B Is for Backmatter

Yeah, both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage make it two words, but it’s my blog and they’re not telling me what to do. Hmm. I have this hunch that D is gonna be for Dictionary . . .

As noted in “A Is for Audience,” I started this A-to-Z challenge a little late. B should have been posted on the 3rd, but it’s currently the 5th. I’m backdating this post to the 3rd to make myself look good.

So what’s backmatter (or back matter)? It’s what follows the main text in a published book. With fiction the backmatter is usually short. It might comprise acknowledgments (which sometimes appear in the frontmatter — guess what that is?), the author’s bio, and — a regular feature of one trade publisher for which I edit regularly — “A Note About the Type.” Meaning the history of the typeface the designer chose to set the book in. Print geeks like me love this stuff.

Nonfiction, especially academic nonfiction, is a whole other (excuse my English) matter. In histories, biographies, and any nonfiction that involves any kind of research, the backmatter can make up a quarter or more of the book’s total pages. In a nonfiction work, the backmatter often includes endnotes, bibliographies or reference lists, and indexes. It may include a glossary or an appendix or two.

Citations — meaning especially endnotes, footnotes, and bibliographies — drive grad students, professors, journalists, and others crazy. They especially drive editors crazy, especially when authors have been inconsistent in the formatting or inaccurate in the details. Almost every assertion in an academic work has to be sourced: the author has to tell the reader where it came from, so the reader can, if so inclined, check it out. This sourcing is done in endnotes and footnotes (which aren’t considered backmatter because they aren’t in the back), and then all the works cited in the notes are compiled in a bibliography or reference list.

There are, in other words, good reasons for confusing “backmatter” with “dark matter.”

When I start a copyediting job, it doesn’t take me long to figure out whether the author is careful or careless.  Sometimes I can tell at a glance whether a cited work’s publication info is correct. Other times I have to look it up. If the author is careful, I spot-check the occasional reference and don’t worry too much. If not — I look up a lot, gnashing my teeth all the while.

Asked to provide an estimate for a nonfiction job, some editors will provide an estimate for the main text but then say they’ll charge by the hour for the backmatter. I totally get it. Backmatter words and main-text words are not created equal. Charging by the hour motivates some authors to do more of the heavy lifting themselves instead of expecting the editor to do it.

It’s when I’m editing backmatter that I most appreciate the Chicago Manual of Style or whatever other style guide I’m supposed to be following. Who wants to invent citation style from scratch? Not me. Here is one area where I’m grateful to have “rules” to follow, and I’m happy to follow those rules.

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Why I Always Read the Acknowledgments

As an editor, I work mostly on completed or nearly completed manuscripts. I straighten out the punctuation here, insert a paragraph break there, invert a couple of sentences here, point out an inconsistency there . . . It’s all in a day’s work.

What I seldom think about is what an astonishing feat it is to complete a 300- or 400- or 600-page manuscript of any kind, to get it to the point where pretty much all it needs is fine-tuning.

As a writer, however, I think about this all the time. It’s the reason the subtitle of Write Through It includes “how to keep going.”

If you don’t manage to keep going, you’ll never have a completed manuscript. It’s hard to keep going. It’s so easy to stop — or to not start at all.

And the authors of all those completed or nearly completed manuscripts managed to do it. Hats off to all of them — all of us. How the hell do we do it?

This is why I eventually turn to the acknowledgments section of every book I work on and every book I read. It’s not so I can find out if my name is there, although sometimes it is. What I want to know is how the author managed to accomplish this amazing thing: completing a manuscript and getting it into print.

Lesson #1: No writer who gets anywhere gets there alone.

Most authors thank their editor(s), agent (if any), and, often, the designer, proofreader, and others involved on the production end. They may thank the parents and teachers who inspired them, and the partners and children who put up with them while they worked on the book. Both fiction and nonfiction writers often acknowledge those who read, commented on, or critiqued various drafts of the manuscript. With academic authors, the list of names can be quite long — and readers familiar with the field will often skim that list in an attempt to ascertain whether the author has done her homework.

Fiction writers often include the friends and acquaintances who gave them crash courses on police procedures, quantum theory, dog training, life in an urban hospital’s ER . . . Writing what we know usually leads us into stuff we don’t know, and there we need some help.

I recently edited a university-press book whose author had done extensive research in several languages and far-flung places. Her acknowledgments section included the people who’d opened their homes to her while she was on the road. I loved it.

Moral of story: Don’t get too caught up in this writing-is-a-solitary-endeavor thing. You may be alone when you write, but you’re not writing in isolation.