An American Editor

August 26, 2015

House Guide Plus Style Guide: Why?

Last week’s essay, Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure (the “ACS essay”), was devoted to what I consider one of the worst style guides editors and authors may have to deal with, The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed., by the American Chemical Society. But there is a corollary problem with style guides that is not the fault of the style guides themselves: the (often, usually) contradictory companion house exceptions (style) guide.

I work with publishers and packagers (packagers being the full-service third-party service providers that contract with publishers to provide all of the production needs for a particular project). Publishers use packagers as a way to reduce costs; the same work is needed and required, but because the packager is often based in a developing country, the packager prices the services at a price that reflects the packager’s lower costs and then finds freelance editors to provide editing services at a price even lower than the already low packager quote to the publisher. It is a way for a publisher to still get a book edited by an editor from a higher-priced country, which is desired, but without paying that higher price.

When I receive a project, I also often receive a lengthy house style guide that contains the exceptions to the style guide I am supposed to apply. For example, not too long ago, I received instructions to follow the AMA Manual of Style, 10th ed., which is, roughly 1,000 pages, and my client’s client’s 105-page house style. Where the guides conflict, the house style controls. Of course, there is another style guide lurking in the background, because both the AMA Manual and the house style say to check The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., for items not covered (or sometimes even for items covered) in the AMA Manual or the house guide.

It is not enough to be a great editor; one needs to also have a near photographic memory so as to keep the rules, the exceptions, the exceptions to the exceptions, and a third style guide’s strictures in mind.

And what do you do when a usage guide like Garner’s Modern American Usage contradicts the older house style or one of the powerhouse style guides?

What greatly bothers me are those house style guides that tell you to follow a specific style manual except where the house guide contradicts. Why bother telling me to follow the specific manual? Why not just give me a comprehensive house guide? Or, better yet, why not just scrap the house style guide altogether and let me follow the standard style guide?

The answer lies in the belief that each publisher needs to have its own distinctive and recognizable style. When a book published by Oxford is picked up, it believed that it should be immediately recognized as being an Oxford book. The reality is that very few, if any at all, readers recognize the publisher of a book by the style applied to the text. Not only do readers not care, but, much more importantly, it is the very rare book that actually faithfully follows any firmly recognizable style.

That’s because of the ultimate style and usage instruction given editors: “Follow the author’s style!”

I mentioned in the ACS essay the problem with references. Here is what a journal reference conformed to the ACS style would look like:

Hesk, D.; Delduca, P.; Koharski, D.; McNamara, P.; Magatti, C.; Saluja, S.; Thomas, L.; Shapiro, E. L.; Gentles, M. J.; Tiberi, R. L.; Popper, T. L.; Berkenkopf, J.; Lutsky, B.; Watnick, A. S. Synthesis of Tritium Labeled Mometasone Furoate. Med. Chem.: Immunol., Endocr. Metab. Agents 1993, 33, 439–442.

Here is that same reference but in my project author’s style:

Hesk, D.; Delduca, P.; Koharski, D.; McNamara, P.; Magatti, C.; Saluja, S.; Thomas, L.; Shapiro, E. L.; Gentles, M. J.; Tiberi, R. L.; Popper, T. L.; Berkenkopf, J.; Lutsky, B.; Watnick, A. S., Synthesis of tritium labeled mometasone furoate, Med. Chem. Immunol. Endocr. Metab. Agents, (1993), 33(5), 439-442.

The difference is even greater with a chapter-in-book reference. A conformed chapter-in-book reference would like:

Barnes, P. J. Glucocorticoids: Pharmacology and Mechanisms. In Advances in Combination Therapy for Asthma and COPD; Lotvall, J., Ed.; Wiley-Blackwell: London, 2012; Vol. 2, pp 16–37.

whereas in the author’s style it looks like this:

Barnes, P. J., Glucocorticoids: pharmacology and mechanisms, in Advances in Combination Therapy for Asthma and COPD, (Ed. Lotvall, J.), (2012), (Wiley-Blackwell), vol 2, 16-37.

Because of the number of references in the project and the schedule that had to be met, it was decided to follow the author’s style and make the references consistent. So what was the value in telling me to follow the ACS style?

What we end up with is a mishmash of styles. It also means that the editor spends more time styling than editing, because form has become more important than substance. Don’t believe me? Time how long it takes to conform the two author-styled references above to ACS style, including looking up the journal abbreviation. Multiply the time it took by 5,000 (the number of references in the project) and add 50% to that number. That is approximately how long it will take to conform all of the references. (The 50% addition represents the time that you will need to spend looking up each reference for the missing information and the correct ACS journal abbreviation as found in the American Chemical Society’s CAS Source Index [CASSI] Search Tool.) How much time is left for editing of the text in a 30-day schedule?

Also think about how much time is added for deciding whether something is a house-style exception to the style guide’s rule governing the item.

The point is that we have lost sight of the purpose of styling, of style guides, and of editing: to enhance the author’s communication with the reader. Instead, editors are increasingly being sidetracked to deal with mechanical issues (is styling references really what an editor should spend his time doing?) that often do not make communication between the author and the reader more effective.

For the most part, there is little reason for a house style guide as opposed to simply endorsing the use of a standard independent style guide. Sure there is a need to list certain preferences, such as capitalization of heads and whether, for example, “since” and “because” or “about,” “around,” and “approximate” are synonymous. But those preferences should be few; there should be no need for a lengthy exceptions document, especially when those exceptions are rarely strictly enforced, are often set aside because the author wants something different, and because trying to keep straight all of the nuances of the conflicts between standard and house style guide requirements often leads to mistakes.

Perhaps it is time to return to the original purpose of editing. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 10, 2015

On the Basics: Step Away from that Project — Professionally and with Class

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

The Background

Ten years ago, the three-person team responsible for editing an association newsletter quit for reasons never explained, with no notice, and without providing any material for a successor — no formatting or style information, no backlog of unused material, no contact information for vendors or past contributors; nada. The organization’s board of directors was gobsmacked, to quote our British colleagues.

That was a textbook example of how not to step away from a project, client, or job. No matter how badly you’re treated or how much you hate the project (and it was never clear that there was a reason for that team’s move), it’s always smart to take the high road on leaving. That even goes for being laid off or fired. You never know when such behavior will come up in a future workplace, freelance, or volunteer setting. You don’t want to be known as the unprofessional, even childish, person who took her toys and went home in a huff, leaving everyone at a loss in her wake. You want to be remembered as someone who behaved in a professional manner that made the transition smooth for your successor.

I stepped up to take on editing that publication and kept it rolling for more than 10 years. When I was ready to let it go and give someone new a chance at the editor’s role, I was reminded of how I came into the project. I also remembered starting a couple of new in-house jobs and feeling somewhat at sea because a predecessor didn’t provide much of a roadmap for what to do and how. I was determined to handle this transition very differently from my predecessors. I felt that I owed that to myself as a professional, but also to the organization and to whoever was next to serve as editor — perhaps most to my successor.

6 Tips

Here are a few of my tips on how to hand off a project gracefully and professionally.

  • Give decent notice. That seems obvious, but it can be tempting to throw a hissy fit and just walk off the job if it has become onerous or unpleasant. Professionals, though, don’t do that unless there’s genuine provocation, and sometimes not even then. Publications and projects don’t run themselves, and it can take time to find a replacement. The standard is usually two weeks, but it might be smart to give a month’s notice, especially if the publication or project you handle is on a monthly publishing schedule. Take the high road, be the better person, and give the employer, sponsoring organization, or client a chance to find a replacement before you leave.
  • Put it in writing. Create or update a job description that details what your replacement will be expected to do, when, how, and with whom. There might have been one when you started the job or assignment, but you may have put your own stamp on the role or taken on additional responsibilities, so add those details to the original description. In many instances, especially for freelance projects, there is no job description. Providing one will make it easier for the client or employer to find an appropriate replacement and for your successor to handle the work.
  • Help a replacement out. Some may say that this is more appropriate for a volunteer project than a paid one, but I think it’s a good idea to provide as much information as possible about the publication or project, from the preferred or house style manual to the look of the book, whether you’re an in-house employee, a freelancer, or a volunteer. I know I appreciate that kind of information when I begin a new project. Prepare a list of relevant details: publishing schedule and deadlines; programs or applications used; formatting — typefaces and sizes; columns numbers and widths; character styles (headlines and subheads, body text, captions, indents, bullets, etc.); vendor roles, names, and contact information; contributors for writing, artwork, and any other roles; budget details if that is part of your responsibility. Have at least a couple of unused articles in place to hand over so the new person doesn’t have to start with a totally empty quiver of material. A new person might want to do a wholesale redesign of that newsletter or magazine that you’ve loved editing, and may want to use all new contributors and freelancers, but probably will need to know how to put together at least one first issue based on the current version. (This might seem like a lot to do to help out a replacement, but it can also be seen as an organizing function for oneself.)
  • Offer insights. Don’t be a gossip and don’t badmouth colleagues, but — if appropriate — let your replacement know something about the hierarchy of the organization; most importantly, any chain of approvals and command to follow, along with who is likely to be the most helpful to a newcomer. If a client or supervisor has certain unpredictable quirks, consider sharing that information informally. For instance, new editor or freelancer might think that “due on Monday” means they have until 5 p.m. to finish an assignment or prepare material for collegial review, but the client or supervisor might be expecting it at 9 a.m. that day.
  • Suggest a successor. If you know someone in or outside the organization who would be your ideal replacement, recommend that person. You’ll do a favor to both the organization and the individual, and they’ll remember it. This is especially important if you’re a freelancer and decide to leave a project for some reason. Good freelancers can be harder to find than good employees.
  • Be available. Let your contact, supervisor, or colleague know how to reach you in the case there are questions that only you can answer. You won’t want to be taken advantage of once you’re out the door by spending a lot of time on helping out the organization or your replacement, but you do want — again — to leave with the image of someone who is professional, responsible, and helpful. Within reason, of course.

What else have you done, or wished someone had done for you, to make a professional exit from a project or position?

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

July 16, 2015

Worth Noting: New Macros, New Version — EditTools 6.2 Released

EditTools 6.2 has been released.

The new release has a much speedier Journals macro (thanks to a suggestion from Shmuel Gerber). Recall that in The Business of Editing: Cite Work Can Be Profitable, I mentioned how I had just finished working on a reference list of 1,827 that took the Journals macro, with my then dataset of 78,000 entries, not quite 4 hours to complete. With the improvement suggested by Mr. Gerber, it took less than 2 hours with a dataset of 98,000 entries. A more typical reference list of about 75 references takes a little less than a minute to check against the dataset.

Version 6.2 also has several new macros and one significantly improved macro.

The new macros are Bookmarks, Click List, Comment Editor, and Reference # Order Check. The Insert Query macro has received a great new addition called Categories. Categories lets you organize your standard comments for quicker access. Each macro is described at the EditTools website and will be the subject of an upcoming in-depth essay here at AAE. The AAE essays will discuss not only how the macros work but how they can increase your profitability.

The Bookmarks macro has one additional feature aimed at PerfectIt users. It provide a quick-and-easy way to insert special bookmarks in a Word document that tell PerfectIt what text you want checked.

EditTools 6.2 is a free upgrade for registered users. Go to the downloads page to obtain your copy. If you aren’t using EditTools, try it. Go to the downloads page and download the trial version.

(NOTE: EditTools 6.2 requires 32-bit Word 2007 or newer. If you are currently running EditTools 6.x, you can run version 6.2.)

Rich Adin, An American Editor

July 13, 2015

The Keys to High-Quality Editing

The one thing every professional editor strives to produce is a high-quality edit. This is more difficult today than it was 30 years ago; client demands have made production of high-quality editing increasingly difficult.

Yet there are “keys” to producing high-quality editing.

Accept or reject a project

The keys begin with the decision whether to take on a particular project. A few days ago, I turned on my computer to find five job offers waiting for me. I only accepted one. The one I accepted came with much less onerous demands than the others, which means that I will be able to provide a high-quality edit.

The job I accepted asked me to suggest a schedule based on what the client wanted and the manuscript needed; the others gave me a fixed schedule. After reviewing the manuscript for the accepted job, I suggested that a nine-week schedule was reasonable. The other jobs were for much shorter manuscripts but still required at least a two-week and more likely a three-week schedule; the schedule on offer was one week with no flexibility.

However, there were still problems that had to be addressed with what ultimately became the accepted job. For example, the references and how they were to be formatted. The author used what is for me a rarely seen style for the references: American Chemical Society style. If the manuscript had a handful of references, changing them to Harvard style would not be a problem, but the manuscript has a lot of references and there are a lot of stylistic differences between Harvard and ACS. The client wants the manuscript sooner rather than later, and so it was decided that because the author was consistent, we would use ACS style for the references.

In contrast, a couple of the manuscripts that I rejected didn’t have a single reference style, but the predominant style would have required many hours of work to restyle to conform to the client’s style. Yet the client was unwilling to compromise.

The keys to high-quality editing begin with the decision whether to take on a project or not. Many editors are simply thankful to be offered work and accept jobs without vetting them. This approach leads to a low effective hourly rate and questionable editing quality because it can be a struggle to meet short schedules — especially if the manuscript is not well written.

Effective hourly rate

Another key is ensuring that a project leads to a decent effective hourly rate and a profit. I have noted over the years that many colleagues take on a new project expecting it to go smoothly only to find that it does not. And when it does not, they are faced with the dilemma of ensuring a decent effective hourly rate versus the high quality of editing they prefer to provide. This is the eternal struggle — what to do when the compensation is inadequate.

Of course, it is difficult to know in advance, even if you sample a manuscript, how easy or hard a manuscript will be to edit. But there are certain things one can look for as clues. I have found that authors who very inconsistent and sloppy with references are often the same with the main text, which means more editing work. I have also found that if I see a lot of Word’s squiggly red lines, which indicate possible misspellings, that a manuscript may be problematic. In this case, however, because much of what I edit is medical, I recognize that the built-in spellchecker will mischaracterize a word, indicating it is misspelled when it isn’t. This clue requires familiarity with the subject matter.

Subject-matter familiarity

Which brings us to yet another key: knowledge of the subject matter. It is not that the editor needs to be an expert in the subject matter, it is that the editor needs to be comfortable with the subject matter. In my case, for example, I stopped editing fiction after about 6 months of editing — more than 31 years ago. I stopped for several reasons, including to provide a high-quality edit I had to be able to keep a sharp focus on the novel’s text. What I found was that when faced with a poorly written manuscript, my focus would begin drifting and I would have to reread the same paragraphs perhaps multiple times. I also discovered that for me, nonfiction was both more interesting and more profitable.

Fiction editing is difficult because it requires familiarity with a wide range of topics that I am not normally either interested in nor familiar with. I have never been particularly interested, for example, whether Bucharest’s weather is closer to that of London or New York City, but that could bin important in a novel whose action takes place in Bucharest. As a fiction editor, it was my responsibility to know whether or not the author’s description of Bucharest was plausible (actually, accurate). My fiction reading has always been limited; I tend to read vast amounts of nonfiction. Consequently, I was better “educated” about things that the nonfiction I was editing was concerned with than the fiction editing needed.

Pattern recognition

The ability to recognize writing patterns is another key. Every author has a writing pattern and in a group of collaborating authors, one pattern dominates. Identifying early in the editing process this pattern leads to greater consistency and accuracy in editing, which can lead to higher-quality editing. When you can identify these patterns, you can take advantage of tools such as EditTools. These types of tools, if properly used, lead to higher-quality editing.


The final key to be discussed in this essay is resources. Having the right resources available is important. For example, knowing that Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading usage guide for American English is not enough; you need to have it available. Similarly, being told to follow a particular style manual by the client is of little use is you are not familiar with it and have it readily available. It does no good for a client to ask you to follow AMA style if the only style guide you can access and are familiar with is Chicago.

It should be clear that many things go into producing a high-quality edit; consequently, a lot of things need to come together. Yet an editor’s skill is not just objective things such as available resources; the skillset an editor needs to meet client limitations and still produce high-quality editing is sharpened over years of education and editing. Knowing one’s current limitations is an important part of providing high-quality editing. The professional editor works diligently to minimize those limitations, and one way to do so is to knowingly evaluate an offered job by the keys to high-quality editing.

What do you think?

Rich Adin, An American Editor

July 2, 2015

Worth Noting: Fowler’s 4th Is Here

I know that many of my colleagues swear by Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd edition. Although I own it and occasionally use it, the number 1 usage book for American English is Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition.

But, as of this past June 1, Garner’s has some new competition — the updated fourth edition of Fowler: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage edited by Jeremy Butterfield, or Fowler’s 4th.

I received my copy yesterday, so I am not yet ready to give an opinion, but I plan to use it each time I use my Garner’s 3rd. One of the things I like about Garner’s, which is lacking in Fowler’s 4th, is the “Language-Change Index,” which gives me a clue as to how usage is trending.

Both books are published by Oxford, so I suspect a new edition of Garner’s may be in process.

For those of you who are like me and “collect” usage guides, it is interesting not only to compare entries in current versions of the guides, but also to look at past editions and see how usage has evolved.

In any event, it is important for professional editors to remember that these are guides. Their opinion should weigh in your decision-making process, but should not dictate your decision. See, for example, “Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance” and “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” for additional discussion.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 1, 2015

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

by Carolyn Haley

In Part I of this essay, I list the reference books in my resource kit for editing fiction. Part II discusses the balance of the resource kit: software,­ a luxury unknown to editors of an earlier era; specialty resources that help editors address story structure and verify details across diverse subjects; and links to editorial groups and information for professional development and support.


Three applications form the core of my quality-control tools: Editor’s ToolKit, EditTools, and PerfectIt. Followers of this blog will recognize these names because they are mentioned often here, and their designers are part of the American Editor tribe. I learned of the tools through this association and now depend on them for fine-tuning the mechanical side of an editing job and checking my own work.

Editor’s ToolKit contains an assortment of consistency checkers, search/replace aids, converters, fixers, and macros. These program add-ins are available individually, as well. I most often use FileCleaner as a preflight tool to tidy up manuscript elements such as double spaces, incorrect dashes, and the like. Starting with a clean manuscript helps me see content with less distraction, thereby making editing time more focused and efficient.

Also for preflight, I use EditTools, which is a collection of macros designed to save time and money while improving accuracy. Although initially intended for medical and academic editing, it can be customized to serve fiction. I use the Never Spell Word feature, for instance, to build a list of terms I frequently misread (led vs. lead, woman vs. women, form vs. from, etc.), which the application flags in the manuscript. I can then pick them off as I go or review the manuscript for just these highlighted words, either way reducing my error rate. The package includes other useful tools ranging from deleting unused styles (thank you!) to removing all highlighting to changing case to inserting queries and doing a wildcard find and replace.

At the end of a job, I run PerfectIt. This is a consistency checker, constantly being updated and refined, that catches tricky details like hyphenated compounds, inconsistent capitalizations, and spelling deviations. It is easily customizable for which tasks it performs and alternative style sheet criteria, in variants of English (U.S., U.K., Canadian).

The Editor’s ToolKit/EditTools/PerfectIt software suite offers more capability than I have yet plumbed the depths of. Even barely scratching the surface, I have found each profoundly helpful and time-saving. The trio combined is affordable to people on tight budgets (offered here as a set as Editor’s Toolkit Ultimate) and pays for itself promptly by making one more accurate and efficient, which leads to happy clients, which leads to more and better work.

Most of the suite’s tools are macros in some form or other, bundled into easy-to-use packages. The nature of fiction, however, is its unpredictable variability, so there’s always something new that it would be useful to have a macro for if you don’t want to create them yourself. Many such situations are covered by Paul Beverley in his publicly available macro collection, Computer Tools for Editors. The book includes the actual macro steps, which editors can copy and install. Of these, I use ProperNounAlyse to form the basis of my style sheet before starting an edit, because it identifies place and people names, variant spellings thereof, unusual terms, and common terms with capitalization changes (e.g., Captain, which might appear in the manuscript as a both a direct address [cap] and a generic [lower case], thus reminding me to include it on the style sheet). It also picks up any words capped at the beginning of a sentence, so some manual grooming is required.

To use any of these tools effectively, one must have a solid grasp of one’s editing software, which for most of us is Microsoft Word. Almost every manuscript presents a fresh problem to solve, or pushes one to master a trick one stumbled through the first time it arose. So I keep within reach a quartet of my colleagues’ foundation works: Jack Lyon’s Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and Macro Cookbook, Hilary Powers’ Making Word Work for You, and Geoff Hart’s Effective Onscreen Editing. Between them I’ve learned to operate Word at a higher level, including searches that find missing, inverted, and straight quotation marks and apostrophes, and missing or incorrect punctuation inside quotes — a boon for dialogue-heavy novels. Links to these books can be found at The Editorium.

Word contains its own spelling checker (and grammar checker, too, which I ignore). I run spellcheck last thing before delivering a manuscript; and for all its quirks and inadequacies, it always finds something that saves me from professional embarrassment. I’m prone to missing errors like “the the” and “assesssment” which most other tools don’t catch. Someday, I hope, one of the macro gurus will find a way to catch duplicate phrases like “in the in the,” which I’m prone to overlooking, too.

Specialty References

There’s no anticipating what facts or figures will need to be verified in a novel, so the best plan is to have a broad library in your office, including at least one encyclopedia set, as well as to find reliable, accurate sites on the Internet. The novels I work on routinely need checking in weights and measures; biblical references; guns and ammunition; vehicles (including boats and aircraft); people and place names and historical events, so I’m forever collecting resources to cover these. A sampling: for weights and measures, Gun Grammar and Gun Digest for firearm info, Bible Hub for access to different versions of the Bible, The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, along with the Jane’s recognition guides, plus Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary.

As a general source for you-never-know-what, there’s Project Gutenberg, which offers downloadable public domain works of literature and reference. For names and data about consumer products, I head to the manufacturer’s website. Wikipedia is also a convenient starting point for diverse lookups.

Writing Craft How-To’s

Editors do not have to be writers themselves, and indeed many prefer not to be. But novel editors need to be conversant in the lingo of storycraft, and to be able to recommend educational aids to their authors. I point many to Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer for its nuts-and-bolts approach to constructing a novel; along with Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This book is part of the Writers’ Digest Elements of Fiction Writing series, which covers primary components of novel writing (such as dialogue, plot, scene, and structure) one at a time. The series is one of several that have come and gone over time, including the Howdunit Series for mysteries and thrillers. I refer to Armed and Dangerous: A Writer’s Guide to Weapons and Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons and hope eventually to have the complete set in my library.

Genre-specific websites like those for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and Romance Writers of America also offer how-to information, although in the latter case you have to join to gain access to the writing resources.


An invaluable resource is the hive mind formed by the editorial community. I learned about most of my tools there, along with tricks and techniques; and I learn something new every day from staying in contact. The groups I interact with most are Copyediting-L, Project Wombat (formerly Stumpers), and the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) (must be a member). These are populated with editors, writers, proofreaders, indexers, designers, and reference librarians happy to share their knowledge and who enjoy chasing down answers to obscure or difficult questions. They also provide “virtual water-cooler” company for editors working solo from home.

Many editors from these organizations are also active on Facebook (for instance, Editors’ Association of Earth. Questions pertaining to fiction editing are often discussed here. One colleague active on almost all platforms is Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, who maintains The Copyeditor’s Knowledge Base on her website. I’ve found multiple resources there, along with a rich selection of others yet to be explored.

Finally, a terrific way to learn how to work more efficiently in general and edit fiction in particular is to interact with peers in person. For that, editors gather in annual conferences hosted by the American Copy Editors Society, Editors’ Association of Canada, and Communication Central. These organizations offer classes, seminars, and webinars, as well, as does the EFA.

This lengthy list forms a drop in the proverbial bucket of what’s available to aid in fiction editing. Since every editor has their favorites, and most of us shift around as we find better or more-relevant tools, please share your own favorites through the comments feature of this blog, along with a reason why it is among your favorites.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

Related An American Editor Essays:


June 22, 2015

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

by Carolyn Haley

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Style Guides

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

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

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

Grammar/Usage Guides

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

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

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

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

Related An American Editor Essays:

June 17, 2015

I Can Say It Better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 10, 2015

The Ethics of Distaste

It must be the season for distaste. On a couple of forums someone has asked about backing out of an editing job because they discovered that they dislike (choose one or more) the author’s religious views, the subject matter of the project (e.g., erotica, anti-something the editor likes, abortion, devil worship), the political views expressed in the manuscript, and so on. Surprisingly, for the first time in my lengthy career someone applied for an editing position and outlined a list of projects they would not work on as part of their application.

I do not think editors must take on anything that crosses their threshold. If a project offends your sense of morality, saying no is a kindness to both you and the client. Yet there is a but to that blanket statement. I do not think the rules are the same when you have agreed to undertake the project, have started editing, and only as you get into the project discover that the project makes you squeamish.

Let’s begin with endorsements. That you have edited a project does not mean you endorse the author or the author’s point of view. Editing a medical text that includes a chapter on euthanasia does not mean you believe or endorse the view that those who are dying should be helped to speed the process. Similarly, just because you edit a book on investing in Zimbabwe does not mean you support Robert Mugabe or because you edit a book on Catholicism that you endorse the Catholic Church over all other religious institutions.

I am an editor. I am hired because of my skill with language. My clients do not ask — and if they did ask, I would not answer — what my religious or political beliefs are. On the other hand, there is nothing illegitimate in a client saying upfront that he would like an active member of the Catholic Church to edit his book about Catholic ritual because such an editor is likely to better understand the content. In such a case, my answer would simply be that I am not the right editor for that book.

Because I am hired for language skills, I should be able to edit anything. Content is not the king, coherence is the king and that does not mean I need to endorse the views of the author; it does mean that I must have the skill to determine whether since and because can by used synonymously in the particular book.

It seems as if I am ignoring the repugnant and saying that an editor must accept repugnant projects. To the contrary, I am saying that before you agree to edit a project, you should freely turn away any project that impinges your sense of right and wrong, insists that you help someone who you would classify as a societal cockroach, demands that you set aside any sense of civilization and embrace barbarity, requires that you deal with language that you used to get your mouth washed with soap for repeating. The key is before you begin editing, you can reject a project for any reason, including because you are a hater of ______ (fill-in the blank with your own discrimination beliefs).

The difficulty arises after you have accepted the project and started editing, especially if you have spent a significant amount of time editing the project. At this juncture, I think your obligations and options have changed. You can no longer make that unilateral decision to not edit; now you need to discuss the project with the client.

At minimum you owe your client an explanation as to why you want to give up on the project. I do not think it is enough to say that “I find the material morally reprehensible.” I think you owe the client a more detailed and nuanced explanation. You need to detail how your distaste affects your editing and how this does the client a disservice. Whether you are entitled to compensation for the work you have already done is also on the table. (Suppose the project is a $5,000 project and the client has already paid you $3,000. Is the client entitled to a refund? Should you offer one?)

Because you want to terminate a client’s business expectation, you probably should have another, equally capable editor already lined up and willing to takeover. I think it is wrong for editor at this stage to simply bow out and not have found or offered to help find a replacement editor. (Let me add a caveat to this: I am speaking of instances where the subject matter is the problem, not the client. If the problem is the client himself and not the subject matter, I do not think you are obligated to find another editor; if the problem is both the client and the subject matter, you need to try to determine whether your distaste for the client is because of a distaste for the subject matter of whether the distaste for the client stands on its own merits. If it is because of the subject matter, then you should find another editor; if it is the client on the client’s own merits, then you should not help find another editor. By the way, all of this presupposes that the client is amenable to releasing your from your agreement to edit his project.

Assuming the client is willing to free you, then it is my belief that you should refund any monies paid you by the client. As we all know, each editor is like her own island; switching editors midstream often means that the new editor starts from the beginning. Consequently, it strikes me that the ethical thing to do is refund payments you have received.

What if the client is unwilling to release you? Now the pot boils over because we are back to the question of whether the problem is the client or the subject matter or both. If the client is otherwise fine and the problem really lies with the subject matter, then I think the editor is obligated to continue editing as agreed. However, in this instance, I would ask the client to acknowledge that he has been asked to release you because you are repulsed by the subject matter, that as a result of his insistence that you continue you will do so as best you can but that you have advised the client that an editor who is not repulsed by the subject matter is likely to do a better editing job. Editing subject matter that is distasteful is difficult but not impossible. I have done it and I am sure many of you have too.

What is impossible, however, is to continue working with a client who you find offensive, ogreish. In this instance it may be unethical to continue editing the project if there is a chance that your dislike of the client will encourage you to make editorial choices that harm the project. In this instance, I would stand my ground and insist on terminating the agreement (and refund any payments I had received).

The difficult situation is where the client and the subject matter may be distasteful. As noted earlier, it is necessary to decide why the client is distasteful. Is it because the client himself is distasteful or because the subject matter encourages you to view the client as distasteful. If because the client is distasteful, then stand your ground; if it is the subject matter that is influencing your opinion, then continue to edit.

If you have strong views about what you are willing to edit and not willing to edit, state what you will do and won’t do on your website or in your initial contact with a potential client. Make clear, for example, that you will not edit books that approve of _________ or disapprove of ________ (fill in the blanks). Be upfront. But remember that once you have agreed to edit a project, it is unethical to unilaterally decide to stop just because you now find the subject matter or the client’s approach to the subject matter distasteful. With ethics, there is no such thing as no fault divorce.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 20, 2015

Editing for Clarity

The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning. Consider this example from “The Birth of a Nation” by Dick Lehr (2014, p. 29):

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

(The book is an excellent look at D.W. Griffith’s movie “Birth of a Nation” and its effect on race relations at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Are you confused by the quote? I know I was when I read it. I eventually figured out what the author intended, but this quote is ripe for editorial intervention.

What causes the problem is the em-dash bracketed phrase “perhaps only one in six, according to one account.” When I first read the sentence, I thought “one in six is not a majority. Does the author mean one in six families did not own slaves or that one in six families did own slaves? The context made it clear that the author meant that only one in six families owned slaves, but the sentence permits other interpretations.

If I were the book’s editor, I would have flagged this sentence for review. I would have queried the author and suggested several alternatives. For example:

Only a small minority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — owned slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.


The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps five in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.


The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six owned slaves, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

Each alternative is, I think, clearer (with the first two alternatives better than the third) and better puts across the author’s meaning without interrupting the reading flow. And this is what an editor does — help the author hone her prose.

The question is this: Is this the job of a copyeditor?

The answer is difficult. I think clients do not distinguish between types of editors very well and see editorial roles as blurred, ill-defined. Editors, themselves, similarly blur those lines of separation, making client expectations as to what an editor will do different from what the editor expects to do.

Fundamentally, the role of every editor is to help an author reach the author’s readers. Clarity of expression is the understood key to a successful author–reader relationship; copyeditors address questions of grammar and spelling, which are essential to clarity, so addressing sentence construction does not seem outside the bounds of the copyeditor’s responsibilities. I know that I include sentence construction in my editing.

What I do not include as part of copyediting is reorganization; that is a developmental editor’s job. Organization is a time-consuming job and requires multiple readings of a manuscript. Copyediting is very time-sensitive, with the schedule being too short to permit developmental editing. Sentence construction is, however, another matter.

Copyeditors are responsible for ensuring clarity. It is not that we need to rewrite every sentence to make every sentence the best it can be; rather, it is that we need to rewrite or suggest rewriting of sentences that are not clear, that interrupt the flow of reading and require a reader to momentarily halt and devote time to determining what the author intends.

The appropriate role for a copyeditor is to query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. There are times when all we can do is query because the fix is elusive; over my years of editing I have encountered many sentences that I could not guess what the author meant and thus could not suggest a fix. Much more often, I could suggest a simple fix.

Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex. Whatever the fix, we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible). That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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