An American Editor

July 5, 2019

Why Do You Edit?

By Daniel Heuman

When I present at editing conferences, I’ve started asking the audience one question: Why do you edit?

The answers I get back are amazing and diverse; for example:

  • I like helping people tell their stories.
  • I contribute to medical research and change lives.
  • It gives me a good work-life balance.
  • I make science happen.
  • I help people communicate.
  • I get paid to read books!

The one answer that I’ve never heard is “I like checking consistency of hyphenation.” Nobody has ever told me that their driving force, the reason that gets them out of bed in the morning, is “making sure abbreviations are defined when they are first used.” That’s why editors love PerfectIt. It makes the mechanical elements of editing faster and easier, so you can focus on what matters. And that’s why I’m excited to announce the details of PerfectIt 4, our first new edition for Windows users since 2015.

The Basics of PerfectIt

If you haven’t used PerfectIt, its core philosophy is that humans make the best editing decisions, and they always will. The role of software is to help people make those decisions faster. PerfectIt doesn’t know what’s right. Instead, it alerts you to points in the document that could be errors. It leaves every decision up to you.

Here are some of the errors that PerfectIt helps you find:

  • Inconsistent hyphenation (e.g., “email” in one place, but “e-mail” in another).
  • Abbreviations that haven’t been defined or have been used before they’re defined.
  • Capitalization inconsistency (e.g., “Government” or “government”).
  • Brackets and quotes left open.
  • Numbers in the middle of sentences (spelled out or in numerals).
  • Inconsistencies in list punctuation and capitalization.
  • Use of sentence case or title case in headings.
  • Different spellings of the same word (e.g., “adviser” or “advisor”).
  • Common typos that spellcheck won’t find (no more “line mangers” or “pubic consultations”).

You can also use PerfectIt to enforce house style rules. The program is customizable so you can build in your own preferences. That’s useful for both freelance and in-house editors. If you’re a freelancer, PerfectIt lets you build in a style sheet for each client so it’s easy to keep track of different preferences. For an in-house editor, PerfectIt helps you enforce your style manual. You can set up your team with PerfectIt and make sure everyone at your organization follows the style manual (at long last).

PerfectIt doesn’t do anything that you can’t do. You can find and correct every error described above manually. However, these errors are time-consuming to find and easy to miss — and checking them is not why you edit! Checking mechanical errors is necessary work, but every minute you can save on the mechanics is more time for substantive editing.

What’s New in PerfectIt 4

In PerfectIt 4, we concentrated on one thing: increasing that time saving. We did that in two ways: improving PerfectIt’s initial scan and changing the interface. You can see it here.

In the past, PerfectIt’s initial scan was when you could step away from the computer and treat yourself to a cup of coffee or check your social media. With PerfectIt 4, a scan that could take as long as 5 or 10 minutes is now over in seconds. Coffee and social media will have to wait!

The biggest change in the interface is that every location now has a separate fix button. That makes it easier to use the preview text to see context and make changes. The time saving is just a second or two for each fix. However, the effect is cumulative. If you save a second or two on each fix, that can be a minute or two on each document. When you add that up over the course of a year, it’s significant.

Time savings aren’t the only improvement. We’ve also made changes to PerfectIt’s styles. We’ve added support for GPO Style, and we’ve updated WHO Style, UN Style, EU Style and American Legal Style. In addition, you can now base a style on an existing style. So if you do legal editing, you can start with PerfectIt’s built-in American Legal Style and build your own preferences on top of that.

Do More of What You Love

We made saving time the focus of PerfectIt 4 because that’s what every professional needs. Time saved on mechanics is more time for substantive editing (or more time for family, hobbies, and things that have nothing to do with editing). Do something you love. Checking for consistency mistakes is an important part of the job, but it isn’t why you edit.

Daniel Heuman is the CEO and founder of Intelligent Editing. PerfectIt is available for a 14-day free trial or a $70 per year purchase at You can purchase it for just $49 per year (30% discount) if you’re a member of one of these professional editing associations.


January 11, 2016

Thinking Fiction: Making Copyediting Decisions

by Carolyn Haley

In a recent discussion with a colleague about editing fiction, I was asked the following questions:

  • How do you determine if the language level fits the readership?
  • If a phrase is properly worded but there is an alternative phrasing that might be better, how do you determine whether it is better for the target audience?
  • How do you decide how much explanation of events or characters is too much or too little?
  • How do you decide whether an allusion can be left without explanation?

In each case, my answer is, “It depends.”

It depends, primarily, on scope of work and who you’re working for. Secondarily, it depends on contextual variables, such as genre and vocabulary — and yourself.

Scope of work

The keywords in the above questions are how do you determine and how do you decide. In actuality, you might not have the luxury to do either. For instance, when copyediting a manuscript for a traditional publisher on a freelance basis, you might be barred from revising content. The manuscript already has been content-edited, and the project editor informs you of the parameters to work within for polishing the prose.

Such parameters could range from an admonishment to not touch anything unless it’s patently wrong, to a list of situations that are okay to change and not change. In these situations, if you exceed scope of work by broadly evaluating language level, phrasing, and explanation, and then make revisions pertaining to them, you could get tagged as a freelancer who doesn’t follow directions and not be hired again. Conversely, the project editor might be thrilled that you did so much and hire you again eagerly. But now you’ve established a performance standard disproportionate to your rate, and you may get stuck there for all future jobs.

Sometimes the publisher gives you a free hand as long as you query and justify any changes beyond mechanical details. While documenting so much extra can be annoying and time consuming, it gives opportunity to address issues on multiple levels. Again, though, you might end up with an imbalance between work and paycheck. But if you’re a copyeditor in a solid, long-standing relationship with an individual publisher, you may have more leeway.

Contextual variables

The how you determine/decide question mainly comes into play when you’re an independent copyeditor handling novels by independent authors, a situation in which you have more freedom to make choices.

So, back to the original questions:

(1) How do you determine if the language level fits the readership?

By understanding genre, and how it applies to an individual novel.

A young adult story, for instance, is structured with shorter sentences and leaner vocabulary than an adult book. Words that you think might be a stretch for the age group can still be acceptable; after all, none of us is too old (or young) to look things up and learn. As long as context gives a good sense of the word’s meaning, you can usually let it stand, though sometimes it’s a tough call. Authors are cautioned by writing gurus to not “write down” to younger audiences, but may not understand where the line is, which can make things fuzzy for the editor. Generally, in books for youth, too many occurrences of look-up words needs to be queried.

Adult novels allow wider vocabularies. Nevertheless, in some genres certain words are taboo. Take sweet romances and cozy mysteries. These rarely contain profanity or sexual terms, so if you encounter such elements in those genres, you need to query and suggest options. Similarly, science fiction commonly includes technical terms, which are fine for that audience but may confuse readers in, say, a dark mystery focusing on relationships. Fantasy novels often create words for magical systems and alien worlds, which, too, are fine for that audience. However, those words might be hard to read because of strange spellings, or character names might be confusing because so many start with the same letter to indicate variants of tribal names. That convention might make story sense but adds labor for the reader, making it something you should query.

Action-based stories normally use short or fragmented sentences; short paragraphs, chapters, and words; and are heavy on verbs, but light on adverbs and adjectives. Verbosity and passive construction defeat the story’s purpose and must be edited and/or queried and/or discussed with the author. Likewise with any contemporary novel that overuses brand names or fad language because the author is trying to be hip, or to slavishly follow someone’s advice to be detail-specific. These can date the story needlessly or overload it with minutiae, each of which can interfere with reader attention or interest.

In any context, language that doesn’t work usually draws attention to itself by making the reader stumble. I take my cue from stumbles to focus on the cause and consider alternative phrasing. Whether to edit, query, or talk with the author depends on the scope of work. Sometimes there’s more going on than either you or the author anticipated, and you have to renegotiate timeline and fee.

(2) If a phrase is properly worded but there is an alternative phrasing that might be better, how do you determine whether it is better for the target audience?

“Better” is a highly subjective term, so ensure that your judgment of “better” is a matter of clarity and comprehension, not just your personal taste. When editors start questioning or recasting too much of an author’s writing because they think it’s not good enough, they’re entering the realm of changing author voice. That’s a big no-no in fiction, which is why I use stumbling as my first decision-making criterion. I may not be the ideal representative of the target audience, but I’m well read enough to trip on something that doesn’t work. So when stumbles provoke me to consider alternative language, I review the choices in the context of the author’s audience and genre, and edit or query as suits the scope of work.

(3) How do you decide how much explanation of events or characters is too much or too little?

By stumbling while reading, or being pushed out of the story.

Most of us have encountered novels wherein the author presents so much detail or backstory that the narrative bogs down. Such “info dumps” are a frequent cause of readers skipping ahead or bailing out, and should be addressed. Part of storytelling finesse is to provide just enough information to let readers understand what’s going on and create a clear picture in their minds, while leaving out enough to lure them along. When authors fail to do this, you should draw their attention to it and suggest whether to condense, delete, or relocate the material.

Conversely, too little information leads to confusion. Unclear action, unreacted-to moments, unsubstantiated logic leaps, incomplete scenarios — all force readers to back up and figure out what’s going on. Most of these situations require queries, although sometimes simple edits like adding a pronoun or reversing a sentence can take care of the problem.

(4) How do you decide whether an allusion can be left without explanation?

This is a tricky call. Each editor brings a different knowledge base to a story, and some will understand certain allusions automatically and glide by them, whereas others won’t make the connection and will need it explained, and still others will be uncertain enough to ask. It’s safe to assume that readers will run the same gamut. Best practice is to flag any allusion that appears in a story and ask the author to confirm that it means what you think it means, and whether the author believes all readers will understand it. Perhaps suggest that the point will be better made by spelling it out.

“It depends” as a standing condition

Because so much of fiction editing is contextual and subjective, it’s hard to know where to draw lines between right and wrong. Yet many narrative moments have no concrete right or wrong presentation (which is why style guides are considered guides, not rule books). Copyeditors of fiction must have some tolerance for rule ambiguity so they can help authors keep ambiguity out of their voice and vision. That means editing with a light touch unless directed otherwise by the hiring party, and flagging anything that might raise a question in readers’ minds or generate confusion. “When in doubt, query” serves well in most instances. Every potential issue the editor points out is one that author can revisit and prevent becoming an issue for the reader. While “it depends” is often the answer to a question, copyeditors who know what “it” depends on can best convey to authors their choices and the advantages one has over another.

Carolyn Haley 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.

January 19, 2015

Thinking Fiction: The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style

The Style Sheets — Part I: General Style

by Amy J. Schneider

So you’ve completed the first-pass read-through of the manuscript. Now you’re ready to get into the thick of things and do your main-pass edit. Let’s get to it!

Of course, as for a nonfiction copyedit, you will compile a style sheet. If a style sheet is available from a previous book by that author or a previous book in the series, use that as your starting point. (See my essay, “The First Pass — Just Read It!,” for more on reviewing previous style sheets.) I actually maintain four style sheets (general style, characters, places, and timeline) for each fiction edit for ease of navigation, although if you would like to combine the four sections I use into one document, go right ahead. Or you can keep them separate and combine them into one document when the edit is finished. Over the next four essays I will discuss the style sheets I keep in a little more detail.

General Style Sheet

In fiction as in nonfiction, we need to track the basics, such as treatment of numbers, abbreviations, punctuation, typography (use of italics and other font attributes), usage, and, of course a general word list. The Chicago Manual of Style is one of several standard style guides in book publishing, but the rules in fiction are looser than in nonfiction and thus Chicago — and any other style guide — should be considered more a guide than a collection of hard-and-fast rules. And, as I’ve mentioned earlier, there is much more leeway for style in fiction because the author is creating a mood and telling a story. (Imagine how flavorless The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be if it had been edited to be one hundred percent grammatically correct!)


Most of the time in fiction, numbers will be spelled out, especially in dialogue, but as always there are exceptions. Phone numbers (particularly 911, the emergency number), years, decimals, vehicle designations (such as aircraft call signs), and weapon names (AK-47) and calibers are usually presented in digits. In general, use digits for numbers that would become unwieldy if spelled out. Common entries on my style sheet include heights (five-foot-one, six four), time (eight thirty, 6:27 a.m.), highway numbers (Route 28, the 101), decades (the seventies), clothing sizes (size eight) and room numbers (room 307). (The examples I’ve given here are just that — examples — rather than rules about how to style these. Again, each book might use a different style, with house style and author preference as factors.) I’ll delve into numbers in more detail in a future article.


Abbreviations used in a novel might be those used in the real world (GPS, FYI) as well as invented ones from the fictional world in the novel (names of organizations, slang terms). I generally include them whether they have been spelled out or not, simply to clarify what they stand for. (Unlike nonfiction, there is no need to spell out every acronym for the edification of the reader. Context is key.)


Most authors will use the serial comma, but some prefer to omit it. Make a note! (And indicate that it’s the author’s preference. I use “(au pref)” after any such item. In my work, the publisher informs me of author preferences for certain terms or style choices, either in the cover note or on a previous style sheet.) The same is true for ellipses (some authors use the 3-dot ellipse only). I’ve had a few authors who said, “No semicolons.” This section is also where I note general forms of punctuation, so I can find them easily, instead of putting a specific term in the alphabetical word list. For example, I put “fifth-grader (n)” here instead of under F in the general word list because I want to show how I’m treating this word form instead this specific word. Other examples of things I track here include color terms (whether and when to hyphenate forms such as black-and-white, silver-gray, reddish orange, and sky blue), whether to set off words such as too, either, and anyway with commas (many authors have a preference), and possessives of names ending in –s. (I recently had an author who specified apostrophe-only for possessives of names ending in –s or –z. So I maintained that style for words such as Chris’ and Buzz’. It went against my grain, but it was the author’s stated preference, approved by the publisher. So on the style sheet it went, with the “(au pref)” tag.)

This is also a good place to note unusual punctuation used in dialogue: ’cause, ag’in, I’mma.


Direct thought, indirect thought, imagined dialogue, mouthed dialogue, remembered speech, telepathic dialogue, words as words or sounds, letters as letters or shapes or academic grades, signs, handwriting, text messages, e-mails, typed text, computer commands, foreign terms: these can be treated in many different ways. Italic? Small caps? Caps and small caps? A special character style in the client’s template? Roman, in quotation marks? All caps? Initial caps? Title case? Note it here.

A common consideration in fiction is how to treat terms of address and epithets. Generally, generic terms used to address someone that are not an established nickname for that person are lowercased: sweetheart, pumpkin, my dear, ma’am, jerkface. Occupational titles used in place of a name are often capped (but not always!): Doctor, Officer, Lieutenant. The same is true for temporary epithets: Mr. Wonderful, Crazy Homeless Guy.


Note any firm usage preferences here: whether to distinguish between that/which, further/farther, each other/one another, and the like. (These would usually apply mainly to omniscient narrative, as first-person narrative and dialogue are frequently left as is rather than conformed to “correct” usage, unless the character would be expected to use it.) An excellent usage reference is Garner’s Modern American Usage.


Ah, “Miscellaneous,” the junk drawer of the style sheet. In fiction I use this primarily for terms that don’t fit in other places: fictional and real items such as organization names, publications, historical events, special terms such as magical commands, and so on.

General Word List

The word list is pretty much the same as for nonfiction, with some additions. Here I note any British spellings and foreign terms, treatment of slang terms (dammit or damn it?) trademarks (real or fictional), sounds and interjections (uh-huh, uh-oh, for gosh sakes), and so on, as well as the usual sorts of terms one might include on a nonfiction word list. I also note any variants from dictionary spellings that the author may prefer (again, with the “(au pref)” label). In invented worlds, such as in fantasy novels, unconventional capping is much more prevalent: the Sight, She (referring to an exalted character), Before (referring to an earlier era). The word list is a good place to note terms such as these.

In Coming Essays…

In coming essays, I’ll delve into each of these areas in more detail. Hopefully, this article has given you a good overview. Next month: tracking character attributes.

Amy J. Schneider (, owner of Featherschneider Editorial Services, has been a freelance copyeditor and proofreader of fiction and nonfiction books since 1995. She has shared her insights on copyediting fiction as a speaker at the Communication Central conferences, in writing for the Copyediting newsletter, and in an audioconference for Amy can be reached at LinkedIn, via Twitter, and on Facebook.

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