An American Editor

February 5, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part One — Establishing Parameters

Carolyn Haley

Managing independence is the biggest challenge of being an independent editor who works with independent authors. There’s no rule book, no boss to tell you what to do (aside from certain “musts” pertaining to conducting business legally and ethically).

I feel the absence of rules and bosses when editing dilemmas arise between technical correctness and creative license, as often occurs in fiction. Although numerous style guides and editorial forums exist to advise editors and writers, these resources don’t all agree on how to handle the complexities of language and context. In addition, publishing is an unregulated industry, so there is no official set of rules that all participants must comply with. Instead, publishers and independent editors are free to establish their own editorial criteria, with no one looking over their shoulders.

These editorial criteria — the “house style” — are built upon whichever dictionary and style guide a publishing house prefers, then are customized over time by staff preferences. For example, a house’s dictionary of choice might spell “e-mail” with the hyphen, but the company prefers it solid and adds “email” to its internal style sheet. Similar distinctions might be directed for capitalization (e.g., Internet vs. internet), one-word/two-word spellings (e.g., cellphone vs. cell phone), and when and how to use italics, ellipses, and en- and em-dashes.

Freelance editors working for publishers usually receive house style information and are required to adhere to it during the edit or be able to defend why an exception should be made. Independent editors working with indie authors, however, can choose which guidelines to follow for which kinds of jobs.

Building a House Style

After years of swaying in the opinion winds, I followed the publishing company lead and developed my own house style. Although I am not a publishing company, I am a business serving the publishing industry. Being an independent editor makes me the CEO, accounting and contracts departments, managing editor, and “chief cook and bottle washer” of my own enterprise, DocuMania. Why not create my own, official, DocuMania house style?

I was already halfway there, according to my style sheet template, which carries from job to job the conventions I’ve established for items that turn up routinely in client manuscripts. Despite the variability that characterizes fiction, some patterns have emerged that I now prepare for instead of waiting for them to surprise me. In these areas, I’ve decided to treat all manuscripts the same unless deviation is appropriate in an individual situation. More on this in Parts Two and Three of this essay.

In general, I set up macros and datasets where possible to help flag and fix terms and expressions that appear in the majority of client manuscripts. These relate mainly to Americanisms and personal preferences. More on this, too, in Parts Two and Three.

In some situations, it’s faster and easier for me to work with hard copy, so I have created a “cheat sheet” for items that refuse to stick in my memory. It lets me check certain items at a glance instead of wasting time looking them up again. For example, with light-headed or lighthearted — which one takes the hyphen? Same with V-8 or V8 — which one is the motor and which is the brand of vegetable juice? Is the word wracked in such expressions as wracked with pain spelled with or without the w? In which cases are awhile and a while one or two words?

My cheat sheet, style sheet template, and datasets, combined with my core reference works (discussed below), create a framework for operational and editorial consistency while leaving room for the flexibility my job demands. Flexibility is important because fiction is a freestyle form of expression. Like all writing, it has to be coherent, consistent, and credible, and the language essentially correct to connect with readers. Within those boundaries, however, the fiction author has total creative freedom.

Editing fiction can be like the proverbial herding of cats, or juggling plates and forks and beach balls at the same time. For indie editors like myself, each client presents a different writing style, voice, technical ability, education, and story type and subject; each has different publishing goals and opportunities, and understanding of the marketplace; and each has a different budget and priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to editing client work, so it’s up to me to decide the rules of engagement. By establishing a house style, I can reduce the number of moving parts and focus on a work’s individualism.

Core References

Step one of establishing my house style was choosing my core reference sources. This amounted to deciding which editorial authorities I should I base my work on.

That was easy, because I’ve been following the same path since I took my copyediting certificate course way back when. In that course, I was taught that Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW) were the “industry standard” style and spelling guides in book publishing, with Words into Type as a supporting resource. I duly acquired and studied them, found them sensible and palatable, and willingly embraced them.

I swiftly learned through my early work, which was anything I could coax in the door, that different arms of the publishing industry favor other dictionaries and grammar/style/usage guides. Newspapers and magazine publishers, for instance, tend to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, whereas some textbook and journal publishers lean toward the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style. There are many more across and within each subject area.

For dictionaries, some publishing houses and independent editors like the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Others prefer the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the Oxford American Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English — or all of the above, or any other. Specialized fields have their own preferences, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary for medical editing. A library’s worth of subject-specific reference works exists, and, like most editors, I keep adding to my collection.

Once the Internet arrived, many reference works expanded to offer their material online as well as in print, and new resources came into being. Editors and writers now add electronic bookmarks to their pool of resources, and make good use of Google and online versions of major style guides — as well as quickly and easily accessible Q&A services for those guides.

It amounts to an embarrassment of riches that I find, simultaneously, a boon and a burden. The boon should be obvious: Whatever information one needs for making editorial decisions is almost always available at one’s fingertips. The burden comes from having too much information available, and no lodestar to follow when navigating a path through it. In the absence of some authority dictating a dictionary/style guide pairing specifically for fiction, I decided to stick with the ones I’m most familiar with, that is, MW and CMoS. No publisher I’ve edited novels for has directed me to use anything else, nor has any independent author asked me to comply with a particular dictionary or style guide. Consequently, the MW/CMoS pairing provides a solid foundation for me to build upon.

To round them out with grammar and usage guides, I floundered until a colleague informed me about Garner’s Modern American Usage. (Since then, a new edition has come out, with the name slightly changed to Garner’s Modern English Usage). That has proven to be a boon in itself. If I can’t find guidance for a conundrum in CMoS, or need expansion on that guidance to reach a decision, I almost always find it in Garner’s. This resources dovetails with CMoS through its author, Bryan Garner, who not only is a contributor to CMoS but also wrote The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

In a manner similar to how Garner’s and CMoS reflect each other, Merriam-Webster offers multiple dictionaries and associated resources. Their online unabridged dictionary includes condensed access to medical terminology, French and Spanish, and citations, plus a thesaurus and a style guide. On my bookshelf I keep MW’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary for people and place names. Between the MW and CMoS families of reference works for spelling, grammar, and usage, I find most of what I need to look up during fiction editing.

These resources don’t cover everything, of course, which is why I and other editors need the broadest library we can compile, along with Internet access. But using MW and CMoS as core resources gives me a frame of reference to support my editorial actions and authority, and minimizes the time I must put into addressing variables.

The Deviation Factor

My house style comes into play most often on points where, as Garner’s often says, “authorities are divided.”

For instance, when it comes to capitalizing the first word of a sentence following a colon, CMoS advises, “When a colon is used within a sentence . . . the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name.” This general guideline is followed by advice on how to treat other, specific instances. The Associated Press Style Stylebook, conversely, says, “Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.”

Garner’s, meanwhile, gives many examples of when to cap or not after a colon, and the rationale behind them, plus an overview statement: “Authorities agree that when a phrase follows a colon, the first word should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it’s a proper noun). But when a complete clause follows the colon, authorities are divided on whether the first word should be capitalized.”

Garner goes on to exemplify how experts might come to choose their own preferences, concluding, “The first three bulleted examples in the preceding paragraph follow the prevalent journalistic practice: the first word is capitalized. But the other view — urging for a lowercase word following the colon — is probably sounder: the lowercase (as in this very sentence) more closely ties the two clauses together. That’s the style used throughout this book. It’s also the house style for The New Yorker . . .”

After studying all that, and comparing it to the seemingly endless ways that novelists can construct sentences, I decided that the DocuMania house style would take the simplest route: “Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon” (except when an individual situation calls for a different practice). That gives me approximately nine occasions out of ten when I don’t have to stop and review exceptions, ponder their relevance, compare different authorities’ opinions, and decide who’s right. In fiction, whether a colon is followed by a cap rarely disrupts a reader’s attention or changes a sentence’s meaning. The colon’s purpose in narrative is to signal that the following thought closely aligns with the first (or, as Garner puts it, “promises the completion of something just begun”).

What matters more than the cap is that the colon is used appropriately. Garner includes a helpful summary of when the colon is used inappropriately. That occurs more often in my clients’ material than situations where the fine shades of capitalizing after a colon influence reader comprehension.

With these core resources established, I have a framework in place to address the many variables that occur in fiction. Parts Two and Three explore some of those details.

The bottom line is that I now have a house style for my business that makes my editing fiction life easier.

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, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

August 24, 2011

Is the Editorial Freelancer’s Future a Solo Future?

In the preceding article, Working Alone — Or Not?, guest author Ruth Thaler-Carter discussed the positives of being a solo freelancer. Although a well-argued position and a position that most freelancers believe in, I think the future lacks promise for the solo freelancer and will demand that editorial freelancers think about, and form, group practices.

Current views of freelancing hearken back to the days of craft guilds. In the craft guilds, each guild member was an artisan whose work was protected. One couldn’t work, for example, as a scribe unless a member of the scribe’s guild. The guild offered a monopoly for the craftsperson and assured quality to the consumer.

But such thinking, which had at least some validity into the late 1980s, is no longer valid. The entry requirements to become a freelance editor are so minimal as to be nonexistent. Whereas the guilds imposed classes and apprenticeships and maintained a required minimum-level skillset, today anyone can proclaim him- or herself to be a freelance editor at the moment of his or her choosing — no specialty education required.

This change was brought about by the dynamic of consolidation in the publishing industry — the transformation from numerous “small” publishing houses to a handful of multinational megacorporations. The transformation brought with it a philosophical change in the approach to publishing, a change from quality first to profits first. It is this change that the guild-minded freelancer has yet to grapple with; rather than guild thinking, the editorial freelancer must move to business thinking.

Notably, Thaler-Carter’s article neglected to discuss income. It seems to me that not discussing income is to look at editorial freelancing through rose-colored glasses. After all, isn’t that the bottom-line motivator for most of us — the earning of an income sufficient to enable us to work for ourselves without worrying each day whether we have the wherewithal to financially survive?

In my discussions with colleagues, I am constantly hear about their struggles to find clients and earn a decent wage. It is not that a few editorial freelancers do reasonably to very well financially; rather, it is that the vast majority do not. Part of the problem is skill level and types of skills. For example, too many editorial freelancers whose livelihood is based on using Microsoft Word have little mastery of the software program. The lack of mastery makes every job that much harder and longer and lower paying.

But I think a larger part of the problem, if not the largest part, is that too many editorial freelancers work solo and cling to guild thinking rather than moving to business thinking. When they are too sick to work, there is no income; there is no one to share the marketing burden with; it is difficult to take on the multieditor jobs that have the potential to be more lucrative; it is difficult to accept new work on top of the work one already has because there aren’t enough hours in a day for the solo freelancer to work; the solo freelancer has insufficient financial resources to invest in the future of their business.

The trend in the publishing industry is to outsource to full-service production companies, and this trend has been accelerating. Publishers have reduced in-house production staff while increasing the number of publications expected to be published and that each retained production editor must handle. Unlike when I started my editorial career in 1984, a time when most editorial work was still done in-house and on paper, today most editorial work is done out-house and electronically.

In the days of guild hegemony, clients could not go far astray. I remember seeing ads for freelance editors that included the requirement that the freelance editor live locally so that the editor could easily pick up and drop off manuscript. The advent of overnight delivery services and the Internet, combined with the change from paper to electronic editing, did away with that restriction. Now it is as easy to use an editor who lives 3,000 miles away as it is to use one who lives next door. Consequently, those who cling to guild thinking fail to compete with their competition, which is the world.

Today, in-house production staff are responsible for more projects than they were just 5 years ago. As part of these responsibilities, they have to monitor numerous freelance editors, unless they assign the projects to a full-service company, in which case they deal with a single contact and it is the out-house company’s problem to monitor the cadre of editors.

Think of it like a pyramid. At the pyramid’s peak is the in-house production editor. Just below the production editor are the freelance editors. The more freelancers the production editor has to be involved with, the shorter the pyramid and the wider its base (picture short and squat). But if the production editor can delegate to one or two people who, in turn, can delegate to several freelance editors, then the taller the pyramid and the narrower the base that the production editor has to worry about.

The point is that, increasingly, in-house staff look to find editorial groups to whom they can delegate the work because finding a group means that numerous projects can be sent to the group but there need be only a single contact point that the production editor needs to monitor. Monitoring of editors moves down the chain of responsibility.

This is important because (a) it enables the publisher to schedule more projects as the in-house editor can handle more, and (b) the group can take on more work than can the solo freelancer because the group has the resources to handle the volume. Taking on more work means less downtime and increased income. Plus there is not the worry about losing work due to illness, emergency, difficult projects, etc. An editorial  group means help with all aspects of the freelance business.

There is yet another consideration: the rate of compensation. There has been a downward pressure on rates. In my early years, it was not uncommon for a publisher to raise the rate it would pay a freelance editor based on the number of years the freelancer had worked with the publisher and the quality and quantity of the freelancer’s work. In my experience, those days are long gone. Instead of increasing, the rate has remained steady or declined.

The solo editorial freelancer is rarely in a position to bargain over the rate. The competition for the work is simply too fierce; there are hundreds, if not thousands, of freelancers who are willing to work for the offered rate or even less, especially with the worldwide marketplace that the Internet has birthed. Part of why the solo editorial freelancer lacks bargaining power is that he or she offers nothing more than the barebones editorial work. In contrast, a group offers, in addition to the editorial work, management and other skillsets, relieving the client of those responsibilities.

I think the future for editorial freelancers is in grouping, not in remaining solo; shifting from guild thinking to business thinking. Although working solo has its attractions, I think those attractions are rooted in guild thinking and ultimately will lead to a dry work well in the not-too-distant future.

September 23, 2010

Have You Been Aribaed: The Harbinger of Getting Paid

Have you been aribaed (that’s ariba + ed to somewhat simulate the verbing of a company name)? I have and I must admit, I don’t like it.

It’s the modern megacorporation’s way of further shafting (squeezing mercilessly) the little person who really can’t fight back. It isn’t the battle between near-equals or almost-near-equals or even fantasy-almost-near-equals, but the battle of multiple giants against an ant.

Okay, I hear you asking, “so what’s the problem?” The problem is this: freelance editors are generally 1-person small businesses. They do not make million-dollar grosses, do not file SEC reports quarterly, and do not worry about being delisted on the stock exchanges. Instead, they worry about keeping expenses down, getting enough business to earn a living that is at least equivalent to what they could earn working at the local convenience store, and getting those who hire them to pay them the agreed-to amount on time. In other words, we are part of that cadre that both Republicans and Democrats seemingly want to protect when they speak of small business but consistently fail to protect because we don’t fork over enough cash to them.

What is Ariba? Ariba is a megacorporation that serves as an intermediary between suppliers and clients for invoicing and payment. I assume that the reason for a company to sign on with Ariba is so that it can eventually eliminate its own accounts payable department, saving the costs of writing checks, verifying invoices, and, of course, all the costs associated with having human beings working in these departments; I don’t know this for certain.

So far, so good — right? Well, setting aside the idea that if American companies continue to forcibly retire low-level workers so they can increase the perks to very-high-level executives there soon will be only a handful of people able to afford to buy the company’s products because the vast majority of people will have no disposable income (and let’s face it, if you manufacture book, how many copies of a title is the company CEO likely to buy), there is nothing particularly wrong with delegating to a third party bill paying.

Except when you — the supplier of labor or goods — are aribaed, because when you are aribaed, you have to pay Ariba a percentage of your invoice in order to get paid. Imagine this. MegaMonolith Corporation (MM) hires you to edit a book and because of competition and outsourcing to packagers, in order to compete you have had to set your price at the same level as it was in 1995.

So you do the job with great skill and care, working long days and weekends to get the job done in time to meet MM’s compressed schedule — and getting no additional monies for working more than 8 hours in a day or on weekends — and submit your invoice for payment. Previously, your invoice went directly to MM, the client.

But out of the blue MM gets the bright idea to use Ariba. Now you get your chance to be aribaed. In order to edit books for MM, you have to get a purchase order (just like before, so no big deal) but now you have to submit your invoice through Ariba, who won’t process you r invoice unless there is a matching purchase order. On the surface it looks great until you get your check and discover that you’ve aribaed — Ariba charges you a percentage of your invoice for sending you the money you are owed. And, if you don’t join Ariba, process your invoices through Ariba, and pay Ariba’s fee, you can no longer sell your services to MM. Welcome to the group of people who have been aribaed!

On wonders if MM needs to replace a thousand computers is it likely that Dell or IBM will voluntarily pay this fee? My guess is not, but they have the power that us freelancers don’t and offer goods that are relatively unique, which we don’t. In the end, it is the small fry like us who will pay MM’s operational costs or be barred from doing business with MM.

Ariba’s pitch is that it is a place of networking. Other potential customers will find you in its database and send you business. And my great-great-great-great-grandmother will be elected president of the United States right after her resurrection. Do they really think we are so naive as to believe that the people who make the decision to hire a freelance editor are searching Ariba’s database?

Unfortunately, just as many publishers have forsaken quality for quarterly returns, so they will squeeze the little person because they can’t squeeze the IBMs and Microsofts of the world. They will squeeze where they can, which means the workers in the trenches. And aribaing freelancers is just one more way to do so. It is a natural next step to the outsourcing of editorial services to packagers that began in earnest in the late 1990s as a way to squeeze editorial pricing.

Are you ready to be aribaed? If not, get prepared, because it is coming.

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