent to it, as Donald Trump claimed in response to the challenge of the Khizr and Ghazala Khan family (see, e.g., “Hillary Clinton Crushes Donald Trump in Another National Poll as Khan Controversy Disgusts Voters” by Jason Silverstein, Daily News [New York], August 7, 2016). A master of language would have known not to try to equate money “sacrifice” with the Gold Star parents’ death sacrifice.

Words, spoken or written, can influence the course of history. Consider, for a contemporary example, U.S. presidential candidate Trump’s words about defending the Baltic States as required by the NATO treaty: “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes” (“Donald Trump Sets Conditions for Defending NATO Allies Against Attack” by David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, July 20, 2016). With these words, Trump has changed an absolute obligation into a conditional obligation. More importantly, he has used words that are subject to differing interpretation, and an audience can never be certain exactly what “fulfill their obligations to us” means. How different the meaning would be had Trump instead said something like: “Yes, but I plan to make sure that they are fulfilling their obligations to us, too.” Problematically for the United States, the words he spoke reverberated around the world. Japan and Korea, for example, wondered whether a President Trump would honor America’s commitments to protect them; Europe has begun to panic — all from a few words.

One other example is Donald Trump’s recent statement: “By the way, and if she gets the pick — if she gets the pick of her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno” (see the editorial “Trump Must Go: Hinting at Assassination Is Too Much, Even for Him,” Daily News [New York], August 9, 2016, and “Donald Trump Suggests ‘Second Amendment People’ Could Act Against Hillary Clinton” by Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, August 9, 2016). Many Trump supporters rushed to his defense and said he was joking; Trump said he wasn’t joking, then said he was joking. The problem is that Trump did not carefully choose his words; he forgot a fundamental principle by which editors must work: words have power!

For this reason, editors have a special obligation to be literate and knowledgeable about language. Even the simplest words can matter because words have power, and some words have more power in a particular context (such as sacrifice above) because they more accurately and forcefully express the message by not requiring the reader (or listener) to interpret them — they deliver a clear, unmistakable message.

Consider due to. I know in my editing work I see this phrase used frequently as a substitute for clearer, more powerful (and accurate) words and phrases. I have no idea how many words and phrases due to acts as a substitute for, but in my EditTools Toggle Word dataset I have 22 words and phrases that I choose among as replacements for due to. I understand that as a result of usage over time, once distinctly used words have become treated as roughly synonymous, at least in speech, good examples being the use of due to in place of, among many others, caused by or because of. It is easy to understand how this happened, and it is also easy to see the role of editors in abetting this transition.

The question is not whether due to and because of are viewed as being roughly synonymous in common parlance. The question is whether editors should treat them as synonymous rather than as nonsynonymous. The answer depends on several factors, not least of which is the editor’s command of language and understanding of the importance of precise language as a method of communication. The more skilled the editor, the greater the striving for word precision and the less tolerance for ambiguity.

The problem with due to is that when it is used as a substitute for more precise language, the reader (or listener) must guess at meaning. Due to is ambiguous when not used in the sense of “attributable to” — is it a substitute for because of or caused by or as a consequence of or as a result of or resulting from or based on or something else?

In the case of a president, the use of a vague word can lead to severe economic and military consequences. For an author, it means that a weak statement is being made, one that lacks punch. Although using due to is an excellent example of how to weaken a sentence, other words can have a similar effect.

Some might object that context will provide clarity, but that is not always the case. Consider Trump’s various statements. In horror movies blood pours from the ears, nose, mouth, so why was that interpretation of his blood comment —“…blood coming out of her wherever…” — rejected (see “Donald Trump’s ‘Blood’ Comment About Megyn Kelly Draws Outrage” by Holly Yan, CNN, August 8, 2015)? It is, in context, equally likely (if not more so) that he meant wherever in the horror movie sense, but that is not the interpretation assigned by others. Suppose, instead, Trump had said: “I have hated her since I have been treated unfairly.” Does he hate her since the first time he was treated unfairly — the passage-of-time sense — or because he was treated unfairly — the causal sense? Context might or might not clarify meaning. Or consider Trump’s recent Second Amendment statement, quoted above. Context didn’t provide meaning or understanding. More importantly, does a good editor say, “Because in context _____ must, in my interpretation, equal (i.e., mean) _____, I do not need to query it”? I think not; that there is any possibility of misinterpretation should be sufficient cause to query.

The purpose here is not to convince editors that we should be preserving these fine-line distinctions. The issue is broader — language skills and mastery. In the absence of mastery, how do you know whether, for example, since or due to is appropriately used (i.e., leads to clarity rather than ambiguity)? Editors need to have mastered their language so that they know these fine-line distinctions and can choose the appropriate words to enhance clarity of meaning. Most editors — and based on responses to the copyediting test I have given job applicants over many years, I would guess it is close to 95% — would simply pass over such usages and not ask themselves whether the sentences involved are communicating correctly, and thus not query the author.

Consider again Donald Trump’s statement regarding the Baltics and NATO. What if he had said, “Since they do not fulfill their obligations to us,” rather than “If they fulfill their obligations to us”? Would it have been a more forceful (or worrisome) statement if because had been used rather than since? Because, after all, is considered a more forceful conjunction than causal since (“inasmuch as,” “seeing as”).

Words are powerful weapons. They can be the source of peace or war, understanding or misunderstanding, depending on how they are used. When we speak, a significant part of what is meant by our words is determined by how we say them — tone and emphasis add meaning. With the written word, all aural and some visual clues are missing, making the choice of words even more important.

A difference that matters when seeking an editor is the editor’s knowledge of language. Too many consumers of editing services fail to focus on an editor’s mastery of language, yet knowing which is the “right” word is the difference between someone being just an editor and being a great editor, the difference between an editor who helps an author achieve mediocrity and an editor who helps an author achieve greatness. Although today’s editors often accept a word’s usage because it fits with the common usage (consider, e.g., about and around when conjoined with a quantity) and because the line separating the words is razor-edge thin, knowing that line may make the difference between good writing and great writing. Just as is true with due to, around, about, approximately, since, and because, so it is true with myriad other word combinations, such as who and whom, that and which, that and who, convince and persuade.

Choosing the right word adds power to a statement; choosing a lesser but “equivalent” word softens the power of the message and, more importantly, can make a sentence’s meaning so ambiguous that audiences may well miss — or reject — the intended point. The best editors are knowledgeable about the power of words and choose among them thoughtfully and carefully.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 15, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part II)

by Alison Parker

Aristotle was obsessed with aha! moments. Metaphor, he tells us in his Rhetoric, is superior to simile because simile goes on too long and detracts from the drama. Perhaps like adverbs in dialogue tags in modern fiction? No, the old philosopher didn’t say that. But he did say that metaphor can light up the synapses. “Oh!” the listener or reader will say to himself. “This is that!” See, for example, Aristotle’s Rhetoric 3.10.

And the recognition or revelation scene in drama — the anagnorisis — satisfies Aristotle even more. Here we come to the point in the plot at which a character or characters recognize their or someone else’s true identity or motives, or even the nature of their situation. Eyes are opened, either for good or for bad. And everything changes after these revelations.

The classic example in Aristotle’s Poetics is Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos/Rex (Tyrant is a better title word than King historically, because Oedipus isn’t considered a king in lawful succession from father to firstborn son until the end of the play). In this pioneering whodunit (except that the audience knows who did it, though not how it will be discovered in this play or what will happen afterward), the protagonist plays sleuth to find out who killed the former king of Thebes, the first husband of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta. Oops.

Other great examples include Othello — don’t forget that Iago’s wife has her light bulb moment, if you’ll forgive the anachronism, just before her husband stabs her and shuts her up in Othello’s presence. And check out the plot of the Hildebrandslied, when father and son meet in battle.

Recognition scenes in ancient comedy are often more mechanical, relying on tokens like rings or necklaces. See, for example, Terence’s Hecyra (“The Mother-in-Law”). While her new husband is out of town for some months, a young woman starts shunning her mother-in-law, and when the husband returns, he finds his wife in childbirth. The baby can’t possibly be his! Things look dire for a while. But a ring that the hero stole from a girl he raped during a drunken spree reveals that his wife was his victim and the child is his. Everyone is happy.

Aristotle considered tragedy superior to epic and more philosophical than history. (The novel is a later literary development.) But Homer’s Odyssey has a bang-up set of recognition scenes when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after twenty years: Odysseus’s poor dog! The scar! The bed! Aristotle thinks of this epic as appealing to a lower audience, and the best drama of Sophocles to a higher one, but to heck with Aristotle. When drama is properly injected into narrative, the synapses still fire up. And I’d suggest that this goes for all genres, fiction and nonfiction alike.

Granted, with A Little Princess we find ourselves in fairy tale territory. But Frances Hodgson Burnett has set up her revised Cinderella plot to make almost perfect sense within the parameters of fantasy and romance. Every incident follows by probability or necessity from the scene before.

In Sara Crewe, the precursor to A Little Princess, Burnett gives the reader an impressive recognition scene. After the monkey belonging to the ailing gentleman next door escapes over the roof, Sara catches the monkey and returns it. She meets the gentleman, Mr. Carrisford, and — whoa! — after he asks her an idle question to which he already knows the answer (“You live next door?”) and then follows it up, he discovers that she’s the daughter of his dear departed business partner. We will soon learn that Mr. Carrisford has been searching for Sara for years, eaten up by guilt for the way he seemed to have defrauded her father when an investment looked bad. Quite the surprise to the reader, especially because the gentleman had been mentioned only once before at any length in the short story, and Burnett has to use most of the rest of the tale to tell the reader the backstory, almost all in basic narrative.

When Burnett revisits the story in her novel, she doesn’t go for a cheap surprise ending. We’ve already come to know Mr. Carrisford, the supposedly false friend, and heard his anguish over the disastrous fallout from investment in diamond mines. And we know how assiduously he has tried to find the little girl. His lawyer has been searching for her in France and in Russia, from which he has just returned with disappointing news.

We have also seen Mr. Carrisford take an interest in the poor little girl next door, as does his manservant, and her brutal attic room becomes a fairy tale of delights because the gentleman wants to make at least one little girl happy, and suddenly Sara is warm and full fed because of his “romantic” actions. Instead of surprise and fireworks, we have suspense that leads up to the anagnorisis.

And when Sara enters his room, she says something particular that offers the man a clue of her identity.

“Your monkey ran away again,” she said, in her pretty voice. “He came to my garret window last night, and I took him in because it was so cold. I would have brought him back if it had not been so late. I knew you were ill and might not like to be disturbed.”

The Indian gentleman’s hollow eyes dwelt on her with curious interest.

“That was very thoughtful of you,” he said.

Sara looked toward Ram Dass, who stood near the door.

“Shall I give him to the Lascar?” she asked.

“How do you know he is a Lascar?” said the Indian gentleman, smiling a little.

“Oh, I know Lascars,” Sara said, handing over the reluctant monkey. “I was born in India.”

The Indian gentleman sat upright so suddenly, and with such a change of expression, that she was for a moment quite startled.

“You were born in India,” he exclaimed, “were you? Come here.” And he held out his hand.

The word Lascar is a little less than apt here. Burnett earlier defines it as meaning a sort of manservant, probably to simplify matters for her children’s audience, but she had to know a lot more about Lascars from growing up in a port city with a Lascar problem. The OED defines the word as an East Indian seaman or an inferior infantryman, and Merriam-Webster adds army servant. But outside of dictionaries, the word is sometimes used in a more ethnic sense. We’ll address this difficulty in a later essay on the expanded role of servants in A Little Princess. But Sara’s unexpected use of the word here is what triggers the aha! moment.

And Burnett doesn’t leave us with a simple and single recognition scene. In the chapter “It Is the Child!” Mr. Carrisford slumps back in his chair because of the weight of the recognition. Is he dying?

Sara, led out of the library, now thinks of the Indian gentleman as the “wicked friend” whose actions killed her father! But when she learns the whole story, and particularly the fact that the man on the other side of the row-house wall from the cold, hard school for girls was the one who supplied her with her fairy tale room — out of the goodness of his heart and because he was worried about her! — she rushes back into his house and we have a lovely reconciliation. The lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, and one who has become an important character in Burnett’s revision, and with his large, happy family a symbol of all Sara wants, lets her back in:

She went and stood before his [Mr. Carrisford’s] chair, with her hands clasped together against her breast.

“You sent the things to me,” she said, in a joyful emotional little voice, “the beautiful, beautiful things? YOU sent them!”

“Yes, poor, dear child, I did,” he answered her. He was weak and broken with long illness and trouble, but he looked at her with the look she remembered in her father’s eyes — that look of loving her and wanting to take her in his arms. It made her kneel down by him, just as she used to kneel by her father when they were the dearest friends and lovers in the world.

“Then it is you who are my friend,” she said; “it is you who are my friend!” And she dropped her face on his thin hand and kissed it again and again.

“The man will be himself again in three weeks,” Mr. Carmichael said aside to his wife. “Look at his face already.”

A lawyer with a heart. Now that’s a fairy tale!🙂

And it gets better in the novel with the humiliation of the evil schoolmistress in a secondary recognition scene. In the original story, the drama here is nonexistent. Miss Minchin learns of Sara’s change in fortune in this fashion: “First, Mr. Carmichael came and had an interview with Miss Minchin.” We learn much later, in a one-sentence flashback in the pluperfect, that Miss Minchin had tried unsuccessfully to win Sara back.

It was rather a painful experience for Miss Minchin to watch her ex-pupil’s fortunes, as she had the daily opportunity to do, and to feel that she had made a serious mistake, from a business point of view. She had even tried to retrieve it by suggesting that Sara’s education should be continued under her care, and had gone to the length of making an appeal to the child herself.

The novel tightens and intensifies the scene, now set right after our little princess becomes fast friends with Mr. Carrisford. Miss Minchin, driven by anger, comes over to confront her annoying and too-smart drudge. The schoolmistress starts by threatening the girl with severe punishment, and ends up being reprimanded herself in various ways by the lawyer, by Mr. Carrisford, and even by Sara.

Things will go from bad to worse for Miss Minchin. Her sister, the timid Miss Amelia, falls apart and still ends up cowing her older sister. The following tertiary recognition drama isn’t in the original story:

“She saw through us both. She saw that you were a hard-hearted, worldly woman, and that I was a weak fool, and that we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees for her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her — though she behaved herself like a little princess even when she was a beggar. She did — she did — like a little princess!” And her hysterics got the better of the poor woman, and she began to laugh and cry both at once, and rock herself backward and forward.

“And now you’ve lost her,” she cried wildly; “and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she’d tell how she’s been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you’re a hard, selfish, worldly woman!”

You’ll read in the dénouement a string of dramatic delights not offered by the original story. Books are remembered principally for their climaxes and their endings — at least with a well-handled climax. And recognition scenes serve as the most memorable way to move a book toward its end. But the author needs a good conflict to keep the reader from closing the book early, and we’ll discuss that in the next essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 8, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Fighting in Fiction

by Carolyn Haley

I edit a lot of genre novels, and many of them include funny fighting. Not the ha-ha kind of funny, but the eye-rolling, groaning kind of funny caused by absurd or impossible situations. I believe some authors create such scenes because they have lived secure, nonviolent lives, and gained their impressions of battle from media. Young writers, in particular, are prone to composing fight and chase scenes that come across like video games. But young or old, many authors’ combat scenes show either a lack of direct experience or a failure to do research. As a result, the ordinary heroes they strive so hard to make human and believable suddenly become idiots or superheroes when faced with violence.

Editors sometimes allow fighting bloopers to pass unchallenged because they, too, have led secure, nonviolent lives. Editing is a desk job, and the types of people drawn to it generally are neither fighters nor athletes, nor come from mean streets. An inaccurate fight scene may make just as much sense to the editor as the novelist. Which is fine in one context but a problem in another, because savvy readers will spot the bloopers and lose faith in the author.

The difference between a context that works and one that doesn’t is nicely defined in a reference book I recently discovered, Writing Fight Scenes by Rayne Hall, a volume in this author’s Writer’s Craft technique series. She calls one context the “gritty fight scene” (realism and brevity required) and the other context the “entertaining fight scene” (realism and brevity optional). Understanding the difference is key to determining whether a scene involving violent action is plausible.

Writing Fight Scenes is the most helpful resource I’ve found for both writing and editing fight scenes. It covers not only the gritty-vs.-entertaining distinction, but also ancient and contemporary weapons (including magical ones); unarmed combat and self-defense; how to use settings in fights; individual and group combat; nautical and land battles; differences in technique and advantages between men and women; fighting with and like animals (including fantasy beasts); and psychological barriers to successful fighting. For each topic the author includes “Blunders to Avoid” and provides video and website links for more information and illustration.

The book also includes tips on story and fight pacing, and vocabulary to use for best effect in different scenarios. It comes in both ebook and paperback format. I recommend it to all authors and editors working in adventure fiction.

In the absence of such a handy reference work, and any personal experience in combat, editors can still spot implausibilities in client manuscripts. They just have to know the basics.

The Big Three

The problem areas I see most often in fight scenes pertain to weapons in general and firearms in particular; the next most often seen problem areas are implausible character actions and reactions.


The basics of gunfighting involve weapon and ammo types, handling characteristics, and sounds. Authors who have experience with firearms usually get their facts right, and editors just have to spot-check a few to confirm, then verify exact spellings of makes and models throughout the manuscript. Authors with no firearms experience, however, tend to just say “a gun,” sometimes specifying handgun, rifle, shotgun, or machine gun, but often not knowing, say, that revolver and pistol aren’t synonyms. (A revolver is a type of pistol, but not all pistols are revolvers.)

The type of gun and its ammunition can profoundly affect the veracity of a story. A popular fight outcome is the shoulder wound, where a bullet passes cleanly through the narrow bit of flesh in that joint and the hero keeps on swinging. While this is possible, it’s extremely unlikely for anyone to be that lucky. Most bullets would damage or destroy the joint and drop the hero like a stone, or at least put him out of action. Any gunshot wound is likely to cause shock. More often than not, a gunshot wound means an ambulance ride.

Then again, adrenaline — the amazing chemical that allows humans to perform extreme physical feats — lets people live through their injuries to win the day, then collapse later. The same is true for certain drugs. So fictional fight scenes can get dramatic and remain within the realm of believability. But to get there, the author must lay the foundation prior to the fight scene and be accurate with the details of weapons and human physiology.

An often overlooked detail is the noise guns produce when fired. In general, small-caliber weapons make cracking or popping sounds, and large-caliber weapons make bangs and booms. All firearms are LOUD. People who practice at shooting ranges wear ear protection for good reason; and people within blocks or miles will likely hear the firing. Shootouts can’t occur without drawing attention unless the shooters are way out in the boondocks or employing silencers, so editors must watch for gun battles that occur in a vacuum. They must also be aware that certain powers of ammunition will cut through barriers of different material, and others will ricochet around in a closed environment, creating new dangers. Unimpeded bullets can travel long distances and hit unintended targets.

Every action involving a firearm has consequences on several levels. Characters can’t just whip out a weapon and fire it without the author accounting for where it came from. Save for very compact personal-protection weapons designed for concealed carry, or very high-tech weapons made of ultralightweight materials, firearms are bulky and heavy. Handguns without proper holsters make clothing bulge or sag, and can turn purses into shoulder-straining totes. Among inexperienced shooters, firing handguns can fatigue or strain wrists and bruise palms with recoil. Rifles and shotguns are renowned for their kick, and can’t be concealed without special clothing or carriers. Any weapon needs to be reloaded if the gunfight goes on for a while, so authors must remember to provide their characters with ammunition.

Authors also need to account for weapons during and after a fight scene. For instance, hot barrels on handguns that are slipped back inside clothing can cause new problems. Dropped long guns can change a fight outcome by getting tripped on underfoot. One thing a weapon cannot do is disappear from the scene, unless magic is involved. Too often I see weapons arrive and depart at author convenience to enhance drama. Equally often I see amateur shooters hit moving targets. This is acceptable if there’s any backstory that explains where the character got training and practice. Without that background, however, there’s almost no chance it would happen in real life.

Character actions

It’s common in manuscripts containing inaccurate fighting details to also have the hero and villain chatter during their battle(s). I call this “honor fighting” because it’s more about the characters’ psychological battle than actually taking the other guy out. When in reality combatants would have no breath for conversation, in honor fighting they bait and insult each other, explain their motives, reveal their secrets…meanwhile giving so much time for henchmen to ambush the other party while distracted, and so much opportunity for any form of power reversal, that the encounter becomes silly. This is where Hall’s “gritty” versus “entertaining” distinction especially pertains. Honor fighting has no place in a gritty story, which is why otherwise compelling tales may move readers to groans or laughter during climax battles.

A story centered on a character desperately trying to stop someone from wrecking their life turns unbelievable when they ignore a golden chance to stop them; worse when they ignore multiple chances. Logic says that if you fear someone and they’re trying to kill you, you do everything you can to stop them before they can get you. When characters fail to do this, they need darn good reasons. Editors need to ensure the author has supported such action or inaction in the story leading up to it.

A subset of honor fighting is incomplete disabling of henchmen. In so many stories that it’s become cliché, heroes fight their way through a screen of hardened bad guys on their way to the target villain, knocking them down and moving on. Then they are surprised when some or all of the bad guys bounce back to menace them again. I suppose the author is trying to demonstrate the hero’s humaneness by having him not kill people unnecessarily. And when urgency counts, there’s no time to truss everyone up, and usually no materials. So why doesn’t the hero at least give a second blow to ensure prolonged unconsciousness, or kick out a knee, or something to guarantee he won’t suffer a rear attack? In a story attempting to be realistic, this warrants a query.

Character reactions

Who among us has not sliced their finger with a kitchen knife or bonked their head against a door, or barked their shin on a coffee table, or slipped on the stairs? Each of those impacts gives hard pain at the time and lingering pain afterward, and generates bruises or blood. Sometimes simple domestic accidents cause injuries that require a trip to the emergency room.

From that knowledge, an editor can extrapolate the effects of getting slammed in the face with a two-by-four piece of lumber swung by a 250-pound man, or even a 99-pound weakling in a berserker rage. How credible is it that an ordinary person would rebound and chase the villain after that kind of hit? More likely, one would be spitting out teeth if one managed to stand up at all. A fictional character who doesn’t get similarly affected must have backstory provided to account for his ability to stay in action after a mighty blow. This pertains equally to being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, thrown, and falling from a height.

Framing Fights Credibly

Violence is ugly and painful. If it’s part of a gritty story, it has to reflect reality. If it’s part of an entertaining story, realism can be bent or ignored. Authors unwilling to do their homework might be able to fool equally uneducated editors and readers, but the world is a harsh enough place that a substantial audience knows how violence works and can see through author fudging. Readers’ possible rejection of the story, and maybe even public panning of it, counterserves the purpose of having a book edited and published. Editors can do their part in preventing negative reaction to a novel by informing themselves of the basics and paying special attention to the technicalities and choreography of fight scenes.

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 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 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.

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