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 19, 2015

Style Guide Terrorism: A Formula for Failure

Maybe the headline exaggerates a little — but not a lot! I am nearly, finally, happily, finished with a project that has been the most difficult project I have worked on in years if not all of my 31 years as an editor.

The problems begin with English not being the native language of the authors. If that was the extent of the problems with the project, then there really wouldn’t be a problem; the project would just be difficult, but not extraordinarily so.

What makes this particular project so difficult is the style guide that is to be followed: The ACS Style Guide: Effective Communication of Scientific Information, 3rd ed. by the American Chemical Society (ACS) (Anne E. Coghill and Lorrin R. Garson, editors) — especially when you combine its strictures with the American Chemical Society’s CAS Source Index (CASSI) Search Tool for bibliographic information.

The purpose of a style guide should be to simplify communication between an author and a reader by making it easy to comply with a group’s style preferences and easy for a reader to have all the necessary information that the author wishes to communicate. Although I have my quibbles with The Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed., Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format 7th ed. (the 8th edition has been available for a year but I haven’t had need for it yet), AMA Manual of Style 10th ed., and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association 6th ed., none of these publications seem to go out of their way to make an author’s and editor’s work destined to fail as the ACS does.

I take pride in the quality of the editing I provide my clients. I believe one of the reasons I have been as successful over the years as I have been is that I am a topnotch editor who delivers well-edited manuscript in a timely fashion. I do know that I am offered many more editing jobs than I can handle, which I take as an indication from my clients that they perceive great value in my editing skills.

Yet even providing a client with a well-edited manuscript, I am able to maintain a decent rate of pages edited per hour. Those of you who have been long-time readers of An American Editor know that I charge on a per-page basis, which means that I have to be able to edit at a decent rate in order to be profitable.

But I have met my waterloo with the ACS style.

The reference styling requirements are illustrative. Most styles tell you, for example, to list only the first few authors of a journal article followed by et al. Not ACS. ACS style is to “Include all author names in a reference citation” (p. 291) unless a specific publication says otherwise in its in-house style manual. That wouldn’t be too terrible (until you hit the articles with a large number of named authors) except that author names are punctuated like this:

Cotton, F. A.; Rose, T. J. P. A.; Blinker, J. P., II; Muskrat, E. P. S., Jr.; …

Note the punctuation. And the spacing. And think how easy it is in a reference list of 200 entries to miss a space or a punctuation mark, especially when many of the references list more than five authors. This is a design for failure.

Complicating the problem is that the journal names, which are abbreviated, often do not adhere to the common abbreviations found in databases like PubMed. In addition, punctuation is required. For example, the journal Acta Crystallographica. Section C, Crystal Structure Communications‘s PubMed abbreviation is Acta Crystallogr C and its CASSI abbreviation is Acta Crystallogr., Sect. C: Cryst. Struct. Commun. Combine the CASSI abbreviation with the instruction in the Style Guide that essentially says you can ignore the approved abbreviation, and chaos reigns.

Consider the publication Science. According to CASSI, the approved name is Science (Washington, DC, U.S.) (note how U.S. is punctuated but DC is not). However, because CASSI doesn’t list another journal by the single name Science, it is OK to omit the place of publication. (My immediate question was: “Suppose I know of another publication by that name but CASSI’s database doesn’t yet list it. Do I keep the place of publication?” The Style Guide doesn’t say.)

What all this means is that the chance of error increases and the editor needs to check every entry in CASSI (you can also check Appendix 14-1 of the Style Guide for “CASSI Abbreviations for the 1000+ Most Commonly Cited Journals”). Fortunately, as I did each chapter I built my Journals dataset so that I could run EditTools’ Journals macro, which reduced the number of journal names I needed to lookup and/or correct. (See The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars for more information about the Journals macro.)

ACS reference styling has many more quirks that make the system so different from other styles. But the real question that is not answered (and I don’t really expect to see it answered directly in any style guide) is this: Do all of these requirements actually help the reader or are they make work that, because of complexity, are likely to lead to author and editor errors?

That is the real crux of a style guide. Every rule, every pronouncement, every decision made by the editors of a style guide needs to be weighed against this standard:

Does it actually help the author and reader or does it add a layer of complexity that is likely to lead to error?

Complex, difficult-to-master requirements not only greatly slow the authoring and editing processes, but also make it easy to “err” by violating the requirement. I view this as style guide “terrorism” largely because the style is difficult for no clear betterment of readability and because too often a style guide’s “rules” are too rigidly applied, with adherence to the “rule,” rather than readability, being the measure of editorial competence.

Unfortunately, The ACS Style Guide‘s complexities, of which the reference requirements are just one example, serve no purpose that I can discern other than to be different from other style guides. To my way of thinking, such a purpose — to be different so one can claim to have one’s own style guide — is unworthy. As I said above, it would be better to make readability the test. The current edition of The ACS Style Guide was published in 2006; perhaps a fourth edition will rethink the guide’s approach.

Have you found other style guides similarly overly complex for no clear betterment of readability?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

 

 

March 2, 2015

The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars

In The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars, I discussed wildcard macros and how they can increase both accuracy and profitability. Profitability is, in my business, a key motivator. Sure I want to be a recognized, excellent, highly skilled editor, an editor who turns ordinary prose into extraordinary prose, but I equally want to make a good living — I want my business to be profitable.

Consequently, as I have mentioned numerous times previously, I look for ways to make editing more efficient. The path to efficiency is strewn with missteps when editors think that all editing tasks can be made more efficient; they cannot. But there are tasks that scream for efficiency. Wildcard macros are one method and work very well for the tasks for which they are suited. A second method, which deals with references, is the EditTools Journals macro.

As I relayed in previous articles, I work on very long documents that often have thousands of references. My current project runs 137 chapters, approximately 12,000 manuscript pages, with each chapter having its own list of references, ranging in length from less than 100 to more than 600 references. And as is true of the text of the chapters, the condition of the references varies chapter by chapter. The goal, of course, is for all of the references to be similarly styled. as well as to be accurate.

The first image shows a sample of how journal names were provided in one chapter. The second image shows how the names need to end up.

Journals in original

Journals in original

 

How the journals need to be

How the journals need to be

The question is how do I get from before to after most efficiently? The answer is the Journals macro.

The key to the Journals macro is the Journals dataset. In my case, I need journal names to conform to the PubMed style. However, I could just as easily create a dataset for Chicago/MLA style (American Journal of Sociology), CSE (Cell Biochem Funct.), APA (Journal of Oral Communication,), AAA (Current Anthropology), or any other style. The image below shows the Journals Manager with my PubMed dataset open. The purple arrow shows a journal name as provided by an author; the blue arrow shows the correct PubMed name of the journal, that is, to what the macro will change the wrong form.

PubMed dataset in Journals Manager

PubMed dataset in Journals Manager

The next image shows a sample APA-style dataset. The red arrow shows the abbreviated version of the journal name and the green arrow shows the full name to which it will be converted by the macro.

APA style in Journals Manager

APA style in Journals Manager

As I stated, nearly all my work requires PubMed styling so my PubMed dataset is by far the largest. If you look at the PubMed dataset image above, you will see that as of this writing, the dataset contains more than 64,000 journal name variations. “Variations” is the keyword. Authors give journal names in all kinds of style, so to cover the possibilities, a single journal may have two dozen entries in the dataset.

The key to creating the dataset is to make use of the Journal Manager — and to keep adding new variations and journals as you come across them: Spend a little time now to make more money every future day. The images of the Manager shown above show you the primary interface. The problem is that it would take an inordinate amount of time to add each possible variation individually. The smarter method is to use the Multiple Entries screen, as shown here:

Journals Manager Multiple Entry dialog

Journals Manager Multiple Entry dialog

With the Multiple Entry dialog open, you enter a variation in the #1 field. By default, all of the trailing punctuation is selected (#2), but you could choose among them by deselecting the ones you didn’t want. For example, if the style you work in requires that a journal name be followed by a comma, you might want to deselect the comma here because this is the list of “wrong” styles and having a trailing comma would not be “wrong.” Clicking Add (#3) adds whatever you have typed in #1 to the main screen (#4) along with the selected trailing punctuation. In the example, I entered N Engl J Med once in #1, left the default selection in #2, clicked Add (#3), and had five variations added to the main field (#4) — I did not have to type N Engl J Med five times, just the once.

I then repeated the process for N. Engl. J. Med. (#4) and am prepared to repeat it for New Engl J Med. (#1). I will repeat the process for a variety of variations in an attempt to “kill” multiple possibilities at one time. When I am done, I will click OK (#5), which will take me back to the main Manager screen, shown here:

Journals Manager AFTER Multiple Entry

Journals Manager AFTER Multiple Entry

The main Manager screen — after using the multiple entry dialog — shows in faint lettering “Use ‘Multiple Entries’ button to adjust” in the Add Journal field (#1). This means two things: First, it tells you that there are journal variations waiting to be added to the dataset, and second, that if you want to modify the list of waiting names, either by adding or deleting, click the Multiple Entries button to bring the dialog back up for editing. If you are ready to add to the dataset, the next step is to tell the macro to what the “wrong” versions should be corrected. This is done by typing the correct form in the Always correct journal field (#2).

If your style was to add a comma after the correct form, you could enter the correct name trailed by a comma here. In the example I show, you would just add the comma after Med. But that might not be the best way to do it because you then lose the ability to use the dataset for a style that is identical but that doesn’t use the comma. There is an alternative, which we will get to. What is necessary, however, is that the correct form be entered here so the macro knows what to do. After entering the correct form (#2), click Add (#3) to add all of the variations and the correct form to the dataset.

The macro will not add duplicate entries so no need to worry about having an entry appear multiple times in the dataset. The macro automatically checks for duplicates. When you are done adding for this session, click Save & Close. (Tip: If you plan to add a lot of entries in one sitting, every so often click Save. That will save the dataset with the newest entries and let you continue to add more. Until Save or Save & Close is clicked, any entries are not permanently part of the dataset.)

Once you have your dataset, you are ready to unleash the Journals macro. It is always a good idea to put the reference list in a separate file before running the macro, but that can’t always be done. Separating the references into their own file helps speed the macro.

When ready to run the macro, click Journals (red arrow below) on the EditTools Tab.

EditTools Tab

EditTools Tab

Clicking Journals brings up this dialog with options:

Journals Macro Options

Journals Macro Options

Here is the best place to select trailing punctuation you want added to the correct journal name. Clicking on the dropdown (#1) will give you the choice of comma, period, semicolon, colon, or the default “none.” If you choose, for example, semicolon, every time a journal name is corrected, it will be followed by a semicolon. Note, however, that if the journal name is correct already except that it doesn’t have the trailing punctuation, the punctuation will not be added. In other words, New Engl J Med will be corrected to N Engl J Med; but N Engl J Med will be left as it is. In this instance, using the other system (adding the punctuation to the correct name in the dataset) will work better.

If your manuscript has endnotes or footnotes with references, clicking #2 will instruct the macro to search those items as well. You can also tell the macro to make the journal names italic, nonitalic, or as they currently are. In this instance, the macro will only change those journal names it highlights. For example, if it doesn’t change/highlight N Engl J Med because it is not in the dataset, it will not change the text attribute of it either.

Clicking #4 lets you change the dataset file to be used by the macro and #5 starts the macro running.

The results of running of the Journals macro depends on your dataset. Clearly, the larger your dataset (i.e., the more journals and variations it contains), the greater impact the macro will have on your reference list. The following image shows the results of running the Journals macro. Journals macro makes use of track changes and color highlighting. As the first instance (#1) shows, the incorrect journal name, Am. J. Kidney Dis. Off. J. Natl. Kidney Found., was corrected to Am J Kidney Dis and highlighted in cyan. The cyan tells me that the name is now correct. Note that the change was made with tracking on, which gives me the opportunity to reject the change. The green highlight (#2) tells me that the journal name Pharmacotherapy was correct as originally provided. And #3 tells me that this journal name variation is not found in my dataset. At this juncture, I would look up the journal in PubMed Journals, open the Journal Manager, and add the variation other needed variations of the name to the dataset so that next time it will be found and corrected.

Results of Running the Journals Macro

Results of Running the Journals Macro

I know this seems like a lot of work, and it is when you are starting out to build the dataset. But as your dataset grows, so do your profits. Consider this: If the reference list you need to check is 100 entries, how long does it take you to check each one manually? I recently checked a reference list of 435 entries. The author names were done incorrectly (see The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars for examples) and the year-volume-pages portion of the references were also in incorrect order. Most — not all — of those errors I was able to correct in less than 10 minutes using wildcarding. That left the journal names.

Nearly every journal name was incorrectly done. With my large dataset (over 64,000 variations), it took the Journals macro 32 minutes to correct the journal names. (Nine entries were not journals and so were not in the dataset and seven incorrect journal names were not in the dataset and had to be added afterward.) I still had to go through each entry in the reference list, but to complete a review of the reference list and make any additional corrections that were needed took me an additional 2 hours and 10 minutes. In other words, I was able to completely edit a 435-entry reference list, fixing all of the formatting problems and incorrect journal names, in less than 3 hours.

How quickly could you have done the same?

Combining macros is a key to efficiency. Recognizing that a problem has a macro solution and then knowing how to impose that solution can be the difference between profit and no profit. Using macros wisely can add fun and profit to the profession of editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays are:

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March 29, 2010

Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses

I read a lot of nonfiction books, both in my work and for pleasure, and one of the most annoying things to me is improper thought given to footnotes, endnotes, and references.

Many years ago, an academic client told me, in response to my question about why a 50-manuscript page chapter had nearly 1,000 references — a bit of overkill, I thought — that in his academic circles, if he wanted to move up the ladder his writings had to have lots of references. He went on to say that it was not unusual for people to look at the quantity rather than the quality of the references.

References do have a legitimate purpose, but this comment made wonder — and I continue to wonder — about notes (notes being the inclusive term for footnotes, endnotes, and references). Granted, I am as guilty as my client’s academic peers in that if I see a book on a heavy subject that purports to be the comprehensive study of the subject to date that has only a few references, I wonder about the quality of the work. On the other hand, if I find every other word bearing a reference, I wonder if any real effort was placed in the writing; is there any original material to be found between the covers? There is a fine line of too much and too little referencing.

There is also the problem of quality vs. quantity, especially when many of the notes cite references that are citing other references, that is, a cite of a cite of a cite or the syndrome of inconsequential citation. If Jones cites Smith who cites Waterloo for a proposition espoused by Spinster, and Jones hasn’t verified (a) that Spinster actually espoused the proposition, (b) that Waterloo has correctly cited and attributed to Spinster (as, e.g., in correctly quoting Spinster), and (c) that Smith is correctly citing Waterloo, of what value is the cite other than to take up space? And if Jones is going to go to the trouble to verify the sources, as Jones should, then why not bypass Smith and Waterloo and directly cite Spinster?

Referencing is necessary in serious academic work. I don’t dispute that. But how it is done is problematic. Is it more important that I note the references or the text? And what about footnotes (and endnotes) that provide their own discussion or explanation of the material? I still shudder when I come across a footnote that is many paragraphs long and has umpteen cites to support just the footnote. I have always been of the view that if it is important enough to be in an explanatory note, it should be incorporated into the main text.

Unlike end-of-book references, footnotes and endnotes are distractions. They interrupt the reading flow. If they give no more information than a reference cite, why distract the reader from the text with a callout to the reference? If they provide additional details that the reader should be made aware of, why not incorporate that information in the text body? If it isn’t important enough to be incorporated into the main text, perhaps it is not important enough to interrupt the reader’s concentration on the text.

Endnotes are worse than footnotes because they prevent the reader from easily scanning the note to see how worthwhile interrupting reading the text to read the notes would be. One needs to locate the endnote by physically turning to a new location in the book. How frustrating to get to the endnote to discover that in its entirety it reads: Ibid. That bit of information was certainly worth interrupting concentration on the text! Noting distracts the reader, usually for no intellectual gain.

The problem is academia. Too much emphasis is placed in unimportant things. It is the form rather than the substance that dominates. Not so many years ago, in a discussion with academics at a local college, it was made clear that if someone wanted to get tenured at the college, they had to write a peer-reviewed book that was published by a publisher from an approved list, which list was in rank order; that is, the closer the publisher was to the top, the better the chances of obtaining tenure. It was also made clear that there were specific expectations regarding noting, including a minimum number of expected notes.

It seems to me that the communication of knowledge should be the primary focus of an academic book. Scholarship should be judged on the information conveyed within the main body, not the number of times concentration is interrupted. In fact, interruptions should be minimized and minimal interruptions should be rewarded.

Readers assume that if a work is cited in a note or reference that the book’s author has actually read the cited work rather than relied on someone else’s summary of the work. Reader’s also assume that the cited work actually says what is claimed or relates to the material for which it is being cited. Are these valid assumptions? I know that as a reader I do not have either the time or the desire to check each cite for accuracy — neither for accuracy of the cite itself or for the content for which it is cited; I wonder how many people actually do check each and every cite or are we simply impressed and overwhelmed by the number of cites?

I think that scholarship can be better served by more effort placed in writing the main text, fewer footnotes (and no endnotes), and a comprehensive reference list at the end of the book that is divided into two parts: references relied on for the book and recommended additional sources of information. If the author has a message worth communicating, it is worth not interrupting and worth not going down the side roads to which footnotes and endnotes often lead. Occasional footnotes, even lengthy explanatory ones, are appropriate, but it is inappropriate, in my thinking, to bombard the reader with hundreds of distractions.

Another questionable practice as regards footnotes, endnotes, and references is the citing of online material. Here today, gone tomorrow is, unfortunately, the reality of a lot of online material. Unlike a book that gets stored in libraries for future generations to use, online material often shifts or disappears and is difficult to verify. Today’s valid URL is tomorrow’s Not Found error.

When I see a book that relies heavily on online sources, I wonder about the content. Online material isn’t always scrutinized for verity, making it highly suspect. Along with overnoting and poor noting, relying on online sources is not a sign of quality; rather, it is a sign of quantity.

Something authors should keep in mind: The purpose of writing a nonfiction book is to advance knowledge, spread it around; it is not to create a book that simply sits on the buyer’s bookshelf. It is better to be remembered for what one wrote than for what one noted.

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