X Is for X-Acto Knife

I was going to feature an image of my two X-Acto knives, a #1 and a #2, in their plastic case, but case and knives have vanished from the drawer where I keep miscellaneous office supplies. Could they be hiding somewhere else in this not-very-large studio apartment? Could I have lent or given them to someone? No idea.

Here’s what a #2 X-Acto looks like.

What I wanted to blog about was how we produced documents in the days before the digital age made it all a helluva lot easier. My X-Actos may have vanished, but I still have a few relics from back then, so here goes.

In my antiwar movement and student government days, late 1960s and early ’70s, photocopiers were generally inaccessible to us scruffy activist types, so to make multiple copies of anything we had to prepare a stencil and run it on (usually) a mimeograph or (sometimes) a Gestetner machine. What I recall most vividly about the Gestetner is its penchant for unexpectedly spewing ink in all directions.

Typos were a bear to correct on a mimeograph stencil, so accuracy at the keyboard was a plus. I didn’t learn how to type till several years later, after I learned that female liberal arts graduates were pretty much unemployable without clerical skills. Nevertheless, in college I did make some money typing papers for my fellow students, who realized that though I might type with my two forefingers, I would also correct their grammatical and spelling errors as I went. I didn’t know what an editor was at that point, but clearly I was on the way to becoming one.

In those days the guys did the writing and public speaking; the girls did the typing and ran the various duplicating machines. Supposedly the guys were innately adept at things mechanical, but when the mimeograph or the Gestetner jammed or otherwise screwed up, the guys were nowhere to be found so of course the girls figured out how to do it ourselves. This was a contributing factor to the rise of the women’s liberation movement and the decline of the (male) New Left. Feminism meant, among other things, that though we still ran the machines, we also got to write the stuff we printed on them.

Not only did we publish broadsides and pamphlets, we established print shops, like the Women’s Press Collective in Oakland and the Iowa City Women’s Press (guess where that was), whose technological capacity went way beyond mimeographs. They published magazines and books that included graphics and photographs and, eventually, four-color covers.

In the mid-1970s, now a competent typist, I got my first proofreading job, working on contract jobs for the company that published my hometown’s weekly newspaper. The production process was a complicated hybrid of technologies. I worked nights, usually alone in the office with the typesetter. Early in the evening Dave the production manager was still around. A generation older than I and my college colleagues, he was adept at fixing cranky machines.

The process went something like this, to the best of my recollection (which I confess is a little fuzzy in places). I sat at what looked like a contemporary desktop computer only clunkier, and it came with a couple of gizmos on the side that I don’t remember very well because I haven’t seen anything like them since. The typesetter’s  machine was a glorified IBM Selectric typewriter, or so I recall it, though I’m sure it had a monitor attached. It used a special ball that produced manuscript pages with what looked like a running barcode under the letters.

I would feed these pages into one of my gizmos, whereupon the copy would magically appear on my monitor, usually with a fair number of @@@@@@, which meant that the gizmo hadn’t read the barcode correctly. I’d correct these and other spelling and punctuation errors on my screen, then when it all looked good, I’d hit the equivalent of Send or Print or Enter and out of another gizmo would come a long punched tape. Here’s one of the relics from my drawer, showing the hole pattern for each letter and command. It looked a little like Braille, only with holes instead of raised dots.

I would then take the tape over to the humongous phototypesetting machine, which I think was a CompuGraphic, thread it properly (sort of like threading film in a pre-digital movie projector, or a chain through a bicycle’s rear derailleur); and press a button.

This step produced film in a sealed container, which then had to be fed through a developer. At long last, down the sloping front of the developer would come the galley proofs.

This process was laborious and time-consuming enough that we were not about to repeat it for every little correction — and yes, I did catch on the proofs typos I’d missed on the screen. This is where I became adept with X-Acto knife, straight edge, and Scotch tape. If two letters or two words had to be transposed, I’d carefully cut them out of the galley with knife and straight edge, apply tape to the back of the galley with the sticky side showing through, then use the tip of the knife to replace letters or words in the correct order.

line gauge

A line gauge, aka pica stick, makes an excellent straight edge, and you can measure with it too.


My steady hand and reasonably accurate eye served me well in the years that followed, when I was active in various feminist groups in Washington, D.C.  We produced flyers and short documents using a combination of typewriting and presstype — rub-on transfer lettering that came in a wide variety of fonts and sizes, including dingbats, ornaments and symbols that could be used to make a page of unrelenting type more visually appealing.

me checking newspaper pages

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times, October 1993. Paste-up was still being done manually. Those “boards” were what went to the printer to be turned into a newspaper.

Also available was Formaline rub-on tape, which came in various widths and was used to put borders around text or graphics, or to separate stories from each other. It was still in use in my early newspaper days, late 1980s and early ’90s, before manual paste-up gave way to digital layout.

By this time photocopiers were widely available in offices, though prohibitively expensive for shoestring organizations and businesses. Those of us with office jobs used the office copier for movement work whenever we could, and “liberated” essential supplies from the supply room as needed. Especially coveted were carbon sets and Wite-Out correction fluid.

Proportion scale

Jobs that required serious graphic quality and more than a few copies went to the local women-run print shop. Preparing clean camera-ready copy required all of the above skills, plus an eye for layout. Photographs and other illustrations often had to be sized to suit the design.

With this handy-dandy proportion wheel you could choose the desired height or width of your graphic element, then figure out what the other dimension would be and how much space to allow for it.

Word-processing and layout apps have superseded most of the tools I used in my younger days. I can make multiple copies of pages to take to my writers’ group and they’re all as clean as the original — there is no original except the Word file on my computer. Fixing errors is easy, but catching them is still hard.

Et Tu, Alec Baldwin?

If you read Alec Baldwin’s rant about all the terrible errors he found in his book — well, a colleague of mine, Lori Paximadis, picked up a copy of the published book and compared it page by page to Baldwin’s errors list. Her report, “Curiosity Killed My Morning,” appears here.

Her best guess is the same as mine: that Baldwin was reading an advanced uncorrected proof copy of his book. As a reviewer I can testify that these often come with a proper cover and look like the real thing, but they are always marked “uncorrected,” and often “not for sale” appears prominently on the cover or on the first page.

Even if you have zero interest in Baldwin or his book, Lori’s commentary offers lots of valuable insight into both the publication process and how editors make decisions on the fly. Check it out.

S Is for Spelling

semicolonAll week, as drew closer in my saunter through the alphabet, I assumed it was going to be “S Is for Semicolon.” I like semicolons; you already knew that, right? I blogged about why I like them (and how I don’t really understand why some people hate them so much) in “Praisesong for the Semicolon.” True, that was almost three years ago, but the post holds up pretty well.

Plus it includes a link to where you can buy semicolon swag on Cafepress. I’ve already got the T-shirt, but I could use some more stickers.

S offered several other possibilities, though not nearly as many as C or P — slash (aka solidus), symbol, signature, serif, sans serif (which I just learned can be spelled as one word), schedule, speech, sentence, style sheet . . .

Spelling! Aha, thought I, that’s a big one!

Almost too big, I think a few minutes later, staring at the screen and wondering where to start, where to start?

With a trip to the dictionary, of course. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) has to say about spelling:

1. a. The forming of words with letters in an accepted order; orthography.
b. The art or study of orthography.
2. The way in which a word is spelled.
3. A person’s ability to spell words: a writer plagued by bad spelling.

English-language spelling is a bear, but I’ve always been good at it, probably because (at least as a kid) I had a good eye and memory for detail. In fifth grade my nickname was Walking Encyclopedia. A few years later I was a killer at Trivial Pursuit, especially when partnered with someone who knew TV and sports a lot better than I did.

Since everyone’s the hero of their own story, including me, I early on assumed that anyone who couldn’t spell well either wasn’t paying attention or wasn’t too bright.

After I learned about dyslexia, I got a lot more tolerant. I also learned that many smart people and some very good writers are “plagued by bad spelling.” You probably won’t meet any copyeditors or proofreaders who are similarly impaired, but I know a few very capable developmental or substantive editors whose grasp of spelling and punctuation is somewhat shaky. They deal with the big picture. Copyeditor and proofreader come in their wake to tend to the details.

AHD refers to “letters in an accepted order.” Right. Even when we spell words wrong, we generally agree on how they should be spelled. If necessary, we consult a dictionary. British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) spell quite a few words differently, but in nearly all cases an AmE spelling is intelligible to a BrE speaker and vice versa: traveler/traveller, check/cheque, defense/defence, curb/kerb.

So why is spelling important? Is spelling important? Memes circulate on Facebook with the most atrocious spelling, intentionally atrocious spelling, like these:





And my favorite of all, this:

And we can read them. It’s true that the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, unless it’s proofreading, of course, but would you want to raed page after page of any of the above? Probably not. It’s exhausting. You put so much effort into deciphering the text that you’re barely taking in what it’s trying to tell you. The texts above are mainly trying to tell you that you can understand short passages of atrociously spelled words.

When words are spelled in “an accepted order,” we can devote more attention to how they’re strung together in sentences and paragraphs and what they’re trying to say. Sentence structure and punctuation serve the same purpose, by the way. They’re not trying to flummox you or make you feel stupid. If you’re trying to tell a story or get an idea across to readers, they’re on your side.

Spelling errors and typos don’t mean you’re stupid, but when you’re trying to make a good impression on, say, an agent or editor who has to wade through dozens of query letters in a week (or even a day), they don’t inspire confidence. They may even create the impression that you’re careless or clueless or less than competent. Take excruciating care with any document on which much depends.

And yes, digital spell checkers can be helpful. I use mine when I’m in a hurry, and when I’m typing on a virtual keyboard. But a proofreader, copyeditor, or careful reader can usually tell within a paragraph or two or three when a document has been spell-checked but not proofread. The spell checker knows that “reed” is spelled correctly, but it doesn’t know that you don’t reed books.

O Is for Orphan

Compositors and proofreaders make it their business to do away with widows and orphans, but if they cop to this among non-publishing people they’ll probably be misunderstood.

In typography, a widow is a single line of a paragraph that appears at the top of a page. An orphan is the single line of a paragraph that appears at the bottom of a page. A surprising number of editors, writers, and other publishing pros get the gist but can’t keep the two straight. My mnemonic for this is “The widow goes on alone; the orphan is left behind.”

If you’d like a crash course on widows and orphans, Wikipedia can help. Please follow Wiki’s caution at the top of the page and don’t confuse widows and orphans with the Masonic Widows and Orphans Home. It’s in Louisville, Kentucky, and though it was originally built for the widows and orphans of Master Masons, it is now open to all senior citizens. Learn something new every day . . .

Publishers and publications may have their own specs for “widow” and “orphan’; for instance, a single full line is permissible but a short one of two or three words is not. A trade publisher I’ve been proofreading for for many years wants at least two lines on either side of a section break and at least five lines at the end of a chapter. Two/five is now so deeply embedded in my head that when a print ms. doesn’t comply it looks sloppy to me. Sane people do not worry about widows and orphans in their mss.

Microsoft Word and other word-processing apps generally have widow/orphan control settings. Here’s what Word 2016’s version looks like on Kore, my Win10 laptop:

If you’ve got one of the ribbon versions of Word, it’s on the Home ribbon. Click the little arrow in the lower-right corner of the Paragraph block, then click the Line and Page Breaks tab. Voilà!

I was about to say that with ebooks one doesn’t have to worry about widows and orphans because text flows differently depending on what device it’s being read on, but then I recalled seeing some pretty bizarre chapter breaks in some ebooks so I Googled responsive + design + ebook and learned that there is a good deal more to this than I thought — that, for instance, some ebooks are laid out page by page like print books. For more about that, check out “Responsive Ebook Design: A Primer.”

Incidentally, in the publishing world an orphan can also be a book accepted for publication whose acquiring editor moved to another house before the book was launched. Generally the author’s contract is with the publisher, so the book doesn’t get to go too. This can be bad news for book and author because the acquiring editor is usually the book’s biggest champion, the one who fights with designers, artists, marketing people, and others on the book’s behalf. If the departing editor’s replacement is less than enthusiastic, the book may suffer.

I just learned from the Chicago Manual of Style that works whose publishers have gone out of business are also called orphans. This can be a PITA if you’re trying to track down a copyright owner for permission to reprint or quote extensively from a work.

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.