An American Editor

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.

Firearms

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

July 6, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part II

by Carolyn Haley

Part I of this essay described the results of my survey of nine independent editors, which asked for their individual definitions of copyediting. First I evaluated the definitions in general terms, then I looked at the first three descriptions from the perspective of a hypothetical indie author, John Q. Novelist. Part II looks at the remaining six descriptions through the eyes of different hypothetical author, Henrietta Nonfiction Writer (HNW).

A view through the nonfiction lens

HNW works in the insurance industry. For decades she has written employee manuals and other in-house materials for a megacorporation, and even wrote the company newsletter for a while, so she knows how to craft clear sentences for different audiences. That pays the bills, but her real passion is American history, in which she took a master’s degree.

She’s not sure there’s a market for her book — a collection of true stories about white women captured by Indians in the Revolutionary War period — or whether she’ll publish it traditionally or on her own, but she does know that it needs to be clean and accurate, if only for her own pride. She’s written a dissertation and read many technical journals, so she understands the complexities of references and bibliographies. Also, she knows there are different kinds of editors, and a copyeditor will best serve the housecleaning needs of her manuscript.

She likes the detailed definition of copyediting that John Q. Novelist passed on to her, and files it for future reference. First she wants to do her own search for editors, which pulls up these:

Editor #4 (25 years, scholarly, U.K.)

Copy-editing is revising… an article, a book, a chapter in a book, etc., to eliminate errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage; to ensure consistency in abbreviations, capitalization, spellings, etc.; and, where required, to make the contents conform to the requirements of the intended channel (print, web, electronic, etc). [The text] may also contain illustrations, tables, footnotes, references, etc., in which case the copy-editor is required to check such adjuncts to text as well. Generally, copy-editorial changes are made at the sentence level (that is, copy-editing rarely involves changing the sequence of sentences). Language editing is the next higher level, at which the copy-editor may do some rewriting to make the text more concise and clearer, whereas proofreading is the next lower level.

This suits HNW just fine, and she feels the editor will grasp what she’s after. She’s a little uncertain about working with someone in another country, though, so makes a note to ask about the differences between U.S. and U.K. English when she sends her inquiry to the editor.

The next candidate impresses her with their specificity:

Editor #5 (5 years, business, U.S.)

Copyediting is being the best and first objective reader of a written work and making changes to ensure writing is clear, consistent, and in compliance with a specific writing style or style manual and with accepted usage of the target language.… [S]pecific tasks include:

  • Querying the author when a sentence doesn’t make sense.
  • Checking that the correct formatting codes have been applied.
  • Applying formatting codes to text with missing or incorrect codes.
  • Checking the accuracy of cross-references and citations.
  • Checking the spelling of names and accuracy of easily verifiable facts.
  • Ensuring writing complies with a specific style manual and dictionary.
  • Ensuring writing conforms to the grammar and punctuation of Standard English, except when I can discern a good reason for unconventional sentence structure or punctuation.
  • Asking the author to OK a deletion, rewording, or relocation of more than one consecutive sentence.
  • Ensuring the author consistently formats and spells terms that aren’t in the specified style manual or dictionary and creating a style sheet to document my and the author’s decisions regarding such terms.
  • Ensuring numbers that are supposed add up to a specified sum add up to it and ensuring that numbered lists are written in order without skipping numbers.
  • Suggesting wording changes in headings that don’t reflect their content well.
  • Ensuring correct characters are inserted for dashes, mathematical symbols, names in foreign languages, and so on.
  • Ensuring artwork is clearly visible, referred to in the text beforehand, and reproduced with permission.
  • Ensuring tables are easy to read.
  • Suggesting titles for untitled tables and figures.
  • Communicating changes to the author and others who must work with the [manuscript] with electronic markup.

This covers everything HNW can think of, and she particularly likes the inclusion of production-oriented elements. She hadn’t thought about all the technical steps between writing and publishing. This editor seems to assume that every manuscript they work on will be published, which makes her feel more confident. She wants to work with another professional to bring her project to fruition.

In contrast, the next candidate unsettles her because of their informal tone and imprecision:

Editor #6 (4 years, scholarly, U.S.)

I view [copyediting] as readying a piece for publication.… first, ensuring that the copy meets all the style guidelines, and second, that the copy is as good as it can be. I do subdivide the various tasks somewhat on my website since I work with academic authors… and invite them (for example) to do the reference formatting themselves, but if somebody sent me an article and said “unlimited budget, copyedit this” I’d get it completely ready to go: line edits…, style guide compliance, cross-checking, consistency checking, clarity/coherence fixes, reference formatting, etc.… I don’t think it includes fact-checking… research … rearranging the piece’s organization (although many of them need that, and if I notice it I make a comment to that effect…).

It’s not the tone that puts HNW off as much as the mention of being “invited” to format her own references. That’s something she wants to pay another person to do. Although she was careful in compiling her references, and is pretty sure she has them all listed in correct scholarly style, the labor of double checking and using Word for special formatting is beyond her ability and patience. That’s why she set aside a hefty chunk of money for professional editing, which she can afford because of her solid career. But she knows someone on a tight budget who might like this cost-reducing option, so she forwards the link and moves on.

Editor #7 (50 years, nonfiction/scholarly, U.S.)

Copyediting is whatever the client says it is for a given job. This holds whether the client is a traditional publisher, a packager, an indie publisher, or a private client regardless of whether the definition consists of the client’s detailed specifications or reflects my education of and negotiation with the client.

Golly, thinks HNW, this one is a chameleon! On one hand, she realizes, the door is wide open for a customized experience. For writers like her who know their strengths and weaknesses, the idea of negotiating a personalized edit holds appeal. On the other hand, HNW wants someone with a stronger sense of who they are and what they offer so there’s a standard she can wrap her head around. If she’s going to pay for a professional service, she wants the professional to know something she doesn’t, to justify her expense. Having to lead an editor through an editing job doesn’t inspire confidence.

Editor #8 (35 years, academic/business, U.S.)

Copy editing is performed on a near-final draft of a manuscript that has gone through developmental or line editing. Copy editing entails reviewing spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation; checking facts, abbreviations, trademarks, and references to figures and tables; ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, and numbers; and flagging ambiguous or unclear wording. Copy editing can involve smoothing transitions, changing passive to active voice, and breaking up long sentences or paragraphs (which can cross the border into line editing).

This description is the concise version of what HNW seeks. Her only misgiving comes from the fact that her manuscript, though near-final, has not gone through developmental or line editing. She’s taken care of that herself, having acquired the necessary skills from her own scholastic and business experience. Thus she’s unsure the editor will take her seriously. Still, she adds this editor to her list of people to contact.

The final editor offers something she hasn’t seen before. After noting the elements she’s looking for…

Editor #9 (30 years, legal/textbooks, U.S.)

  1. Preparing a manuscript for publication: cleaning extra tabs and spaces, applying style tags, and the like.
  2. Reviewing and correcting a manuscript for grammar, spelling, punctuation, logic, consistency, and house style.
  3. Styling notes/citations, often including finding missing info.…

HNW finds something very important to her:

What copyediting is not: rewriting to suit my own personal style; imposing “what sounds better to me.”… In my books, maintaining author’s voice is rarely a huge consideration…, but still, you have to have a reason to make a change.

This paragraph relieves an anxiety HNW didn’t know she had. Owing to her experience, she hadn’t considered the possibility that her work might be rewritten. Seeing this editor’s assurance about voice preservation makes her wonder what the other candidates’ policy might be on the matter. She needs to review their presentations in this light and look for others who mention it. For now, she puts this editor at the top of her list, even though the subject of her book might not be within the editor’s purview. It’s close enough to a textbook that they have a basis for conversation.

Embracing subjectivity

I’m certain that every author would perceive each editor’s description from a different viewpoint. For example, I would go for Editor #2 (see Thinking Fiction: Subjectivity in Editing IV, Part I) because their description is detailed enough to tell me what I want to know, succinct enough to not belabor any points, and conveys experience in my target publishing arena. Another author might favor lots of details, as presented by Editors #3 and #5, or something loose and simple, like Editor #1’s one-liner: “correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.”

The great thing about working in such a subjectivity-oriented industry like publishing is that there’s something for everyone, as much in the author–editor equation as in the books–audience equation. The goal in both is to match the right parties with each other. So the smart strategy for independent editors in a business lacking uniform role and task definitions and performance standards is to cater to subjectivity: define themselves, their services, and their approach for the publishers and authors they best serve. That reduces wasted time and incompatible clients — and the headaches that go with them — leaving energy to enjoy successful projects and build satisfying careers.

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

June 29, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part I

by Carolyn Haley

As the final step in my exploration of subjectivity in editing, I conducted another experiment. The first experiment was to see what would happen when editors were asked to edit sample text with no direction beyond “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” Seven professional editors volunteered, and their edits showed a range of approaches from light touching to heavy recasting. I discussed the results in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I, II, and III.

The second experiment took the opposite position, and asked a different set of independent editors for their specific definitions of copyediting. Nine volunteered. Their replies follow, continuing into Part II of this essay. Part I begins with an evaluation of their definitions filtered through my direct experience as an independent editor and author.

To give the editors’ responses some context, I requested data from each person, such as years of professional editing experience, clientele base, area of concentration, approximate percentage of business comprising copyediting, country of residence, variant of English used, and a sampling of editing-related software tools and reference resources. I also invited clarification of what copyediting isn’t.

As I expected, the respondents’ descriptions ranged from simple to complex. But all revolved around the common denominator I had hoped to see: a focus on the mechanical aspects of editing — spelling, grammar, punctuation, usage, continuity, consistency.

The mechanical focus suggests that any author seeking copyediting can have the work done by any copyeditor. But as the nine descriptions show, there are variations in style and approach that make finding a good fit between author and editor more than just a spelling-and-punctuation game.

Elements to consider

For an author or publisher seeking to hire an independent copyeditor, the first line of distinction is the logical one of whether they edit fiction or nonfiction or both. Another selection criterion might be language bias — meaning, for writers in English, whether an editor works in American, British, Canadian, Australian, or some other variant of the tongue, or handles translated material, or works with people for whom English is a second language.

Authors and publishers might also consider an editor’s area of specialty and style of approach. These are, in my experience, the most common “match” criteria. Novelists often seek editors with experience in their genre. Nonfiction writers often seek editors knowledgeable about the topic of their book. Subject aside, authors divide in personality type. One author might want an editor who is superfocused on details and formal language, whereas another author might want an editor who is open to creative interpretation and won’t micromanage the author’s prose. The possible author–editor matchmaking combinations are myriad.

Some authors and publishers want to know about an editor’s toolkit. In my survey, all nine editors reported that they use only MS Word for electronic editing, with one editor still working primarily on hardcopy. Six editors use a mix of editorial software tools (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s Toolkit 2014, PerfectIt, macros) to enhance their accuracy and consistency. Everyone’s reference resources correlate with the publishing area they serve.

In the area I serve (mainly independent and especially first-time novelists), the topic of reference works rarely comes up. The authors seem to assume I’m working within universal and arcane parameters known to the publishing industry and will apply those “rules” to their work. Few authors are aware that there are different dictionaries and different style guides, and they don’t appear to care as long as the editing is consistent and editorial explanations make sense. My clients expect me to know what to do; that’s what they’re paying me for. Consequently, I don’t advertise my constantly growing reference library beyond a short statement on my website. I do, however, list on my style sheet for the project the reference works I consulted for the job. On the two occasions a client has shown interest, we’ve discussed and agreed to which reference works to employ.

Things are different when I work for publishers. The project editor specifies which dictionary and style guide the house adheres to, and often defines the copyediting tasks they expect me to cover. I duly comply.

In my survey, all the American editors named Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (MW11) as their primary dictionary (except one who didn’t answer that question), with the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., as alternate. All the Americans also named the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., as their general style/language guide, with some editors mentioning the AP [Associated Press] Stylebook, the AMA [American Medical Association] Manual of Style, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. The sole British and handful of American-British editors listed one or more of the Oxford and Hart dictionaries and style guides. Individuals then included a sampling of other works pertinent to their specialty. The fiction-only editors listed fewer reference works than the nonfiction editors.

The fiction-only editors were also less detailed in their copyediting descriptions than the nonfiction-only editors. Whether this represents a valid pattern can only be determined by a survey on a much larger scale. What matters here is that each editor gives potential clients a snapshot of their approach and personality. The information helps authors and publishers swiftly narrow down a wide field to a short list of candidates for their jobs.

Whether a given editor is a good editor, or the right editor, can only be determined through follow-up actions between author and editor: their dialogue, a sample edit, and, ultimately, the project itself. But editors who offer a profile help themselves and compatible prospective clients find each other, while reducing the risk of surprises that could negatively affect a project or relationship.

Nine definitions of the same thing

What follows is the survey respondents’ actual text, verbatim save for some condensing. It answers only the question, “How do you define copyediting?” I’ve included each editor’s years of experience, specialty, and English variant for context.

These descriptions, however, only have meaning when matched against an author’s expectations and desires. The number of possible combinations seems endless, so for this essay I’ve created a hypothetical scenario that views the editors’ descriptions from the perspective of a fiction and a nonfiction author, each independent and unpublished. The nine volunteer editors’ descriptions that I received through private solicitation are assumed for the scenario to be material on professional editors’ websites found through a Google search.

A view through the fiction lens

The editor-shopping fiction writer John Q. Novelist (JQN) is a software engineer and zealous science fiction/fantasy reader who has written his own sword-and-sorcery epic and thinks it’s ready for editing. His family and friends have told him the story is wonderful, and he dreams of great reviews and cash flow, especially if he expands the book into a series. All he wants from an editor is to correct his spelling and punctuation errors, point out any content goofs he’s unaware of, and help prepare his manuscript for publication.

Somebody in his writing group put a name to what he’s looking for: copyediting. So he uses that as a keyword in his online searches. He knows there are different kinds of editing but doesn’t fully understand the fine points of distinction between them. Since he’s researching a task, he doesn’t think to add “fiction” or “novels” to his keywords, so his search on “copyediting” returns an enormous list of websites and articles. The first three editors who offer a definition of copyediting are these:

Editor #1 (18 years, mostly fiction, U.S.)

[Copyediting is t]he correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.

Perfect, thinks JQN. He can send this person his manuscript for tidying up, then be on his way to fame and fortune. But Editor #2 offers more details, so, curious, he reads on.

Editor #2 (5 years, fiction, U.S./U.K.)

Copyediting is targeted at fixing elements of sentences, addressing correctness rather than artfulness of expression. Copyediting focuses on elements such as detail and description consistency (making sure the hero’s eyes stay the same color throughout, a house doesn’t grow an extra bedroom, if a character is standing on page 10 they aren’t said to be rising from a chair on page 11, etc.), grammar, correct word usage (such as die vs. dye), punctuation, adherence to a style guide or a publisher’s house style, fact-checking minor details such as business names and historic dates, formatting elements like text messages and letters, flagging potential copyright and legal issues, and more. The editor will make nearly all of the changes within the manuscript, not the writer.

Even better, JQN thinks. Exactly what he needs. This person must know what they’re doing. But, good grief, look at how long the next one is! What more could be involved?

Editor #3 (10 years, nonfiction, U.S./U.K./Can.)

I [derived these definitions]… from the Bay Area Editors Forum.… At all levels of copyediting… the copyeditor corrects errors, queries the author about conflicting statements, requests advice when the means of resolving a problem is unclear, and prepares a style sheet. The copyeditor may also incorporate the author’s replies to queries; this work is known as cleanup editing.

Light Copyediting (baseline editing)

  • Correcting faulty spelling, grammar, and punctuation.
  • Correcting incorrect usage (such as can for may).
  • Checking specific cross-references (for example, “As Table 14-6 shows…”).
  • Ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, numerals, fonts, and capitalization.
  • Checking for proper sequencing (such as alphabetical order) in lists and other displayed material.
  • Recording the first references to figures, tables, and other display elements.

A light copyedit does not involve interventions such as smoothing transitions or changing heads or text to ensure parallel structure. The editor checks content only to detect spots where copy is missing. A light copyedit may include typemarking.

Medium Copyediting

  • Performing all tasks for light copyediting.
  • Changing text and headings to achieve parallel structure.
  • Flagging inappropriate figures of speech.
  • Ensuring that key terms are handled consistently and that vocabulary lists and the index contain all the terms that meet criteria specified by the publisher.
  • Ensuring that previews, summaries, and end-of-chapter questions reflect content.
  • Enforcing consistent style and tone in a multi-author manuscript.
  • Changing passive voice to active voice, if requested.
  • Flagging ambiguous or incorrect statements.
  • Typemarking the manuscript.

Heavy Copyediting (substantive editing)

  • Performing all tasks for medium copyediting.
  • Eliminating wordiness, triteness, and inappropriate jargon.
  • Smoothing transitions and moving sentences to improve readability.
  • Assigning new levels to heads to achieve logical structure.
  • Suggesting — and sometimes implementing — additions and deletions, noting them at the sentence and paragraph level.

The key differences between heavy and medium copyedits are the levels of judgment and rewriting involved. In a heavy copyedit, the editor improves the flow of text rather than simply ensuring correct usage and grammar; may suggest recasts rather than simply flagging problems; and may enforce a uniform level, tone, and focus as specified by the publisher or developmental editor.

Wow! That covers everything JQN could possibly want, and breaks it into clusters with different price tags. JQN now starts thinking about cost-benefit ratio and how far his budget will stretch. He’s sad that he can’t spring for heavy editing, it sounds so helpful, but at least he knows what his dollar will buy for light and medium. But wait — in rereading the page to evaluate his best choice, he notices what he missed on first scan. This editor only handles nonfiction. Drat! So he refines his search terms in hopes of finding a fiction editor offering the same level of detail and clarity.

Part II of this essay covers a nonfiction author’s response to the remaining six volunteer editors’ descriptions of copyediting, followed by a summary of the subjectivity studies.

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

June 1, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing III

by Carolyn Haley

The editing experiment I reported on in Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing I and II offered a unique chance to see the same material not only from both sides — author and editor — but also from multiple editorial viewpoints. As the author of the test material, I was surprised by how many thoughts and emotions the editors’ responses evoked in me, even though the material was decades old and had been replaced by what became successful published novels. I suspect that any author on the receiving end of seven different edits might feel similarly disconcerted.

At the same time, editorial subjectivity is what authors experience whenever they shop for an editor and request or automatically receive sample edits. (The same happens when they solicit feedback from beta readers.) Multiple samples are a good way for authors to select the editor best suited to their work.

During the experiment, I reviewed each volunteer editor’s response from both an editor’s and author’s perspective. I’ve already covered the editor’s angle in the above-referenced essays, so here’s a taste of what the experiment results looked like through an author’s eyes.

A quick review for context

My experiment imitated a common scenario in the industry — publishers or authors who hire copyeditors without giving them instructions, assuming they share the same vocabulary and process. All I told the seven professional volunteers was, “Copyedit according to your own understanding of what copyediting means.” I deliberately didn’t say what copyediting meant to me, or ask them for clarification of their individual approaches. I wanted to see what would happen without guidance.

As part of the test, I inserted errors into both samples. Neither sample resulted in seven takes to compare against each other; instead, six editors chose to edit the first test sample and four chose the second. A handful edited both.

Now that the experiment is complete, I can reveal what I withheld from the volunteers. As an author, I would expect a copyeditor to accept that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries.

The following examples show how close the editors came to meeting that expectation while working in the dark.

Example 1

Original:

“Her car had a close encounter with a tree” Jona retorted. Linny kept her mouth shut to hide the broken teeth from her close encounter with the steering wheel. The remaining car interior had bashed her head, elbows, and knees.

All six editors caught the technical error — the missing comma before the close-quote in the first line. Then the variations began.

Editor #1 remarked: ‘close encounter’ twice in consecutive sentences is a little distracting. I suggest Jona says “her car met a tree”, or similar, or that she hides the “teeth, broken on the steering wheel”?

Editor #2, after changing all the paragraph breaks in the full dialogue, offered this: Consider recasting to avoid a close repetition of “close encounter” — unless the repetition is intentional.

Editor #3, meanwhile, replaced the second close encounter with collision, then commented: This way avoids repeating “close encounter,” to give the expression more impact the first time; does that work for you?

Editor #4 was fine with the close encounter duplication and body-damage description, but felt a clarification was appropriate elsewhere in the paragraph, changing “to hide the broken teeth from” to “to hide the teeth broken during.”

Editor #5 cared about dialogue tags, changing retorted to said with the query: Change OK? Jona isn’t really retorting, and said is generally your best bet for dialogue attribution.

Editor #6 had nothing to say about any element of the paragraph, though questioned the character’s injury in an earlier paragraph — querying the plausibility of the effects of the injury still showing after the timeframe specified in the story.

Example 2

Original:

Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the final’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . .”

The trap in this paragraph is final; it’s supposed to be finale, a performance identified as such at the start of the characters’ conversation.

Editor #1 caught the typo and changed the ellipses style.

Editor #2 changed final’s to final performance is then commented on a different sentence (“Blanche rushed into my silence”) with I like this phrase, followed by an explanation of a different edit: New para for new speaker.

Editor #3 also caught the typo then felt obliged to clarify the character’s trail-off speech with added content: Blanche rushed into my silence. “I know, I’m sorry, but — well, the finale’s the last chance, and Dru asked . . . ” Her nerve seemed to break.

Editor #4 corrected the typo and moved on.

Example 3

Original:

I sat holding the phone without seeing for a moment, then smacked it into the cradle. Two points for Blanch for finding a way to get me to New Atlantis! Give her another ten for making it as awkward as possible.

The trap was the misspelled character name: Blanch should be Blanche.

Editor #1 caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.

Editor #2 suggested deleting “without seeing” then asked: When does this story occur? Rare for people to have home phones these days.

Editor #3 also caught the typo and left the rest of the paragraph alone.

Editor # 4 corrected the error, changed a preposition (“Two points to Blanche”), and added a writing lesson: Exclamation points can lose their effectiveness if you overuse them. I’ve changed to less dramatic punctuation here and elsewhere, retaining only if the speaker really is shouting.

Example 4

Original:

“I guess so. No, not really. Look, I’ve got no time and six people in earshot, but, please, can you do me a huge favor?”

I sighed and placed my brush into a water jar. “What.”

There were no traps in this section.

Editors #1 and #3 changed the period after “What” to a question mark, without comment.

Editor #2 let the period stand, but opined: Technically, this should have a ?, but I like it fine as is because she isn’t asking so much as demanding. J

Editor #4 expressed the same sentiment by leaving the sentence alone.

Example 5

Original:

The front entrance was barricaded not only by gates but also by a hoard of groupies. I had discovered this three years ago when I first visited Blanche and Dru after they moved up from the City for good.

The trap is hoard, which should be horde.

Editor #1 caught the trap and also chose to lower-case “City” (which was capped as a shorthand for New York City and used consistently through the book, but the editor couldn’t know this from the sample).

Editor #2 made the same change to “City” plus corrected the tense in the sentence (“. . . after they’d moved up from the city for good”).

Editor #3 not only lower-cased “City” but also recast the paragraph, resequenced the paragraphs around it, and rewrote half the text to connect the changes together, thereby condensing five paragraphs down to two. It was partly explained by the query: Deleted because (in passage I’ve shifted up from below) she’s adamant about never using the front gate again, so question of choosing. OK?

Editor #4 left everything in the paragraph alone, including the incorrect word.

Making choices

As an author, I found it simple to choose which editor I could work with comfortably, just from the two samples of approximately 1,600 words each. And I’m sure a different author would make a different choice.

This luxury of choice, however, can only be made by authors who self-publish, or those who directly hire editors to help prepare their novels for submission to traditional publishers. Once authors are under contract with a publishing house, they rarely have control over who edits their manuscript, or any option to change editors if they are dissatisfied with their work. More than one editor might work on the book — a content editor and copyeditor, plus maybe the agent who placed the manuscript with the house — but a contracted author won’t get seven different takes on their book at the same stage at the same time and be free to select their preferred partner. The same holds true for authors who buy editing from an author-services company, which distributes manuscripts internally without author involvement.

The unanswered question

My experiment left an important question dangling: How would the revisions, comments, and queries have differed if I’d told the editors exactly what I wanted for copyediting (i.e., acceptance that the story was finished and my narrative style was intentional; and to polish the prose with a light touch, correcting all the technical errors and pointing out anything in question with neutrally phrased comments and queries)? Or if any of them had asked?

Considering another experiment to test that, I asked a fresh group of ten editors, “How do you define copyediting?” Sure enough, I got ten different answers, which will be discussed in a future essay. For now, the lesson I learned from the subjectivity experiment is: Author, tell the editor what you’re looking for! Editor, tell the author what you intend to do! If your vocabularies and ideas differ, then dig a little deeper before working together. That conversation will go a long way toward preventing misunderstandings during the editing process, and building a mutually positive relationship.

Related essays on An American Editor:

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

April 11, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction II

by Carolyn Haley

Part I of this two-part essay described the experiment I conducted to learn more about the weight and importance of subjectivity in editing fiction, and to satisfy my personal curiosity about how different editors might handle the same material. Part I covered the experiment parameters, general results, and types of technical errors that occurred in the work of seven volunteer professional editors.

Part II continues the description of results, shifting to areas where errors are harder to define and recognize, and where individual backgrounds come more strongly into play.

Debatable errors

All the volunteers addressed the debatable items I inserted into the test samples, though no two editors addressed the same number and combination of them. This is where I expected the greatest variation between editors, and I was not disappointed.

Example debatable items were hyphenated or solid prefixes and suffixes; hyphenation of compound adjectives; one-word or two-word spellings that could vary according to dictionary; use or not of the serial comma; treatment of ellipses and dashes; treatment of dialogue tags and thoughts; words or numerals for numbers; location of paragraph breaks; casualness versus formalness of characters’ speech; spelling of common expressions (all right vs. alright, OK vs. okay); and the like.

These represent what I expect to see itemized on a style sheet. I deliberately did not request style sheets from the volunteers, because I wanted to see whether providing one with a copyediting job is a default practice, and what form the style sheet took if provided. Note that some editors, as a matter of policy, do not provide style sheets for tests but will provide them for live book-length projects. As this exercise resembled a short test, and I did not request a style sheet, I expected that not everyone would include one.

And not everyone did—just three of seven editors. Two of the submitted style sheets were organized and detailed, reflecting the editors’ long experience with traditional publishers. These greatly helped my review of those editors’ samples. The select debatable items they put on their term lists affirmed that they had spotted the variants and made decisions about them. I also knew what reference resources they were drawing from so had context to understand their choices. The thorough and professional presentation of the style sheets positively influenced my opinion of the editors’ knowledge and capability. While the editors who did not provide a style sheet might have done as good a job on the sample exercises as those editors who did provide one, I had to guess what they noticed or not, based on what I saw changed and unchanged. (Sometimes an editor removed the guessing game by deleting or rewriting a debatable item.)

Including a style sheet in an actual test for a publisher might give an editor a competitive advantage, based on the positive impression it gave in my experiment. And including a style sheet for an author is always a good idea. A style sheet shows that the editor really did examine the manuscript closely and think about fine points. It also gives organized information to the author during later revisions or expansion in a series, making the next round cleaner. At the same time it gives context and detail for any subsequent editors, as well as for the proofreader at the end of the line.

For more information about creating and using style sheets, see Amy Schneider’s four-part series starting with “Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets Part I: General Style.

Fact checking and formatting

Whether fact checking should be included in copyediting is a scope-of-work item determined between editor and client. Commonly, copyeditors who work for publishers aren’t asked to do fact checking or don’t provide that service, whereas copyeditors who work for indie authors might include it. I did not instruct the volunteer editors on fact checking because I wanted to see if there was any pattern in who did and who didn’t provide the service. I tested it by inserting errors that could be found by simple online lookups, such as whether a mountain range’s formal name included “Hills” or “Mountains,” and the wrong manufacturing date for a vintage car. Four of the seven editors found one or more of these, although none reacted to them all, and I saw no correlation with anyone’s particular background.

At the same time, three editors queried subtle verisimilitude issues that would have embarrassed the author had the details gone through to publication. I had been aware of two of those bloopers but blind to the others; so, as the author in question, I would have been deeply grateful to those sharp editorial eyes (and as the test creator, I was duly embarrassed).

Formatting a manuscript is also considered a scope-of-work variable in copyediting. Here again I did not instruct the volunteers, wanting to see what they did on their own. The majority left the text as they found it, in terms of font, type size, and line spacing. I put one sample in 1.5 spacing instead of industry-standard double spacing; nobody changed it. I set the other one in Courier font; two editors changed it to Times New Roman, and one who let it stand apparently had trouble telling the difference between straight and “curly” apostrophes and quotation marks in that font, for that editor had the highest miss rate in those details.

I also inserted manual tab indents for paragraphs in one of the samples. Only one editor replaced them with automatic indent, as is required for production. A different editor inserted a note advising that they had spotted the tabs and other deviations from industry standard but left them in place, while another editor went for no-indent first paragraphs then auto-indented the rest without remark. Most of these changes were manually applied; only two editors used Word’s style feature on whole text.

Comments and queries

Everybody was polite, professional, and helpful in their comments. Some were so gentle and politically correct in their phrasing that, in my eyes, it undermined their authority. Somewhere there’s a happy medium between bullying and babying, and although everyone in the experiment found that middle ground, some conveyed their expertise and confidence better than others. If I were an author shopping for an editor based on these samples, it would have been easy to determine who best suited my preferences and needs.

At first the number of comments and queries for so little text seemed disproportionately high. Then I realized that some of the editors’ remarks covered subjects I ordinarily put on a style sheet. For instance, I list my grammar/style/spelling resources and operating premises together at the top of my style sheet, whereas some of the editors who did not include a style sheet used comments to explain, for example, that a change was supported by a particular style guide or dictionary.

I’m guessing that the editors made more queries than might be normal because the test was done in a vacuum. In a real job they would have more information than I provided about the story premise, client, and other parameters of the project. For example, the full novel one of the samples came from was loaded with telepathic communication between psychics, which I set in italics. To distinguish telepathy from private thoughts, I kept thoughts in roman type. But I did not give this information to the volunteer editors. One of them, when encountering the direct thought in roman text, selected it and applied italics:

“…but I can still make the autocross on Sunday.” Two hours in the other direction, I didn’t add.

This distraction led the copyeditor to miss the inverted close-quote mark immediately preceding the sentence. If editor had known that thoughts did not have to be italicized, then the editor would not have paused to change or query the sentence and likely would have noticed the punctuation error.

That example was not the only evidence of editors being distracted by adjacent problems. It appeared during highlighting text for comments, too. One editor was so focused on typing up a remark about writing style that they didn’t see this error lying inside the selected text: No more hazy envelop of pulsing bruises; instead, a bright, boundless world begging to be explored. I saw several oversights of that sort among the editors who commented heavily. The lighter-touch editors caught more mechanical errors, presumably because their eyes and minds weren’t bouncing back and forth as much between places on the screen.

Conclusion

What does the experiment teach us? Not much more than we already know. And with a sampling of only seven editors, along with the number of variables being evaluated at one time and my personal bias, we can’t call this a scientific test.

The experiment revealed little insight into the question, “How good is good enough?” Some aspects of that question will be discussed in a future essay covering editorial subjectivity from the author’s point of view.

From my editor’s point of view, the experiment affirmed my expectations. I now feel confident stating that every copyeditor has a different approach and editing style; that most copyeditors will address most elements in a manuscript while never quite attaining perfection; that their understanding of the distinctions between editing tasks varies; and that in the absence of explicit instructions, copyeditors will likely return results different from what the hiring party might expect.

The experiment also supported two beliefs I’ve long adhered to: (a) that a successful editorial job comes from a compatible fit and good communication between editor and client, and (b) that journalist William H. Whyte had it right when he said, “The great enemy of communication…is the illusion of it.”

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

March 28, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction I

by Carolyn Haley

Earlier generations of fiction editors were mentored by old pros at august publishing houses, learning the art and craft of storytelling and producing books to high standards. Things have changed; although there are still old pros cultivating younger editors at important, high-quality houses, their numbers have declined. The editing profession now contains many independent and small-press editors who have entered the field from diverse paths; who have different training; who may have incomplete knowledge of writing, editing, and publishing practices; and who, in some cases, are too naïve or unethical to be handling other people’s work.

Because of this shift, the subjectivity that characterizes editing novels has become more complex — at least for me, who was not educated and seasoned in the traditional book publishing business. Thankfully, my arrival in the industry coincided with the Internet, so I can tap into the collective editorial mind. But that has revealed so many different approaches that I often bog down in pondering choices, reversing decisions, consulting other people, revisiting style guides, and talking more thoroughly with clients in order to make the right judgment call about myriad details. This process might make me a better editor, but it also makes me a slower and more tentative editor. The question that never seems to go away is, “How good is good enough?”

The question may be unanswerable because of subjectivity. What seems to matter, ultimately, is the fit between editor and client and between a novel and its audience.

Objectifying subjectivity

I remain curious and concerned about the weight and importance of subjectivity, and have long wanted to see how different editors would work the same material. So I devised an informal experiment. Emulating a publisher who needs to test editorial candidates’ skills, I created an exercise loaded with traps. Then I called for volunteers among my editorial colleagues. Seven responded, and I sent them the opening pages from two manuscripts (each sample approximately 1,680 words), with the instruction to copyedit either or both samples according to their own understanding of what “copyediting” means. This provided ten samples total.

The sample text came from early drafts of my own novels, now published, and for which I own the rights. I chose this material to avoid any potential problems that could arise from using disguised client text in a public forum. My goal was to see similarities and differences in individual copyeditors’ techniques and accuracy, such as how many and what types of errors were caught, and how comments and queries were handled. I hoped, too, for some single characteristic to emerge that would lead to a profound discovery or conclusion.

The volunteers’ professional editing experience ranged from five to 25 years, representing a mix of fiction and nonfiction; copyediting, line editing, and developmental editing; and working for publishers and independent authors. Although some of the volunteers specialize in copyediting fiction, others aspire to that or prefer a balance of fiction and nonfiction work.

The traps I planted in the exercises were split between technical errors (spelling, grammar, punctuation, factual accuracy, and consistency) and debatable errors (usage, punctuation, and style). By “debatable” I mean items that are open to interpretation or could result from the editors’ adherence to different dictionaries and style guides.

My instructions to the volunteers intentionally did not mention style guides, style sheets, fact checking, and software tools, because I wanted to see what turned up unprompted.

Summary of results

In three areas the editors performed identically:

  1. Everyone used Microsoft Word and its Track Changes feature. All edits were visible, save for global formatting or corrections. And each editor found reasons to use Track Changes’ Comments feature, whether as margin balloons or inline insertions.
  2. Everyone caught almost all (95+ percent) of the technical errors I inserted into the text.
  3. Everyone responded to some percentage of the debatable items.

No one caught every technical error I inserted, although five of seven found errors I hadn’t noticed when I made the tests.

The strongest overall performance came from the most specialized copyeditor who has been working in fiction the longest and for publishers only. The weakest overall performance came from an editor with more than a decade of mixed fiction/nonfiction experience for publishers and indie authors.

Interestingly, an editor with a high miss rate on one sample performed fine on the other sample. This points to state of mind, timing of work session, nature of material, and attention span as variables in the subjectivity equation.

In either test sample, there was no one section where every editor changed or commented on the same thing. Instead, individual styles and sensibilities expressed themselves in small amounts throughout the text. Some editors made minor changes without query or comment, whereas others made similar changes but included explanations and suggested alternative phrasings. Some made so many changes or suggestions it was hard to believe they were copyediting. Indeed, their copyediting resembled what I call line, substantive, or developmental editing. The majority touched the text more than I ever do for a copyediting job.

Technical Errors

The most common type of technical error involved punctuation and spaces. Some of those errors pertained to typography; for example, the editor didn’t spot straight apostrophes (′) and quotation marks (″) that should have been “curly” (i.e., typographer’s style), or attempted to fix them all and missed a few.

It’s possible that the straight/curly subject might not fall into the copyediting scope of work for editors hired by publishing houses. Often, manuscripts from publishers come to the editor mechanically groomed and styled, reducing the number of gremlins the copyeditor needs to address. Or else the copyeditor is informed that quotations marks, dashes, ellipses, and the like will be taken care of by a compositor. That usually isn’t the case for editors working with indie authors, so scope of work when working with indie authors may include more elements of mechanical editing.

The volunteers in my experiment mostly went one way or the other with the curly/straight detail — changed them all, or left them all. I considered either approach allowable. There were two editors, however, who changed straights to curlies but appeared to have done it manually instead of electronically, so some instances remained unchanged. I considered those errors. I also considered it an error to use a single open quotation mark instead of an apostrophe in truncated words. This occurred in one sample that contained the short form of until (til). Three editors revised it to til — which may or may not be correct according to what dictionary you consult — but inserted the wrong punctuation mark. The others left the word alone or replaced it with the alternate, till.

In another instance, the editor apparently was distracted from an inverted close-quote mark by attending to a style change right next to it, so that the following happened at a transition between dialogue and a character’s thought:

“…but I can still make the autocross on Sunday.” Two hours in the other direction, I didn’t add.

The original text did not contain italics. But in the process of selecting and changing the style of the character’s thought from roman to italic, the editor failed to notice the close-quote problem at the end of the previous sentence.

Similar bloopers were spread among the samples, such as an extra space before or after punctuation (e.g., “I— damn it”) and spelling inconsistencies (e.g., Atlantis vs. Atlantic). Most small, subtle oversights of this type can be caught using features available in commercial software tools designed for editors (e.g., EditTools, Editor’s ToolKit, PerfectIt) or built into Word (e.g., find/replace, wildcard find/replace, macros), so I was surprised by how many got through. When I later questioned the editors about what tools they use, I learned that six use a limited selection of tools, and one uses none at all. (One of the six added a twist I didn’t anticipate, claiming to use a few tools for live work but for the experiment thought that using them would be “cheating.”)

The second most common technical error came in the spelling of similar-sounding or similar-looking words (“confusables”): reign/rein, hoard/horde, envelop/envelope, deserts/desserts, breath/breathe. Spellcheck alone won’t catch real words of this sort, so one needs a keen eye enhanced by editorial software tools and macros to find them all in a text.

One editor made a good case for this by not catching typos in critical proper nouns—for instance, a main character’s name (Dru vs. Drew). This editor’s custom is to make only a few specific find/replace passes in Word for global mechanical details (e.g., double spaces after periods), which won’t catch names or spelling variants. For those, you need something like PerfectIt, or Paul Beverley’s ProperNounAlyse, or EditTools’ Never Spell Word, or just paying close attention to Word’s spellchecker, which will stop on “Jon” after you’ve hit Ignore All when accepting “John.”

In general, the results compiled for all seven editors showed a strong correlation between a high number of spelling, punctuation, and consistency errors and a low number of support tools used. The correlation is not absolute, however. The editor with least experience in fiction, who speaks British instead of American English, and used only one tool, performed above midpack.

Part II continues with a discussion of the experiment’s results relating to debatable errors, fact checking, formatting, style sheets, comments, and queries.

Related essays on An American Editor:

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

February 1, 2016

Thinking Fiction: First-Novel Flubs and Follies

by Carolyn Haley

Novice authors, despite the uniqueness of their backgrounds and visions, share certain writing characteristics. For instance, almost all the first novels I see contain a beginning, a middle, and an end, with some form of plot and character change. These basics seem to come by instinct, probably because novel writers tend to be novel readers and absorb the essence of story structure from reading polished examples. Whereas some beginners invest in learning storycraft, others express themselves first and analyze later, discovering from beta readers or editors where they need to refine their skills. Even so, their drafts emerge with the core elements in place.

Many novice authors reveal in their “finished” manuscripts that they have a lot yet to learn about narrative technique. But there’s nothing worrisome about that. It’s natural during the creation phase for people to write for themselves, often composing by ear until the text sounds good, without considering how it might read to someone else. Sometimes they’ll go the other way and overthink things, being too conscious of “writing a book,” and writing so stiffly and formally that their style interferes with telling the story. Later, when self-editing, they are too close to the work to recognize potential problems for readers. Because the author reads what the author expects, the story’s flaws often don’t show up until someone else reads the manuscript. (See also the following An American Editor essays: The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!, and The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor for additional perspectives.)

A baker’s dozen

The twelve most common beginner-novelist craft problems I see are listed below (see “The Top Twelve”). A thirteenth stands out from the rest and deserves special mention: the failure to write chronologically. By this I do not mean sequence in time, but rather sequence of stimulation–response in a character’s mind and behavior. Writing expert Dwight V. Swain calls this a motivation–reaction unit: a “cause and effect applied to people. Cause becomes motivating stimulus…effect, character reaction.”

Motivation–reaction units form the steps that compel a reader through a story. The units build each scene and relationship, advancing plot and suspense. The idea seems obvious, yet I often see reaction happening before the action that triggers it, such as Jane screaming before John enters the room wielding a knife. Incomplete motivation–reaction units also manifest in dialogue, with unresponded-to declarations, suggestions, or invitations, and in scenes, where something starts without finishing, either described or implied. The effect resembles missing punctuation, the way unclosed parentheses and quotation marks or dropped periods at ends of sentences leaves thoughts dangling and readers confused.

Swain describes the motivation–reaction unit and associated building blocks in his masterwork, Techniques of the Selling Writer. It is the best resource for storycraft I have seen, and I recommend it to all fiction writers and editors.

The top twelve

Just about every beginner’s novel contains one or more of the following flubs and follies. The list does not include typos or errors in spelling or punctuation, because those are universal. Most writers recognize they’re not perfect and willingly accept tidying-up editing. Where they tend to be blind to their own work is in the more advanced or subtle elements of storycraft and style.

Here are the dozen, in no particular order:

  1. Tense misuse. The narrative flip-flops between present and past tense, or incorrectly uses a tense, especially past perfect (e.g., The hiking group grew to ten by the time it left the lodge vs. The hiking group had grown to ten by the time it left the lodge).
  2. Author intrusion. The narrative voice breaks because the author has inserted a personal opinion without channeling it through a character’s perspective, or has characters give information through dialogue that real people wouldn’t speak naturally. The latter has been dubbed the “As you know, Bob” syndrome, referring to conversations like, “As you know, Bob, we were born two years apart in Milwaukee and went to the same school.”
  3. Passive sentence construction. Mainly overusing the verb “to be.” For instance, It was a sunny day and there were birds singing in the trees can be revised to use verbs that make the sentence more vivid: Sunshine poured from the sky and birds twittered in the trees.
  4. Verisimilitude glitches. Situations that are implausible or impossible, such as travel between places that should take hours but in the story take minutes; small-ammo firearms making huge-ammo firearms noises; characters seeing perfectly in the dark. (For more on this, see my An American Editor essay, Thinking Fiction: Verisimilitude.)
  5. Dialogue tags. Identifying who is speaking and how. Some authors name every speaker every time, always using he said and she said and starting a new paragraph for every line of speech. Others drop tags altogether and let the reader guess who is talking. Others seek alternatives to he said/she said, such as he coughed or she sighed, while some use adverbs to set the mood (he said laughingly or she said angrily). Whichever tag style the author favors can be overused to the point of irritating the reader.
  6. Attribute tags. Character identifiers that help readers keep track of people and places. Some authors don’t give visual cues in their narratives, relying totally on readers remembering who’s who by the characters’ names. This is problematic on its own; doubly so when characters are similarly named: Alice, Amy, Adam are hard on the reader’s eye, and hard on comprehension if the reader is not informed that one A-character has red hair, another is an old woman with a limp, a third is a man with a mustache.
  7. False suspense. Withholding information in the belief it creates curiosity and intrigue. That can be true for plot, but it backfires in scene setting or story setup. Suspense should make readers turn the page wanting to know what’s going to happen next, not force them to scratch their heads wondering what’s going on.
  8. Choreography missteps. A variant of false suspense; that is, placing characters in a scene then forgetting to account for their movements. For instance, someone who walks in may never walk out, or leaves the scene while readers think he’s still a player and expect him to do something.
  9. Pronoun confusion. Another variation of who’s-doing-what. They watched the monitors for hours. They were new and reliable, but some of them were older and temperamental so they had to be careful. Which “they” pertains to the watchers and which to the machines?
  10. Clunky sentence structure. Some authors write too uniformly: John drove down the street. He turned into his driveway. He got out of the car. Others are so precise and grammatically correct that their sentences meander on and lose focus, or sound dated to the modern ear. First-time novelists who come to fiction writing from a nonfiction or academic background often eschew contractions, making for stilted-sounding dialogue (“I am going to the store, where she is working today from nine a.m. to five p.m.” vs. “I’m going to the store — she’s working nine to five today”).
  11. Info dump. Commonly happens in the first chapter as backstory leading up to the current story, but it can occur anywhere. The symptom is too much information being provided that either breaks story flow or isn’t needed to advance plot or character development, inviting readers to skip ahead. Sometimes the information is extraneous and can be cut; more often it just needs to be divvied up and spread through the narrative.
  12. Assumptions and allusions. Authors might assume that every reader will know what they’re talking about, whether it’s a classical or biblical reference, or names of modern products and entertainers, or terms and mores of a particular time. If narrative context doesn’t make the reference clear, then readers’ attention will be broken by the effort of wondering, or backing up to see if they understood things right.

Editorial response

In many cases, writing flubs can be fixed with simple revisions at the line editing or copyediting stage. Comprehensive problems should be addressed at the developmental level, or at least in a non-editing manuscript critique. Whether the editor or author performs the suggested revisions depends on the situation and scope of work. Authors in general are open to content changes if they are accompanied by comments explaining the change, or suggesting ways to make the change. Earnest novices who want to improve their skills study edits closely and learn from every revision.

All authors receive edits better if they’re conveyed in a mix of craft language and gentle terms like flubs, tweaks, and bloopers. Authors are as much works-in-process as their novels; even the most seasoned pros acknowledge that they never stop learning. Editors who define problems and demonstrate solutions make the editing process an informative team effort instead of an expert-to-dummy intimidating experience. New authors especially appreciate knowing that their inadequacies are commonly shared, and they just need tools and techniques to master. For many of them, an edited manuscript is the only instruction they get on how to craft a novel. Just like in the movie Field of Dreams — “if you build it, he will come” — give novice authors knowledge and respect, and their books will grow and bloom.

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

January 11, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Making Copyediting Decisions

by Carolyn Haley

In a recent discussion with a colleague about editing fiction, I was asked the following questions:

  • How do you determine if the language level fits the readership?
  • If a phrase is properly worded but there is an alternative phrasing that might be better, how do you determine whether it is better for the target audience?
  • How do you decide how much explanation of events or characters is too much or too little?
  • How do you decide whether an allusion can be left without explanation?

In each case, my answer is, “It depends.”

It depends, primarily, on scope of work and who you’re working for. Secondarily, it depends on contextual variables, such as genre and vocabulary — and yourself.

Scope of work

The keywords in the above questions are how do you determine and how do you decide. In actuality, you might not have the luxury to do either. For instance, when copyediting a manuscript for a traditional publisher on a freelance basis, you might be barred from revising content. The manuscript already has been content-edited, and the project editor informs you of the parameters to work within for polishing the prose.

Such parameters could range from an admonishment to not touch anything unless it’s patently wrong, to a list of situations that are okay to change and not change. In these situations, if you exceed scope of work by broadly evaluating language level, phrasing, and explanation, and then make revisions pertaining to them, you could get tagged as a freelancer who doesn’t follow directions and not be hired again. Conversely, the project editor might be thrilled that you did so much and hire you again eagerly. But now you’ve established a performance standard disproportionate to your rate, and you may get stuck there for all future jobs.

Sometimes the publisher gives you a free hand as long as you query and justify any changes beyond mechanical details. While documenting so much extra can be annoying and time consuming, it gives opportunity to address issues on multiple levels. Again, though, you might end up with an imbalance between work and paycheck. But if you’re a copyeditor in a solid, long-standing relationship with an individual publisher, you may have more leeway.

Contextual variables

The how you determine/decide question mainly comes into play when you’re an independent copyeditor handling novels by independent authors, a situation in which you have more freedom to make choices.

So, back to the original questions:

(1) How do you determine if the language level fits the readership?

By understanding genre, and how it applies to an individual novel.

A young adult story, for instance, is structured with shorter sentences and leaner vocabulary than an adult book. Words that you think might be a stretch for the age group can still be acceptable; after all, none of us is too old (or young) to look things up and learn. As long as context gives a good sense of the word’s meaning, you can usually let it stand, though sometimes it’s a tough call. Authors are cautioned by writing gurus to not “write down” to younger audiences, but may not understand where the line is, which can make things fuzzy for the editor. Generally, in books for youth, too many occurrences of look-up words needs to be queried.

Adult novels allow wider vocabularies. Nevertheless, in some genres certain words are taboo. Take sweet romances and cozy mysteries. These rarely contain profanity or sexual terms, so if you encounter such elements in those genres, you need to query and suggest options. Similarly, science fiction commonly includes technical terms, which are fine for that audience but may confuse readers in, say, a dark mystery focusing on relationships. Fantasy novels often create words for magical systems and alien worlds, which, too, are fine for that audience. However, those words might be hard to read because of strange spellings, or character names might be confusing because so many start with the same letter to indicate variants of tribal names. That convention might make story sense but adds labor for the reader, making it something you should query.

Action-based stories normally use short or fragmented sentences; short paragraphs, chapters, and words; and are heavy on verbs, but light on adverbs and adjectives. Verbosity and passive construction defeat the story’s purpose and must be edited and/or queried and/or discussed with the author. Likewise with any contemporary novel that overuses brand names or fad language because the author is trying to be hip, or to slavishly follow someone’s advice to be detail-specific. These can date the story needlessly or overload it with minutiae, each of which can interfere with reader attention or interest.

In any context, language that doesn’t work usually draws attention to itself by making the reader stumble. I take my cue from stumbles to focus on the cause and consider alternative phrasing. Whether to edit, query, or talk with the author depends on the scope of work. Sometimes there’s more going on than either you or the author anticipated, and you have to renegotiate timeline and fee.

(2) If a phrase is properly worded but there is an alternative phrasing that might be better, how do you determine whether it is better for the target audience?

“Better” is a highly subjective term, so ensure that your judgment of “better” is a matter of clarity and comprehension, not just your personal taste. When editors start questioning or recasting too much of an author’s writing because they think it’s not good enough, they’re entering the realm of changing author voice. That’s a big no-no in fiction, which is why I use stumbling as my first decision-making criterion. I may not be the ideal representative of the target audience, but I’m well read enough to trip on something that doesn’t work. So when stumbles provoke me to consider alternative language, I review the choices in the context of the author’s audience and genre, and edit or query as suits the scope of work.

(3) How do you decide how much explanation of events or characters is too much or too little?

By stumbling while reading, or being pushed out of the story.

Most of us have encountered novels wherein the author presents so much detail or backstory that the narrative bogs down. Such “info dumps” are a frequent cause of readers skipping ahead or bailing out, and should be addressed. Part of storytelling finesse is to provide just enough information to let readers understand what’s going on and create a clear picture in their minds, while leaving out enough to lure them along. When authors fail to do this, you should draw their attention to it and suggest whether to condense, delete, or relocate the material.

Conversely, too little information leads to confusion. Unclear action, unreacted-to moments, unsubstantiated logic leaps, incomplete scenarios — all force readers to back up and figure out what’s going on. Most of these situations require queries, although sometimes simple edits like adding a pronoun or reversing a sentence can take care of the problem.

(4) How do you decide whether an allusion can be left without explanation?

This is a tricky call. Each editor brings a different knowledge base to a story, and some will understand certain allusions automatically and glide by them, whereas others won’t make the connection and will need it explained, and still others will be uncertain enough to ask. It’s safe to assume that readers will run the same gamut. Best practice is to flag any allusion that appears in a story and ask the author to confirm that it means what you think it means, and whether the author believes all readers will understand it. Perhaps suggest that the point will be better made by spelling it out.

“It depends” as a standing condition

Because so much of fiction editing is contextual and subjective, it’s hard to know where to draw lines between right and wrong. Yet many narrative moments have no concrete right or wrong presentation (which is why style guides are considered guides, not rule books). Copyeditors of fiction must have some tolerance for rule ambiguity so they can help authors keep ambiguity out of their voice and vision. That means editing with a light touch unless directed otherwise by the hiring party, and flagging anything that might raise a question in readers’ minds or generate confusion. “When in doubt, query” serves well in most instances. Every potential issue the editor points out is one that author can revisit and prevent becoming an issue for the reader. While “it depends” is often the answer to a question, copyeditors who know what “it” depends on can best convey to authors their choices and the advantages one has over another.

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

November 30, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Editing Tools in Action

by Carolyn Haley

We’ve talked a lot about tools on this blog — my own “Fiction Editors’ Resource Kit,” Jack Lyon’s many essays about wildcards and macros in Word, Amy Schneider’s quartet on style sheets, and Rich Adin’s articles on productivity macros (see, e.g., “The Business of Editing: Keeping Reference Callouts in Number Order”) — all to make editing a more efficient process and profitable business.

This essay discusses how different software tools can be applied at specific points in copyediting or line editing fiction. The example used is my own process, with the caveat that it is one of many approaches, no better or worse than someone else’s; and it is dynamic, constantly being refined as I learn more. (For another view, see the three-part series “The 3 Stages of Copyediting: I — The Processing Stage,” “II — The Copyediting Stage,” and “III — The Proofing Stage”). The point is to share ideas with editors unfamiliar with the tools, and invite editors who do use them to share their own ways. Noneditors, meanwhile, can gain a better understanding of what goes on behind the scenes.

The tasks for which I use software tools divide into pre- and postediting, which I call preflight and cleanup. The preflight pass removes minor errors and inconsistencies that cause distraction during content editing, while the cleanup pass lets me catch anything left over or introduced. In both, the tasks are global sweeps using applications selected from packages designed for editors: Editor’s ToolKit, EditTools, Computer Tools for Editors, and PerfectIt (described below), plus some of my own. During the editing pass, however, I stick with Microsoft Word’s internal features: Track Changes to show content revisions and queries, and find/replace to make any global changes that result from editorial decisions as I go. Simultaneously I use an Internet browser for reference checks and lookups.

Preflight tasks

When a manuscript arrives, I immediately make a new copy for editing, leaving the original file intact. Occasionally a client will submit the book as separate chapters, in which case I consolidate them into one file, because I find it easier and faster to work with the book as a unit. Then I employ the following tools:

  1. Editorium’s FileCleaner — This does exactly what its name suggests: cleans up extraneous elements in the text, such as extra spaces, tabs, and carriage returns; errors such as mistyped numbers (e.g., lowercase L for numeral 1); and incorrect characters, such as straight quotation marks instead of “smart” or typographer-style quotes. I don’t allow the automatic fixes for dash style, small cap usage, and italics, because I deal with those separately on a manuscript-by-manuscript basis.
  2. EditTools’ Never Spell WordI’ve customized this tool to flag terms I frequently misread: lets/let’s, its/it’s, woman/women, vice/vise, form/from, awhile/a while, lead/led, and the like. Never Spell highlights these terms so you can’t miss them. Either I review them in a dedicated pass, making corrections then clearing out the highlights, or I review them individually while editing, and unhighlight one at a time.
  3. Paul Beverly’s ProperNounAlyse This macro from Beverly’s Computer Tools for Editors collection generates a list of words starting with a capital letter. I like this tool because it identifies different kinds of terms I use to build my style sheet (along with misspellings thereof). It gathers not only character and place names, but also unusual proper nouns that might appear in genre fiction, such as titles and honorifics, peoples, magical systems, planets, ships, autos, and firearms. As well, ProperNounAlyse grabs words that may be capped in one context, lowercased in another (e.g., Hell, Christ, God — are they exclamations or religious places/figures?) and OK (which I change to okay). If the author has provided a list of names and special terms, I combine it with the list generated as a second way to uncover spelling variants or term omissions. Unfortunately, ProperNounAlyse includes every word that starts a sentence, plus other information, so manual pruning must be done before the desired words can be transferred to the style sheet. The labor is tedious but relatively swift and saves me from oversights. As I come across the words while editing, I color-code them on the style sheet. That makes the leftovers stand out so I can investigate them. Without fail, this cross-check identifies something I missed or forgot to address.

The big variable: Formatting

Because I get manuscripts from many different publishers and authors, I’ve opted to format them myself rather than try to get everybody to conform to a standard. By formatting I mean making the presentation uniform and professional-looking, using Word’s Styles feature. All formatting is done with Track Changes turned off to avoid overloading the document with markups.

How much formatting I do influences my rate and turnaround time. With publisher jobs, formatting is a nonissue, because their manuscripts come in with Styles already applied, customized to house preference. All I have to do is adhere to their preferences while editing.

Indie author jobs, in contrast, often arrive in a messy state. A minority of authors understand how to use Styles or even do basic word processing, and many are as creative in their presentation as they are with their stories. For those manuscripts I turn on the hidden characters view to see whether paragraph indents are tabs or spaces, chapters are separated by page breaks or extra carriage returns, and so forth. I tidy things up using find/replace, then start at the top and set Styles for chapter heads, body text, epigraphs, and anything else relevant to the novel.

When I know in advance whether the author will be traditionally or self-publishing, I tailor ellipses and dashes as part of formatting. Print books commonly use ellipses with spaces between points and before/after ( . . . ); plus em dashes without spaces on either end ( — ). Ebooks, conversely, often use the ellipses character with no spaces between points (…), and maybe spaces before/after; plus en dashes with spaces on either end ( – ). Adjusting these via find/replace takes little time, though it expands if I add hard spaces to link the symbols to adjacent words to prevent bad line breaks. At present I’m testing different combinations in EditTools’ F&R Master to gain a quicker way to achieve the same end.

Recently I’ve added a separate styling pass for italics. Italic use, like dialogue, can be heavy in novels, and it’s a nightmare for everyone when italics vanish from a document during its passage between hands. Assigning a character style to italics preserves them from draft to publication. At the same time I can check that any punctuation following italics is properly italicized or roman.

Yes, formatting is extra work. But it makes life easier for both me and the people who follow. For me, Styles allows a one-step adjustment of the typeface for optimum onscreen reading, which I can then return to the client’s preference before delivery. For authors, a formatted file lets them just plug in their revisions and move on. For production folks, a consistently styled manuscript uploads into a page layout or ebook conversion program with fewer headaches.

Cleanup tasks

Being human, I err; therefore I use electronic tools to check my work before delivering the manuscript. But not before creating a fresh copy of the edited file. Then I run:

  1. Paul Beverly’s TestQuotes to catch unpaired quotation marks. His macro collection in Computer Tools for Editors also includes CheckParens to find unpaired parentheses, which I’ll run if the story contains parenthetical material.
  2. Manual searches for inverted quotes and apostrophes, leftover or introduced straight ones, incorrect or missing punctuation inside the quotes, extra spaces before and after all punctuation, missing periods at ends of lines, et cetera. I do these searches manually instead of rerunning FileCleaner, because there are just enough exceptions that I don’t dare do a background or global process. For the same reason, I haven’t bundled these individual searches into a custom macro.
  3. Intelligent Editing’s PerfectIt to catch mismatches in hyphenation, spelling, capitalization, and number usage. I turn off the tests unrelated to fiction; for instance, checking table and figure heads, abbreviations, and bullet lists. I also skip the test for contractions, having already checked for troublesome ones like it’s and let’s, you’re and we’re.
  4. Word’s spellchecker. This is the final task for every job. It always catches something I missed or change my mind about.

A final proofread always catches something, too, but not every job allows that, owing to constraints in scope of work, schedule, or budget. Electronic tools are doubly important in such cases. When I do proofread my edit, I change the manuscript’s appearance through type size, font, and line spacing (made easy when Styles have been applied) and turn off Track Changes. I also alter my physical setup, moving the file from desktop to laptop and myself from chair to couch. The combination makes the material seem new and lingering errors more visible.

One size does not fit all

As mentioned above, this system isn’t the be-all, end-all for manuscript editing. (“Your mileage may vary,” colleagues regularly say.) I offer my system to illustrate how and where in the process different tools can be used. And there are so many more to investigate! Just adopting my current set has been an investment that keeps paying back with increased speed and accuracy. Other combinations work better for other editors; we’d love to hear about yours.

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

October 26, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Editors, What Hat Do You Wear?

by Carolyn Haley

This essay springs from a recent evaluation I did of my marketing and proposal materials. I noticed that my website, public profiles, and bio blurbs had become stale and mismatching, and my pitch letters varied widely. Going forward I want to make my presence and approach more consistent across all business channels — especially since I claim consistency as an editorial asset.

The tricky part is, I wear multiple hats and serve fiction, nonfiction, and corporate clients. I need to pin the right words on the right hats to best communicate with my clientele.

This led to careful examination of words I take for granted, such as editor. I’d never looked up the definition before, so I turned to my trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online edition) and found this entry: “a person whose job is to edit something.” As I scrolled down, it expanded to “someone who edits, especially as an occupation.”

Hmmm. That’s so unhelpful, I almost laughed. Then I checked American Heritage Dictionary, whose online version offers the equivalent: “one who edits, especially as an occupation.”

Double-hmmm. I sensed a trend, and confirmed it by checking the online versions of three other esteemed dictionaries:

Cambridge [American English]: “a person who corrects and make [sic] changes to texts or films before they are printed or shown, or a person who is in charge of a newspaper, magazine, etc., and is responsible for all of its reports”

Oxford [U.S. English]: “1. A person who is in charge of and determines the final content of a text, particularly a newspaper or magazine; 2. a person who works for a publishing company, commissioning or preparing material for publication”

Macmillan: “1. someone whose job is to be in charge of a newspaper or magazine…[or] a particular section of a newspaper, magazine, or news organization…2. someone whose job is to edit books, documents, or movies…2.a. someone who produces a book by choosing, arranging, and explaining things that other people have written…2.b. someone whose job is to produce books for a publisher by finding writers and working with them”

From this sampling I deduced that most people don’t share the same definition of editor. That’s quite the paradox, given that an editor’s job is to improve the clarity and consistency of other people’s work!

Isn’t it?

Well, that depends on what kind of editor you are.

An editor is an editor is an editor…

Some editorial jobs are mainly business positions, such as editor-in-chief of a newspaper or managing editor of a publishing imprint. Other editorial jobs involve handling the content of manuscripts prior to publication. I belong to that cadre; specifically, the self-employed subset, with fiction my primary realm.

So I looked up specific titles that fiction editors use to describe themselves: copy editor, line editor, developmental editor. None of these were listed in the dictionaries and general publishing-vocabulary websites I checked. Of the few editing titles that did appear, most were associated with periodicals (e.g., night editor, sports editor, fashion editor).

When I focused on book-publishing websites, however, familiar titles emerged: acquisitions editor, production editor, project editor, content editor, developmental editor, substantive editor, line editor, and copy editor. Still, none shared the same definition; and in the real world, some titles are used interchangeably, such as copy/line editor, line/substantive editor, substantive/developmental editor, developmental/content editor.

Compounding the confusion, editor is used in multiple industries: publishing, journalism, film, computer technology. On top of that, professional editorial organizations in publishing name themselves ambiguously. For example, the American Copy Editors Society’s website claims membership is open to “editors from all backgrounds and skill levels,” but what in their name would move a developmental editor to consider joining?

The Editorial Freelancers Association is named clearly — “any full- or part-time freelancer may join” — but it excludes the staff editors freelancers often work with, even though when filling out the form to join, they must choose from check boxes covering their experience, which may include salaried positions. Does their membership expire if they go back to an in-house job?

The Editors’ Association of Canada, meanwhile, welcomes all (“salaried and freelance, work with individuals and organizations in the corporate, technical, government, not-for-profit, academic and publishing sectors across the country and around the world in English and French”), though their name invites the assumption it’s for Canadians only.

Based on the above, I no longer wonder why people don’t understand our profession, or why editorial pay rates differ wildly, or why writers seeking editorial help struggle to connect with us.

Labeling one’s hats

In the absence of universal editorial definitions and job titles, it’s up to editors and publishers to communicate who we are and what we do. For me, as an independent contractor, the first step is simple and obvious: When contacted by publishers to edit manuscripts, I must ask exactly what they mean so our expectations are mutually understood. The second step takes more initiative: When presenting my services to the world in general (via website, public profiles, bio blurbs) and potential clients (via proposals to independent authors), I must provide precise definitions of each task.

I’ve been working on that for a while, and have settled on boilerplate service definitions to submit to prospective clients and post on my websites. The definitions show editing as a three-stage process — macro, middle, micro — with my preferred labels for each task. But because these tasks build on each other in complexity and cost, and my indie clients are often concerned with simplicity and inexpensiveness, I stack them in micro-to-macro order in my presentations:

Copyediting (Polishing)

A nuts-and-bolts exercise done when the work is complete and ready for submission or production. Copyediting involves minimal touching of text by the editor, and focuses on clarity, consistency, and comprehension while preserving author voice. It includes checking spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation, also light fact checking and sometimes formatting. Queries may flag the author’s pet words or patterns, or phrasing that creates unintentional effects or reader distraction. The editor generally performs the edit in one round then returns the manuscript to the author, who accepts/rejects the changes and moves on.

Substantive/line editing (Refining)

Line-by-line attention to language and flow of a manuscript that is essentially complete but still in process. Substantive editing includes the basic t-crossing and i-dotting of copyediting but expands to embrace content, analyzing and revising text at the sentence and paragraph levels while still preserving author voice. Queries may address narrative arc, viewpoint, pacing, theme, genre conventions, scene logistics, and character development. No editorial rewriting is done beyond minor cutting or consolidating, transition smoothing, or paragraph resequencing for clarity. The editor generally performs the edit in one round and returns the manuscript to the author, who either accepts/rejects the changes and moves on, or further revises based on the editorial feedback. Follow-up revision checking or copyediting are separate transactions.

Developmental editing (Building)

The roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in process that embraces a work’s overall concept, flow, and structure early in the writing (or midway if it’s stuck). Developmental editing is the most hands-on work by the editor, and the most interactive collaboration between editor and author; it takes the most time, costs the most money, and has the most profound impact on an author’s work. Developmental editing generally requires at least two rounds of backing and forthing, with the author expected to rewrite sections, sometimes even recast the whole work. Subsequent refinement and polish editing are separate transactions, usually done by different people.

For very-low-budget folks, I also offer a nonediting manuscript evaluation in lieu of developmental editing. This gives authors some professional guidance in revising their work without a heavy outlay, and gives me a nice analytical project without heavy labor. Usually I get the improved manuscript back months later for a substantive or copy edit. Clients who skip the evaluation usually choose substantive editing.

Moving forward

Once these definitions were sorted out, several good things happened. I not only improved the balance between my fees and services (formerly charging too much for copyediting, not enough for substantive editing, and all over the map for developmental editing), which makes me more competitive, but also gave prospects better information to work with. The combination eliminated time-wasting inquiries for them and fruitless pitches for me; thus, my landing rate for new projects doubled for half the investment of time. And these new projects have been free of the mismatched expectations that can befoul a job. So far, all have come to happy conclusions.

It’s funny how the most basic editorial resource — the dictionary — with its inconsistency of editorial definitions helped resolve my personal business inconsistencies. Can that simple exercise work on a broader scale? In this new era of publishing, editors come toward authors from a bewildering variety of directions, using different vocabularies and offering different expectations. Would standardizing our job titles and services change the perception of editing as a profession? Could this lay the groundwork for the much-discussed idea of creating a U.S. certification program? Is it possible to label our hats uniformly, or is the profession too broad to ever share a common definition in the public eye?

For now, we’re all mavericks. Leading me to wonder: What editorial hat(s) do you wear?

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

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