An American Editor

April 11, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction II

by Carolyn Haley

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

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

Debatable errors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fact checking and formatting

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

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

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

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

Comments and queries

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

March 28, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing Fiction I

by Carolyn Haley

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

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

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

Objectifying subjectivity

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of results

In three areas the editors performed identically:

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Errors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related essays on An American Editor:

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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: