The Drive to Correct

One of the Substacks I subscribe to has a huge readership that comments prolifically, intelligently, and sometimes with a daunting knowledge of the subject at hand. So after I read the column, I skim some of the comments. Since I invariably arrive several hours after the column has posted, there are hundreds more comments than I can read without taking the day off, so I start with the ones at the top: the ones that have garnered the most “likes” from other readers.

The other day, that top comment was particularly interesting, so my eye moved down to see what the responses had been. The very first one took the commenter to task for mixing up “incredulous” and “incredible.” This had indeed blipped my editorial radar, but it was 100% clear what the commenter meant so I kept reading.

The grammar cop, however, stopped me dead in my tracks. I’d never read anything like this in this particular Substack, or in any other I follow, and it’s pretty damn uncommon even in the free-for-all of the newspaper comment sections I frequent. A few people had commented, some apparently OK with the usage correction and some definitely not. I joined the latter group with this reply:

[Male commenter], I hope you see how your need to be right has hijacked the discussion and become a subject in itself. I’ve seen this happen a lot over the years, and it often has the effect that [female commenter] points out: people leave the group rather than subject themselves to possible humiliation by language know-it-alls. In my experience, the worst offenders are English teachers and copyeditors. (I’m a copyeditor as well as other kinds of editor, so I can say this.)

Most of us don’t do this, needless to say. We’ve learned over the years how many English-speakers are insecure about their spelling, usage, and/or punctuation, even when their writing proves them extremely capable. I want forums like this to welcome everyone who has something to say, even if they aren’t professional writers or editors or teachers, even if English is their second, third, or fourth language.

So please, all you English teachers and copyeditors and every other perfectionist out there, ask yourself “How important is it?” Errors of fact and genuinely confusing statements are worth questioning — tactfully, please! But most readers aren’t likely to be confused by mixing up “incredulous” and “incredible,” or “affect” and “effect,” or many of the other little booby-traps that English is full of. Thank you.

The know-it-all defended himself, as such know-it-alls usually do.

I thought back to my early experiences in e-groups, in the late 1990s and very early 2000s. Most of the groups I participated in consisted of word people: writers, editors, journalists, librarians, and so on. A few were devoted to either horses (usually Morgans) or dogs (especially Alaskan malamutes). At first I used the same sig for all of them, giving my name and indentifying me as a copyeditor and proofreader.

In the horse and dog groups, sometimes a participant would apologize for her spelling or grammar, even though there was nothing wrong with either. A couple of times I sensed a certain defensiveness in the apology.

Finally I got it: My sig was making some people self-conscious about their written English. I started using a different sig for the horse and dog groups, using just my name. The defensive comments stopped.

I connected this with conversations I’ve had over the many years with other writers and editors — people, most of them women, who make their living in the word trades. A startling number of us seem to have gone through a stage where we couldn’t write, didn’t write, thought we were no good at writing. Some traced this back to an ill-met English teacher, usually in junior high or middle school. For others it started with college professor, or in a writers’ workshop taken as an adult.

The common thread was an authority figure, teacher or professor, who taught that when it came to grammar, usage, and writing in general, there was only one correct way to do it. Every other way was flat-out wrong or, at best, substandard.

Being a recovering perfectionist myself, I get it. As an apprentice editor, I learned the which/that distinction — that for restrictive clauses, which for nonrestrictive — and immediately started using it to separate the initiates from the ignorants. Within a few years, however, I’d realized that the which/that distinction doesn’t seem to exist in British English, and users of British English nevertheless manage to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Most U.S. trade publishers I’ve worked for over the years either require or strongly recommend it, and I can apply it if it’s called for, but I know that it’s a style thing, not a matter of good/bad or right/wrong.

So what to do when you spot an error in a public forum, on social media, or in the local newspaper? Here are my guidelines.

  • First, make bloody sure that it is an error. Many words have variant spellings. The rules you may have learned in junior high aren’t as iron-clad as you were led to believe.
  • Ask yourself how important is it. Errors of fact and misleading statements are way more important than spelling mistakes and subject-verb disagreements.
  • Check your motives. Are you genuinely trying to clarify something or make something better, or are you just showing off?
  • If there’s a way to communicate with the writer privately, use it. Let them take care of correcting the error, if error it is. (To be fair to the jerk in my example above, there was no way to do this. To my mind, though clearly not to his, this was reason enough to STFU.)
  • If you decide to go ahead with a public correction, be tactful. Good editors and good teachers know how to do this, because goddess knows we spend a lot of time correcting errors and fixing unclarities and if we don’t learn how to do this without humiliating people, we’re in the wrong trade.

So here’s a real-life example. The other day I spotted a poster for a local theater production on the bulletin board at the supermarket. My proofreaderly mind registered the typo a mere instant after the name of the play, even though the latter is much more prominent.

Top of Cinderella poster

If you’re at all familiar with musical theater, you know that the Rodgers of Rodgers & Hammerstein has a “d” in it. So far I haven’t done anything about it, except call it to the attention of a friend who, like me, was involved with this particular organization long ago and who, also like me, notices typos in the wild.

Why not contact the theater company itself? Because it’s unlikely, given the short lead time and the probable cost of correcting the poster, that anything can be done about it, and also because it’s probably been called to the director’s attention so many times that he’s ready to tear his hair out.

It’s a lesson, however, in the importance of proofreading, and proofreading by a proofreader, not just a smart person who knows how to spell.

E Is for Editing

Me editing in my EDITOR T.

What did you expect E to be for? 😉 As an editor, I don’t exactly breathe editing but I spend a lot of time doing it, thinking about it, and writing about it in this blog and elsewhere. In fact, just yesterday in my new T-Shirt Chronicles blog I posted about my first staff editor job and how I got my orange EDITOR T-shirt.

Editing is a big topic so here I’m going to focus on two questions that writers often ask: (1) Do I really need an editor? and (2) What kind of editing am I looking for?

Do I really need an editor?

Many editors insist that any writer who aspires to any kind of publication needs an editor. This is not surprising, because editors need paying clients to make a living. They have a point. Every writer, and every piece of writing that aspires to be read, could use or would benefit from good editing. That includes the editor-writers among us: no matter how much experience we’ve got, we can’t bring a fresh eye to our own work.

I part company with these editors when they emphasize the necessity of editing by likening editors to plumbers or car mechanics. You need a plumber when a pipe bursts in your basement. You need a mechanic when your rear brakes start to fail. You don’t need an editor with quite the same urgency. In the real world where funds are not unlimited, the flooding basement and the failing brakes, not to mention the groceries, rent, and utilities, take precedence over the unedited manuscript.

One-on-one editing is time-intensive. It does not come cheap. It does pay for itself, but rarely in hard currency. Even if you get your book, essay, or story published, the financial returns probably won’t cover what you shelled out for editing. Unless your book is very popular, it won’t begin to compensate you for all the hours you spent working on it either. But consider it this way: If you were looking primarily for a tangible return on your investment, you probably would have gone into plumbing or car mechanics, right?

If you’re serious about your writing, and especially if you self-publish, the time will probably come when the value of good editing will be worth the money you spend on it. Worth it to you.

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. Join a writers’ group or workshop. Attend a writers’ conference. Find a couple of fellow writers to share work with. Read widely and read critically; pay close attention to how the writers you respect do what they do. (Keep in mind that they’ve probably had editorial assistance along the way.) And by all means keep writing.

What kind of editing am I looking for?

Like many of the editors I know, I’m sometimes asked by novice writers what it would cost to “proofread” their work. Aside from the fact that to give a good estimate, it’s best to actually see the work, what these writers are looking for is invariably editing, not proofreading.

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 even more time-intensive than editing and even more 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.

Stylistic 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.

Copyediting. 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.)

Before the digital age, edited manuscripts had to be typeset, i.e., completely retyped, and printed out as a galley proof. Proofreaders would read this proof against the manuscript to make sure the manuscript had been followed exactly and also to flag any errors in the ms. that the typesetter had missed. Nowadays the proofs are prepared from the edited manuscript. Because nothing has to be reset, each version is cleaner than its predecessor. Most proofreading is “cold reading”: reading the page proofs to catch any errors that slipped through in earlier stages.

Why “Exact Match” Is Not Reasonable

Lately my writing has taken a backseat to political organizing. Well, OK, I am writing, but what I’m writing is mostly press releases, social media posts, and postcards to get out the Democratic vote.

Aside: If you’re in the U.S. and you’re looking for a good way to put your literary and/or artistic talents to good use, check out Postcards To Voters. There are currently some 25K volunteers writing GOTV (Get Out The Vote) postcards for Democratic candidates. For more info, here’s a blog post about why I’ve been writing postcards for almost a year now. PTV will continue way beyond next month’s elections, because there are always elections going on somewhere.

For sure I’m editing too, because editing pays the rent and buys the groceries, and rent needs to be paid and groceries bought.

But it hasn’t left much time, energy, or (maybe most important) focus for working on Wolfie (whose draft #3 is almost done) or blogging.

Mostly I’ve kept electoral politics out of Write Through It, but sometimes editing, writing, and politicking converge in a way that I can’t resist. So here goes.

As the 2018 midterm elections approach, Republican strategies to suppress the potentially Democratic vote have become, if not more ingenious, then at least more blatant. “Potentially Democratic” generally focuses on people of color and people of limited means.

Take Georgia, for example.  The stellar Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African American woman, is running for governor against Brian Kemp, a right-wing Republican whose campaign ads have pictured him in his pickup vowing to round up illegal immigrants. Kemp is currently Georgia’s secretary of state. In Georgia, as in most states, the secretary of state is the official in charge of all things electoral.

You see the potential problem here?

The problem is more than potential. The Associated Press recently reported that some 53,000 voter registrations had been put on a “pending” list. Why? In many cases, it was because the voter’s registration info did not exactly match the info on government records.

Say you write your name as Marie Smith-Rodriguez and the government records say you’re Marie Smith Rodriguez, sans hyphen. That’s not an exact match. You’re now on the “pending” list.

Say you write your address as 123 Main St. #4 and the government records have you at 123 Main St., No. 4. That’s not an exact match either. To the “pending” list with you.

It takes a sharp eye to catch discrepancies like these. As a longtime copyeditor and proofreader, I know this, and so do you as a writer who’s reviewed her own work or seen what a copyeditor caught that you missed completely.

Not to mention — “#4” and “No. 4” mean exactly the same thing to a reader familiar with English style. Only digital readers are likely to have trouble with it, as you know every time you commit a typo in a URL or a password.

“Exact match,” in other words, is a very, very high standard, and alone it’s not a good reason to challenge a voter’s registration.

Now it’s possible that the Georgia secretary of state’s office will manage to cross-check all these “pending” registrations before election day. (Early voting in Georgia started yesterday, October 15.) Given Georgia’s voter-suppression history, I wouldn’t bet good money on this. So a voter shows up to vote and her name isn’t on the regular rolls. Does she know that she can cast a provisional ballot, which will be kept separate from the regular ballots until her registration is verified? Maybe yes, but not unlikely no; it’s not unlikely she’ll leave without casting her vote.

So “exact match” is one of the many faces of voter suppression, and no one knows it better than proofreaders, copyeditors, and writers who’ve learned from experience that “exact match” is an unreasonably high standard for something as important as voting.

Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.

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.

Presstype

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 S 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. VoilĂ !

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.

comma

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.