An American Editor

July 4, 2022

Keyboard movement shortcuts for writers and editors, Part 3 of 3

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:51 pm
Tags: , ,

Tips for customizing your keyboard

By Geoffrey Hart

In my previous article about automatic text (, I discussed how paying attention to what we type most often can help us create typing shortcuts that make our writing and editing work go much faster. That’s all very well, but if you pay attention while you’re editing a manuscript (including revising your own manuscripts), you’ll notice that moving around a manuscript probably consumes more time than repeatedly retyping certain words or phrases. If you’re reaching for the mouse each time you want to move the cursor to a new position or holding down an arrow key, you’re wasting significant amounts of time.

In my article “Save time by mastering the basics: efficient movement within a file,” I showed how mastering only three keyboard shortcuts saved me up to 20 minutes per day compared with using the mouse or just holding down the arrow keys to move the cursor. In this article, I’ll go much further and show you all the keyboard shortcuts I currently use to move around a document.

Note: Although I’ve emphasized the time savings permitted by these shortcuts, I also want to remind you of the “repetitive” part of “repetitive stress injury.” As we grow older, our bodies take longer to recover from hours of clicking the mouse and pressing the keyboard’s movement keys. Anything we can do to limit that repetition reduces the stress on our bodies and improves our recovery times.

In Effective Onscreen Editing and Write Faster With Your Word Processor, I provide a high-level overview of how these customizations work, supported by examples. However, given space constraints, I provided only a few examples. To remedy that lack, I’ve written this article to provide a comprehensive list of the movement shortcuts I use most frequently every time I sit down to write or revise a manuscript.

Because most writers and editors use Microsoft Word, I’ll focus on how Word implements these movement shortcuts. Most other word processors should offer similar features, although you’ll have to do a bit of research to learn how.

Customizing the keyboard

To use the movement shortcuts in this article, you’ll first need to learn how customize your keyboard shortcuts in Word:

· Mac: Open the “Tools” menu and select “Customize keyboard.”

· Windows: Open the “File” menu, select “Options,” select the “Customize Ribbon” tab, and click the “Customize keyboard” button.

For built-in Word commands, select the category of command at the left of the dialog box (e.g., “Home tab” for commands that appear in the Ribbon’s Home tab), and the specific command at the right side of the dialog box. You can scroll down through the list of commands, or click inside the list and start typing the first letters of a command’s name to move directly to that command. At the bottom of the dialog box, choose which template or document should store the shortcut. If you choose “Normal.dotm,” the shortcut will be available in any document on your computer. However, you could also create customized shortcuts for specific purposes, such as if you need to move to HTML < > tags so you can edit them, and store those shortcuts in a separate template or document. Another interesting example: If you’re writing or editing a novel and need to move to each instance of a character’s name to ensure that your physical description of the character is correct, you could use the instructions later in this article to create a search shortcut (e.g., press the F1 key) that moves to the next instance of the character’s name.

To assign a keyboard shortcut, click to position the cursor in the “Press new keyboard shortcut” field and type the new shortcut. If that shortcut has already been assigned to a command, Word will display the command that is currently associated with that shortcut. If you don’t want to replace that command, press the Backspace key to delete the keyboard shortcut and try again with a new shortcut. If you don’t use that particular command and want to use the shortcut for your own purposes, click the “Assign” button.

Note: Keyboard shortcuts are stored in the Normal.dotm template unless you specify another destination, so if you’ve done a lot of work customizing Word, be sure to include that template in your backups. To find the template’s location:

· Mac: Open the “Word” menu, select “Preferences,” then select the “File Locations” tab.

· Windows: Open the “File” menu, select “Options,” select the “Advanced” tab, and then scroll down towards the bottom of the dialog until you see the “File Locations” button. Click the button.

If you select the category “User templates,” the path to your templates appears at the right side of the dialog box. You won’t be able to see the whole path, so click the “Modify” button. Word then displays a standard “File Open” dialog box that you can navigate to learn the whole path to your templates. Because this folder is buried annoyingly deep in your computer’s file system, move to that folder only once, but create a shortcut (Windows) or alias (Mac) that points to this directory and move that alias to your desktop or Documents folder. You can now reach your custom templates in a single step.

Most of the keyboard shortcuts I’ve proposed in this article will work equally well in Macintosh and Windows versions of Word, although some have already been assigned to a specific commands that I never use; if you use them, you’ll need to choose a different shortcut. Choosing shortcuts is easier for Mac users because the Mac operating system doesn’t use the Control key for most functions, unlike in Windows. Thus, the Control key on a Mac is available for all shortcuts, whereas you may not want to override certain Windows keyboard shortcuts based on the Control key (e.g., Control+C to copy text).

Note: Mac keyboards have an “Option” key that occupies the same position as the “Alt” key in a Windows keyboard. I use “Alt/Option” to indicate that your shortcut should use whichever of these two keys appears on your keyboard.

If you’ve set Word to warn you if the Normal.dotm template changes, you’ll receive this warning once you finish customizing your keyboard shortcuts and quit Word for the day. Always confirm that you want to save the changes; otherwise, you’ll have to recreate all the customizations. To ensure that I don’t get busy with other things and forget, I’ll often quit Word as soon as I finish a batch of customizations, and save those changes when Word asks me to confirm that I really want to update the template.

How to use this article

This article contains a great many shortcuts, and it would be unwise (and probably discouraging) to try memorizing them all in a single go. You’ll find it much more effective to pick a few of the shortcuts that seem likely to save you the most time, and practice them until they become part of your muscle memory and you can use them without thinking. In the time you save once you’ve learned these shortcuts, pick a few new shortcuts and practice them too. Soon, you’ll find that you’re using most of these commands (possibly with a quick glance back at this article for a refresher) without much thought and zipping around documents like a honeybee who drank too much espresso.

Note: The shortcuts I’ve chosen make perfect sense to me. They may be meaningless and confusing to you. Choose shortcuts that make sense to you, since you’re the one who will be using them.

I recommend that you record your keystroke definitions in a simple table created in Word. This way, you can periodically consult the table to see which ones you’ve forgotten to use or should be using more often. It also lets you easily implement your shortcuts on another computer, if necessary. Although you could copy the Normal.dotm template to your new computer, I’ve found that moving a template from Mac Word to Windows Word sometimes creates problems, such as a loss of certain customizations. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found fewer problems when I recreated customizations under both operating systems.

The movement shortcuts I’ll describe in this article can be divided into three categories:

· Based on built-in Microsoft Word commands that don’t, “out of the box,” have keyboard shortcuts associated with them.

· Based on macros that record a series of movements so you can perform those movements again with a single keystroke.

· Created using the Search (Find) function to move to a specific pattern of text, and implemented using a recorded macro.

Built-in commands

As noted in the previous section, you’ll use the Customize Keyboard dialog box to find the commands you need. Once you’ve found them, try using the following shortcuts:

MovementBuilt-in commandSuggested keyboard shortcutExplanation
Start of current sentenceSentLeftControl+Alt/Option+HomeSentLeft should also move to the start of a sentence in right-to-left languages.
End of current sentenceSentRightControl+Alt/Option+EndSentRight should also move to the end of a sentence in right-to-left languages.
Next tracked changeToolsRevisionMarksNextControl+Alt/Option+[down arrow] 
Previous tracked changeToolsRevisionMarksPrevControl+Alt/Option+[up arrow] 

Shortcuts based on macros

Once again, you’ll use the “Customize Keyboard” dialog box to find the commands you need. However, for this category of commands, you’ll first need to create a macro — which isn’t nearly as intimidating as it seems. Once you’ve recorded the macro and confirmed that it works by running it a couple times, open the “Customize Keyboard” dialog box and scroll through the “Category” list until you reach “Macros.” You can then select your new macro from the list at the right side of the dialog box and assign a keyboard shortcut.

To record a macro:

· Select the Ribbon’s “View” tab, open the menu beside the “Macros” icon, and select “Record macro.”

· Name the macro and specify which file it should be stored in (usually Normal.dotm so it will be available in all files on your computer).

· Perform the series of actions you want to record. Don’t feel pressured: Word doesn’t monitor how long it takes for you to finish the actions and will wait patiently until you’re done.

· Open the menu beside the “Macros” icon and click “Stop Recording.”

If you’re uncomfortable with recording macros, you can instead create them by copying the macro instructions someone else has created. I’ve provided the macro instructions I use later in this article. To copy the instructions I’ve provided:

· Open the menu beside the “Macros” icon.

· Select “View Macros.”

· Select any macro (it doesn’t matter which) and click the “Edit” button.

· You’ll now see Word’s macro editor, which looks intimidating. Don’t be intimidated: you can ignore all of the interface except the window at the right side of the screen that shows the macro instructions.

· Click to position the cursor before the word “Sub” that precedes the macro name you selected, and then press Enter to create a new blank line. Alternatively, click to position the cursor after the words “End Sub” and then press enter to create a new blank line.

· Copy the macro instructions from this article.

· Paste them into the blank line you created in the macro editor.

· Press Control+S (Windows) or Command+S (Mac) to save your changes.

· Press Command+Q (Mac) or Alt+F4 (Windows) to close the macro editor. Don’t worry: you won’t be closing Word itself!

Movement to recordSuggested keyboard shortcutExplanation or macro instructions
5 words/positions to the rightControl+5Sub MoveFiveWordsRight() Selection.MoveRight Unit:=wdWord, Count:=5 End Sub
5 words/positions to the leftControl+Alt/Option+5Sub MoveFiveWordsLeft() Selection.MoveLeft Unit:=wdWord, Count:=5 End Sub

I chose five because that seems to be the most common large within-sentence move I make in the manuscripts I edit. If five doesn’t fit the way you work, it’s easy to change that: Simply edit the macro, and replace the “5” with whatever number of spaces you want to use. Here and for subsequent macros, you can also copy the macro instructions (starting with the “Sub” line that contains its name and ending with the “End Sub” line and paste the instructions into the macro editor. Change the name and the details. For example, to move only four words left, change the name to MoveFourWordsLeft() and change the “count” to 4.

Combine the search function with macros

For this category of movement shortcut, you’ll use the same method described in the previous section to record a macro. This time, however, the macro uses the Search (Find) function to move to the next or previous instance of the thing you’re searching for. To record macros in this category:

· Select the Ribbon’s “View” tab, open the menu beside the “Macros” icon, and select “Record macro.”

· Name the macro and specify which file it should be stored in (usually Normal.dotm so it will be available in all files on your computer).

· Start the action you’ll record by opening the search dialog box.

· Type the search term you’re looking for, and apply any additional characteristics that are relevant (e.g., a specific font, boldface format). The search string can include any characteristics specified under the “Format” menu and any characters listed under the “Special” menu at the bottom of the dialog box.

· Click the “Find” button, then close the dialog box.

· Select the Ribbon’s “View” tab, open the menu beside the “Macros” icon, and select “Stop Recording.”

The macro you’ve just recorded will find what you’re looking for and politely close the dialog box to get it out of your way. In the following table, I’ve provided shortcuts for most searches to move to the previous instance and the next instance of the search string. However, if (like me) you find yourself running out of memory space to remember all these shortcuts, it’s not necessary to do this. You could instead use your macro to move to the next or previous instance of the search term. You can then press the Control+PageDown (Windows) or Command+PageDown (Mac) shortcut once to move to the next instance, then press Control+PageUp (Windows) or Command+PageUp (Mac) shortcut twice to move to the previous instance. These shortcuts are worth learning because you can also use them in searches that are not recorded as macros.

Note: These macros can be revised or copied and revised easily to use new search patterns. For example, if you want to find only whole words, change the “MatchWholeWord” text to “True” (without the quotes). For movements such as “next comma,” you could also create a macro for “previous comma” simply by changing the “Forward” text to “False” (without the quotes).

Movement to recordSuggested keyboard shortcutExplanation or macro instructions
Next periodControl+[period key]Sub MoveToPeriod()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “.”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindAsk         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next commaControl+[comma key]Sub MoveToComma()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “,”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next semicolonControl+[semicolon key]Sub MoveToSemicolon()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “;”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next colonControl+Shift+[semicolon key]Sub MoveToColon()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “:”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next punctuation (any)Control+Alt/Option+[right arrow]If you don’t want to record separate shortcuts for each punctuation symbol, you can use this shortcut instead.   Sub MoveRightToPunctuation() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “[.,;:\?\!]”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = True         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous punctuation (any)Control+Alt/Option+[left arrow]If you don’t want to record separate shortcuts for each punctuation symbol, you can use this shortcut instead.   Sub MoveLeftToPunctuation() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “[.,;:\?\!]”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindAsk         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = True         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next numberControl+3Mnemonic: The number sign (#) appears above the 3 on your keyboard.   Sub MoveToNumber() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “^#”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous numberControl+Alt/Option+3Sub MoveToPreviousNumber() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “^#”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next letterControl+4Mnemonic: Programmers use the $ to represent a letter rather than a number, and the $ appears above the 4 on your keyboard. Alternatively: The 4 appears beside the 3 that I used to search for numbers, so you can search for letters and numbers using adjacent keys.   Sub MoveToNextLetter()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “^$”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous letterControl+Alt/Option+4Mnemonic: Programmers use the $ to represent a letter rather than a number, and the $ appears above the 4 on your keyboard. Alternatively: The 4 appears beside the 3 that I used to search for numbers, so you can search for letters and numbers using adjacent keys.   Sub MoveToPreviousLetter()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “^$”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindAsk         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next left bracketControl+9Mnemonic: The left bracket appears above the 9 on your keyboard.   Sub MoveToLeftBracket() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “(”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous left bracketControl+Alt/Option+9Mnemonic: The left bracket appears above the 9 on your keyboard.   Sub MoveToPreviousLeftBracket() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “(”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next right bracketControl+0Mnemonic: The right bracket appears above the 0 on your keyboard.   Sub MoveToRightBracket() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “)”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous right bracketControl+Alt/Option+0Mnemonic: The right bracket appears above the 9 on your keyboard.   Sub MoveToPreviousRightBracket() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “)”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False         .MatchByte = False         .MatchFuzzy = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next left square bracketControl+[Sub MoveToNextLeftSquareBracket()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “[”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next right square bracketControl+]Sub MoveToNextRightSquareBracket()     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “]”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next bookmarkControl+Shift+BI use [ ] as a bookmark because it’s short and won’t appear in most manuscripts. If you prefer, choose your own bookmark character!   Sub FindNextBookmark() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “[]”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous bookmarkControl+Alt+Option+ Shift+BI use [ ] as a bookmark because it’s short and won’t appear in most manuscripts. If you prefer, choose your own bookmark character!   Sub FindPrevBookmark() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “[]”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next instance of selected textControl+Alt/Option+FSelect the text you want to find before you run the macro. This macro then copies it to the clipboard and pastes it into the search dialog box.   Sub FindSelectedText()     Selection.Copy ‘ Define selection as variable     Dim MyFoundText$     MyFoundText$ = Selection     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find        .Text = MyFoundText$         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindAsk         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Previous instance of selected textControl+Alt/Option+Shift+FSelect the text you want to find before you run the macro. This macro then copies it to the clipboard and pastes it into the search dialog box.   Sub FindSelectedTextPrevious() Selection.Copy ‘ Define selection as variable     Dim MyFoundText$     MyFoundText$ = Selection     Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find        .Text = MyFoundText$         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = False         .Wrap = wdFindAsk         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub
Next yearControl+YI use this for checking literature citations using the author/date system. Note that you can edit this macro to find any repeating pattern of characters (e.g., change ^# to ^$ to find a pattern with four consecutive letters).   Sub FindYear() Selection.Find.ClearFormatting     With Selection.Find         .Text = “^#^#^#^#”         .Replacement.Text = “”         .Forward = True         .Wrap = wdFindContinue         .Format = False         .MatchCase = False         .MatchWholeWord = False         .MatchWildcards = False         .MatchSoundsLike = False         .MatchAllWordForms = False     End With     Selection.Find.Execute End Sub


April 24, 2022

On the Basics: Networking (in person) is back!

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 2:43 pm

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Within a few days of my writing a post about the return of in-person networking for my National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) blog when the April 24 issue of the Washington Post published a related article, entitled “New faces, old habits: Office returns feel awkward; Workers used to the comfort of their homes grapple with rusty social skills and handshake uncertainty.” Clearly, I was onto something! Here’s my take on the current conditions, much of which is in my NAIWE blog post.

The past few weeks have been so exciting for this super-extrovert because it looks like in-person networking is back, and I’m loving every opportunity to connect, or re-connect, with colleagues in real life. I’ve been on a plane, at a sizable conference, in a restaurant, at a couple of local events … life is starting to feel almost normal again. (I’ve been vaccinated and boosted; have at-home COVID testing kits; and am still masking, especially in airports and on flights.)

Of course, networking never really went away during the past two years or so of coping with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s been conducted remotely, and I’ve really missed getting together in person, both formally and informally. I’m very appreciative of the ways we’ve been able to stay connected through social media and online events, and I don’t see those virtual or remote interactions ending any time soon; I had three Zoom meetings just the week of publishing this post (and three the following week on one day alone!), and I love the way that technology can connect us with colleagues (and family and friends) all around the world. It’s just so much more energizing — at least to me — to meet in person again.

Networking over Zoom, e-mail or social media has its own conventions. We need to know about making our Zoom presence its most effective and professional, which means remembering to wear something appropriate for the event, placing lighting in front of our computers and faces, reducing noise and interruptions as much as possible, using the mute function out of courtesy to other participants (as well as to reduce that noise), and trying to read participants’ faces and voices to understand both intent and spoken words. It also means showing up as promised — so many online events have been free that a lot of people got into the habit of RSVPing and bagging the commitment at the last minute — and doing our best to contribute something positive and constructive to conversations rather than wasting time on irrelevancies.

Now that we’re going back to networking in person, I’ve noticed a few aspects that we might want to keep in mind for that next event, whether it’s an organization chapter session, large-scale conference or your own webinar/speech presentation.

  • Remember the process.

Networking is still a two-way process. Colleagues are usually more than willing to provide advice, resources and shoulders to lean on, but expect to see some response as well. For every time you use your network to get something, try to give something back — an answer to a question, a newfound or newly appreciated resource, etc.

  • Look your best!

We can get away with minimal “dress for success” efforts for Zoom and other virtual platforms, but for in-person events, it’s time to make the effort to look professional again. That doesn’t have to mean a three-piece suit or stockings and high heels, but it also doesn’t mean T-shirts and jeans, at least for most of the events we’re likely to attend. I tend to prefer dressing up a bit to dressing down, so you won’t see me in anything super-informal or sloppy, but I’ve had to stop myself before heading out the door and remember to add earrings and a dash of lipstick to what I’m wearing.

It also doesn’t hurt to keep a few breath mints at your door, in your car, and in your pockets and briefcase or other bags. Now that we’re breathing on people again, we want those breaths to be fresh and enjoyable!

  • Take along a mask.

Most of the in-person events I’ve attended recently have not required that we wear masks, but I take them along anyhow, even though I’m fully vaccinated and boostered. Some venues still require them (at least some airports and planes are leading the pack), and we don’t always know the people we’ll meet well enough to assume that they’ve taken those basic precautions over the past year or two.

  • Carry those cards.

Business cards remain important. Even when a lot of attendees use their phones to record contact info of newly met colleagues, I still prefer to get and give business cards, and many people seem to agree — every meeting I’ve attended so far this year has included being asked for, and asking others for, business cards. I’d rather go home with all of my cards still in hand than be the person who says, “Oh, it’s been so long that I went to a real meeting that I forgot all about business cards.” I keep a stash of cards in every jacket pocket, briefcase and handbag, and in my car, so I don’t become that person.

I also use business cards with nametags, especially tags hanging from lanyards. You know how those hanging tags can flip over when you aren’t paying attention to them? I tuck a business card on the other side of the nametag so if it does flip over, people still see my name and affiliation rather than a blank surface. If I’m wearing something without pockets, I put a few cards in the nametag holder so I don’t have to fumble around when someone asks for one.

Your card is part of your marketing strategy. Don’t leave home without it!

  • Show up.

In-person events cost money, either for the venue or the refreshments, if not both. If you sign up for an event, show up unless there’s a really, really good reason not to. The host, whether an individual or an organization, is counting on you and probably wasting money on you if you’re a last-minute cancellation.

  • Speak up.

Getting together in person might mean refreshing your “elevator speech” skills. Take some time at home to practice introducing yourself so you aren’t taken aback when someone asks what you do.

  • Keep hands off.

Figure out a smooth escape from shaking hands or unsolicited hugs if you are not yet comfortable with physical contact, and don’t be the one who tries to hug everyone else. Yes, it’s great to be back together in person, but even mild physical contact can still feel risky. Elbow bumps are still perfectly acceptable ways of saying hello in person.

Business planning as networking activity

For me, an important part of networking is to take a few moments early in a new year to think about what did and didn’t work for my writing and editing business in the past one, and what I might do more or better in the new one. Mentioning that here plays into my networking strategy (yes, I have a strategy!) because sharing those thoughts could help colleagues enhance their professional efforts for the year. That also might mean you think of me when you need someone to help with or take on a project for some reason.

These are some of my resolutions for my editorial business in 2022; I hope they are useful to my NAIWE colleagues.

  • Remain or become more visible in at least one professional membership organization to enhance credibility and expand networking.
  • Update membership profiles, and look for new organizations to join and network in.
  • Review style guides and check for any updates, revisions, additions and other changes that might affect work for various clients — and share them with colleagues as part of my networking services.
  • Learn a new skill or service to offer to existing clients; something new about the topic area of a client; or an entirely new topic to write or speak about, edit, or proofread (or index, photograph, illustrate or otherwise work on) to expand my business.
  • Refresh my website (or create one if you don’t have one yet) to reflect recent projects, client testimonials, new skills or training, and whatever else will make me look good to past, current and prospective clients — and colleagues, who might want to know enough about me to be comfortable recommending, referring or working with me.
  • Draft a few potential posts to use for my own blog or as a guest on colleagues’ blogs; being a guest blogger is a great way to network, and having posts ready to go will make it more likely that I’ll actually get them out there. And yes, that includes drafting a few “evergreen” pieces for this blog!
  • Make networking an active, constant part of every business day, or at least every week, by giving something back to colleagues or communities.
  • Establish or refresh a connection with a family member, friend or colleague to back up passwords and access to phone, e-mail, social media, banking and other important accounts — just in case. The networking aspect? Making it easier for family, friends and colleagues to help when I need them, and to be informed about my status if something should happen to me.
  • Save toward retirement! And think about colleagues to hand off work to when I’m ready for that life moment; that’s a version of networking.

Here’s wishing my colleagues here and in all of my professional groups a successful approach to networking together as — we hope — the world starts to tilt back toward what we think of as normal.

How are you enhancing your networking efforts in this new year?

Ruth E. “I can write about anything!”® Thaler-Carter ( is the owner of the An American Editor (AAE) blog and the A Flair for Writing publishing business, as well as Communication Central, which hosts the annual “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference with AAE and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE). She is known as the Queen of Networking for her active involvement in more than a dozen professional/membership associations, including serving as the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts.

March 9, 2022

Thinking Fiction: Passing Judgment on Other People’s Creative Work

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

Carolyn Haley

If you’re a fiction author or editor and want to up your game, try judging a writing contest. That will give you a view from the other side, which will give your own work more perspective and meaning.

It will also test your technical knowledge. Contests can cover anything from storycraft to full publishing packages. Some contests are for works in process, others for published works; some are for short fiction, others for novels.

There are so many contests that the subject warrants its own essay. This essay is about my personal experience in judging independently published novels, since that’s the realm wherein I work. I figured that decades of editing, writing, producing, and reviewing novels qualified me to judge them in a competition.

The game-changer

The main challenge in judging creative works is how to balance subjectivity against objectivity. My first two contests involved just a handful of criteria and a handful of books. Evaluation was easy, so I eagerly stepped up to another level. The third contest, however, felt like a college course from which I barely graduated after exuding much blood, sweat, and tears.

The contest is a well-known one with status in indie publishing. Entrants pay a hefty fee to participate. The fees, however, do not add up enough to support cash prizes, or to pay the many judges. We judges volunteer for whatever reasons. Mine were curiosity and a desire to learn, with the fantasy that someday I would qualify to judge at the top tier.

As a multi-genre editor and reviewer secure in my skills, I was floored when assigned my category: Best First Novel. This required evaluating a mix of genres for “best package wins.” I might as well have been judging apples against bananas to decide which was the best fruit.

My titles included science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, magical realism, thrillers, a contemporary Western, two short-story collections, and a couple I’m not sure how to define.

The judging criteria comprised story content, story craft, story appropriateness to genre, mechanical correctness of the writing, quality of editing and proofreading, cover design (back, front, and spine, including images and typography), interior design (including images and typography), completeness (i.e., did it include an ISBN, title page, copyright page), and quality of paper and binding. Considering these factors exercised all the publishing-related skills and knowledge I’ve acquired over my career.

The judging system was numerical (scale of 1 to 10) per criterion, each book independent from the rest. The criteria were designed to make liking or disliking any factor irrelevant. While I’m used to dialing back personal taste in my work, here I had to unplug it entirely. That was hard enough. But then came the catch:

After scoring each book objectively, we then had to rank them subjectively in the event of a tie. A tie might occur because a judge scored two or more books to the same total; also because every category had three judges who worked blind to one another. Just as the contestants had no knowledge of who was judging their work, the judges had no knowledge of who was judging the same material. If, for example, one of the top positions came out even when the numbers were totted up, there had to be some way to distinguish them and determine the awards.

The conundrum

Unlike many literary contests these days, this one was for printed books only, which added a storage and disposal challenge. Boxes of books arrived in two installments over four months. As a new judge, I received only 20 books, compared to dozens for the experienced judges. We were not required to read them all cover to cover (thank goodness!) but to do a thorough scan of beginning, middle, and end, with sampling checks in between, to gauge story structure, style, and mechanicals. I read half of mine all the way through.

Subjectively, I liked only one book and two of the covers. Objectively, I immediately saw two contenders for the package win. A few qualifiers for second and third eventually emerged. The rest fell into the slush pile, from which I had to select a top 10.

I found that rating the books individually, then rating them against one another, was painful. It also took far more time than I’d anticipated, so I had to drop other activities for the contest duration. At about the halfway point, I started counting down time until it would be over.

The results have not been announced as of this writing, so I do not know whether my efforts were worth it for the contestants. But, hair-tearing as the experience was, it was worth it to me in terms of continuing education as an editor and a writer.

Key learning points

Editing and writing are open-ended pursuits, in that you never stop learning and can always improve. As well, each informs the other, whether at a professional or personal level.

Here is what I learned after judging Contest #3.

• The importance of cover design

Each entrant had to state the novel’s target audience on the entry form, so judges could analyze the effectiveness of the author’s aim. In my group, almost every book wobbled or failed in this respect. Only one front cover clearly conveyed what to expect inside the wrapper. Back covers ranged from lame to dreadful, with one being unreadable. Others skipped a summary blurb and just pasted reviews over the complete space. I can’t imagine why, because readers are unlikely to pick up a book that gives no clue to what the story is about.

Which directly relates to …

• The importance of genre selection

As I’ve learned from editing many first novels by indie authors, there’s always a good story idea. The question is how well it’s executed. This includes targeting the appropriate audience. In my contest category, it appeared that most authors did not know who they were writing for, which created a disconnect between the story, the style, the cover, the blurb, and the author’s desired readership. Frequently, the cover suggested one genre and the rest of the package conveyed another. In such cases, the book is almost certainly doomed to commercial failure.

• The importance of copyediting and proofreading

A good story compensates a lot for weak production, and in the real world, some readers don’t notice or care about technical bloopers in prose. Indeed, plenty of indie authors take advantage of that to release sloppy products — and they still gain sales and positive reviews. They’re not going to win awards, however. At least not from this judge. In my opinion, a handful of bloopers is forgivable; we’re all human. But a truckload of bloopers conveys any combination of author/publisher ignorance, laziness, or disdain for readers. Given how much information on writing and publishing is available via the internet, books, articles, and classes, it’s hard to believe authors and publishers can be so clueless. Perhaps competitions are their own route to education.

• The importance of interior design

I hadn’t thought much about typography and margins and such before this contest, but after seeing so many bad layouts, I came to understand why interior design matters. Some books are physically hard to read. Skinny gutters in fat paperbacks motivate you to break the spine because the book is springing back at you all the time and curving the lines into the crease. Bad vertical spacing and long line length can lead to pages so densely packed you keep losing your place as you read. Small type size requires magnifying lenses even for people under 40. And relying on the automatic spacing of a word processing program can lead to gappy, hard-to-read text that a professional typographer would never let out the door.

• The importance of paying attention

Two entrants in my category submitted advance reader copies (ARCs), while everybody else submitted published finals. The contest rules didn’t specifically prohibit ARCs, but when they showed up in my pile, I tried to get the entries disqualified. I thought it unfair to judge works in process against published works, since they might change in any direction from what I held in my hand.

It turned out the contest organizers weren’t paying attention, either. Their wording of the submission requirements was easy to misinterpret, allowing me and most of my contestants to assume that the requirement for books to be copyrighted in the contest year meant that they had to be published in the contest year. After I pointed this out, I was assured the submission language would be adjusted for the following year. But for this year, I had to treat unequal entries as equal.

This gave me an attitude problem. The principle of the thing was one matter; there was also a personal grievance. In 2020, one of my own novels had been bounced from a different contest because of copyright date. My book was originally published traditionally in 2015; when the contract expired, I took back the rights, repackaged it, and self-published it with a 2020 copyright date. The contest organizers decided that its real copyright was 2015 and disqualified the entry.

It happens that my story was first written decades earlier, and thus entered legitimate copyright status the moment it came into existence. Each revision, technically, engendered a new copyright. By the time I self-published it, the story had gone through dozens of iterations. So what was the true copyright date?

Methinks from these examples that contest requirements have to be precise on this point. I encourage all authors and judges to read the fine print twice, and in case of doubt, query the organizers before committing to involvement.

The power of wallet

The final lesson from this experience was the importance of money. Many (most?) indie authors get a whopping great sticker shock when they choose to publish independently. To develop a book to the quality standards established by traditional publishing takes either thousands of dollars or massive hours of self-education; usually both.

In my stack of entries, I could almost calculate each author’s budget by where the money obviously did or did not go. Likewise, the authors’ knowledge of the publishing process (or lack thereof) was transparent. The winner in my category was evident the moment I pulled it from the box. Everything about the book was outstanding — writing, editing, cover, blurb, binding, interior all reflected author payment for professional services. No other entrant came close. Some made me cringe in embarrassment for the author because the books were so poorly done.

Low production quality has been a dominant factor in all three contests I’ve judged. They’ve convinced me that the traditional arm of the publishing industry has nothing to worry about from the indie arm for a while yet to come. Indeed, when I read for recreation and relaxation, I go straight to traditionally published books from reputable houses. Despite how much they have trimmed staff and tightened budgets in recent years, traditional publishers still leave indie publishers in the dust when it comes to physical product.

Of course, there are exceptions, but if my limited experience reflects reality, then only a small percentage of independently published novels present themselves on par with the average traditionally published novel.

This is something to think about for indie authors — and the editors who help them — desiring to get great reviews, win awards, and make money in the fiction marketplace. I knew this in theory before I started judging, but now I know it for sure.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at or through DocuMania. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

February 28, 2022

On the Basics: Thinking about retirement

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:51 pm

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

For many of us, it might be time to start thinking about retirement from our publishing-related lives, whether we work in-house or have our own businesses. Some things to consider are relevant either way, while some are more relevant to one or the other.

As many of you know, I’m a big fan of the Girl Scout motto “Be prepared.” I’ve written often about being prepared for emergencies. Retirement, ideally, should be pleasant, but it can become an emergency if we don’t think about and prepare for it ahead of time.

About the money, honey

The first and probably most important aspect of planning for retirement is to start saving money now, whether you’re 25, 35, 45, 55 or 65. One of my clients is an institute that studies retirement financing, and the statistics about retirement preparedness in the reports I’ve edited for them have been scary: Far too many people don’t save for that day, and then find that Social Security and Medicare aren’t enough to maintain the lifestyle they’re used to. If health problems crop up, the situation can get even worse.

And don’t get me started on the dangers of relying on expected pensions. My beloved Wayne-the-Wonderful retired from Bethlehem Steel with a decent pension and  excellent related benefits — and the company went out of business, after 100 years, the next year. His pension was slashed; his monthly bonus for taking what had looked like a generous early-out option (retiring a few years early because of his combined age and number of years with the company) disappeared; and our medical coverage went from free to so much per month to nothing, so we had to pay for health insurance. We were lucky because I was still working and we had very few expenses to worry about, but co-workers who had worked there even longer — 30, 40, even 50 years to his 27 — saw their pensions slashed in half or by even more, and many of their spouses had never worked outside the home. It was awful, and Beth Steel employees are not the only ones to suffer such treatment in recent years. The Pension Benefits Guarantee Corp. is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t cover all of what most people have earned and expect to receive.

For those who are single and worried about money, retirement might offer an interesting option that I just read about in the Washington Post: communal living — several friends or relatives sharing a home to save money and feel safer about the potential of needing help in a crisis. It isn’t for everyone, but that model might be a great way to make retirement feel less lonely and isolated. (The same model could be used for those who become widowed and don’t want to live alone.)

Identity issues

A big issue is preparing for the emotional aspects of being retired. Be prepared to feel at least a little disoriented and need some time to adjust to this new version of life, even if you’re stepping away from work you don’t enjoy. Many people feel lost when they don’t have a job to go to or do every day. Your identity, as well as the pattern of your days, also can be so wrapped up in the work you do that you no longer know who you are when you stop doing that work.

For people in various aspects of publishing, this might be easier to manage than for those in other careers or professions, because we can often keep writing, editing, proofreading, indexing, designing, photographing, etc. — for pay, as volunteers or for our own enjoyment — long after other people who do other kinds of work. We might even find new pleasure in doing the same kinds of editorial work on our own terms. If you never want to look at a blank page or someone’s manuscript again, though, that sudden gap in how to fill the hours of the day, and identify ourselves, can be hard to handle.

My mom was very worried when Wayne retired; she thought he might feel lost and confused when he couldn’t call himself a steelworker any longer. But he was thrilled! He was dedicated to his job, but delighted to retire and catch up on all the reading he didn’t have time or energy for when he was working; run errands whenever he felt like it (he loved going to the grocery store, of all places), rather than have to use his rare days off; spend more time with me; and plan trips longer than his official vacations allowed for … He had no interest in finding another job, either part- or full-time — he was the happiest retired person I ever saw.

Communicating before crises

If you’re part of a couple or family, retiring can change also the dynamics of how you interact with each other, especially if you’re suddenly home all day instead of at an office, warehouse, job site, station, whatever. You might have to reassess and rearrange some of the routines and relationships with the people around you, especially anyone who’s used to running the home. Those sit-com and advice column instances of a retired person driving their still-working or accustomed homemaker spouse nuts by reorganizing everything or wanting to change how everything gets done aren’t clichés; they’re real.

This might require formally sitting down to talk about the new life and its impact on everyone in the family. Communication is key. I had to do that when Wayne retired; he had never really seen me working and didn’t realize that I might not always be able to drop everything for the day trips, grocery runs and other adventures that he could take when he no longer had to go to work. We had to establish a new routine of my letting him know when I was on deadline and had to stay put for the day; in the past, that never arose because I got my projects done while he was at work. We still had unplanned, impulsive adventures, but sometimes I had to say no.

Alternative activities

Once you’ve figured out the financial side of retiring, think about not just how to spend your retirement income or cushion but how to spend your time. There might be hobbies, crafts or adventures you’ve been putting off because work was taking up all of your time and energy. Don’t be surprised if some of those “I’ll do it when I retire” options aren’t quite as fulfilling as you expected them to be, but don’t be surprised if you find a new identity and excitement about life when you try them.

For years, I’ve only traveled for business, other than vacations with Wayne. I often stay with or see friends and family when I’m out of town at a conference, but the event is the primary reason for the trip. My plan for if and when I ever retire is to travel for pleasure — to visit friends around the country and family outside the country just for fun.

Retirement might also give you the chance to try new creative outlets. I already have some hobbies (ceramics, glass art, sewing) that I expect to spend a little more time on now and a lot more time on then. And I plan to take up some new creative projects; maybe painting, maybe some other craft I’ve never tried before. I expect to write, edit and proofread indefinitely, but I might do more on a volunteer basis than I do nowadays.

Think ahead, but enjoy the now

I’m a big believer not just in being prepared, but also in living for the moment, because we never know when illness, injury or family issues can arise and derail even those best-laid preparations and plans. By the time you do retire from editing or other publishing work, your or a family member’s health and funds might not accommodate big trips or projects you put on hold “until I retire.” Now is the time to take those trips and look around for new hobbies, interests, activities and adventures — while keeping that retirement moment in mind.

Are you thinking about retirement? If so, how are you preparing? How do you think it will feel?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or

February 21, 2022

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 12:46 pm

Creating AutoCorrect entries: a description of the thought process, and many examples

© Geoffrey Hart

Like your smartphone, most word processors provide a feature that lets you type a few characters and magically replace them with many more characters as soon as you type a space or press Enter. Microsoft calls this AutoCorrect, which is also known as automatic text, shortcuts, autocomplete, and other (some unprintable) names. Simply speaking, this is a tool that makes computers into the kind of tool they’re supposed to be — one that makes our work go faster so we can spend more time thinking about what we’re doing and less time actually doing it. The more often you use these shortcuts in a given manuscript, the more time you save. But even if you only type them once per manuscript, they can save you hours if you do this for many manuscripts.

In Effective Onscreen Editing and Write Faster With Your Word Processor, I provide a high-level overview of how automatic text works. However, given space constraints in these books, I provided only a few examples. To remedy that lack, I’ve written this article to make the recommendations more concrete by providing many more examples, along with an explanation of why (given the type of editing I do) I created a specific type of AutoCorrect category or a specific AutoCorrect within that category. For simplicity, I’ll refer to these timesavers as “shortcuts” henceforth.

Note: Although I’ve emphasized the time savings permitted by shortcuts, I also want to remind you of the “repetitive” part of “repetitive stress injury.” As we grow older, our bodies take longer to recover from hours of pounding on the keyboard. Anything we can do to limit that repetition reduces the stress on our bodies and improves our recovery times.

Although this article focuses on editing, the same thought process can be applied by writers. For example, if you need to leave yourself a recurring type of note, you can create a shortcut for that kind of note (e.g., “Research the cost of this thing in 1850”). If you need to leave a specific note to your future editor, create a shortcut for that too (e.g., “Yes, this is a deliberate error (by the character, not me); don’t correct it”). If you write about people with really complex names (e.g., Charles Philip Arthur George, prince of Wales and earl of Chester, duke of Cornwall, duke of Rothesay, earl of Carrick and Baron Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, and Prince and Great Steward of Scotland), create a shortcut for each name to speed the typing and reduce typing errors.

Some context that shapes my approach

To understand the shortcuts I’ve created, it helps to understand my context. I work as a freelance editor and specialize in scientific editing for authors who have English as a second or third language, but who nonetheless must publish in English. As a result, many of my shortcuts are specific to that context: they focus on the kind of manuscript I edit (usually for a peer-reviewed science journal), and they include problems that regularly appear in such manuscripts, such as descriptions of mathematical conventions or problems related to graphs and tables. If you work in a different genre, you probably won’t find those specific shortcuts useful. However, paying attention to the kind of comments or replacement text you repeatedly type will reveal your own genre-specific shortcuts you should be creating. For example, academic editors may need a handful of shortcuts that specifically relate to footnotes and endnotes.

In my case, I’m in the fortunate position of being near the end of my career, so freeing up more time for my own projects is becoming more important to me than adding an extra hour of billable work. Thus, one of my goals is to teach my authors to write better, and many of my comments are explanatory in the hope that the author will learn not to repeat a mistake in future manuscripts. Because many of my authors are on a tight budget and I’m fairly expensive, I commonly describe a correction that needs to be done throughout a manuscript and leave them to do the actual work. That’s a win–win solution, since it both gives me more free time at the end of a day’s work and gives them a lower cost. Several of my shortcuts describe formatting work or research (e.g., to check details of a citation) that I am not likely to do for a manuscript that will be published in a peer-reviewed journal or if an author needs to reduce the cost of my work, but that I will likely do when I’m editing an entire book.

If you’re still early in your career, and don’t yet have a full work week, you may not be able to afford to reduce billable hours. However, time you save by using shortcuts can be spent on improving the quality of your edits or performing edits you might not otherwise have time to do before a tight deadline, leading to little or no net change in your billable hours. And, of course, if you bill by the word or by the job, saving time by typing less increases your effective hourly rate because you finish the same amount of work in less time.

One point you’ll note when we get to the actual shortcuts I use is that although some of my shortcuts are likely to work, unmodified, in a range of situations, many require small modifications to account for the unique characteristics of a specific sentence, paragraph, or manuscript. It’s still faster to let Word do most of the typing and then revise the wording, if necessary.

A final note about these shortcuts: some of them may contradict your own preferences or the recommendations of a specific style guide that you follow. In most cases, this is because my shortcuts resulted from the kinds of problems my authors face with publisher style guides or from the conventions of a genre that I work in. The “standard” guideline about minimizing abbreviation use, and the associated shortcuts for describing this problem, are good examples of things you may not see in a standard style guide, but that nonetheless occur regularly in my work. These kinds of learned wisdom will be specific to your type of work.

Technology notes about shortcuts

• Microsoft Word requires a minimum shortcut length of 3 characters, and allows a maximum of 256 characters. If you need more, you can either use a different form of automatic text (e.g., Word’s “building blocks” and “quick parts”) or you can “daisy chain” shortcuts so the first shortcut types the first part of the long text and ends with a second shortcut that types the rest of the text.

• Choosing an appropriate shortcut for a longer phrase is always a balancing act between choosing something short but harder to remember versus something longer and easier to remember, but harder to type. Objectively, there’s no optimal length. Whatever works best for you!

• There’s also a tradeoff between crafting a longer, grammatically correct sentence and a shorter fragment that is sufficiently clear that adding words to create a complete sentence only increases the amount of text the author must read.

• I’ve typed my shortcuts in lower-case because Word does not distinguish between “shortcut,” “Shortcut,” and “SHORTCUT.” If you want the shortcut to produce specific capitalization, add “caps” or “lc” to the name. For example, sclc = “shortcut lower case,” sccap = “Shortcut capitalized,” and scallcap = “SHORTCUT all capitalized.”

• If you create a shortcut that contains formatting (e.g., italics, a special font), select “formatted text” in the AutoCorrect dialog box so Word includes the format and you won’t have to apply it manually.

How to use this article

One thing you’ll notice is that the nomenclature I’ve used is inconsistent; in some cases, I’ve used a whole word; in other cases, I’ve used an abbreviation based on a word or phrase, and in some cases I’ve used an initialism. This is because the shortcuts I use have evolved over a period of nearly 30 years, and my brain was in a different space at different points during this period. (This falls under the heading of “it seemed like a good idea at the time, and now it’s hardwired into my fingers.”)

An additional problem is that after 35 years of editing, my memory isn’t what it used to be, and the terse shortcuts I used to remember with no problem are becoming problematic. I now find that longer words tend to be easier to remember, particularly for shortcuts I use less often. Rather than developing a consistent system of nomenclature for this article, I’ve retained the actual shortcuts that I use on a daily basis. If you’re developing your own system of shortcuts, you’ll probably find it easier to start with a logical naming system. Or, like me, you may accept something more ad hoc and chaotic. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you can use the system you develop.

Note: In Microsoft Word, I start all of my shortcuts with the ] character (i.e., a right square bracket). This accomplishes two important goals: First, it ensures that I rarely type a shortcut by mistake. Although I can use Command/Control+Z to undo any shortcut that I triggered by mistake, that gets tedious when I’m having a bad typing day. Second, this groups all of my shortcuts together at the top of Word’s enormous list of shortcuts, making it much easier to find and revise my shortcuts. I’ve omitted this character from my shortcuts in this article.

Because reading a long list of someone else’s shortcuts is tedious, I recommend that you pick a specific category that relates to the type of work you do. Spend a moment considering whether one of my shortcuts applies directly to your work. If so, feel free to copy it exactly, or modify it so it’s a better fit for your communication style or genre. If not, does it inspire you to create something similar for a different purpose? So much the better! (If so, add your suggestion in the comments section that follows this article so that others may benefit.)

That being said, here’s a list of my current shortcuts, with explanations of why I created them and how I use them.

Abbreviation use

ShortcutReplacement textNotes
abbAbbreviations should only be used for variables and complex phrases. They should also be used at least 3 times to justify creating the abbreviation. I have deleted abbreviations that do not meet these criteria.A common guideline for peer-reviewed journals
abb0You don’t use this abbreviation again anywhere.Mnemonic: 0 = zero more uses
abb1You only use this abbreviation 1 more time, which is not enough to justify creating the abbreviation.Mnemonic: 1 = 1 more use
abbabYou don’t use this abbreviation again anywhere in the Abstract. (Abbreviations must be redefined in the main text.)Mnemonic: abbreviation in Abstract

Explanations about what I did and why

ShortcutReplacement textNotes
approveI have made this change without tracking it so that you will not need to approve each correction.Often added to another explanation, such as why I italicized certain words.
captionsI will only edit the captions on the pages that contain the figures. Please replace this list with the final edited captions.Journals often require a list of figure and table captions separate from the captions that appear below the figure or above the table. Editing the same text twice increases the risk of error (i.e., that the author will miss a correction); it’s faster for the author to simply copy/paste the final edited caption.
emPlease feel free to e-mail me an explanation and I will help you choose clearer wording.Mnemonic: em = e-mail me.   A reminder that makes explicit what most authors already know implicitly after working with me for years, namely that I’m happy to work with them interactively.
etc“Etc.” should only be used when the next item in the list can be easily predicted (e.g., 1, 2, 3, etc.).Not a firm rule, but my authors commonly create lists where it would be important to specify the “etc.” rather than leaving readers to guess.
familyCapitalizing Asian family names this way decreases the risk of errors by Western journals.English journal staff, even today, have difficulty recognizing the correct family name. If they use the wrong family name when they enter a manuscript into a library database, readers may be unable to find an author’s research by searching for the correct family name.
figsAs you requested, I have not edited your figure captions or the contents of the figures. Please note that some changes in the main text may require similar changes in the figures or their captions.Authors sometimes ask me to not edit captions or content to save money. It’s not a good choice, so I remind them to check carefully whether they need to change the figure too if they accept one of my suggestions in the text.
tablesAs you requested, I have not edited your table titles or the contents of the tables. Please note that some changes in the main text may require similar changes in the tables or their titles.Same note as for “figs.”


ShortcutReplacement textNotes
bracketIn general, you should add a space before brackets. I have added this space everywhere without tracking it so that you will not need to approve each correction.The exception is in the bibliography, where journals often format the volume/issue numbers as “2(3),” with no space before the brackets.
figlocPlease consult the journal’s author guidelines. Most journals ask authors to place the figures and tables after the References section. If the journal requires this, you should not submit your paper before you make this change.Mnemonic: figloc = figure location.   Where an author specifically wants me to fix formatting, I do the research myself and move the figures to the correct location.
figtextMuch of the text in your figures is too small to read easily, and will become unreadable when the journal is published. ]figtext2Daisy chain: If I want to provide advice, I simply press the space bar to trigger the figtext2 shortcut (see the next item). If not, I press Command/Control+Backspace to delete the second shortcut.
figtext2Please prepare all figures at their final size (to fit within 1 or 2 columns of text in the printed journal), then print a copy. If the text is even slightly different to read, increase its size until it is easy to read.After adding this two or three times as a comment, the author doesn’t have to be reminded of it.
gridI turned off the grid that is used to align Asian characters because this can cause serious problems for Western reviewers. In addition, I have added continuous line numbering to make it easier for reviewers to define the location of their comments.This is less of a problem than it used to be, but older versions of Word are sometimes unable to display Asian fonts legibly, even though the characters in those fonts are English characters.
pcPlease consult a recent issue of the journal. The guidelines to authors did not specifyMnemonic: pc = please consult.   Mostly used when I have been asked to ensure compliance with a publisher’s guidelines. I can simply start typing to explain what wasn’t specified, or delete the last sentence if they asked me not to check compliance.
snvThis symbol was not visible on my computer. If you can see it here ( ) in this comment, please copy it into the text to ensure that it will be visible to all reviewers. If not, please use the correct character from the Symbol font.Mnemonic: snv = symbol not visible.   This is increasingly rare; most times, I can see the symbol and I simply replace it.
symbThis character or symbol was not visible on my computer. Please replace it with the correct character from the Symbol font to ensure that it will be visible to all reviewers.Similar to the snv shortcut, but used when I can’t see the character on either my Windows computer or my Mac.
timesI have set the text to use Times New Roman 12 points because this is the standard required by most journals. (Other fonts can cause problems for some reviewers.)If a publisher’s guidelines require a specific font, I replace Times with the correct font name.

Literature citations and bibliographic entries

ShortcutReplacement textNotes
1pOnly 1 page?Authors sometimes don’t provide the full page range. However, in some cases, what appears to be one page is actually the article’s reference number. If they’ve asked me to fully edit their References section, I add the missing page number myself.
2refsThere are 2 papers by these authors with the same year, so I have added “a” and “b” after the year to distinguish between them. Please ensure that both are cited somewhere as ?a, ?b, or both years. 
chinFor all references published in Chinese, add “(in Chinese)” or “(in Chinese with English summary)” to indicate the source of the English title.A courtesy to readers who won’t go to the trouble of finding and downloading a reference if they can’t read the language.
edsIf editors are listed for this proceedings, add their names here, followed by “(ed.)” for 1 editor or “(eds.)” for more than 1. 
elssrefsI have confirmed that all references are correctly cited in the text, but have not checked their format or contents. Please ensure that the details are correct and that you have followed the journal guidelines.A note for a specific client (ELSS) who doesn’t pay me to edit reference contents or format.
engrefFor general principles, you should provide a literature citation from the English international research literature. Remember that most journal reviewers cannot read a Chinese reference.Sometimes research has only been done in the author’s native language, and that’s okay. But for general information, authors should provide the information in the language the journal’s peer reviewers and subsequent readers can read.
etalPlease confirm that the journal accepts the use of “et al.” in the References section, and the minimum number of author names that must be provided (usually the first 3 names but sometimes 6 or 8 names). 
everyFor all comments related to formatting, please make the necessary changes in all references, not just the one containing the comment.Even if I haven’t been asked to edit the References section, I’ll usually point out something the author should fix throughout this section. I may repeat this a couple times just to remind the author they need to check all references.
histI moved this sentence here to present the research in historical order.This one exists because Chinese authors tend to use what English authors would consider reverse chronological order, and most English publishers prefer “oldest first” chronological order.
ip“In press” is only acceptable if the year of publication has been confirmed. If not, replace this year with “manuscript in preparation” and delete the paper from the References section until the publication date is confirmed. ]ip2Daisy chain: I separated this shortcut into “ip” and “ip2” because sometimes only the second shortcut is necessary.
ip2If the year is correct, please add the journal’s volume number for that year, and provide a DOI if one is available.DOI is a “digital object identifier,” which uniquely identifies every manuscript (at least in theory).
japanFor all references published in Japanese, add “(in Japanese)” or “(in Japanese with English summary)” to indicate the source of the English title.A courtesy to readers who won’t go to the trouble of finding and downloading a reference if they can’t read the language.
lcPlease provide a literature citation.Mnemonic: lc = literature citation.
movedI have moved this reference into correct alphabetical order without tracking the change.I created this one because I never want an author to think I’m making changes “behind their back.” It also reminds them that I did actually review their References section. Compare “order.”
nd(no date) 
npPlease confirm the number of pages.Mnemonic: np = number of pages.
orderI have moved some references into correct alphabetical order without tracking the change so that you can see my other edits more easily.I use this one when there are many references in the wrong place. Compare “moved.”
order2The letter after the year changed after this reference was placed in correct alphabetical order.Used for reference systems in which two references in the same year would be cited (for example) as “Hart, et al. 2021a, 2021b.”
prevPreviously, you have . Which is the correct style for the journal that will review your paper?By pressing my keyboard shortcut for “move to previous punctuation,” this positions the cursor at the period, so I can simply type what thing the author did previously. This could also be done as a daisy chain, with the second shortcut beginning with the period.
pubPlease add the name of the publishers of the proceedings, followed by their city and country. 
reffieldI have converted your references into editable text so you can see my changes more clearly. Please copy all changes into your reference-management software, then regenerate the References section.Some citation or reference management software doesn’t let you select only a problem word or number (e.g., a year) and attach a comment; Word displays the comment as if it applies to the whole References section. This change makes it easy to clarify what the comment applies to. It also reminds authors how to implement the changes so that the same errors don’t keep reappearing. Yes, some of them need that reminder.
refsAs we agreed, I did not edit the format of the references, only the contents. Please do the formatting yourself following the journal’s guidelines; journal editors can reject a manuscript that does not follow their guidelines.Used to remind authors when we agreed that they didn’t want to pay me for correcting the reference formats.
refs2I have confirmed that all references are correctly cited, but have not checked their format or contents again.Used when an author returns an edited manuscript with a few questions. To save them time and money, I won’t check the references again until after peer review.
reinsertPlease reinsert this citation using your reference management software.One common error in literature citations is that the authors forget to use their software. As a result, the reference is not included in the References section.
rmIf this change is not correct, this reference is missing from your References. Please add it there.Mnemonic: rm = reference missing.   Used when I can edit the citation (e.g., add “et al.” or change et al. to “Name 1 and Name 2”) and probably be correct. Compare “rm2.”
rm2This reference is missing from your References section. Please add it there.Used when there’s no easy way for me to figure out which reference they’re citing. Compare “rm.”
rncThis reference is not cited in the text. Either insert a citation at the correct location, or delete the reference from your literature section.Mnemonic: rnc = reference not cited   Used for publishers (e.g., most journals) that don’t allow inclusion of uncited papers in the bibliography
rnpReport number and number of pages?Mnemonic: rnp = report number of pages.
sicIf this change is not correct, please add [sic] after the word to inform the journal that this error is present in the original title. 
spellThis is spelled . in the reference. Please confirm which spelling is correct, and make the necessary changes everywhere in the manuscript.Used for potentially incorrect author names in a literature citation. Pressing my keyboard shortcut for “move to previous punctuation” positions the cursor at the period, so I can immediately start typing the spelling indicated in the reference.
twoWhen two authors have the same family name, it’s helpful to add their initials to distinguish between them.Used for citation systems that would use “G.J. Hart 2021 and J.S. Hart 2021” instead of “Hart 2021a,b.”
wdThis date does not match the date ( ]wd2Mnemonic: wd = wrong date.   Daisy chain: This lets me use Command/Control+LeftArrow to move to the bracket so I can enter the mismatched year, press End to move to the end of the line, then press the space bar to insert the rest of the shortcut.
wd2) in the References. Please confirm the correct date, then make the necessary changes everywhere. (It is also possible the reference is missing and must be added.)See above for “wd.”


ShortcutReplacement textNotes
affilPlease provide the affiliation (e.g., university) for all people named in the acknowledgments.A common requirement for peer-reviewed journals.
corPlease indicate the corresponding author with an *, and for that author, provide the complete mailing address (including street or district name and building number), as well as the telephone, fax, and e-mail.Most of my authors can never remember to add these details on the title page of a manuscript. And they never remember to copy the edited details from a previous manuscript.
eg or exFor example,I probably type this scores of times in an average manuscript.
expcFor example (provide the correct details):Mnemonic: example (provide correct)   Used when I can guess the author’s meaning well enough to propose a sentence they can either copy/paste or or modify.
faxPlease provide your fax number too. If it is the same as your telephone number, change “Tel.” to “Tel./Fax:”Many journals still require authors to provide their fax number, even though most people use e-mail rather than a fax to transmit documents.
ghGeoff Hart ( / 
ghstcGeoff Hart, Fellow, Society for Technical CommunicationSame as “gh,” but used when I feel I need to assert my professional authority.
href<a href=” target=’blank></a>Useful for when I’m editing text in an HTML document and need to insert a link.

Response letters to peer reviewers

ShortcutReplacement textNotes
linesWhen you have finished reviewing my edits, please check the line numbers throughout this letter; some will change.Used in the response letter to the reviewers. Compare “lines2.”
lines2When you have finished reviewing my edits, please cite the new line numbers for this change in your response to the reviewer.Used in the manuscript where I added text in response to a review comment. Compare “lines.”
thankOnly thank reviewers one time, either at the beginning or the end of your replies.Repeatedly thanking the reviewer for a series of harsh criticisms begins to sound sarcastic. (“Thank you sir, may I have another?”)
titlePlease replace this with the final edited title.The author may or may not accept my suggested changes. Either way, it’s less error-prone if they copy the final title rather than making a series of corrections and missing one or more.

Science-specific shortcuts

ShortcutReplacement textNotes
absMost journals require an abstract of 200-250 words, so I have edited this one to reduce its length.I routinely need to shorten the Abstract by 25 to 50%. If a journal has a different limit, I can easily change the numbers.
asymmPlease confirm: 19 (not 20) bases, thus asymmetrical primers, not a copying error?Used only in genetics manuscripts that use “primers” in an analysis that identifies specific genetic sequences. I can easily move to and edit the numbers. When an author manually retypes a primer sequence, it’s easy to omit one of the bases, leading to a one-letter discrepancy. But it’s also possible they used asymmetrical primers, so I ask them to check.
boldAll matrix variables and vectors should be boldfaced, so I have applied this format for you without tracking the change (so that you will not need to approve each format change).A standard format for variables. Compare “ital.”
charFor a list of standard keystrokes to create symbols, please see the list of files available for downloading on my Web site: provide a list of these characters because it’s easier for authors to copy/paste a symbol, but if they want to learn the keyboard shortcut, it’s available.
colorColor is very expensive to publish, and most journals ask the author to pay this cost. Please consider redrawing this figure in black, white, and shades of grey.Usually followed by an explanation of details. This reminds the author that I’m trying to save them money, not just bill them for more work.
delcδ18CAn example of inserting a special character (the Greek lower-case letter delta) combined with a format (superscript). It’s painful to repeatedly type such hybrid formats manually.
editableTables must be submitted to the journal in editable form (i.e., Word tables or Excel files), not as graphics.For some reason, authors like to provide tables as graphics. Journals don’t accept that format.
equatSimple equations should be typed directly from the keyboard rather than inserted as graphics. I will do this for you wherever possible.Many journals require this. Even when they don’t, it makes no sense to use the equation editor to insert a single-character variable name using the equation editor.
genusGenus names should not be abbreviated at the start of a sentence.A common, albeit not universal, guideline.
greekGreek letters are traditionally not italicized. 
italAll variables should be italicized, so I have applied this format for you without tracking the change (so that you will not need to approve each format change).A standard format for variables. Compare “bold.”
keyTo avoid production problems at the journal, please delete the symbol definitions or descriptions from all figure captions and place them in the graph as a key/legend. This is also clearer for readers.It’s always clearer to show the symbol in the key/legend than to describe it in the caption. This is particularly true for colors, since even people who speak the same language often disagree on the correct color name.
key2In the key/legend, change 
kmPlease change “Kilometers” to “km” (K to k) in the scale bar.Nitpicky, but worth fixing.
manPlease provide complete model number and manufacturer information (name, city, state if in the U.S., and country).Some journals still require the address information for the equipment used in an analysis even though a Web site address would be more useful in most cases.
meanwith mean monthly temperatures ranging from ???°C in January to ???°C in August,This is the text I want to add to the manuscript. If I want to explain why I added this text, I select the text, insert a comment, then type the “mean2” shortcut (next item).
mean2The annual temperature range is much more biologically meaningful than the annual average. Please provide the missing values and the correct month names. 
millionMany international readers have difficulty remembering the difference between million and billion, so exponential notation is always clearer.One of my authors ignored my advice to make this change, and was harshly criticized for publishing a paper with the wrong word (he used billion instead of million) and introducing a large error in the literature.
multThe multiplication symbol you used was not visible on my computer. If you can see it here (´) in this comment, please copy it into the text to ensure that it will be visible to all reviewers. If not, please use the correct character from the Symbol font.I haven’t deleted this one, though nowadays I mostly just type the correct symbol for the author and tell them that I’ve done this everywhere without tracking the change.
noitalLetters and numbers that are not variables should not be italicized. I will make this change everywhere without tracking it. 
noital2Please remove the italics format from . in the equation.When an equation is inserted as a graphic, I can’t select a character and change its format. Here, I press the “move to previous punctuation” shortcut and type the name of the character or characters the author must reformat.
nsddid not differ significantlyMnemonic: nsd = no significant difference.   Slightly shorter but clearer than variations such as “showed no significant difference.”
numberIn English, there should be a space between numbers and units of measurement (except for % and ‰). I have added this space everywhere without tracking it so that you will not need to approve each correction.In hindsight, “space” would have been a better choice, but my fingers have memorized “number.”
percentMost journals will only accept 1 decimal place of precision for percentages. More precision may be accepted in tables.I see this criticism raised so often by journal editors and reviewers that I just automatically change all percentages to one decimal place. The only exception is for unusually precise analyses that justify an extra decimal place.
precValues calculated to the same level of precision should have the same number of decimal places.Simplistic but broadly accurate statement that I’ll modify if necessary.
samexPlease use the same x-axis scale in all graphs to avoid distorting the magnitude of the differences between the values.Using different scales in a graph makes it easy to misinterpret the data. This happens to my authors with dismaying frequency; I can only assume the problem is even more frequent for their readers.
sameyPlease use the same y-axis scale in all graphs to avoid distorting the magnitude of the differences between the values.See “samex.”
sigOnly use “significant” if you performed a test of statistical significance.A distinction that’s often relevant in a science manuscript.
smallMuch text is too small or is concealed by the background, and will become impossible to read when the journal is printed. ]small2Daisy chain: This lets me press the spacebar if I want to activate the “small2” shortcut (see next item). If not (e.g., if I have already said this several times), I simply press Command/Control+BackSpace to delete the second shortcut.
small2Please create the figure at its final size (to fit within 1 or 2 text columns in the printed journal), then print a copy; enlarge the text until it is easy to read. 
taPlease check the journal’s guidelines. Is it necessary to add a taxonomic author (e.g., L.) for each species binomial?Mnemonic: ta = taxonomic author.
unitsPlease provide the units for all parameters if changing the units changes a coefficient’s value or a conversion factor (e.g., calculations using masses in g produce results 1000 times greater than calculations using masses in kg). 
webPlease provide a Web address for this software.If I can find the address quickly, I’ll do so. Many of my authors would rather do such work than pay me to do it.
xaOn the x-axis, please change 
xa0Please start the x-axis at zero in both graphs.Starting a graph axis far from zero can greatly exaggerate the magnitude of a difference between adjacent data points. Authors frequently misinterpet their own data because they looked at the data points rather than the graph axis. I can quickly delete “in both graphs” if the comment only applies to one graph.
xyPlease italicize x, y, and R in the equation. Add the P level for statistical significance.Note that this shortcut contains formatting (italics), so I selected “formatted” in the AutoCorrect dialog box.
yaOn the y-axis, please change 
ya0Please start the y-axis at zero in both graphs.See “xa0.”

Substantive notes or questions

ShortcutReplacement textNotes
alreadyYou have already said this.Used to explain a deletion.
clarPlease clarify your meaning. Perhaps “…”If I can guess the correct meaning, I simply start typing. If not, I delete the “perhaps.”
clearThis is clear from what you have already said, and does not need to be repeated.Used to explain a deletion.
confirmPlease confirm that my revision of the rest of the sentence is correct.Obviously, I want authors to confirm all of my changes. I use this when I want them to pay particular attention to a change. Compare “dym.”
defA definition is required. Please modify my suggestion if necessary. 
dymDo you mean ” “?Mnemonic: do you mean.   Used when I’m not sufficiently confident to add my interpretation in the manuscript. If I am confident, I type the likely meaning and use the “confirm” shortcut instead.
fewIn English, “few” and “rare” mean that at least 1 example exists. If that is correct, provide at least one example or literature citation. If you found no examples or papers, change “few” to “no.”Sometimes non-English authors have learned an incorrect word definition that’s so common I assume that it exists in the standard translation dictionary they use.
mod or plmodPlease modify my suggestion if necessary. 
notIf that’s not what you mean, please change the wording to make the meaning clearer.If I can guess what the alternative is, I’ll suggest what it might be, then add this comment to ask the author to pay particular attention to my revision.
repeatThis repeats the information in the previous sentences, so I deleted it to eliminate the repetition. 
res “Respectively” is only used when you are presenting the variables separately from their values (e.g., 1, 2, and 3 for A, B, and C, respectively).Sometimes non-English authors have learned an incorrect word definition that’s so common I assume that it exists in the standard translation dictionary they use.
sameMake the same change here that you made earlier in the paragraph.Used when I proposed two or more different changes, and I don’t know which one they chose. If the change is fairly small or simple, I’ll simply repeat the replacement phrase in the comment. Compare “spc.”
sorryI’m sorry, but I don’t know what this means. Perhaps:Blaming myself for the problem, not the author, robs it of some of its sting.
spcPlease see my previous comment concerning this point. Use similar wording here.Mnemonic: spc = see previous comment.   Used when I explained a problem with the way an author did something (e.g., described an experimental result) and did not propose wording to fix the problem. Compare “same.”
specPlease be more specific. For example,Often used to ask the author to provide a number instead of a vague phrase such as “really big.”

Geoff Hart ( (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold more than 33 stories thus far.    

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

January 28, 2022

On the Basics — A new reminder about emergency planning

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 9:13 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A couple of recent social media conversations bring me back to my frequent topic of emergency planning.

• A colleague recently asked about what happens if a freelancer is unable to complete work they have started. How easy is it for someone to send work-in-progress to your clients (assuming they’ve paid something down on the job already) if something happens that keeps you from finishing a project — or just communicating with clients at all? The original post was primarily about whether nonrefundable upfront payments or deposits really are nonrefundable no matter whether you finish the job, but there’s more to it than that.

• A friend whose husband died recently posted in social media about all the work involved in figuring out accounts — online, bank, retirement and more, including a few he opened without her. One of the comments said something about a spouse handling all of the couple’s family matters, and that poster not knowing what’s what and where.

The first item is one excellent reason to participate in a professional association — not just join, but be visible. Membership gives you a way to find colleagues you can partner with before there’s a crisis, to see how well their work style and quality meshes with yours, and to have names you can give to whoever will look after your business if you’re incapacitated or, well, dead. It’s also an opportunity for you to demonstrate your knowledge and experience, because that will make colleagues think of you if they need backup and be more likely to help if you need them. Your clients might want to find their own replacements for you, but you will be doing them a huge favor by having someone, or several someones, you can recommend to step in and wrap up anything currently under way. 

The same goes for participating in social media groups for and of colleagues: You become known, and you get to know people you might feel comfortable recommending to your clients.

Side note: The possibility of being referred or contacted about, or needing to participate in, partnering or subcontracting is a reason to make sure your posts to a group or discussion list are as professional and letter-perfect as possible.

This isn’t just about finishing a single project, though. You want to be sure that someone can contact current, recent and upcoming clients if you do become incapacitated, even temporarily. You want that someone to know about your business policies, including what you mean by nonrefundable.

The scary possibility of your own illness, injury or death is why someone should have access to your business information: passwords, current client list with contact info, project status, contract language/business policies, recurring subscription payments, bank accounts and payment systems, etc. This includes social media accounts.

From the other side, now is a good time to make sure that both partners in a couple, or at least one other person in a family, have that information about joint and individual accounts, whether business or personal, along with insurance policies. It’s hard enough to deal with the emotional aspects of an injury to or a loss of a partner; not knowing about accounts makes it even harder. You could be in either position. Think about what you both would need to know if anything bad were to happen.

The best thing you can do for yourself and your family right now is to make a will. Every state has its own laws; in some states, if you don’t have a will, everything goes to the state. Having a will protects you, your assets and your family. It doesn’t have to cost a lot to draft one; you can get forms online or at office supply stores.

In addition to a will, put together a letter of instruction that says where to find all of this information, along with where to find things like safe deposit box keys, cemetery plot deeds and life insurance policies. The letter should also outline your funeral wishes, what to do about any pets and any other details your heirs/executors will need to handle if you become incapacitated or die.

Leave the letter and your will where they can easily be found, and make sure you know the same about a partner’s important documents; tell the people who need to know where they are. Don’t put them anywhere that isn’t immediately accessible. 

Some colleagues keep a Word document on the desktop of their computers titled something like “In Emergencies” with details such as where all the important files are on their system and in real life, both client and personal information, so partners or other contact people can find what they would need in the event of an emergency.

Consider creating a binder in which to centralize all your information — passwords, insurance documents, financial accounts, friends to be notified, a health directive, mortgage and other creditors, your last wishes, and so on.  Ask your bank about converting your business account(s) to name someone as transfer on death (TOD), so funds can be transferred immediately to the person of your choice — no probate involved. 

Remember that keeping such records on your computer and on paper will be useless if you don’t leave a list of passwords and instructions about where to find these records with someone.

No one wants to think about the possibilities of traumatic injury or death happening to ourselves or the people we love, but they are real. Accidents happen, illness happens, pandemics happen. And even relatively non-fatal or temporary conditions, such as a bad sinus attack or minor injury, can interfere with getting our editorial work done. I hope everyone here has their business and personal information organized and accessible to a trusted other person, just in case. Because “just in case” will happen, at some level, to all of us.

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or

January 24, 2022

On the Basics: The Future of Editing

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 9:58 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

Colleagues both in-house and freelance may have reason to worry about the future of editing, in large part because of social media posts and groups claiming that editing is unnecessary and editors are ripping off authors who don’t need their services. Contributing to our angst is the consolidation of publishing outlets, mostly in newspapers; apparent trend among publishers to cut way back on editing and proofreading; and proliferation of low-budget entities that claim to provide editing services but have not real skills or training in our art.

It does seem scary. But it isn’t the end of the world as we know it. There are still people who aspire to be skilled editors, and there are still clients who value skilled editing.

I talked about this in a presentation for the Colorado chapter of the Editorial Freelancers Association recently, and it turned into this post.

For those who say that the editing and proofreading of today’s books is at an all-time low, by the way, I say “Maybe not.” I read a lot of books published in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, and trust me: lots of errors! Of course, publishers in those days didn’t have spellcheck or grammar-checking computer programs to help their authors, copyeditors and proofreaders catch egregious errors — but many of us would say the editors and proofreaders of that era were better than many practicing our art today.

In writing, editing and proofing since high school, I’ve seen a lot of changes. I’ve written articles on a manual typewriter, a very basic electric one and one that could do macros before progressing to using computers to write, edit, proofread and do layout/production; I’ve edited or proofed manuscripts that were written on typewriters, stencils (AB Dick mimeograph machines), typesetting machines and computers — both PC and Apple/Mac. I’ve gone from using dictionaries and encyclopedias for reference resources to using the Internet and all its wonders — and issues — along with various software programs to enhance accuracy and consistency. I’ve worked with clip art and LetraSet stick-on lettering, proportion wheels, grease pencils, Rubylith and rule tape, so I love using InDesign and Quark for layout and production.

I’ve proofed laid-out projects in bluelines, so I enjoy proofing PDFs and the ease and reduced expense of adapting, correcting and updating documents in today’s computer programs and systems.

It’s been fun to see how typewritten résumés have become easily adaptable Word documents and PDFs, sent in moments by e-mail. And physical portfolios evolving into websites. And newspaper ads for editing jobs become e-mail lists, website areas, LinkedIn and other online elements, job-site platforms, etc.

It’s been fascinating to see these changes over the years; it’s a perspective that, of course, no one new to editing now might be aware of or appreciate.

What else has changed? Editing and proofreading on paper, now done in Word with Track Changes or Google Docs with Suggesting mode; slides as transparencies now created in PowerPoint and similar programs; bluelines as PDFs; print dictionaries, encyclopedias and style guides now available online, with Q&A functions and immediate, real-time updates and changes; teamwork and collaboration through Zoom and various online platforms …  

Our work has gotten easier and more efficient in many ways, although the demands on and expectations of editors has increased as well. We also often have to defend our training and skills against online programs that claim to do the work of checking or fixing grammar, spelling, usage and other aspects of the editing process — not all technology is a good thing, or at least, the human factor can’t be removed from the process, no matter what people say — and against platforms that offer supposed editing at bargain-basement rates. 

Many aspects have remained the same: the importance of basic skills in grammar, punctuation, spelling, usage, attention to detail, being organized (for myself and my projects or clients).

There are fewer traditional in-house publishing jobs and outlets today — but new opportunities for editors. Self-publishing is expanding at every turn, and those independent authors need us; often more than they realize. It can be a challenge to make someone understand our value, but once an author recognizes that reality, the result can be a wonderful collaboration and relationship that lasts beyond a first book or other project.

The online environment is a boon in many ways. One is that short articles in publications can become longer, in-depth treatments at website and in blogs. Corrections and updates can be made in moments as needed. We can check for plagiarism far more quickly and easily than in the past. And we can work almost anywhere — at home, in coffee shops, on the road, wherever.

I firmly believe that editing is here to stay, and editors will remain needed and relied upon. What do you think?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is the owner and editor-in-chief of An American Editor and an award-winning creator of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide. She created the annual Communication Central “Be a Better Freelancer”® conference for colleagues in 2006, now cosponsored by the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and An American Editor. She can be contacted at or

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

January 1, 2022

Were Hamlet an editor

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 4:38 pm

By Geoffrey Hart

Dear Colleagues, a hearty chuckle and thank you to the ever-brilliant Geoff Hart for this delightful ditty as a way to start what we hope will be a much better year in 2022. — Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner, An American Editor

To stet, or not to stet, that is the question.

Whether ’tis nobler in the draft to condemn

The slings and arrows of outrageous grammar.

Or to take Word against a sea of typos,

And by spellchecking end them.

To let dangling participles lie, to sleep

Yet more; and by sleep, to say we end

The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks

Editors are heir to? ‘Tis a redaction

Devoutly to be wished. To let lie, to sleep,

To sleep, perchance to revise later;

Aye, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of reason, what infelicities may come,

When we’ve shuffled off this manuscript,

Must give us pause. There’s the respect

That makes Calamity of so long an MS:

For who would bear the publisher’s whips and scorns,

The authors wronged, the proud wordsmith’s contumely,

The pangs of despised advice, the proofing delayed,

The insolence of authors, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,

When we ourselves might their quietus make

With a bared Sharpie? Who would this burden bear,

To grunt and sweat beneath a weary edit,

But that the dread of something after publication,

The undiscovered typo, from whose bane

No editor returns, puzzles the will,

And makes us rather bear those infelicities we have,

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus proofreading doth make cowards of us all,

And thus the native hue of a monitor’s greater resolution

Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Word

And enterprises of great pitch and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry

And lose the name of perfection. Soft you now,

The fair Webster? Nymph, in thy etymologies

Be all my sins remember’d.

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 43 stories thus far. Visit him online at <>.

December 11, 2021

Creating truly effective outlines

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:47 pm

By Geoff Hart, Contributing Author

Previously published at NAIWE website ( as Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines.

Editor’s note: This is a revised and expanded version of an April 2008 presentation that the author presented for STC Milwaukee. Although intended for editors who do substantive editing, it offers useful guidance for writers who need to outline before they begin writing.

One thing I discovered early in my editing career was that few writers learned how to create truly effective outlines. Sure, everyone learned to list the section titles in a plausible order or adopt a pre-existing order, such as starting with the executive summary and ending with the appendices. But the problem with this approach is that it does little or nothing to make the writing process efficient and often ends up wasting the writer’s time when it turns out that a lot of revision is required.

Helping writers stay on course is where we editors enter the picture: Through developmental editing, we help writers focus their efforts right from the start so they can write faster and more effectively. If we do our job well, we won’t have to shuffle chunks of the document around late in the revision process because most of the text will already be in the correct place. We won’t have to point out major omissions because there should be none.

We’ll be able to focus on the clarity of the language.

A good outline is like an architectural blueprint: It tells you where every part fits and its relationships with the other parts. It goes far beyond merely saying “a room goes here”; it provides specific details of what kind of room and how that room relates to all the other rooms. Writing without a strong outline is like trying to build a house, but without knowing how many rooms, their functions, their spatial relationships, or their sizes. You’ll end up with a building at the end of the process, but it might be an office building. Even if you end up with a house, it’s not going to be a very comfortable or livable home.

When I first gave the presentation on which this article is based, I designed it for technical writers, most of whom were documenting computer software and hardware, or working for technology companies. Hereafter, I’ll refer to that type of manuscript as documentation. But the approach I’ll describe can be used for many other types of writing, including education (e.g., teaching a subject such as chemistry), creative nonfiction, and fiction. I’ve retained the documentation content because the examples will be familiar to most readers, who grapple daily with their computers and related software. But I’ll expand the method to include fiction so if you don’t edit manuscripts from a technology-related field, you’ll see how the same basic approach works in a very different genre and, mutatis mutandis, across a range of genres.

Note: If you hang out with fiction authors, you’ll eventually be asked whether you’re an outliner or a pantser. In this context, pantser comes from “by the seat of your pants” and refers to authors who prefer to let their stories evolve organically rather than strapping them to the rack while they torture them into shape. Pantsing works very well for some writers, but tends to work best for someone who has a clear idea of what they hope to achieve with their story. The best pantsers seem to have some kind of subconscious overall outline that guides their work.

Although I’ll focus on the role of editing in this article, the advice also works very well for writers. The main difference is that instead of working with an editor, you may be self-editing long before someone else has a chance to edit your manuscript.

Why outline?

an The whole point of an outline is to help you define all the components that a manuscript requires and the most effective way to assemble them. The ideal process is for author to sit down (in person or otherwise) with their editor to discuss the outline and ensure that it’s effective before beginning to write. While authors are learning to outline, it may be more productive creating their outlines interactively with their editors. At my previous employer, this collaborative outlining was a key component of our report-production process (Hart 2006a, 2011a). This approach proved to be far more efficient then letting authors submit a finished manuscript and leaving me to infer the manuscript’s outline.

There are several criteria for a great outline:

  • It provides a precise blueprint for the writing.
  • It focuses work during the writing and revision stages.
  • It reduces rework. As the carpenters say, “plan and measure twice, cut once!”
  • It permits flexibility when the inevitable revisions arise.

For documentation, effective outlines:

  • Organize the content around user goals and the tasks they must perform to reach those goals. These tasks form task clusters. For example, creating a page layout in desktop publishing software requires an understanding of the task cluster that includes defining the page size, margins, gutters, and paragraph characteristics (spacing before and after, margins, line spacing, widows, and orphans).
  • Comprehensively list all product features that support these goals, grouped logically by task cluster. This is often called an inventory.
  • Rely on architectures that make the form and content of each topic consistent with all other topics of the same type (e.g., multi-step procedures).
  • Concisely summarize what you’ll write. That is, each part of an outline is specific, not general; it describes what you’re going to write in enough detail that it is distinct from all other topics of that type.

Fiction is more diverse and thus, more difficult to standardize. Nonetheless, the equivalents to a documentation outline might be:

  • For each section or chapter, define the character’s goals, your goals for the character, and how to reconcile the two.
  • List all the constraints and opportunities created by previous decisions (whether by the character or by yourself). List the actions or happenings required to lead into future chapters.
  • Define any recurring patterns you’ll use for a given type of chapter. For example, one type of chapter may begin with a challenge created by the cliffhanger in the previous chapter, continue with the rising action until the character or characters are forced to act, then conclude with a denouement that gives the characters time to catch their breath before you create yet another cliffhanger. Harrison Demchick (2021) provides some good insights into this process.

Before you can start creating an outline that achieves these goals, it helps to understand the differences among inventories, architectures, and outlines.

Inventories, architectures, and outlines

Let’s start by defining some key terms. An outline is not an inventory. An inventory only defines what topics you’ll include, although it should be comprehensive. An outline is not an architecture. An architecture summarizes the categories of information you’ll include in each topic (for documentation) or each chapter (for fiction) and the relationships among them. An outline uses an inventory to list all the topics you’ll include in the manuscript, and an architecture to summarize the relationships among the topics and their components. For documentation, the outline defines what must appear in each topic (inventory) in what order (architecture).

It’s also helpful to specify what should not appear. For fiction, an outline defines all the key events that will occur between the start and end of the story, the decisions characters make that are caused by or lead to these events, the consequences of those decisions for subsequent chapters, and how the characters change in response to those consequences. However, the outline must also state what you’ll write about each topic or in each chapter. (The details will come later, once you begin writing.)

Note for technical writers: An architecture functions much like a document type definition (DTD) or schema in XML or SGML authoring.

Sound simple? Sort of. Most writers and many editors forget two key things when they plan an outline. First and foremost, we must remember the audience’s needs. Understanding those needs will help us develop a user-centered document structure that focuses on the reader. Second, for writing that occurs in an institutional context, we need to obtain approval from all stakeholders — anyone who will have a chance to reject a manuscript or send us back to the drawing board for revision. Gaining approval for the overall plan of attack before you begin writing greatly reduces the frequency of unpleasant surprises late in the review and revision cycle. In fiction, the equivalent to the management and expert review of a document is the review of a pitch (story proposal) by your agent or by a publisher’s acquisition editor. This is rarely required for short fiction, but is often essential for long-form fiction such as novels.

Understand audience needs and gain stakeholder approval

The role of your audience is easiest to understand for documentation: The users of a product read documentation to find solutions to a problem. Thus, outlines must support finding solutions and solving problems. Product-centered documentation, which is organized around the product’s features, only describes the product features and forces users to sort through a potentially long list to find the features that might conceivably solve their problem; that is, it forces them to infer how to combine those features to achieve their goal. The more complex the product being documented, the larger and less fair the burden this places on the product’s user. Sure, it’s easier for the writer. But as Richard Brinsley Sheridan noted in 1772, “you write with ease, to shew your breeding; but easy writing’s vile hard reading.”

In contrast, user-centered documentation focuses on the user’s goals, and groups descriptions of the product’s features to help the user attain those goals. The difference is night and day. In product-centered documentation, you might as well just list the product’s features in alphabetical order, since you’re not attempting to present them in an order that supports the user’s goals. But in user-centered documentation, it’s necessary to carefully consider how your audience plans to use the product. That use will define the sequence of tasks as well as the sequence within each task. For example, a plausible sequence for desktop publishing software would be to define the characteristics of the pages that will hold the paragraphs, define the characteristics of the paragraph types that will hold the words (e.g., headings vs. body text), and then define the typographic characteristics that will shape the sentences and words in each paragraph.

Note: Reference manuals can be product-centered because their purpose is to define how each feature works — for an audience that already knows what features they need to use. For some types of documentation, such as dictionaries (or glossaries) and encyclopedias, this structure may be a good choice.

Fiction readers have more abstract needs. They are reading to be entertained, so their needs don’t relate to tasks. The editor’s challenge then becomes how to understand the literary tools the author will use to present a character’s progress through the story. For example, the plot might lead a character to a crisis point where the character’s choices are constrained by some past event. They might confront a large and hideous spider in the bedroom and be forced to kill it, defenestrate it, or deport it, but to do so, they must overcome their arachnophobia. One approach would be to describe the event that triggered that fear, then move forward through many chapters to the present spider-induced crisis. This spider is the horror equivalent of Chekhov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”

Alternatively, you could end a section or chapter with the character’s gasp of horror, use a flashback to reveal why the spider represents a problem, and then return to the present to see how our heroic character overcomes this past trauma — or fails to do so. In this case, the outline would clarify that the new words actually appeared in the past. To use the term I defined previously, the architecture for flashback chapters states that chapters must begin with a few words to clarify that the timing of events changed: “Nearly half a century ago, when Geoff was a child, a spider bit him. He did not acquire superpowers, but he did learn to fear spiders.”

In terms of the audience’s prior knowledge, writing fiction in different genres allows writers to make certain assumptions about what their readers understand. In science fiction, we can discuss starships without defining what one is, whereas in fantasy, we can discuss dragons without a definition. Neither term would be appropriate in detective fiction without adding a few words to explain the meaning. When, as editor, we feel those audience assumptions won’t be met, it’s our job to point out the problem and suggest ways the author can provide the missing knowledge and where those ways fit within the outline.

How to identify user needs

There are many ways to identify user needs. First, and most common, if we lack access to or familiarity with the readers of our manuscripts, we can work by inference — that is, we must imagine ourselves in the reader’s role and pay attention to our thoughts when we/they confront a task. This way of stepping into the reader’s shoes is often described using the term persona, which means a description of the person that’s so vivid we can easily answer the question “What is Geoff thinking and what would he do in this situation?” Making our audience real deepens our understanding of who they are and what their needs are. It also builds empathy and motivates us to care enough about their needs that we try to meet them. For any given product, there may be multiple personas, and each one’s needs must be accounted for. (To learn more about personas, see Hart (2006b, 2011b,c).)

The “five W’s” approach used by journalists is another way to learn about our audience. It, too, relies on inference. In this approach, we ask who will use the product, why they are using it (goals), when and where the use occurs (context), and what they must do to accomplish those goals within that context and under the constraints it imposes. Each of these affects the contents and sequence of an outline. (To learn more about this approach, see Hart (1996, 2002, 2011b,c).)

In addition, we can consult existing references such as computer magazines, “for dummies” books, and the like. The types of help resources that readers buy and read reveal the problems they face, and the range of solutions chosen by other writers. Better publishers have the resources to understand their audiences and design books that sell many copies because of how well they meet their audience’s needs. Such books, therefore, represent a good resource for learning about the needs of those groups of readers.

A third approach, and possibly the optimal one, is to actually talk to the audience and learn how they use the product being documented. Rather than inferring their needs, we can come right out and ask them. The most sophisticated form of this approach, which requires some training, is called contextual inquiry, which is the fancy way of saying direct observation of workers in the context in which they work. In essence, it means that you watch real users using your product in a real workplace to learn what they must accomplish and how they think about that task. This approach lets you build a sophisticated persona for each type of user and design a documentation structure (an outline!) that meets their distinct needs. Contextual inquiry isn’t always possible, since it can require visits to the audience’s workplace or bringing them to you so you can study their behavior in your own test facilities. Fortunately, there are less expensive and more accessible options. Most products now have online discussion forums where you can see the kinds of questions people ask, learn how they think about problems, and learn which solutions are most effective. (If no such forum exists, create one!)

A fourth approach involves reports from other people who work directly with the audience, such as technicians who fix malfunctioning products, corporate trainers, and a company’s technical support staff. All of these people can tell you about the problems that users face and solutions that have been proven effective in the real world.

Once we know these needs, we can revise our outline to account for them. For example, if we know that all users of our desktop publishing software are graphic artists, we don’t need to explain page layout and typography, though we may need to clarify where these tasks are addressed by the software (e.g., menu, toolbar, and palette locations). In contrast, if the users are office workers who have no formal design training, we’ll need to explain more about why certain features should be used (e.g., typography) and how.

In fiction, we can learn most of what we need to know about user needs from reading extensively in the author’s chosen genre. This provides basic familiarity with the terminology used by most authors , the most common plot structures, and the types of expectations that must be met. You can find out how fiction readers read easily enough, but rather than contextual inquiry, attend writers’ workshops where writers learn the tools of their trade or conventions where fans of a particular literary genre gather to discuss their favorite and least-favorite stories. Online reviews, such as those at Amazon or Goodreads, also provide insights. For work where others have done the research for you, consult respected writers’ guides and read reviews by skilled and insightful reviewers to learn what they look for. However, be aware that reviewers take a very different approach to reading than people who read solely for pleasure.

Gain approval from all stakeholders

For documentation, peer review is essential because there’s no other easy way to ensure that you’ve gotten the details right, but many companies rely on peer review because they aren’t willing to hire an editor. Unfortunately, this kind of review is generally insufficient because more people than the product’s designers and the writer’s manager must approve the final documentation. Discovering that you’ve failed to produce a product that satisfies the stakeholders only when you reach the end of a long writing, review, and revision process can be disastrous.

The solution is surprisingly simple: Identify all stakeholders who can approve or reject your work before you begin to produce the outline that will guide your writing. These people include the technical experts, who will review your manuscripts for correctness and completeness; the product’s manager; the writers’ manager, who will review the manuscripts to ensure that they meet corporate standards; training and technical support staff, who will confirm that the manuscript supports their needs; marketing, who will ensure that their needs to evangelize a product are met; lawyers, who ensure that the manuscripts meet legal standards and requirements; and, potentially, managers who run all the way up the corporate hierarchy to a director or vice president. If you’re lucky, the approval chain has far fewer links and ends with a middle manager, but in small companies, the approval chain may run right to the top of the organization chart.

Each of these stakeholders should critique and approve your outline before you invest considerable time doing the actual writing. Problems such as omission of details you think are unnecessary but that they consider important must be identified so the outline can be revised to meet their criteria. Where needs are contradictory, negotiation will be required to solve the contradiction. I’ve used this approach to drastically reduce the time required for approval of documentation (Hart 2006a, 2011a). Surprises are still possible, but there will be far fewer of them if everyone strongly supports your blueprint right from the start. And the surprises will usually be far less serious and easier to fix.

In fiction, there are fewer stakeholders. There’s generally no complex corporate hierarchy, except when you’re writing for a big publisher. Then, you’ll need to pitch your outline to an acquisitions editor and they’ll deal with the publisher on your behalf. However, for both novels and shorter work, many authors enlist a group of beta readers to review the writing before it goes to an acquisitions editor. Note that although the list of stakeholders is shorter, that doesn’t mean the approval process will be simpler. Creative people tend to have strong opinions about how fiction should be written, and it can be tricky finding compromises between an author’s vision and what the publisher will accept. As in most other forms of editing, one of your roles as editor will be to act as the author’s advocate and defend their approach.

Comprehensively list what you’ll need

For product documentation, create an inventory of all the information you’ll need to include.

  • For software, list all menu names and all items provided under each menu; all toolbars or palettes and the associated tool icons; and all items in the dialog boxes accessed via these menus, toolbars, and icons.
  • For hardware, list all control panels, all physical switches, all buttons, all slots and tabs, and anything else the user may need to manipulate to operate the device. For the hardware’s software components, list the same things described in the previous bullet point.
  • For both software and hardware, list all physical things (tools) and metaphysical things (software, knowledge of concepts) required to support a reader’s use of the product.

You can now group the items in your inventory by allocating them among the tasks they support. If something is essential to the completion of more than one task, repeat that information for each task instead of asking readers to hunt through the documentation to find that information. This is easiest if you use a writing tool that supports single-sourcing (i.e., creating a chunk of information once, then reusing that chunk wherever it’s needed). For each task within a task cluster, refer to the architecture I described earlier in this article to figure out how to assemble everything.

If you’re assisting a fiction writer, this part of the editing process resembles the task of creating a story bible. Story bibles contain all the facts that mustn’t change over the course of the story, such as a character’s eye color and handedness, and things that should change, such as their knowledge and thought patterns. For example, a story bible might contain the following.

  • Characters: their physical and emotional characteristics.
  • Psychology: how the characters think and how that changes in response to the story’s events.
  • Physical locations: characteristics such as geography, climate, and the relationships they imply (e.g., distances between places). This will shape things like travel between cities and movement within cities.
  • Possessions: the things the characters carry and things they need to acquire (e.g., appropriate clothing, food if they will make a long journey). These must be obtained at some point before the possessions are used, which can define the order of events. That spider on the wall in Act One can’t simply materialize out of thin air in Act Two.
  • Histories: both the surrounding societal context (how the story’s society has gotten to where it currently is) and each character’s own history, particularly with respect to defining moments in both society and the character.
  • Chronology: when things happen.

Among the items in this list, outlining relates most strongly to the chronology, since you must define sequences of events based both on the needs of the plot and on dependencies. For example, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo can’t throw the One Ring into the cracks of doom before he has the ring, and even once he has the ring, he can’t do his job before he arrives in Mordor. The sequence must therefore be “get the ring, travel to Mordor, throw the ring into the fire.” Note how this is more specific than “get possession, go somewhere to use it, use it.”

How your word processor can help you reorganize the outline

Now that you know what has to be included in the outline, you can start shuffling it into a logical and effective order. Your word processor can help, since it’s easy to cut and paste sections to move them into new positions. Some software offers additional useful tricks for rearranging an outline quickly and easily. For example, in Microsoft Word:

  • View —> Outline: Word’s Outline view mode lets you see the whole structure at a glance and easily move topics (and their associated subtopics) around. Better still, it lets you expand and collapse the whole outline and subsets of the outline, such as a specific section or chapter, and move small chunks or entire sections to new locations.
  • View —> Document Map: Word’s Document Map view opens a panel to the left of the document window that displays the manuscript’s headings as clickable hyperlinks. The main document window on the right can then be set to the Outline view mode. This way, you can move quickly between parts of the manuscript by clicking the hyperlinks. 

Provide architectures that help ensure consistency

Documentation should be centered on the goals of a product’s users. Those goals often fall into categories that define a consistent, effective architecture. For example:

  • Conceptual topics should define the problem, describe the context in which it arises, provide any necessary context (e.g., the basic principles of page layout for an audience of amateurs), and propose solutions and alternatives.
  • Reference topics should name the tool, explain where to find it (in menus, toolbars, palettes, or dialog boxes), define all options for that tool, and provide examples of correct and incorrect uses of the tool and its options.
  • Definition topics should define a word or phrase, explain incorrect uses, and provide examples of (in)correct uses; the topic should also provide cross-references to synonyms and antonyms to help readers learn to use the terminology correctly.

Fiction is less likely to benefit from or require a formal architecture. However, there are cases where having an architecture is very helpful while writing (Demchick 2021). Consider, for example, a novel in which the narrator begins in media res (i.e., right in the middle of the plot). In each chapter, the novel moves forward from that initial point, but each chapter could begin with a concise scene that digs back into the past to provide an explanation or deeper context for what’s about to happen in the current chapter. Part of the outline will then be based on an architecture in which the outline for each chapter states that there will be a context-establishing flashback, then explicitly states what the key point in that flashback is and how it provides context for the rest of the chapter. (For an example of how this works, see my novel Jester.)

Consider another example, with a different order. If you’re writing something that will be serialized, such as episodes in a TV series or a monthly graphic novel about a group of characters, you need to know where each installment ends and the implications for the next installment. This may be a classical structure such as having each installment end with a cliffhanger and (except for the first installment) begin with a solution to the previous chapter’s cliffhanger. This is particularly useful if you’re working as part of a group of writers, with all of the installments for a season being written in parallel. Each author needs to know, in some detail, where they’re coming from and where they’re going.

Dependencies and consequences of revision

It’s rare to create a successful outline for anything complex in a single step. Most outlines require at least one revision (for manuscripts with a simple and familiar structure), and many require repeated revision as you get iteratively closer to something that works. That’s just part of the game, and I like to describe outlining as being equivalent to carpentry: Good carpenters measure twice (at least)before they cut a piece of wood because once the cut has been made, you can’t undo it. Writing seems easier, because there’s no physical piece of wood that can be destroyed by an injudicious cut. But just as carpenters sometimes have to make an unplanned excursion to the lumber depot to replace a key piece of wood they damaged, writers can waste considerable time on undoing a poorly chosen structure for their manuscript.

The easiest way to check an outline is to walk through it one step at a time and pay attention to where you stumble. Wherever you stumble, revise that step to clarify how to correctly take that step. This is why cooking recipes list the ingredients before the steps of the recipe: If you don’t have all the ingredients you need, it’s better to discover this before you’ve mixed all the other ingredients. Similarly, pay attention to where you get stranded. If you find yourself in a dead end, you need to retrace your steps to the turning point that led you there and more clearly indicate that you should have taken a different turn.

These specific examples reveal the broader topic of dependencies: A dependency exists whenever you need some information or some thing before you can perform a step in a procedure, learn a new concept, or (in fiction) move to the next phase of the plot. For a software procedure, you need to know where the relevant tools are hidden before you can perform any steps using those tools. Thus, rather than assuming that everyone knows the tool location, tell them; even if that information exists elsewhere in the documentation; why make them go looking for it? For learning a concept, ensure that you clearly communicate the basics first; it’s hard to teach the concept of logarithms to a student who doesn’t already understand the concept of exponents. For fiction, your protagonist must meet their allies and gain their trust before they can work with those allies to defeat their antagonist. Frodo can’t throw the One Ring into the cracks of doom before he has the ring or before he travels to Mordor.

To identify dependencies, ask a simple question: what must I know before I can understand the current chunk of information? Then add that required information to the outline before the action that requires that information. To support such efforts, you could create a table with the steps in a procedure in the first column and the dependencies in the second column. Then add information or reorganize the table’s order until all the dependencies are resolved.

This becomes complex for fiction, particularly when there are many characters. For example, if you’re outlining a novel, it’s important to know when a character first appears in the story, when they meet other key characters, when they gain a required possession, and when they use that possession. Creating a timeline helps make that sequence more concrete. If you find you work well with visual aids, find graphics that can stand in for each character and their equipment. Print out the graphics, then cut them out from their background. Move the characters down the timeline, then drag the items on or off the line as you move. When you reach for something the character must use and it’s not already present, go back a few steps until you find a way to add it.

Your outline must also account for consequences. After each step in a procedure is complete or some key action in a plot has occurred, something changes and you must describe that change, describe the situation that results from that change, and understand the constraints that situation imposes on subsequent actions and where the change leads. In documentation, the consequences of copying a chunk of text means that the clipboard is now loaded with the text, the text is now available for pasting, and you can paste the text as often as you like until you replace it with new copied text. In fiction, the antagonist’s master plan may have begun, and the protagonist must deal with the resulting cascade of events, one at a time, until they’re resolved. There may be points where the character can intervene to divert or stop that cascade — or there may not be. Both alternatives need to be spelled out in the outline.

What the outline actually looks like

Okay, so that’s the theory. What does this look like in practice? Let’s start by considering the outline for the topics in a programmer’s guide, stripped down to focus on a few key points. Consider an excerpt from our first example of a bad outline.


Programming guide topics:

  • FUBAR function
  • LAWSUIT function
  • CURSE DEVELOPER function


The problem here is obvious: This only lists the content, without defining the relationships between commands (their temporal or other sequence), the structure of the explanation of each command (the architecture), or how the commands relate to user goals. Thus, it’s an inventory, not an outline. Let’s consider a more highly developed but still bad example for the same programmer’s guide.


Programming guide topic template:

  • command name
  • summary of its purpose
  • syntax, including all options and switches
  • several examples (both good and bad)
  • cross-references to other relevant commands


Here, the problem is more subtle: The “template” is identical for all commands and fails to distinguish between any two commands. Thus, it’s an architecture, not an outline. It’s still useful, but needs to be made specific before it is successful. Now let’s consider a good example of how this would be accomplished for one command from the inventory.


FUBAR function:

  • FUBAR lets programmers define how and how often the program will foul up a user’s data.
  • Syntax: FUBAR [% of data] [frequency]
    Switch 1 defines the amount of corrupted data; switch 2 defines the interval between corruptions.
  • FUBAR must occur before CURSE DEVELOPER, which is optionally followed by LAWSUIT.
  • [Detailed examples to follow once parameters for the two switches are finalized]
  • See also: debugging, recovering lost data [anything else to add?]


This example illustrates both the architecture for all subsequent commands in the guide, and how the architecture is implemented for one function, in a way that distinguishes this function from all other functions. An additional bonus is that this topic is almost completely documented at this point. Details must be added, particularly with respect to the reminder in square brackets, and the inventory and architecture must still be approved, but if this is all you could give to the users of the product, they probably wouldn’t complain too loudly. If nothing else, they’d probably stop at the CURSE DEVELOPER function and not proceed to LAWSUIT.

Now let’s consider fiction, using an example most readers will be familiar with: the various films in the Avengers movie franchise. Let’s start with a bad example.


  • Scene: Tony Stark bantering with Steve Rogers
  • Exchange of banter (one or two verbal attacks)
  • Discussion of a serious matter
  • Parting banter before scene ends


Again, the problem is that this probably isn’t much different from all the other scenes, and it provides no details that distinguish it from those other scenes. It’s all inventory and is therefore only a rudimentary outline. Now let’s consider a slightly more advanced but still unacceptable outline.


  • Scene: Tony and Steve meet for the first time.
  • Tony attacks Steve; Steve replies with his own attack.
  • Nick Fury brings the talk back to the serious matter at hand.
  • Tony attacks Steve about the serious matter; Steve counterattacks about the serious matter.
  • Scene ends.


Better, but the same description could still be applied to pretty much any scene, not just the first meeting of these characters. Moreover, we have no idea what the serious issue is or why our two heroes are sparring verbally over it. Now let’s look at a better version of this outline.


  • Scene: Tony and Steve meet for the first time.
  • Tony, jealous of Steve’s bulging muscles, suggests that Steve is all muscle, no brains.
  • Steve points out that he doesn’t need a billion-dollar mechanical suit to be a hero.
  • Nick Fury interrupts, pointing out that both muscles and brains will be required to defeat Loki.
  • Steve points out that it’s a good thing he’s got a brain. Tony responds that his suit’s muscles kind of make Steve redundant, but that Steve wouldn’t be a captain if he didn’t have at least a rudimentary brain, and that it’s good to have backup.
  • Scene ends.


Still fairly primitive, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to move some of the details from implicit to explicit and actually write the dialog. But we at least see a sketch of the problem (they will need to learn to respect each other), the context (Loki is a threat to everyone), the challenge (they’ll need to learn how to work together), and the solution (they recognize, even if somewhat reluctantly, that each has a strength that will come in useful).

Then, theory meets reality …

Of course, reality sometimes disrupts our best-laid plans. For our poor documentation writer, the problem lies in the chaotic nature of product development, which is never as predictable and smooth as anyone would like. For our poor fiction writer, the muse doesn’t always come when called, and sometimes the muse points out that we’ve actually been writing the wrong story and need to take a big step back and reconsider the real story. (This happened to me in my novel Chords, in which I realized that I’d omitted one crucial character from the alternation of chapters and that without her perspective, the story was very ordinary.)

This kind of problem means both writers and their editors have to be flexible and willing to start over when necessary. Documentation outlines often have to change as the product being documented changes, and stories often change as you gain insights into the characters and realize that they don’t necessarily want to follow your plans; the best characters have desires of their own that conflict with your plans. This is part of the nature of writing, and you have to learn to accept it and find ways to cope. For documentation, maintaining close ties with the development team alerts you to product changes that will have consequences for your outline. For fiction, a strong outline that groups and sequences the key events in the story ensures that you haven’t missed any points and understand the dependencies well enough that you won’t forget them when you revise the outline.

What about hypertexts?

Most of the manuscripts we write or deal with as editors are linear, which is to say that the reader begins in a clear starting location and proceeds to a clear destination. The scale of that linearity may apply to the manuscript as a whole, as in the case of Ikea assembly instructions or a novel, or to individual chapters, as in the case of an encyclopedia article or software manual. (Un)fortunately, modern writers have a broader set of options, including nonlinear hypertexts.

Hypertext is the technical term for documents that don’t necessarily follow a linear course. For example, with Web sites and online help, readers may dip into the body of information for very different purposes, ranging from obtaining an overview of what information is available (i.e., orientation) to finding a specific topic (i.e., problem-solving). Outlining becomes much more difficult, since the order of the information and how it is accessed is no longer linear. In such cases, it may not be possible to outline the overall text as if it were a single manuscript. Instead, it becomes necessary to develop two or more outlines, such as one for orientation and another for solving problems (i.e., task clusters).

For a product’s user manual, the first outline might present the complete list of topics (an inventory), grouped into logical categories such as “page layout,” “print publishing,” and “EPUB creation.” A second level of an outline might be created for each of these categories, with the architecture for each category showing how individual product features function, how they can be combined to design a page, how to produce a PDF file you can send to a printer, or how to produce an accessible and properly formatted e-book.

Fiction is less likely to follow a hypertext structure, since stories tend to follow a linear pattern, apart from occasional diversions such as flashbacks. Thus, the first outline might be based on dependencies; that is, the outline would list what events must happen before it is possible for other events to happen. A second level of an outline might then be the chapters and plot points for each chapter, which would generally take the form of conventional linear indexes within each chapter. Those chapters can then be shuffled for dramatic effect, as long as the dependencies are identified and accounted for.

Advantages of my approach

The approach I’ve described has several advantages:

  • Careful planning greatly reduces last-minute changes demanded by stakeholders. In some cases, the approval of some stakeholders may no longer be required because they’ve already given it right from the start and trust the other stakeholders to do the remaining work well.
  • The outline provides a decent minimalist user manual if you can’t complete every topic. For fiction, it makes for a nice elevator speech if you’re trying to pitch your story to an editor.
  • The approach is modular: You can add to the outline, delete sections, or move sections around as the product changes or the plot and characters evolve.
  • The outline will be complete if you inventoried everything you need to write about.
  • The outline will be consistent: Architectures ensure that all required information is present for every topic.
  • It’s user- or reader-centered.

A second meaning of “outline” is a line that surrounds the outer edges of some object, eliminating all the details so only a vague shape is visible. That’s not the kind of outline that helps authors write, nor is it the kind of outline we as editors want to help them create. An effective outline does most of the hard work of developing a manuscript’s skeleton and muscles before refining the details.


Demchik, H. 2021. How to improve story structure for a better novel.

Hart, G.J. 1996. The five W’s: an old tool for the new task of audience analysis. Technical Communication 43(2):139–145.

Hart, G. 2002. The five W’s of online help for tech writers.

Hart, G. 2006a. Designing an effective review process. Intercom July/August 2006:18–21.

Hart, G. 2006b. Personas and the technical communicator. Usability Interface 12(2), October 2006.>

Hart, G. 2011a. Uprooting entrenched technical communication processes: process improvement using the kaizen method.

Hart, G. 2011b. Personas and the five W’s: developing content that meets reader needs, pt. 1. What’s a persona?

Hart, G. 2011c. Personas and the five W’s: developing content that meets reader needs, pt. 2. Applying the five W’s.

September 10, 2021

On the Basics: Rethinking language usages

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:36 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

© An American Editor. Content may not be recirculated, republished or otherwise used without both the prior permission of the publisher and full credit to the author of a given post and the An American Editor blog, including a live link to the post being referenced. Thank you for respecting our rights to and ownership of our work.

For years, I’ve been urging aspiring freelancers to budget for health insurance even if they’re young and fit because “you never know when you might step off the curb and get hit by a bus.” I never meant it flippantly, although it might have come across that way. Today I learned that a valued colleague has died in just such a horrible way. I don’t think I can ever use that language again.

When I mentioned this in a Facebook group for editors, several colleagues brought up other usages that we might all want to rethink, or think about carefully before using. We’re in an era of increasing awareness of language (and behavior) that can be seen as insulting, insensitive, racist, sexist, exclusive and otherwise damaging — that can trigger trauma on all kinds of levels. These instances may be less so, but still can create trauma at worst and discomfort at best. We probably can’t always avoid upsetting someone, no matter how carefully we choose our words, but we can aim to avoid clichés or our own frequent phrases that might be painful for others to see or hear. 

Personal perspectives

Probably like many of us, I’ve had my own experiences with incidents that make me more careful about how I describe events, possibilities and even people. I broke a leg after tripping — over something I never even saw — on a casual walk (as opposed to a challenging hike or climb) and falling the wrong way. I dislocated an elbow and tore up ligaments and tendons in falling off a stage prop as I backed up to take photos at an event. Both experiences make me careful about how I refer to other people’s accidents, such as not calling anyone (including myself) a klutz or clumsy, or trivializing an injury or event.

When I was in grad school, I was walking to class one day when I realized that someone might be about to jump off a pedestrian bridge over a major intersection, and I tried to get him to stop and talk to me. He jumped anyhow and died of his injuries. Ever since, I’ve been super-sensitive to any references to suicide in general and jumping off a bridge in particular.

Language to assess before using

As colleagues said in response to my Facebook post: “We never know what might bring up negative emotions for someone else” and “‘Know better do better’ applies to our lived experiences and unfolding improved awareness of language …”

With that in mind, wording or imagery to think about carefully before using would be:

• Hit by a train, streetcar, bus, car

• “I feel like I’ve been hit by a Mack truck” to describe feeling sick

“Drink the Kool-Aid” to refer to company culture (because hundreds of followers of cult leader Jim Jones actually drank poisoned Kool-Aid at his order, and died.)

• Putting a gun to your head

• To die for

• Jump off a bridge

• A verbal or writing tic

• The worst thing to do/that can happen; There’s nothing worse than … (because so many times, the rest of the sentence refers to something that really isn’t that bad, especially when compared to something like the death of a loved one)

This kind of sensitivity can also can come into play if you’re trying to convince friends, family or colleagues to have a will, business insurance, medical directive and other end-of-life plans, power of attorney, easily found emergency contact information, etc., or at least as a reminder that we all should have those documents and provisions in place, regardless of whether we’re in business or work for someone. Illness and accidents can happen to anyone. It’s important to try to be prepared, on our own behalf and on behalf of those whom we love, live with, and work for or with, because we really don’t know what could happen from one day to the next.

Workarounds that work

Colleagues suggested a couple of clever ways to avoid using phrases like “hit by a bus/truck/train”: “‘In case I get hit by a comet’ — highly unlikely you’ll encounter anyone who’s had that experience” and “In case you’re abducted by aliens” — also highly unlikely (we hope).

Instead of “the worst thing is,” I use “One of the worst things [in this situation] is” or “Few things are as bad/hard/difficult/painful as …”  

For my future presentations, I plan to simply say that accidents, injury and illness can happen to anyone, regardless of age or health status, so health, business and life insurance are key things to include when launching an editorial (or any) business. 

Are there any terms or phrases that you avoid, or that trigger trauma on some level when used by others, because of personal experience or events that affected friends and family?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or

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