An American Editor

April 12, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part Three — Themes and Variations

Carolyn Haley

Dialogue is a big area of editorial focus in fiction. It presents multiple technical issues — making sure all open quotes are paired with close quotes; punctuation is inside or outside the quote marks as appropriate; terminal punctuation is there at all; quote marks are right-side-up and/or have no spaces around them, and are “curly” (typographer style) versus straight.

It also presents issues regarding who said what and how, and whether that information is needed. The primary content elements are identifier tags (the who part) and writing style (the how part). Two simple examples: “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he said quietly, versus, “Let’s sneak up the back stairs,” he whispered; and “Ready, aim, fire,” he shouted loudly, versus just, “Ready, aim — fire!

My house style regarding dialogue is to emulate what I see in the hundreds of traditionally published books I read and review annually. The accepted wisdom is to minimize tag use (e.g., he said), use an appropriate tag when needed (e.g., he whispered), and/or bracket the words with an action so the reader can follow the exchange (e.g., The general stood behind the troops and counted down with his arm. “Ready, aim — fire!”).

Dashes and Ellipses

Em dashes (—) and ellipses (…)occur often in novels to signify broken or interrupted speech or thoughts (em dash), or hesitant or trailing-off speech or thoughts (ellipses). Regardless of purpose, they have to be handled consistently in a manuscript. They are handled differently in manuscripts destined for electronic versus print production, which adds a formatting element to the editor’s equation.

My default practice is to edit for print production. More and more, though, my clients intend from the get-go to self-publish in e-book and/or print. I now need to negotiate up front how I will format the edited material I deliver. Some authors prepare e-books themselves; others send out their edited manuscripts for formatting, or publish through a service that does the e-book prep work for them; while some want me to do that prep as part of the edit.

In manuscripts intended for submission to traditional publishers or for self-publishing in print, the em dash without spaces on either side (closed up) is the preferred style. At production time, a typesetter will finesse line length and word spacing so line breaks occur correctly. MS Word files containing em dashes transfer well to page-layout programs; in submitted-for-consideration manuscripts, an author using em dashes (vs. double hyphens or en dashes) sends a subliminal signal to the acquiring editor that they either know what they’re doing or have worked with an editor and the manuscript is in respectable shape.

In manuscripts intended for self-publishing for e-readers, however, the em dash without spaces can be a hindrance. It adheres to the words on either side, and in text that will be enlarged or shrunken at will by the reader, the clumped-together words plus em dash can cause some funky spacing on the reader’s screen because of word wrap on variable scales. The dashes, therefore, have to have spacing around them, and ideally be attached to the preceding word with a nonbreaking space so word and dash will wrap together. In some cases, the e-book producer prefers an en dash ( – ) with spaces around it. For .epub files in particular, the ideal is for any dash to be a Unicode character.

Whatever the situation, somebody has to take care of dash detail. I offer value-added to my clients, where viable, by taking care of it myself.

The same is true for ellipses. In conventional print production, ellipses comprise nine elements: word+space+point+space+point+space+point+space+word. Typesetters insert hard spaces in this sequence to avoid line breaks between the points. I can do that in Word as part of grooming the text during an edit, and often do. Manuscripts slated for e-book production, though, work best if the ellipses are coded as a single character — a three-point unit without spaces between the points, with or without spaces before and after. Spacing around the three-point character allows for better wraps during enlargement or shrinking.

Again, this is a formatting detail I can provide or ignore, depending on the client’s desires. Where it applies to house style is establishing with the author what route to take, then performing the task and recording the choice in the style sheet.

Putting It All Together

I communicate my house style through the style sheet I produce for each manuscript. I start by listing my core references.

References used for general style

  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, online unabridged, first variant used unless indicated
  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed.
  • Multiple online sources

Some manuscripts are clean and simple, so I stop there. Others require lookups from throughout my library and the Internet, which I don’t list unless a particular project requires heavy, repeat consultation.

For example, one militaristic science fiction novel included many biblical quotations. In checking the quotes for accuracy, I discovered there are multiple versions of the Bible, and quote checks among them showed variables in phrasing. The differences could be just a word or two, or complete sentences. In this client’s book, a few checks against his phrasing showed that the King James Bible matched his work most closely, so I made sure that all the quotes in the novel aligned with the phrasing of the King James version, which I listed on the style sheet as a resource.

In the same manuscript, I had to check a lot of firearms, too, so I listed my primary resource: the annual edition of the Gun Digest catalogue. Another author switched back and forth between metric units and other measurement systems. After checking which the author wanted, I converted those numbers in the text. Years ago, I found a website I like to use for that purpose (www.convert-me.com); when I use it a lot, I list it to show the author where I got my numbers.

This information is all I provide on the style sheet for references. I don’t think a client needs to know every single book or website I use to check something. I list the top three or four resources to make the point that I employ the tools of my trade and have indeed checked items that needed verification. This signals the same point to other publishing professionals who might follow me in the chain, such as a proofreader or an agent, an acquiring editor, or a publisher’s in-house editor. My resource list tells them the manuscript has been professionally edited and which frame of reference the editor used.

Next on the style sheet, I provide a bullet list of applicable generalities. While these mainly concur with the core references, they accommodate any dominant deviations and reflect things done globally to the manuscript. Here’s an example from a contemporary time-travel fantasy.

Conventions followed in this manuscript

  • add ’s in singular possessives ending in s (Dr. Jones’s, Professor Albates’s, his boss’s)
  • cap first word of full sentence after colon
  • cap honorifics and titles in direct address or referral (Father vs. my father; King Ageis vs. the king)
  • cap university class and division names (Modern Physics, Thermodynamics, Psychology, Biochem; but: the medical school, the business school)
  • cap software or keyboard commands (Run, Stop, Send) and lever positions (Drive, Park)
  • comma after long introductory phrases (4+ words) and to separate long compound sentences
  • comma before last item in series (friends, students, and professors)
  • comma before terminal too, anyway, though, either [untracked]
  • distinction made between each other (two) and one another (several), except in dialogue
  • ellipses = traditional print version ( . . . ) with hard spaces between points to prevent breaking at line ends
  • italics for book and media titles; foreign languages; ship names; emphasis; sounds (pop); telepathy; thoughts/inner speech/remembered speech; unspoken language (she mouths, Everything is always okay); words as words (To her, okay is the male equivalent of the female favorite, fine.), letters as letters; dreams; text messages
  • no comma between easy-flow coordinate adjectives where meaning is clear (hot clammy darkness, large green leaves, low sweet sound)
  • no comma in common informal expressions (“Oh my,” “Oh yes”; but: “Yes, sir”)
  • no s in –ward words (backward, upward, toward) [untracked]
  • no single quotes used except for quotes-within-quotes
  • numbers spelled out zero through one hundred, plus round hundreds, thousands, fractions, and any in dialogue (except years and other special items, e.g., firearms and ammo [.50, 9 mm])
  • numerals for dates, decimals, huge numbers (1043), alphanumeric combinations (3-D, Fortune 500, room 603, I-82, serial number 34321-KT-14133, section 9B5, DL99 maintenance drone)
  • title caps in quotes for signs (“No Trespassing”), including tattoos

After this summary, I provide an alphabetical list of terms. These cover anything I look up to confirm that the dictionary or style guide differs from what the author uses, along with proper nouns that aren’t addressed elsewhere in the style sheet, words unique to the manuscript, foreign-language terms or phrases, any word including a diacritical mark, technical terminology, and whatever else might be relevant. Here are a few examples from a contemporary fantasy novel:

amid (vs. amidst)

among (vs. amongst)

ax (vs. axe)

back seat (vs. backseat)

blond (masc. & generic); blonde (fem. n.)

co- (hyphenated; co-anchor, co-worker [contrary to MW, save for co-opt])

decor (vs. décor)

facade (vs. façade)

naive (vs. naïve, but: naïveté)

And so on. In complex novels, the terms list can run for pages. Likewise the sections for characters and places, which I subdivide as needed for clusters — families, companies, opposing forces, human and alien societies, flora and fauna, spacecraft; whatever is appropriate for the book.

I also include chronology for stories with complicated timeframes and changing viewpoints. In simpler stories, which might take place in a few hours or a few days, in an obvious progression, I take care of any hiccups by querying in the manuscript rather than map out the complete timeline.

Balancing Act

Most of the time, dealing with variables is just a balancing act between upholding professional editing standards without interfering with a client’s voice and vision, and it occurs without client involvement. If something is especially sticky, or requires a global change throughout the manuscript, I contact the client and we work it out while the job is in process, rather than after I deliver the manuscript, so the client isn’t surprised.

As noted above, there are times when author preference prevails over house style. If the author keenly prefers something I object to, they can have their way. It’s not my book, and English is a complicated and fluid language. Authorities agree that they disagree on the fine points, so my house policy is to not slavishly adhere to something that isn’t critical. If I get too carried away with enforcing my preferences, I might exceed the scope of work and create deadline or payment problems with an alienated author. Who needs that?

Another factor to consider is that many fiction writers are passionately protective of their work. Indeed, some of my clients have come to me after bad experiences with other editors who got overzealous about “the rules.” The authors don’t necessarily know what the rules are; they only know that corrections were applied arbitrarily and heavily to change their prose for no apparent reason. I find being the replacement editor an uncomfortable position to be in. I work just as hard as other editors to learn my craft and might be inclined to heavily change the author’s prose, too. This is why I’m careful about defining the scope of my work with my clients.

Even with well-defined boundaries, though, occasions arise when an author wants to keep something that I know to be technically wrong according to acknowledged authorities, or silly/stupid/counterproductive/embarrassing according to my own common sense. In those cases, editorial rules have to be trumped by human ones, such as the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) and the copyeditor’s mantra (“It’s not my book, it’s not my book . . .”).

The bottom line is customer satisfaction and paid bills. If I can see a problem client coming, I’ll decline the work opportunity, but if something conflicting develops during an otherwise going-well job, I will concede that “the customer is always right” and give them what makes them happy. (To guard against that policy getting out of hand, I’ve inserted a clause in my contract that holds the client responsible for the ultimate content of the book.)

Absent passionate client feeling about a particular point, I focus on choosing between correctness and appropriateness. As long as the text is clear, consistent, and using variations allowed by reference works honored by the publishing industry, I find no need to interfere with an author’s writing style and overload a manuscript with markups. After all, a writer’s choice of spelling or punctuation may be perfectly correct according to one authority but not another, such as one or more of the core references underpinning my house style.

Why a House Style Works

Having a house style, I’ve found, allows greater efficiency when editing a novel because I spend less time looking up rules and spellings, and weighing alternatives against each other. The act of establishing and fine-tuning a house style forces me to make both macro and micro choices about my editorial approach, and following a house style makes me consistent within a single project as well as across all projects. The combination gives me the editorial equivalent of what novelists seek for themselves: an individual voice.

We may never discuss the nitty-gritty of my editorial choices, but on the rare occasions when clients do question a choice, I have a basis upon which to answer and discuss. This increases their confidence in my ability and helps us communicate better. The result is a mutually satisfying editing job that often brings a client back with their next novel, and encourages referrals. That achieves my ultimate goal: a win-win relationship between author and editor, resulting in a better novel with its best chance for success in the author’s chosen market.

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.

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.

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