Notes, Endless Notes

Beyond (possibly) acknowledgments and an author’s bio, fiction writers and editors generally don’t have to think much about backmatter. That’s a publishing term for the part of a book that comes after the main text ends.

Writers and editors of some kinds of nonfiction don’t have to think much about backmatter either. Memoirs and how-to books, for instance, may include a few endnotes and a “for further reading” list, but that’s usually it.

I edit a lot of the other kind of nonfiction. University press books, academic papers and dissertations, trade books about history or current events, that sort of thing. (Note:  “Trade” in this sense means more or less anything that isn’t academic.) These works are based on research, so documentation is crucial to their credibility.

If you’re somewhat familiar with a work’s subject matter, a skim through its bibliography can give you an idea of well the author has done his or her homework.

All sources are not created equal. Multitudinous notes and a long bibliography alone do not necessarily translate into a reliable book. Maybe 20 years ago I copyedited a mass-market book about UFOs. It cited plenty of sources, many of them on the World Wide Web (which was pretty new at the time). Fact-checking was part of my job, so I checked all the URLs. Woo-whee! This was my introduction to conspiracy theories about UFOs, alien abductions, chemtrails, and what has come to be known as the alt-right. The “evidence” for UFOs was internally consistent; it just wasn’t linked to the world of verifiable facts.

The job I just finished was thoroughly, even exhaustively, sourced. I was warned before I took it that the (electronic) manuscript was about 750 pages long and about a third of those pages were backmatter — endnotes and bibliography. Fine with me: I actually like copyediting this stuff. My detail-oriented brain kicks in, recognizes missing info and info out of place, clarifies inconsistencies, and knocks everything into shape.

Different fields and disciplines have different citation styles. Most of the books I work on follow one of two systems laid out in the Chicago Manual of Style,  often with some adaptations. I expected this one to do likewise.

Well, it did and it didn’t. In Chicago style, the titles of books and comparable works (such as films, TV shows, albums, full-length musical works, and the names of journals and newspapers) are generally italicized. Shorter works, like short stories, poems, songs, journal articles, and book chapters, are set in roman and with quotation marks. In the Works Cited section of this job, there were no italics and no quotation marks anywhere. My Chicago-trained eye had to look hard to tell the books from the articles. I had to figure out which was which and apply the appropriate style. I was warned about this too. “Billable hours,” said my production editor.

While editing the text (which presented few problems and was very interesting), I flipped back and forth between it and Works Cited, doing maybe 10 pages of entries at a time. I was cruising. It was a big job but for sure, I thought, I was going to make the July 5 deadline.

Then, around July 1, I took my first hard look at the endnotes. OMG. Most of the notes contained three to five citations in author-date style, often along with some text and a full citation or two. It was a hybrid of Chicago‘s two styles: notes and bibliography, and author-date. I’d never seen such a thing.

Author-date style is common in academic writing. You’re reading along and you come to a sentence like this:

The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998 (Sturgis 2016).

For the full citation, you flip to the Works Cited section, where you should find something like this:

Sturgis, S. J. 2016. “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14(2): 37–42.

You should be able to find the source article, “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,”  on pages 37–42 of volume 14, issue 2, of the Journal of Creative Solutions.

In a work that uses the notes and bibliography style, instead of “(Sturgis 2016)” you’ll probably find something like this:

The aardvark population of West Tisbury has been stable since 1998.3

The superscript “3” tells you to go to note 3 for the current chapter, where you should find this:

Susanna J. Sturgis,  “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?,” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (February 2016): 37–42.

In most cases (newspaper articles are a frequent exception), the work will also be listed in the bibliography:

Sturgis,  Susanna J.  “Do Aardvarks Help Curb Tick-Borne Diseases?” Journal of Creative Solutions 14, no. 2 (Spring 2016): 37–42.

In my author’s hybrid style, most endnotes included multiple author-date citations, each one of which had to be cross-checked on first appearance with the Works Cited list. I split my Word screen so I could flip back and forth easily between Notes and Works Cited . . . and realized PDQ that many — perhaps as many as 20 percent — of the works short-cited in the notes were not in Works Cited at all. And that some of those that were had discrepancies in the year of publication or the spelling of the author’s name.

Where discrepancies could be quickly resolved with an online search, I Googled. For each missing citation I typed a query in the notes: “Work not in Works Cited. Please add.” This quickly dwindled to the shorthand “Not in WC.” At first I typed a placeholder in the Works Cited list for the missing citation, but after chapter 4 I realized this was taking much too much time so I stopped.

Still, the billable hours were hefty, and I expect to pay off my credit card (dental bills!) and catch up with my quarterly tax payments when that invoice gets paid.

The moral of the story for writers: If you’re citing any sources in your work, get all the details and get them right. Familiarize yourself with the citation style(s) commonly used in your field. If you’re writing for a general audience in the U.S., Chicago will usually do. Your copyeditor will thank you, and if you’re paying the freight yourself, you’ll save a bunch of money.

F Is for Fact-Checking

Fact-checking is much in the news these days — or perhaps it’s the absence of it that’s much in the news.

It used to be, and may still be, that top-quality magazines had fact-checkers whose job was to go through every story accepted for publication and check all the facts. They weren’t responsible for the quality of the prose — just the facts.

Editing — specifically copyediting, which includes excruciating attention to detail — and fact-checking are two distinct tasks, but inevitably they overlap. Imprecise writing can lead to readerly misunderstanding, and those misunderstandings may have to do with facts. A trade publisher I’ve been working for regularly for many years directs copyeditors to check dates, the spelling of names, and anything that can be easily verified as long as it doesn’t add to billable time.

Before the World Wide Web, freelance copyeditors were limited to biographical dictionaries, atlases, specialized reference books, and such. Because these had been subjected to a rigorous editing process, they were reliable, but they were also limited in scope. Print references start going out of date even before they’re published, and the further your interests strayed from white male English-speakers, the harder it was to find any facts, verified or not.

In the Age of Google, you can find almost anything on the Web, but plenty of it hasn’t been subjected to either fact-checking or editing. As you’ve probably learned for yourself, verifying the attribution of a quotation is a particular challenge because misattributions seem to multiply exponentially — giving rise to memes like the classic at left (variations of which have also been attributed to Mark Twain, among others).

Copyeditors generally do our fact-checking on the fly and with the help of a search engine. We develop a sixth sense for determining the reliability of sites we’ve never visited before. (Hint: This often involves the quality of both writing and design. If the copy is riddled with typos and strange punctuation, I’ll move on PDQ. Ditto with any site that uses white type against a dark background.)

We also develop a sixth sense for what facts in a manuscript need to be checked. When starting a new job, I’ll fact-check a few names and dates to get a feel for how careful the author is. If the author seems reliable (as is usually the case in the stuff I work on), I’ll look up anything that smells funny and spot-check facts here and there just for the hell of it.

Ultimately writers are responsible for the accuracy of their facts, but a book-length work of nonfiction involves a myriad of facts, and it’s all too easy to transpose letters in a name or figures in a number and wind up with a goof.

Writers whose work is based on research do plenty of fact-checking while they’re writing. Written sources may contain errors, or contradict each other, or be superseded by later works.

I think the journalists have it hardest. Many of their sources are living people talking about events that have just happened. These informants bring different perspectives to the event, they see it from different angles, some are more observant than others — and some may be deliberately shading or hiding what they know, for reasons they’re unlikely to be upfront about and may even be unaware of. And the journalists are generally working on deadlines that don’t leave time for leisurely fact-checking.

Button: I never believe anything until it's been officially denied.In this age of spin and “fake news” each of us has to do our own fact-checking. Because we rarely have the time or inclination to check every fact, we generally focus on the source, the news outlet: if it’s got a good track record, it’s probably because its reporters, editors, and fact-checkers are on the ball. When they screw up, our faith is shaken. Was this an aberration, or are they going down the tubes?

At least in our wiser moments, good editors and writers know that 100% accuracy is impossible, but that doesn’t stop us from expecting it of ourselves and of those we respect, and from turning on anyone who doesn’t live up to our expectations.

In my weekly newspaper days I quickly learned that if we spelled the name of someone’s child or grandchild wrong, that person would remember it forever. Worse, it could easily become a cornerstone in that person’s conviction that the paper was careless with facts. It’s not hard to understand: misspellings and factual errors are easier to recognize than sloppy sourcing or sloppy writing, and they stick in the mind longer. It’s not fair, but there’s an upside to it: if you’re scrupulously accurate with your easy-to-check facts, your work will be more credible.

And when the liars, spammers, and misrepresenters catch on, we’re all in big trouble.

B Is for Backmatter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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