An American Editor

February 16, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Two — The Author Factor

Carolyn Haley

Part One of this essay discusses the baseline of establishing an indie editor’s house style. Part Two expands to discuss examples of why, when, and how to apply house style vis-à-vis author variables.

In the main, my choice to allow, disallow, or discuss a given point is driven by the author’s attitude and writing technique. The majority of my clients care more about their story content than the nuts and bolts of their sentences; they want their manuscripts “cleaned up” in a generic way, and leave it to me to decide what that means.

A handful of my clients, however, care ferociously about the small stuff, and this group divides into two. The first group wants me to follow all the “rules” precisely (without specifying which authority to follow), and the second wants me to follow their rules precisely. The latter are the trickiest authors to work with.

In a recent episode of working with a technically focused author, my sample edit saved us both a lot of trouble. The author’s response to my sample edit made it obvious that our “rules” differed, but, since we liked each other’s personality and attitudes, we had many lively conversations defining scope of work before starting, and I extra-customized his contract to reflect our joint decisions.

My standard procedure, when it comes to spelling, is to follow Merrian-Webster (MW) online unabridged and correct an author’s variant spellings to MW’s main listing of a word. The author I was working with, however, used more variant than standard spellings, so we agreed that as long as MW allowed his spellings at any level of preference, they would stay in his book. This gave him his preferred axe instead of MW’s preferred ax, and the like.

Our agreement also allowed him odd spellings for lingo in his characters’ dialogue, particularly two he was adamant about: looki and pardn’r (as in “Looki here” and “Howdy, pardn’r”). To my surprise, MW contained both these terms, but included no variants matching the author’s spellings. MW had lookee with looky as an option, and allowed pardner as an alternate to partner. Had MW not included these terms, I would have had to spend quite a bit of time searching them out elsewhere to validate (or not) the author’s use, which I didn’t care to do because we were on a tight deadline with a lean budget. Since the author’s meaning was clear with his own spellings, and he was self-publishing his book, I felt no need to challenge him. What mattered to both of us was that his historical facts were accurate, he got to keep the tenor of his story intact, and I was able to provide a clean, consistent manuscript that aligned with generally accepted authorities.

We also had to negotiate some punctuation details. My house style generally follows Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS), which treats the possessive for singular words ending in s the same way it does singular words ending with any other letter; thus, James’s horse instead of James’ horse. The author, however, flip-flopped between styles, so we discussed this, and he accepted my house preference. That worked fine until we came to Four Feathers’s shirt. I was all set to accommodate the author and drop the second s on this one, creating a single style inconsistency in the book with Four Feathers’ shirt, or else to suggest recasting the sentence to avoid the construction, but then he solved the problem himself by changing the character’s name to Knife Blade.

How Authoritative Are Authorities?

Sometimes my house style disagrees on points where the authorities I consult agree with one another, and I don’t happen to like their choice for fiction. An example is capitalizing God in the exclamation “Oh God!” In most instances, this is an emotional outburst that has nothing to do with deities, and to me, spelling it with a lowercase g is appropriate in the same way terms like godforsaken and goddamn have become accepted in lowercase.

Other times, when I can’t find a majority agreement among the authorities I consult, or the authorities don’t take a stand on a particular subject, I apply my house style. Common examples occur in dialogue, such as all right versus alright, and okay versus OK, ok, O.K., o.k. I prefer all right and okay and correct all manuscripts to those spellings. To date, no client has objected. Similarly, when authorities disagree on abbreviations, such as Ph.D. versus PhD, or U.S. versus US, I go with my preference, which is the version with periods.

Sometimes my core references don’t take a stand on a point, leaving me to choose. This occurred when I searched for a guideline on whether to capitalize endearments and pet names like sweetie, honey, darling, and sugar, which crop up frequently in dialogue. I couldn’t find a guideline on this in half-a-dozen reference works, or in online searches using half-a-dozen search keywords, until I consulted the FAQ section of the online CMoS, which declares: “Chicago’s preferred style has always been to lowercase pet names, but you can’t go wrong unless you’re inconsistent, since the issue is guided by preference rather than rule. Please see section 8.39 of the 15th edition. (The issue is not addressed in the 16th.)” There is nothing further in the current edition — the 17th — either.

Ah. That explained why I couldn’t find an answer in one of my core references. At the time, I was using the print copy of CMoS 16 and never thought to go to an older edition. The exercise showed the value of keeping old editions as well as having both the online and print versions of a resource. I wasted time I didn’t need to waste, but did finally get the information I was seeking. It helped me decide that lowercase would be the DocuMania house style for endearments.

Then there are occasions when no reference resource can answer the question. This occurs often in science fiction and fantasy (SF/F), where authors make up their own vocabulary. For example, a recent manuscript contained a special author-invented metal, which he spelled xenite, zenite, and xynite on different pages. There was no contextual difference to warrant variations, so all I could do was query which spelling he preferred, then make sure it was used throughout the story. (In case you’re wondering, it was xynite.)

A common occurrence in SF/F where I choose my own solution is when leapt, dreamt, and burnt arise. These -t constructions of past tense, instead of the conventional -ed version, are deemed archaic or obsolete in American English according to my core references, and thus should be corrected. Their persistent appearance in client material, however, gives me pause. Do those authors use -t spellings because their SF/F novels are set in environments, cultures, or worlds modeled after ancient Europe or America (a common scenario in the genre)? Or because the authors were influenced by other novels in the genre that were published in different eras or countries? Or is it merely a coincidence that a batch of SF/F authors who happen to be my clients use different dictionaries than mine, or their word processors’ spellcheckers are set to a different version of English?

It only matters because I edit to first-preference standard, so I have to choose whether to impose my standard on the clients or accommodate their style(s). My choice usually depends on the author and the book. As an example, one of my prolific clients, who is several volumes into both a science fiction and a fantasy series, uses leapt, dreamt, and burnt in all of them. He does so intentionally to achieve a certain tone. Once I understood this, I made sure that all his manuscripts use these spellings. Conversely, he doesn’t give a hoot about hyphenation or commas or other mechanical minutiae, so I correct to my first-preference standard at will for everything else.

(Interesting aside: The same authors who use the -t constructions of past tense usually reverse style when it comes to the past tense of kneel. With that word, first-preference spelling is knelt and second is kneeled, yet the authors prefer kneeled. Go figure.)


As an American editor who works predominantly with American authors, I default to American language preferences as expressed by my core reference resources, unless it’s clear from the project that other versions of English (British, Canadian, Australian) are at play. Thus, in American manuscripts, I change grey to gray, colour to color, whilst to while, travelling to traveling, cheque to check, and so forth. I also remove the terminal s on words such as towards, backwards, and upwards, and remove the hyphen on prefixes, such as non-profit, re-engineer, counter-measure, and multi-colored, making them all solid. I call out any exceptions out on the style sheet.

With punctuation, I use the American system of double quotation marks around dialogue instead of single quotation marks (ditto when words appear in scare quotes; for some reason, many of my American clients put dialogue in double quotes, but use single quotation marks when calling out words in scare quotes). I also put commas and periods inside close quotes of either type, and employ the serial comma in series ending with “and” (e.g., red, white, and blue vs. red, white and blue). I feel strongly about these practices and only deviate from them if the author expresses a strong preference to the contrary.

When it comes to spellings in transition (words that are still spelled one way in my core references but are transforming through common usage), I let context be my guide. Examples of transition words are electronics-related terminology such as those mentioned in Part One (e-mail to email, Internet to internet, cell phone to cellphone) and the vocabulary of modern institutions (health care to healthcare), along with words like duffel bag (which I’m betting will become duffle bag first-preference spelling in MW within a few years) and Dumpster (a trademark succumbing to genericization like xerox, google, and photoshop).

(Another interesting aside: Genericize hasn’t made it into MW online unabridged yet, but I can find it all over the Internet and hear it in conversation. If I adhere too closely to my core references, then I can claim a word doesn’t exist!)

Mechanical Minutiae

House-style decisions involving italics, dialogue, dashes, and ellipses come up so often that I’ve standardized my practices and keep a checklist on my style sheet template to remind me to address them every time.


I follow CMoS for italics use in general, which in fiction occurs commonly in media titles of complete works, ship and aircraft names, foreign languages, words as words, letters as letters, sounds, and emphasis. What I encounter most often, though, is silent speech: thoughts, remembered or nonverbalized remarks, dreams, and telepathy, all of which are conventionally italicized. It only gets problematic when telepathic communication goes on for paragraphs or pages. That much italic text is tough on a reader’s eyes, yet nonverbal communication must be set off from the main narrative by some system or other for the reader’s comprehension.

Before desktop word processing, authors only had underscore and all-caps available, later bolding, to indicate what would end up as italics when the book was typeset. Nowadays, if they use those styles for emphasis, they announce themselves to readers as amateurs whose work is not yet ready for submission or publication. I therefore ensure those styles get stripped from the manuscript and replaced with italics, or otherwise set off for clarity.

Direct thoughts can be handled in different ways, such as:

What’s that all about? (no tag; speaker identified by context)

What’s that all about? he wondered.

What’s that all about, he wondered.

What’s that all about? he wondered.

“What’s that all about?” he wondered.

I favor using italics and dropping the tag where possible. The important thing about thoughts is that they must be in first-person voice, regardless of whether the voice of the narrative is in first or third person. If not, then they are considered indirect thoughts and kept in roman (e.g., What was that all about? he wondered).

A recent project challenged my standard italics practice. The main character had long psychic dialogues with an alien entity on another planet light-years away, and we needed a way to make it clear who was “talking.” In these dialogues, the characters were disembodied, so the usual gestures, actions, and expressions that make speakers obvious weren’t available to use. The option of inserting “he said” at changes got intrusive.

After experimenting with different combinations of italics and quotation marks, none of which worked gracefully, I recalled a trick I’d seen in a short story I’d edited the year before, where the author distinguished between an individual character’s thoughts and his psychic dialogue with another character by using European-style quotation marks, guillemets (« »). I ended up putting these around the alien’s communication. They instantly and obviously distinguished his words from the human character’s words, providing a visual break in block italic text while enabling readers to follow the story.

Part Three continues with examples of when and when not to apply house style, and a summary of the benefits of having a house style.

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 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.

January 13, 2010

Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

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