Orthographic Musing

In the novel-in-progress excerpt I took to my writers’ group last night, one character (Glory’s mother, Felicia, for anyone who’s keeping track) spoke of a onetime band member who had ODed.

That’s the way I spelled it: ODed.

Several of my fellow writers thought it should be OD’d. That made sense too.

At my writers’ group meetings, we bring enough copies for everybody — at the moment we’re seven, with the eighth on sick leave — then the writer reads aloud while everyone else marks up the hardcopy. My Monday morning tasks include opening the active file (draft2.doc), going through the marked-up copies, and making revisions, corrections, or notes as needed or desired.

So I came to “ODed”, remembered what the others had said, and changed it to “OD’d”.

Being terminally curious, I then had to look it up. Being an editor, I had to look it up in three dictionaries, not one.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (online) gave both “OD’d” and “ODed”.

American Heritage said “OD’ed” — with both the -ed and the apostrophe.

Oxford, both the UK/World and the US editions, had “OD’d”.

This drives some writers and editors crazy. Not me. I love it. The variation reminds me that when it comes to orthography, there’s often a right way and a wrong way to spell a word, but other times it depends. It’s “sceptic” in British English (BrE), “skeptic” in American English (AmE), but neither one is wrong. Newspapers and magazines usually have a house style that, in the interest of consistency, specifies a preference in cases where several choices exist.

Publishers do too, but the better ones generally allow more variation than magazines and newspapers. Books don’t have to be consistent with each other. They should, however, be internally consistent. If “OD’d” comes up more than once, spell it the same way each time. Make your choice, enter it on your style sheet, then stick to it. (Style sheets are a copyeditor’s best friend and secret weapon. Wise writers use them too. For more about style sheets, check out my blog post “What’s a Style Sheet?”)

While writing the above, I took a break to look up “orthography”. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s first definition: “the art of writing words with the proper letters according to standard usage”. I see two loopholes I could drive my car through: “proper” and “standard usage”. And that’s OK (okay?). MW calls it an “art”, after all, and in art the right answer is often “it depends”.

So what am I going to do about ODed / OD’ed / OD’d? For now I’m going with “OD’d”, but that may change.

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

What’s a Style Sheet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primary References

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

General

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

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

Words

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

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

Braille (can be lowercased)

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

coauthor (commonly hyphenated)

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

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

 rebbe (variant spelling of rabbi)

transparence (variant of transparency)

Trickster tales (Trickster capped as an archetype)

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

Names

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

serenity prayer

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