Proofreading English English

British flagGeorge Bernard Shaw oh-so-famously said that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Ha ha ha. Clever, but a bit overstated, don’t you think? True, this native speaker of American English (AmE) usually turns the captions on when watching British TV shows like Sally Wainwright’s (awesome) Happy Valley because, between the Yorkshire accent, the colloquialisms, and the speed of conversation, my unaccustomed American ear can miss as much as half of what the characters are saying.

Also true: Accents and colloquialisms can trip me up in AmE as well.

Written English seems to cross the ocean more easily. Accents don’t interfere with the printed page, and print stands still so I can pore and puzzle over anything I don’t get the first time. If I don’t understand a word, I can look it up.

The biography I’m proofreading at the moment is being published simultaneously in the US and the UK. It was written and edited in British English (BrE), so that’s what I’m reading. I have no trouble understanding the text. The big challenge is that I’m so fascinated by the differences between AmE and BrE style, spelling, usage, and punctuation that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m proofreading. “They went to the the museum” is a goof on both sides of the Atlantic and it’s my job to catch it.

I’ve long been familiar with the general differences between BrE and AmE spelling. AmE generally drops the “u” from words like “favour” (but retains it in “glamour,” damned if I know why), spells “civilise” with a “z,” and doesn’t double the consonant in verbs like “travelled” unless the stress falls on the second syllable, as in “admitted.” In BrE it’s “tyre,” not “tire”; “kerb,” not “curb”; “sceptical,” not “skeptical”; and “manoeuvre,” not “maneuver.” (The “oe” in “amoeba” doesn’t bother me at all, but “manoeuvre” looks very, very strange.)

To my eye the most obvious difference between AmE and BrE is the quotation marks. A quick glance at a book or manuscript can usually tell me whether it was written and edited in AmE or BrE. In AmE, quoted material and dialogue are enclosed in double quotation marks; quotes within the quote are enclosed in single. Like this: “Before long we came to a sign that said ‘Go no further,’ so we turned back.” BrE does the opposite: single quotes on the outside, double on the inside.

That part’s easy. What’s tricky is that in AmE, commas and periods invariably go inside the quote marks, but in BrE it depends on whether the quoted bit is a complete sentence or not. If it is, the comma or full stop goes inside the quotes; if it isn’t, the comma or full stop goes outside. What makes it even trickier is that British newspapers and fiction publishers often follow AmE style on this. My current proofread follows the traditional BrE style, and does so very consistently. Thank heavens.

BrE is more tolerant of hyphens than AmE, or at least AmE as codified by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style and enforced by the copyeditors who treat them as rulebooks. I like this tolerance. (For more about my take on hyphens, see  Sturgis’s Law #5.)

BrE also commonly uses “which” for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This also is fine with me, although as a novice editor I was so vigorously inculcated with the which/that distinction that it’s now second nature. Some AmE copyeditors insist that without the which/that distinction one can’t tell whether a clause is restrictive or not. This is a crock. Almost anything can be misunderstood if one tries hard enough to misunderstand it. Besides, non-restrictive clauses are generally preceded by a comma.

In my current proofread, however, I encountered a sentence like this: “She watched the arrival of the bulldozers, that were to transform the neighborhood.” “That” is seldom used for non-restrictive clauses, and a clause like this could go either way, restrictive or non-restrictive, depending on the author’s intent. Context gave me no clues about this, so I queried.


A comma (willing to moonlight as an apostrophe)

Speaking of misunderstanding, remember “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”? Some copyeditors and armchair grammarians consider this proof that the serial or Oxford comma — the one that precedes the conjunction in a series of three or more — is necessary to avoid misunderstanding. As I blogged in “Serialissima,” I’m a fan of the serial comma, most of what I edit uses the serial comma, but the book I’m proofreading doesn’t use the serial comma and it didn’t me long to get used to its absence.

BrE uses capital letters more liberally than AmE, or at least AmE as represented by Chicago, which recommends a “down style” — that is, it uses caps sparingly. In my current proofread, it’s the King, the Queen, the young Princesses, the Prime Minister, and, often, the Gallery, even when gallery’s full name is not used. Chicago would lowercase the lot of them.

I knew that BrE punctuates certain abbreviations differently than AmE, but I was a little fuzzy on how it worked, so I consulted New Hart’s Rules, online access to which comes with my subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries. If Chicago has a BrE equivalent, New Hart’s Rules is it. In BrE, I learned, no full point (that’s BrE for “period”) is used for contractions, i.e., abbreviations that include the first and last letter of the complete word. Hence: Dr for Doctor, Ltd for Limited, St for Street, and so on. When the abbreviation consists of the first part of a word, the full point is used, hence Sun, for Sunday and Sept. for September.

Thus enlightened, I nevertheless skidded to a full stop at the sight of “B.Litt,” short for the old academic degree Bachelor of Letters. Surely it should have either two points or none, either BLitt or B.Litt.? I queried that too.

AmE is my home turf. I know Chicago cold and can recognize other styles when they’re in play. I know the rules and conventions of AmE spelling, usage, and style, and (probably more important) I know the difference between rules and conventions. In BrE I’m in territory familiar in some ways, unfamiliar in others. I pay closer attention. I look more things up. I’m reminded that, among other things, neither the serial comma nor the which/that distinction is essential for clarity. Proofreading in BrE throws me off-balance. This is a good thing. The editor who feels too sure of herself is an editor who’s losing her edge.

Just the Facts

Several of my current or recent jobs involve a fair amount of fact-checking, so I’m feeling both heroic about the errors and inconsistencies I’ve caught and anxious about the ones I know for absolute sure I’m missing.

You know how it goes: You’re reading along in a pretty good book and you screech to a halt at something that’s flat-out wrong. Not a typo or a misplaced modifier or a grammatical goof: a genuine error of fact. Maybe you know the right answer because it’s about your hometown, the car you drive, a subject you’ve been studying for years, or the work you do for a living.

“Where was the editor?” you cry. “Any idiot knows that’s not right.”

The editor and the proofreader would probably be mortified to learn that this error had slipped through. The more significant the error, the more mortified they’d be. At the same time, it’s ultimately the author’s job to get it right, so let’s not be blaming it all on the poor editor — not least because the reader of a published book has no way of knowing how many errors and inconsistencies the editor and proofreader caught.

Pick up a good book, fiction or nonfiction, and read a few pages. Notice how many matters of fact there are, how many opportunities there are to get something wrong or not quite right?

As an editor I don’t do the kind of rigorous fact-checking done by good journalists and others, where everything that isn’t common knowledge (like the law of gravity) has to be confirmed by at least two independent sources. “Fact-checking” is a task in its own right. It overlaps copyediting, but it’s not the same.

I do routinely check the spellings of place and personal names, especially when I’m not familiar with them. I’m currently editing a book about an eminent classical musician of the last century. This isn’t a field I know well, so I’m looking almost everything up. This is how I learned that Goosens was supposed to be Goossens and something else: that three successive generations of this musical family included a Eugene. The elder two spelled their first name Eugène but the youngest had dropped the accent. I couldn’t tell for sure which Eugene/Eugène Goossens was being referred to, so I asked the author. The youngest, she informed me. “Eugene” it was.

I’m also proofreading a long nonfiction book with many, many names, dates, and other details. This is a “cold read,” which means that though I do have access to the copyedited manuscript, I am not reading the proofs against it. When a book’s been competently edited and copyedited, errors and inconsistencies are generally few and relatively minor, but they are there. I was quite pleased with myself when I realized that a fellow who was survived by eight children when he died on September 13 had been the father of nine on September 9.

What did I do next? From context I knew that there was virtually no chance that a child had died between the 9th and the 13th; in other words, this was an error. Because  this fellow was not famous and the number of children he had was irrelevant to the story, I didn’t even think to look it up. (Fact-checking in the digital age can be a terrible time sink. There are a helluva lot of fascinating facts out there.) I noted the discrepancy on the proofs and left it to the author to deal with.

Reading the same proofs, I came to a sentence that ended with a series of organization names: “the House of Representatives, the New York Urban League, the National Legal Aid, the Defender Association, and the Buffalo Council of Churches.” “The National Legal Aid” looked odd. What was the “the” doing there? So I looked it up — and discovered that “the National Legal Aid” and “the Defender Association” were not two organizations but one: the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA). Which of course I had to read up on — see what I mean about time sinks?

This is what’s known in the trade as a “good catch.” I’m still feeling a little smug about it.

How about when an error goes beyond an easily verifiable fact? Some things we catch because we have knowledge of the subject matter. Editors bring their personal histories as well as their editorial experience to each new job, so we’ll catch things in the areas we know well and speed on by things in areas we don’t.

Checking street maps to make sure a driver can make a left turn from Street A onto Avenue B? Verifying appropriate technology in a historical novel, or customs in a place far from home? Basically it’s the author’s job to get this stuff right. When the editor, copyeditor, or proofreader catches an impossibility, an anachronism, or a cultural improbability, it’s great, but editors are not fact-checkers and we’re usually working on deadline.

An obvious gaffe can undermine a book’s credibility. Competent editing and proofreading will greatly reduce the number of errors, inconsistencies, and unclarities that slip through, but in this, as in everything else, perfection is not possible.

If you’re the writer, however, it’s your name in the byline or on the book cover. There’s a reason for that. You’re the one with the most power to get the facts right.

Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.


Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

Master Proofread

I just finished a master proofread, and boy, was it a doozy.

The master proofreader reads proof against copy, line for line, word for word, character for character. It requires intense focus. This is exhausting.

Don't drive yourself crazy looking for the typo, OK?

Don’t drive yourself crazy looking for the typo, OK?

In a master proofread, errors fall into two categories: printer’s errors and editor’s alterations. Both are flagged and corrected in the margin with conventional proofreader’s marks. If the compositor didn’t follow the manuscript precisely, the proofreader marks the correction “pe” (printer’s error). When the proofreader catches something that the author, editor, and copyeditor missed, she marks the correction “ea” (editor’s alteration) or something similar.

When authors make changes in proof, they’re called, big surprise, author’s alterations and marked “aa.”

The distinction is made between printer’s errors and editor’s or author’s alterations because print shops correct their own errors for free. When authors or editors make changes at the proof stage, they generally get charged for them. Some writers have an irresistible desire to fiddle with their prose at the proof stage. Often the desire is somewhat easier to resist if they know it’s going to cost them money.

Fortunately the only person who has to translate this into type is me.

Fortunately the only person who has to translate this into type is me.

Before the digital age, typewritten manuscripts had to be completely rekeyed by the compositor. Good compositors are uncannily accurate, but when an entire 300-page ms. has to be retyped, errors are inevitable.  (Good compositors often correct obvious typos on the fly, but their only compensation for this is the gratitude of proofreader, editor, and author.)

These days, most mss. are submitted and edited electronically. Each version is “cleaner” — more free of errors — than its predecessor. The manuscript never has to be completely rekeyed, so at least in theory the proofs never have to be read against the edited ms. The proof still has to be read, however, ideally by a fresh set of eyes that have never seen the copy before. This is called “cold” or “blind” reading.

Most of the proofreading I do is cold reading.  (I’ve blogged elsewhere about why I like proofreading.) I never see the edited manuscript, so I don’t know what shape it was in when the copyeditor got it or how the author responded to the copyeditor’s changes. I’m the safety net. I’m supposed to catch whatever wasn’t caught earlier.

I’m also looking for formatting glitches, like weird end-of-line hyphenation (you don’t want “therapist” to break as “the-rapist,” or one-syllable words to break at all), “stacks” (when three or more consecutive lines end with a hyphen), and widows and orphans (these are variously defined, but basically they’re instances where a word or even a whole line winds up on a different page from the rest of its paragraph).

I do very few master proofreads these days. The last one was less than arduous: reading second-pass proofs against first-pass to make sure that all the corrections had been correctly entered and that the changes hadn’t messed up any line or page breaks.

So earlier this winter a publisher’s production editor (PE) asked if I’d be able to take on what clearly wasn’t your typical master proofread. Not only was the copyedit on paper (not common these days), but the author had done extensive rewriting after the copyedit. As the PE described it, it sounded like a compositor’s nightmare: “huge number of inserts in a hard-copy ms., no single file, author’s bordering-on-illegible handwriting.”

The 176 inserts — some of which were several pages long — hadn’t been copyedited, though the very capable PE had read them through and done some markup, along with making sure they were keyed to the manuscript so the compositor could replace old copy with new and keep everything in order. Where the author’s handwritten revisions on the original ms. were almost unintelligible, she’d written out the words so the compositor (and I) could read them.

To make it even more fun, both the PE and the book’s editor had written queries to the author on the ms., so part of my job was to copy these queries onto the proofs so the author can see them. These are marked “CQ,” which as I learned it stands for “carry query.” (Wikipedia notes that it actually stands for cadit quaestioliterally “the question falls,” which in legal writing and in some editorial venues means that the question has been settled. In my editing experience it means the exact opposite: the question hasn’t been answered.)

The first thing I did was lock Perfectionista in a closet where I couldn’t hear her carping. Perfectionista is my inner anti-muse who thinks perfection is a reasonable expectation and if I can’t achieve it I’m worthless. I was going to be simultaneously proofreading, copyediting, and looking out for continuity problems introduced by all the new text. No way was I going to catch everything. Once the proofs were corrected, there would be a second proofreading pass, both a master proofread and a cold read.  On jobs this messy, the safety net needs a safety net.

Blessing the PE for her meticulous work and the copyeditor for her comprehensive style sheet, which made it relatively easy to make all those inserts consistent with the copyedited pages that surrounded them, I made it through. Will the author have to pay for all those changes? I don’t know. The cost of implementing them — time spent by editor, production editor, compositor, and proofreaders — must be running well into the thousands of dollars.

The real moral of the story, dear writers, is this: Do your rewriting before your book goes into production, not after the manuscript has been copyedited.

Here’s what a fairly typical page of the copyedited, rewritten, and worked-over manuscript looked like:

ms page 2

Squeaky Clean

Sturgis’s Law #4 warns editors to be skeptical when anyone comes to them swearing that “all this manuscript needs is a light edit.”

The skepticism is warranted, but in all fairness — light edits do happen. I’m working on one now. In my post about Sturgis’s Law #4 I wrote that light edits “are generally prepared by fairly experienced writers who have already run them by a few astute colleagues for comments and corrections.” This particular manuscript was prepared by extremely experienced writers, and it’s being published by a reputable trade house. I copyedit regularly for this house, but this ms. is clean even by their standards.

Cleaning bucket

Cleaning bucket

To editors and others engaged in the publishing process, “clean” means, more or less, in very good shape. Whether edited on paper or on screen, the ms. doesn’t have a lot of markup showing. If an editor who’s reviewed your ms. tells you it’s very clean, that’s high praise. It doesn’t mean that the ms. won’t benefit from editing, but it does mean that the editing will mostly involve fine-tuning and polishing, not a remedial overhaul.

“Squeaky clean” to me goes a step further. A squeaky clean ms. could probably go straight to press without embarrassing anybody. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, I’ve caught a few typos and formatting glitches, a missing endnote, and one instance where a character is 17 years old on one page and 16 a few pages later. But this is not stuff that most readers notice. In gravity or quantity, these are not errors that would prompt even the perfectionists among us to toss the book aside as sloppily edited. The writing is just too good.

Squeaky clean mss., like well-edited proofs, can be a little scary. That perfectionist in the back of my head is sure I’m missing something. Maybe my eyesight has deteriorated overnight?

They also lead us into temptation — the temptation to fiddle where fiddling is not called for. The impulse to make our mark runs strong in most of us, and the manuscript where minimal marking is needed can be profoundly frustrating.  Doesn’t it mean that all the knowledge of grammar, punctuation, usage, and sentence structure crammed into our heads is going to waste?

No, it doesn’t. I adapted the familiar Serenity Prayer for editorial use. It goes like this: “Grant me the serenity to recognize the prose I should not change, the ability to improve the prose I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That wisdom, and the self-restraint that comes with it, is an essential editorial skill. Most of us take a while to develop it. Novices are notorious for fiddling with what doesn’t need fiddling with, usually because we’re afraid we’re not doing our job if we aren’t making marks on page or screen. (When this persists and spins out of control, I call it “piss-on-fire-hydrant syndrome.” One of these days I should blog about that.)

Over the years I’ve come to realize that these squeaky clean manuscripts are a gift. When the prose is already clear and graceful, attentive to sound, pacing, and nuance, I get to focus on the finest of the fine points: Does this particular word, though definitely OK, perhaps have connotations that get in the way? How about a comma here, to slow somewhat the headlong rush to the end of the sentence?

With a ms. this clean, the competent editor quickly comes to trust the writer’s judgment, and even to sense why the writer has phrased something this way and not that. At the same time — well, this particular ms. is almost 500 pages long and contains more than 180,000 words. Even the most experienced and careful stylists can’t devote equal attention to every one of those words. So I suggest the occasional change, suspecting that the writer will appreciate the suggestion even if s/he decides not to act on it.

serenity prayer

Why I Proofread

Most of what I do for a living is content editing, also called stylistic editing, line editing, and copyediting.

For more about the different levels of editing, see “Editing? What’s Editing?

I go through each manuscript line by line, asking whether each sentence says what the author wanted it to say, and in the most effective way possible. (Good editors are at least a little bit psychic: usually we can figure out what the author was getting at even when the words get in the way.) Along the way I catch spelling mistakes, awkward punctuation, and usage gaffes, sure, but this is only part of the job.

prooffreadingIn the last few months I’ve had two big proofreading gigs. When I’m proofreading, catching spelling mistakes, missing words, awkward punctuation, and dubious usage is what the job is about. You don’t have to be psychic to be a good proofreader. When you’re proofreading, the book is in proofs, meaning the pages look pretty much the way the reader will see them. The book has already been edited, and the editor was not you.

In other words, you want to change as little as possible.

For more about what proofreading is and isn’t, see “Proofreading 101.”

Proofreading generally pays a little less per hour than the editing I usually do, so why do I bother with it? I ask myself that whenever I accept a proofreading job. Here are some of my answers.

• When I’m editing, I often have to untangle snarly sentences. This can be exhausting. When I’m proofreading, someone else has done it for me.

• Proofreading demands that I focus on each and every word. When I’m editing, I often catch myself focusing on the sentences and overlooking the words that make them up. Proofreading reminds me that each word is important.

• When I’m proofreading, I’m following in another editor’s footsteps. Editors rarely get to see each other’s work. One of my recent proofreading jobs was a novel that included plenty of street slang and police shoptalk. Not only did I learn a few new words, I noted how author and editor had punctuated the kind of dialogue that isn’t covered in standard style guides. It gave me some ideas.

• Like many editors, I’m often tempted to meddle where meddling is not called for. Proofreaders must keep meddling to a minimum. I consider this a valuable spiritual practice.

• I get to proofread stuff that I wouldn’t be qualified to edit. A just-completed job was a multi-author essay collection dealing with the aftermath of the Arab Spring. I’ve edited a fair number of works, fiction and nonfiction, dealing with the Arab world, but this one included charts, tables, and lots of statistics. I’m in the “real life can’t be quantified” camp, but I don’t mind statistics too much when I’m proofreading.

That said, the next couple of months look like editing, editing, and more editing. Toward the end of November, I will definitely be ready for another proofread.


What’s The Most Important Lesson You’ve Learned: Words of Wisdom From Our Readers

An array of excellent advice here from readers of the Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors blog.

Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors

About two weeks ago, Ruth and I asked you to send in your best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing fiction. I am very pleased to say that nearly every day since my inbox has had wonderful messages from our many readers who were glad to send along their knowledge. Below you can see their comments, as well as wonderful pictures of them and their books. On behalf of the folks here at Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, we would like to thank you for your awesome contributions.

Here’s what our readers had to say:


Write the story you want to write.  Be passionate, follow your heart, and ignore what others are writing.  Just be you.

Debbie Conrad


Spell check. Spell check, spell check, spell check. After every draft, spell check. After every writing session, spell check. There are going to be things you missed, even if you think you haven’t…

View original post 1,112 more words

What’s a Style Sheet?

I knew nothing about style sheets when I started copyediting books for trade publishers and university presses. Before long I thought style sheets were the greatest thing since mocha chip ice cream — well, almost.

So what’s a style sheet? More important, if you’re a writer, not an editor, why should you care?

English is a richly diverse language. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) often spell the same word differently: spelt/spelled, labour/labor, tyre/tire. In AmE, some words can be spelled in more than one way, like ax and axe, or façade and facade. Others have variations that are pronounced differently but mean the same thing: amid and amidst, toward and towards.

And hyphens! Don’t get me going about hyphens. One of these days I’ll devote a whole blog post to hyphens. Sometimes a hyphen is crucial: consider, for instance, the difference between coop and co-op. Often the hyphen is helpful but not crucial. When I look at reignite, the first thing I see is reign. If an author wants to hyphenate it, re-ignite, that’s fine with me. For most readers, the hyphen in living-room sofa isn’t essential, but if the author has written it that way, I’ll generally leave it alone — and insert a hyphen in dining-room table if the author has left it open.

A style sheet collects all such choices into one handy list: choices not only about how words are spelled but about how they’re styled. Hyphenation is often a matter of style rather than spelling. When do you spell out numbers and when do you use figures? Are abbreviations OK? When the dictionary notes that a word is “often capped” or “usually capped,” which does the writer prefer?

It’s a rare author who submits a style sheet with his or her manuscript. A recent job included Arabic and Urdu terms transliterated into English, and many personal and place names that are transliterated in myriad ways. The author did include a style sheet with his preferred spellings and stylings, and I was profoundly grateful. It saved me a lot of online research and second-guessing.

In fact-checking another recent job, a novel, I quickly discovered discrepancies between the names of some real-life places and the way my author was spelling them. Other names were faithful to the actual place. I’m still not sure whether these discrepancies were intentional or not. If the job had come with a style sheet, I would have known — and I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying (unsuccessfully) to verify the author’s versions.

Why should you, the writer, keep a style sheet?

Maintaining consistency in a novel or long nonfiction work is a challenge. Sure, if you’re working on the computer, you can use the search function to find earlier instances of a word or name — or you could just consult your style sheet. If you’re writing a series involving the same locations and characters, a style sheet will be even more useful.

Whether you self-publish or publish with a trade, academic, indy, or small press, your style sheet means your copyeditor doesn’t have to start from scratch. If she finds inconsistencies in the ms., she’ll be able to go with your preference instead of guessing what you want.

Several books that appear frequently in my "Primary References" section

Several books that appear frequently in my “Primary References” section

I find that keeping a style sheet makes me more conscious of my choices, whether I’m editing or writing. Plenty of choices are “six of one, half dozen the other.” Others are a matter of style: for instance, do you prefer diacritics in words like façade and résumé and naïve? And sometimes, especially with proper nouns, it’s a matter of right and wrong. In the very well written nonfiction book I just finished copyediting, Katherine Hepburn’s name was so spelled. I’ve seen it so often (mis)spelled that way, I didn’t have to look it up (but I did anyway): it’s Katharine, with an a. Before you enter a name on your style sheet, verify the spelling.

If you write fantasy or science fiction, with made-up names that can’t be verified online, a style sheet can be especially useful. Same goes if, in either fiction or nonfiction, you’re dealing with names from other languages, especially languages that don’t use the Roman alphabet. Transliteration systems differ. Accents and diacritics and other spelling conventions can be confusing to someone who doesn’t know the language.

You can organize your style sheet in any way that makes sense to you and whatever you’re working on. Here are the major categories and subcategories in the style sheet I made for a just-completed job, with a brief explanation of each. Most of mine follow a similar format.

Primary References

Here’s where I put whatever dictionaries, style guides, and other reference works I’m using. This keeps my word list (see below) under control: it means I only have to list spellings and stylings that differ from the dictionary’s or style guide’s recommendation.


This section is for style choices that apply to the whole book. Number 1 is nearly always “serial comma.” Number 2 usually specifies either “which/that distinction observed” or “which OK for restrictive clauses.” (Anyone want a crash course on the which/that distinction??)

This particular style sheet had subsections for Capitalization, Hyphens & Dashes, Quotes & Italics, and Slashes. Most also have a Numbers subsection, but not this one.


Word lists can be short or long. They should include choices made where alternatives exist, e.g., axe rather than ax, or vice versa. They’ll probably include plenty of words where capitalization, hyphenation, the use of italics, or the styling of numbers is at issue. Their #1 purpose is to help me keep my choices and the author’s straight.

Among the words and phrases in my list were the following (with the reason I included each one):

Braille (can be lowercased)

carpe diem (like other foreign-language expressions listed in the dictionary, it’s usually not italicized)

coauthor (commonly hyphenated)

 decision-making (n.) (decision making and decisionmaking are also possible)

 not-yet-imagined, the (coinage by the author)

 rebbe (variant spelling of rabbi)

transparence (variant of transparency)

Trickster tales (Trickster capped as an archetype)

Western (cultural); western (n.; genre): compass directions are usually lowercased, except when they take on a more-than-geographical meaning. Eastern and Western may signify large cultural groupings. During the Cold War, they had political significance. (North and South are generally capped in reference to the sides in the U.S. Civil War.) And western the genre is sometimes capped and sometimes not. Could drive you crazy, no?


Some copyeditors list the names of virtually every person mentioned in a book. As a proofreader, I don’t find such exhaustive lists useful. So I don’t list familiar names that are easily verified — unless they are frequently misspelled (like Katharine Hepburn) or the author is inconsistent. It can be hard to verify names with particles (von, van, de, etc.), partly because styling varies from family to family and because online references aren’t always as authoritative as they think they are. So it’s worth putting them on the style sheet.

serenity prayer

A good style sheet helps editors and proofreaders recognize what should be changed and what’s fine as it is.

Proofreading 101

It’s happened to me many times over the years, and to many other editors I know: Someone calls, or emails, or comes up to me at a social gathering and asks, “How much would it cost to proofread my novel?”

Or “my [fill-in-the-blank]”: memoir, thesis, dissertation, résumé, website, whatever.

I quickly learned that what the writer invariably wants is editing, not proofreading.

Proofreading is the last step before publication. As I wrote in “Editing? What’s Editing?,” of all the levels of editing, proofreading “is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts.”

To proofread something that hasn’t been adequately edited is an exercise in hair-tearing frustration. Of the gazillion things that need fixing, I can only fix the ones that are flat-out mortifyingly wrong. I learned long ago to say, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t proofread your manuscript. I think what you’re really looking for is an editor.”

typoAt the moment, though, I’m in the middle of a proofreading job. Five papers that will be published in an economics journal. They’ve been edited. They’re dense, technical, but clearly written. I’m no economics expert. I don’t know the jargon. I’m looking for typos and grammatical errors. Since the journal publisher wants consistency across the five papers, I’m also looking to apply the journal’s house style. Taylor Rule or Taylor rule? Macroprudential or macro-prudential? Either option is correct, but the journal prefers “Taylor rule” and “macroprudential.”

When I started editing and proofreading in the 1970s, every copyedited manuscript had to be typeset from scratch. So proofreading meant reading the proofs — the typeset copy that would be laid out to produce the print-ready pages — against the manuscript. This could be a two-person job: one would read the ms. aloud and the other would mark the proofs. We’d read the punctuation and stylings as well as the words: “Jack pos S” meant “Jack apostrophe S” or “Jack’s.”

Proofreaders who worked solo developed the knack of reading proof against ms. and noting all discrepancies. I got to be pretty good at it, but I’m not sure I could do it now. Thanks to the digital revolution in publishing, I haven’t had to for a long time. These days the writer turns in an electronic file — usually in Microsoft Word, the editor works in Word, the copyeditor works in Word, the author reviews the edited file in Word, and eventually the Word file becomes the raw material for the proofs. Each version is cleaner than the one before it.

As a result, much proofreading these days is “cold” or “blind” proofreading. This is what I’m doing with the economics papers: reading the proofs without comparing them to any previous version. In effect, there’s no previous version to compare them to: the previous versions have all been incorporated into the proofs I’m reading.

prooffreadingWhen I’m proofreading, I don’t read the same way as I do when I’m copyediting, or editing, or critiquing, reviewing, or reading for pleasure. The biggest difference is focus. I’m excruciatingly focused on the text letter by letter, word by word. It’s exhausting. When my attention shifts into phrase-by-phrase or sentence-by-sentence mode, I have to pull it back. Otherwise I’ll miss the misspelled word, the double “the,” the semicolon cheek-by-jowl with a comma where only one is needed.

If you’re a crackerjack speller and know your punctuation cold, you can learn to proofread, but it’s going to take plenty of practice before you can do a creditable job. And the usual caveats apply to proofreading your own work: if you can possibly avoid it, do; but if you can’t, leave a week or two between the editing and the proofreading. What makes copyediting or proofreading your own work such a challenge is that you know what it’s supposed to say. If your character is named Jack, you’re going to see “Jack” on the page — even when it says “Jcak.” If you’ve been misusing a word all your life, you’re not going to be able to call the error to your attention.

If you’re not a crackerjack speller and if your punctuation skills are less than stellar, you do need a good proofreader. Trust me on this.

Editing? What’s Editing?

Good question. If you ask half a dozen editors, you’ll get two dozen answers. What’s a writer to do?

grammar policeEditing and writing are closely related, but they aren’t the same. Writing creates something new. Editing rearranges, refines, and otherwise messes with something that’s already been created.

Notice that I’m sticking with the verbs here, rather than trying to define what writers do and what editors do. It’s more complicated than “writers write and editors edit.” Plenty of editors are also writers. Most writers do at least some editing: that’s what second, third, and tenth drafts are about.

I encourage writers to learn as much as they can about editing. It makes us better writers. It gives us more control of our work. It saves us money, because the more we can do ourselves, the less we have to pay others to do. And when the time comes to hire an editor, we’re better able to find one who will do justice to our work.

So what’s editing, beyond messing with something that’s already been written? Here’s where it can get confusing. “Editing” can involve anything from correcting typos and grammar gaffes to rearranging paragraphs and even helping a writer build a book from scratch. So we talk about “levels of editing.” Here’s a rough guide to the levels, starting with “big picture” editing and moving down to what I call the “picky bitch stage”: catching spelling and grammar errors.

Ghostwriting. Ghostwriting is writing, not editing. I include it because I’m not the only editor who’s heard this question: “I’ve got a great idea. Can you help me turn it into a book and we can share the royalties?” The answer is no. Ghostwriting is time-intensive and therefore costly. The chances that the resulting product will earn any royalties are close to nil. My standard answer is “Sell your proposal first and then we can talk.” None of the querents has ever come back.

Developmental editing. Like ghostwriting, this involves building the manuscript from the ground up. For big projects, like textbooks, it can involve multiple authors, researchers, designers, and more. For the individual writer, it’s all the work that goes into creating a coherent complete draft. Most of us do our own developmental editing, often with assistance from writers’ groups and those generous people who volunteer to read our work and give us feedback.

Rewriting. Most of us do our own rewriting too. From the individual writer’s point of view, it’s close kin to developmental editing.

Structural editing. The structure of a work is its skeleton. When the wrist bones are connected to the thigh bones, the body doesn’t work too well. All written works have structure. Structure is what guides readers through the story or the essay. When you decide that a scene in the middle of the book has to come near the beginning or a certain character’s motivation won’t make sense, you’re messing with the work’s structure.

typoStylistic editing. This is called all sorts of things, including content editing, line editing, and copyediting. Here you go through the work line by line, asking whether each sentence, phrase, and word says what you want it to say, and in the best way possible. English is a wonderfully flexible language. Choosing the right word and putting it in the right place can make a big difference. Writers’ groups and volunteer readers (aka “guinea pigs”) can be invaluable here. You know what you meant to say, but until you get feedback from readers it’s hard to know how well it’s coming across.

prooffreadingCopyediting. I hire out as a “copyeditor,” but my work includes plenty of stylistic editing so I have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Proofreading. This level is the most mechanical of all. It means catching the errors that have slipped through despite all the writer’s and editor’s best efforts. (No matter how expert the writer and editor are, there will be errors. Trust me on this. I just caught one in this sentence. No, I won’t tell.)

The Editors’ Association of Canada has a handy page on its website: “Definitions of Editorial Skills.” Other organizations, publishers, and individual editors break the skills down differently, but this list gives a good idea of all the skills that are subsumed under “editing.” Not to worry: Unless you work on big, complex projects, you’re unlikely to need more than a few of them. If you do work on big, complex projects, your team probably has all the skills required, or knows where to find them.