An American Editor

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

September 8, 2021

On the Basics: Reflecting on editing then and now

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:42 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

In a recent online conversation about responding to an author who said their manuscript just needed a “light edit” because they had run it through Grammarly, a colleague asked whether “before computers, did folks also assume that editing was just rote grammar stuff or is this a new thing now that spellcheck and other computer functions are ubiquitous?”

I was not surprised to see a number of variations on “Yeah, right; that will happen” and “Never use that tool!” Of more discussable interest is that I thought it was a good question. Here’s my response:

“I think authors in the past had more respect for human editing skills, but there were far fewer aspiring independent authors and most had no way to find an editor. Far fewer got published because they didn’t have today’s outlets, with or without editors.

“And editing/proofreading wasn’t (weren’t?) perfect; almost every book I read [that was published] going waaayyy back has typos. Maybe not many, but at least a few. (It’s why I don’t borrow books from the library; I can’t help marking the typos!)

“Today’s tech tools make it easier for us to check or enhance our work, but those tools aren’t perfect, as everyone here knows. Put the tools in the hands of a skilled, careful editor and the combination is golden. It may still not be 100% perfect every time, but is likely to be much closer than when we didn’t have things like spellcheck and PerfectIt.”

And, of course, the post got me thinking further about publishing then and now, so here we are.

I started writing for publication way back in the 1970s, using a manual typewriter and not seeing my work until it appeared in print; if something got edited, I didn’t see the process.

We used correction tape or fluid to cope with typos, and often had to retype entire pages because there was no find-and-replace or typing over an error. Items might have been missed because there was no spellcheck. For what would now be called self-publishing projects, we typed on green stencil sheets and ran them through hand-cranked AB Dick machines. Making corrections on those was an even bigger headache than correcting typewritten pages on regular paper.

I started editing in the late ’70s — my own work and that of college friends, then on my college newspaper, then as a staff reporter for a weekly community newspaper — when self-correcting electric typewriters were cutting-edge new and exciting, and Compugraphic was the new technology for typesetting. Authors would hand in material typed on manual or electric typewriters, editors would mark up the manuscripts by hand, Compugraphic operators would type in the material and print out the text on bright-white coated paper, and we — often just whoever was handy and cared enough, depending on the environment; many of the places where I worked didn’t have formally trained or designated editors — would proof the resulting galleys before layout. Sometimes the galleys would be sent to authors for review, sometimes not. Corrections for the galleys would go to the Compugraphic operators to be retyped a line or even a word at a time, and pasted down manually.

We referred to printed dictionaries and style manuals, and spent a lot of time on the phone to track down and verify information; no Internet access from our desks to those resources, much less Google and other browsers.

The final galleys would be cut apart, backed with hot glue and pasted into place on heavy-duty graph paper. The pages would go to the printing house and turned into plates that were used to create bluelines (called that because they were in blue ink) — the last chance to review and make corrections, which were charged by the item, because every change meant a new printing plate.

It all took more time than most publishing projects today, although editing, proofreading, layout and more proofreading in the current digital world still takes longer than most authors or clients realize. And it involved costs — for making corrections, and for holding up printing because of a last-minute realization that something egregious had snuck through the editing and proofreading process (if there was one).

The digital environment today has created expectations that publishing — editing, design/layout, proofreading — occurs almost immediately. Clients also often assume that they can have multiple passes of all those steps without extra expense. That means that both in-house and freelance editors, proofreaders, designers and layout experts have to educate colleagues and clients about how the process works; how quickly and when changes can be made, if at all; and the impact of changes on deadlines and costs.

Of course, we also have to educate prospective clients about why they might want to work with us rather than, or in addition to, using online editing tools.

How have you dealt with clients who think that having used online editing or proofreading tools means their work needs “only a light edit or proofing”? How have you responded to clients who keep coming back with more changes but don’t want to pay for your additional time or expect (even demand!) that their project be published per the original schedule?

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

© 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.

September 3, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What is literature, anyway?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:28 pm

© Carolyn Haley

Early this year, I wrote about the challenges that contemporary-novel-writing authors will face in adapting to the “new normal” (

Things haven’t settled down much in the months since then, but enough time has passed that new novels are coming out, through both traditional and indie publishing, in which authors who write contemporary fiction have adapted to the times in different ways.

Some of these works were in process when the combined pandemic and political upheavals started; others have been written since it became clear that daily life and culture were going to change permanently. Enough novels have crossed my desk for purposes of editing, reviewing, and recreational reading that I’m beginning to see patterns.

Even though these books qualify as commercial fiction, I’m interested in them collectively as a facet of literature. I read mainly American fiction but also samplings from western Europe and Canada; this essay is limited to personal observations about contemporary fiction written in or about those parts of the world.


To better understand what “literature” means today, and how it reflects our era vis-a-vis any other time, I turned to my trusty dictionary as a starting point.

Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged lists several definitions of “literature.” The one I was looking for is this:

3b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

This definition embraces fiction, my central concern. But the literal definition does not expand to include purpose, so I went internet trolling to find a more nuanced meaning.

The first search results (I stopped after 20) agreed in principle, albeit with different wording, that the purpose of literature is to explore and express human nature. I refine that to mean creative writing that reveals truth and possibility through story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple genre romance or multi-generational saga or anything in between. Storytelling is as old as human civilization, and capturing it in writing is what constitutes literature.

In fiction publishing, there’s a distinction between literature as a written art and “literary” as a writing style and marketing category. My interest is in the former, and in seeing how authors across genres — the body of literature — are adapting to a global pandemic concurrent with intense sociopolitical changes.

Multiple adaptations

The trends I see so far among fiction authors are clustering in four approaches.

(1) Some novelists have simply incorporated societal changes into their stories, including peoples of all colors, cultures, and genders in their character sets as part of the norm of their characters’ worlds.

In physical descriptions, when characters are described at all, references to their racial or ethnic heritages are as generic as possible, country of origin omitted unless directly relevant to the story, and nonbinary sexuality alluded to by casual mentions, such as a man having a husband or a woman having a wife. All human varieties are assumed to be normal. No commentary about it in the narrative; the story just moves on.

(2) Other novelists have gone the apologia route, inserting front matter into their books to define their positions to readers before they launch into the story. Some literally apologize for even mentioning difficult subjects. Those subjects can be the pandemic or socially sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, politics, or violence.

(3) Another group has failed to separate their personal positions from their characters’ positions. I’ve seen this several times in prolific, popular series authors who are confident about their readerships. I usually read those books in pre-press for review, and recently they’ve been keeping me awake at night wondering how to honestly and fairly evaluate those works. Subtle, intermittent shifts in the narrative change the voice so reader attention is broken by what I call “author intrusion.” While the story is doing its job of expressing the position, the author seemingly can’t resist elbowing in (and the publisher’s editor[s] doesn’t elbow them back out), resulting in a distracting mixed message that undercuts the book’s own merits.

(4) Then there are authors who put their positions solidly into their characters’ mouths and actions, leaving themselves invisible but making their points loud and clear.

Art vs. propaganda

Just about every author writes from a political, emotional, and personal perspective, and has done so since the beginning of publishing time. Same is true for almost every creator who expresses through an artistic medium. People flock to the arts to find resonance for their thoughts and feelings. Nothing abnormal there; in fact, that’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is how well they do it — or not. Authors who draw readers into their worlds and involve them in the trials and tribulations of the characters/setting/time succeed in conveying their messages. They make readers think and feel, and indirectly advance their own thoughts and feelings while remaining offstage. The work is its own self.

But when authors step outside the story world to manipulate reader impressions, things slide onto the slippery slope between fiction and propaganda. In my opinion, if authors feel so strongly about something that they can’t keep themselves out of their story, they should switch to a nonfiction vehicle. Or write op-eds (opinion-editorial pieces).

My personal opinion is meaningless in the larger scope. As a professional editor, I strive to put aside my biases and be as neutral and analytical as possible when I edit or review a fictional work. (But I’m totally subjective when I read for recreation!) If a story is historical fiction, I expect the author to adhere to the mores of the time for plausibility. Unfortunately, this has become a flashpoint in some circles, where people judge historical scenarios by contemporary mores.

I think this is unfair. In most cases, the purpose of the story is to show how things were in comparison to today’s sensibilities. Condemning authors for being accurate — and in some cases, calling to ban a book because it’s offensive to contemporary tastes — is unreasonable. Let literature, let art, inform us about the past to help us analyze the present and advance toward the future!

Who owns the viewpoint?

Some contemporary novelists have become scared to write what they want to say because they expect rejection or pushback, even shaming, from a polarized, judgmental audience. I see reports about this on social media, writing/editing/publishing forums, and articles in publishing newsletters. I also hear about it directly from clients and associates.

This anxiety differs from the common one among authors about their work being accepted by a publisher or an audience. Their anxiety has broadened to social and political spheres, which has undercut their confidence.

Some of them question whether to hire sensitivity readers in cases where they wrote outside their everyday reality. Which is worth thinking about, because storytellers have been walking in “other” shoes for as long as people have been writing stories. What’s different now to make that a problem?

I don’t see a problem, because it’s standard practice for conscientious authors to research what they don’t know and round up more-knowledgeable people to vet their work where it touches unfamiliar areas. Acknowledgment and dedication sections in books are full of credits to people who have helped authors with verisimilitude and factual accuracy.

A sensitivity reader is nothing more than an individual offering insight into a different culture or norm. Just like any technical professional, a sensitivity reader is only one person representing a great body of information. Their insight may be valuable, but it must be taken with the same grain of salt as any other resource. How the author handles that information is ultimately what counts.

Context is the bottom line

What’s often forgotten in the world of literary criticism is the world itself. We all belong to an immense, diverse population spread across the planet. Something that’s meaningful or controversial in the United States of America might be irrelevant, inflammatory, or incomprehensible somewhere else — even at a regional level. For instance, rural Alabama in a bayou environment has little to do with the Minnesota boundary waters, or downtown Los Angeles or New York.

A novel’s content has to be framed by not only its subject but also its context. Authors with commercial ambitions must direct their work toward a specific desired audience. By definition, that eliminates others.

“Otherness” has long been a concern of science fiction and fantasy authors. They have the advantage of being able to make it up. Who can speak for aliens from other planets?

Extrapolating from there, nobody on Earth can truly speak for anybody else, so the purpose of a novel is to present what’s happening to a unique character(s), expressed by a unique author, in hopes of finding commonality among unique readers.

The benefit of this is a constant stream of education and enlightenment about different people through their adventures and misadventures. The only thing that matters is story. Story expresses our shared humanity, and the infinite number of stories expresses our individuality. How wonderful is that?

The word that encompasses it all is “literature.”

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. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

August 31, 2021

On the Basics — Biz card, résumé tips as workplaces and in-person events return

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 1:57 pm

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

I’m breaking my usual pattern of posting here on Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays because the writing spirit is strong, and there’s more to come this week on our usual posting days.

Now that businesses are going back to the office and a semblance of pre-pandemic worklife seems to be returning, it’s a good time to assess the effectiveness of résumés and business cards. They’re both still important tools for networking and job searches, even in the ever-increasingly digital world and for both in-house and freelance colleagues. 

Here are a few suggestions to keep in mind if you’re getting ready to order new cards or update your résumé.

Business card basics

Business cards that work for you are especially important as in-person events start to come back to life, and real cards are still popular, from what I’m seeing. Someone who enters your contact info in their phone by scanning your card might still keep the actual card ­— and use it first if it has flair and the information they need. I’m meeting new people at such events and seeing a lot of business cards — but many of them don’t do their owners justice.

• Use larger type for your name, company/business name, e-ddress, website URL and phone number. I’ve been seeing a lot of business cards lately with type so small that you almost need a magnifying glass to read e-ddresses or phone numbers. Making recipients squint to read that essential information defeats the purpose of handing out your card and increases the likelihood of errors when someone tries to use your e-mail address or phone number.

• Make space for larger type by dropping street addresses and focusing on website URLs, e-ddresses, and office and cellphone numbers. Not only does that reduce the volume of information and clutter, it creates a more-dramatic design impact. Anyone wanting to visit your office (or send you a fax) can call or e-mail for that information or — for a brick-and-mortar business — find it at your website.

• Include a QR code; it can go on the back of your card so it doesn’t take away from valuable space on the front of the card. It makes you look plugged in and up to date, and makes it easy for recipients to find and file your information, as well as to learn more about you by creating a link to your website or LI profile, whichever is more appropriate and useful. You could even put a QR for each on the back of your card.

• Ditch the glossy paper stock; it’s hard to write on coated paper for anyone wanting to take notes about where and when they met you or add other information.

• Put a handful of business cards in every briefcase, jacket/pants/skirt pocket, handbag, cellphone case, etc. You never know when they’ll come in handy, and you don’t want to have to scribble your contact information on a napkin or the back of someone else’s card.

• Scan your card and add a low-resolution image of it to your e-mail signature (sigline) — unless you’re job-hunting, in which case don’t include anything related to your current employer.

• If you are looking for a new in-house job, create a separate personal card to hand out to prospective employers or referral sources. Employers will want to know about your current and past jobs, of course, but you don’t want to disrespect your current employer. A personal version can still include your job title, with an e-ddress and a home or cellphone number that’s different from your work information.

Résumés that work well

Whether you’re looking for freelance or in-house work, you need a résumé that reflects current practices while making you look good. These suggestions are my own, based on observation of student and colleague résumés and recent reading.

• Label your résumé with your name so it stands out from all the people who will send theirs with the filename Résumé.doc.

• If you have a job and don’t want your employer to know that you’re looking for a new position, create a new e-ddress for this kind of personal activity. Never use your current work e-ddress for something like job-hunting!

• Keep it simple — no more than two typefaces/fonts, black type, no photos or artwork (other than a logo if you have a business identity or are a freelancer).

• Keep it relevant — include volunteer or professional development and membership activity, but leave out personal or family details unless they relate to what you’re responding to. For instance, I recently responded to an opportunity to write about eldercare, and included a (brief) mention of looking after my mom and my beloved Wayne-the-Wonderful as part of my qualifications for the project.

• Don’t attach your résumé to an e-mail message unless you’re responding to an opportunity that has expressly said to do so. Instead, provide your website URL and say that your résumé can be found there. Many business communication systems block messages with unsolicited résumés, whether they’re in Word, PDF, or some other program or format.

You might think of AARP as an organization for older retired people, but it offers advice and resources that anyone of any age and employment status can use. A recent issue of the AARP Bulletin newspaper addressed résumés with advice that works for both freelance and in-house job-seeking (I’ve paraphrased and, in some places, added to their advice).

• Use 11 or 12 point type size and sans-serif fonts (Arial, Calibri, Verdana) rather than serif (Times Roman).

• For your e-mail address, use your name or a variation of it rather than a nickname.

• If you don’t have a professional website that can be the basis of your e-mail address ( or, opt for one from gmail, which looks more current than AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail, etc.

• Use a heading like Professional Summary for a snapshot of who you are and what you bring to a job, rather than Objective. The obvious, assumed objective is “Find a new job.”

• List your relevant skills. Consider not including Word or Outlook, which AARP says are “universally expected.” (I had no idea Outlook was considered some kind of standard!)

• If you’ve been doing temp work to fill in while you’re job-hunting, call yourself a consultant for that timeframe and list your relevant assignments under that heading.

• Do include dates for employment and degrees, even if you’re worried about appearing “too old.” Leaving them out creates suspicion and the assumption that you really might be too old for a given opportunity.

• Use the heading Experience rather than Work Experience, so you can include work-related volunteer projects you might have done to fill the gap between paid work or to build new skills. 

• Use bullet points and action verbs to make it clear what you’ve done and how your work has contributed to the success of a project or business. That can save words and space, so you include more information, and often is an easier voice to use in writing up your experience.

• Describe your achievements and background using keywords in the listing or opportunity — and check out the prospective employer’s website to find more to include.

• Feel free to include hobbies and philanthropic activities as long as they are relevant to the kind of work you’re looking for.

Your input

Have you updated your business card or résumé recently, or created a new one? What gave you the incentive to do so? Has there been time to assess whether it’s making a difference in your networking and work search?

Best to all in your endeavors as the world tries to go back to a semblance of normal.

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

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter/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.

July 30, 2021

Indexing Arabic Names: Compound Names that Cannot Be Split

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 9:20 am

© Ælfwine Mischler

Arabic names can be tricky to index and alphabetize in references. In previous posts, I discussed how to handle the definite article al- and family terms Al, Ba, and ibn or bint between names. Unwitting indexers and editors (and even authors) often err by inverting Arabic names that should be left as they are, or splitting compound names and inverting names in the wrong place.

Arabic has a lot of compound names that are identifiable by one of their elements. This column discusses the most common ones. Whether you are indexing or alphabetizing references, do not split these compound names. That is, do not invert — do not move only one element and not the whole thing. The identifiable compounds are based on the genitive construction (iḍāfa) and often, but not always, the second element begins with the definite article al-, which should be ignored in sorting.

I have collected these common compound names by recognizable elements. For the sake of simplicity, I have not used diacritics on the names.

Ibn + [something]

In pre-modern names and names of royalty, ibn (son of) or one of its variants may come between two names. These names are indexed as they appear and are not inverted (see Indexing Arabic Names: Family Terms).

However, when Ibn comes at the beginning of a name rather than between two names, it is capitalized in English, is not inverted, and is sorted on Ibn. Many medieval personalities are known simply as Ibn + [something]. The “something” might be the name of a father or ancestor, or the whole name might be a nickname. For example, the nickname of the 15th-century Egyptian hadith scholar Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani means ‘son of stone’; al-ʿAsqalani indicates that the family originated in ʿAsqalan some generations before him. He is indexed as “Ibn Hajar al-ʿAsqalani,” sorted on I.

Here are some other names of this type — alphabetized as they should be, with the ignored al- shown in angle brackets (see “>Indexing Arabic Names: The Definite Article):

Ibn <al->ʿArabi, Abu Bakr Muhammad*

Ibn ʿArabi, Muhyi al-Din Muhammad*

Ibn Battuta

Ibn <al->Hajib

Ibn <al->Hajj

Ibn Hazm

Ibn Khaldun

Ibn <al->Tabban

Ibn Taymiyyah

*Muhyi al-Din Muhammad ibn ʿArabi (d. 638 AH/1240 CE) is a Sufi scholar who is known as Ibn ʿArabi or, sometimes, as Ibn al-ʿArabi (with the definite article). Follow your author’s practice to include or exclude the definite article. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn al-ʿArabi (d. 543 AH/ 1148 CE) is a Maliki scholar and judge known as Ibn al-ʿArabi. Your author might refer to them as simply Ibn ʿArabi or Ibn al-ʿArabi, without the other names.

Bint + [something]

Bint (daughter of) is the feminine counterpart of Ibn and can occur as the first element of a compound name that is not split. Bint al-Shatiʾ (literally Daughter of the Riverbank) is the pen name of Aisha Abd al-Rahman. You should index it as written, without a comma and sorted under B. Your index might also include her real name (indexed as Abd al-Rahman, Aisha), with locators double-posted or a See cross-reference to her penname.

Abu (or Abū) + [something]

Abu + [something] (literally father of [something]) forms a type of nickname known as a kunya. The “something” is usually the name of the man’s eldest son, but the kunya might be used to indicate a trait. In the medieval period, people were addressed by their kunya and might be known primarily by it instead of their real name.

This form of name is still used in some Arab cultures today and may appear as a surname, nickname, or penname. Like other compound names, you should not split it, and if there is an article in the second element, you should ignore it in sorting. Thus, the Egyptian writer, poet, and historian Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid (1893–1967) is indexed as “Abu Hadid, Muhammad Farid.” The Palestinian Abu Nidal is indexed as written, possibly with a gloss of his real name (Sabri Khalil al-Banna), possibly with an entry at al-Banna, Sabri Khalil (sorted under B) with a See reference to Abu Nidal.

If Abu is preceded by ibn or bint, it becomes Abi (or Abī), and the entire sequence of Ibn/Bint Abi + [Something] should not be split.

Umm + [something]

Umm + [something] (literally, mother of [something]), is the feminine form of the kunya. Like the masculine form, it may refer to a woman’s eldest son, as in the case of Umm Salama (mother of Salama), or it may indicate a trait. The given name Umm Kulthum (also spelled Kulsum or Kalsum) means “one with chubby cheeks.” It was used as the stage name of the Egyptian singer Fatima Ibrahim el-Sayyid el-Batagi, whose stage name is indexed as “Umm Kulthum.” If the second element has the definite article, as in the case of Umm al-Qura (“mother of towns,” a nickname for Mecca), the article is ignored in sorting.

ʿAbd + [something]

This compound, meaning “servant of” or “slave of,” is probably the most common. The second element is usually, but not always, one of the names of God, and there is usually a definite article in the second element, which leads to various spellings in modern names. To bring common spellings together, sort word by word and ignore the definite article if it is not attached to the first element:

ʿAbdallah, Jamil

ʿAbd <al->Hamid II

ʿAbd Rabbihi

ʿAbd <al->Rahman III

ʿAbd <al->Rahman, Sayyid

ʿAbd <al->Samad, ʿAbd al-Qadir

ʿAbdel Ghani, Mahmoud

Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem

The one exception to this, by convention, is the name of the Egyptian president Gamal ʿAbd al-Nasser, who is usually referred to in text as Nasser and indexed as Nasser, Gamal ʿAbd al-, rather than as ʿAbd al-Nasser, Gamal. If your author ignores this convention and refers to him as ʿAbd al-Nasser, index him as the author has him, but also put a See cross-reference under Nasser.

It is common practice for an author to use only a surname on subsequent mention. However, twice I have caught an author using only the second element without ʿAbd; for example, referring to Sayyid ʿAbd al-Rahman as al-Rahman rather than ʿAbd al-Rahman. Al-Rahman is a name of God and cannot be used for a human. If you come upon such a mistake in a book, index the name correctly with ʿAbd and tell the client to correct the text.

[Something] + al-Din

Several compounds made of [something] + al-Din ([something] of the faith) are common names in modern Arabic, and served as a form of honorific in medieval names. In modern names the al- might be spelled ad-, ed-, or ud- to show the assimilation of the letter l, and the article might be attached to the second word. Din might be spelled Deen or Dine.

Common modern compounds are Nur al-Din, Saif al-Din, Salah al-Din, and Shams al-Din, all with various spellings (see “Romanized Arabic in English Texts: Sources of Variation” and “Romanized Arabic in English Texts: Other Challenges for Editors”).

[Something] + Allah

A few names, now primarily surnames, are formed with Allah as the second element: Farag Allah, Faraj Allah, Hasab Allah, Khair Allah.

Dhu (or Zu) + [something]

Dhu or Zu is a combining word in a few names. The u is a long vowel here, so the vowel of the article elides in pronunciation and this might be shown in various spellings, or the names might be written as one word: Dhu ’l-Qarnayn, Dhu’l-Qarnayn, Dhu-l-Qarnayn, Dhul Qarnayn, Dhu al-Kifl, Dhul Kifl, Dhu al-Faqar, Zulfaqar.

Miscellaneous genitive compounds

I have seen a number of names of prominent people incorrectly indexed. These names are also genitive constructions and should not be split.

Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, a former president of Pakistan, appeared in one index as “ul-Haq, Zia” with no sign of the first name. I could not access the text to see how the author had written the name, and I always see the surname hyphenated. This should be indexed as Zia-ul-Haq, Muhammad.

The former president of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has Ben Ali as his surname. His given name is also a genitive-construction compound, which I have also seen used for other people with different spellings: Zine El Abidine, Zain al-Abidin, Zayn al-ʿAbidin. These should not be split.

Examples of Modern Names

A modern name might have two or more given names rather than a given name and a family name. The second name is usually the father’s name; the third name, if there is one, is the grandfather’s. Look at the last element and determine whether it is part of a compound name that cannot be split. Treat any compound names as a unit, then use the final name (simple or compound) as a surname and invert. Ignore the articles in sorting, as shown by the angle brackets.

ʿAbd al-Rahim ʿAbd al-Jalil >> ʿAbd <al->Jalil, ʿAbd <al->Rahim

            NOT <al->Jalil, ʿAbd <al->Rahim ʿAbd

Abu al-Hasan Kamal al-Din >> Kamal <al->Din, Abu <al->Hasan

            NOT <al->Din, Abu <al->Hasan Kamal

Aisha ʿAbd al-Rahman >> ʿAbd <al->Rahman, Aisha

            NOT <al->Rahman, Aisha ʿAbd

Ali Samir al-Dumyati >> <al->Dumyati, Ali Samir

Ali Moustafa Mosharafa è Mosharafa, Ali Moustafa

Mohamed Salah Eldin >> Salah Eldin, Mohamed

            NOT Eldin, Mohamed Salah

Mustapha Zine El Abidine >> Zine <El> Abidine, Mustapha

            NOT Abidine, Mustapha Zine El

Nasr Abu Zayd >> Abu Zayd, Nasr

            NOT Zayd, Nasr Abu

Noura Ahmad Dawud è Dawud, Noura Ahmad

In a recent book about Yemen, I found several modern, nonroyal names with “bin” between two names (for example, Ahmad Hani bin Dawud). I had to query the author about them because modern names don’t usually contain “bin” unless the person is royal. She replied that “bin” was part of the family name, so I told her to mark it to be capitalized and I indexed them on Bin: Bin Dawud, Ahmad Hani. If you find similar modern names, query the author.   

Titles and honorifics can appear in both medieval and modern names, and cause more problems for indexers. That is a topic for another post.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books about Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology. She has presented a webinar on indexing Arabic names for the American Society for Indexing ( This post is based on the submitted version of “Indexing Arabic Names: The Basics,” published in The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing, March 2021,

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