How to check for repetition in your writing

When I’m copy-editing non-fiction, which I specialise in, one of the things I check for is whether any aspects of the writing are so repetitious that they’re likely to annoy the reader or look like a poor style of writing. I find repetition easy to spot and fix, but that’s partly because I’m looking at the text for the first time and this kind of thing often jumps out at me.

Why can it be difficult for you, the writer, to spot repetition?

You’ve been working on the text for weeks, months, or years, and it’s only natural that you become ‘blind’ to this sort of thing. But when you’re revising your text, there are some simple things you can do to check for repetition (although this isn’t an exhaustive list).

Five ways of checking for repetition

  1. Take a look at how you start sentences. Do you overuse words like ‘However’ or ‘Therefore’? If you’re writing a huge document over a number of years, such as a doctoral thesis, it’s easy not to notice this. But search for a few and you’ll probably be surprised at how many you find – sometimes several on the same page or even in the same paragraph. Skim through them, and when you think they’re so close together that they might seem repetitive or annoy the reader, change them. Use a thesaurus to help you choose alternatives. The free thesaurus that you can find at Oxford Dictionaries online shows lots of alternatives for ‘however’, such as ‘nonetheless’ and ‘even so’.
  2. Sometimes just moving a word is enough to avoid parts of your writing sounding repetitious. So if you almost always put ‘therefore’ at the start of a sentence, move it, e.g. ‘It will always be the case, therefore, that …’.
  3. Do you use certain wording or phrases too much? I see a lot of writing that overuses ‘as well as’, for example, and I end up changing some of them to ‘and’ or ‘also’, depending on what fits best with the structure of the rest of the sentence.
  4. Sometimes a sense of repetition can come about when sentence length is almost the same for each sentence. Check your sentence lengths and try to vary them a bit. Have some short ones. Have some that are joined with a semi-colon (if you know how to use one properly!). https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/punctuation/semicolon
  5. Take a look at the verbs you use. Do you use the same one when you want to say a particular thing, e.g. ‘This shows …’? You can easily change this sort of repetition, e.g. ‘This illustrates’ or ‘This reveals’ or ‘This demonstrates’. Again, using a thesaurus can be really helpful.

Repetition revelation!

I imagine lots of you will be surprised at how much repetition you’ve found in your work. We all have favourite words and phrases we prefer over others, and we just don’t realise that we overuse them. But it’s not as hard as you think to root out this problem and solve it.

If you’re interested in what other things I check during the copy-editing process, take a look at this page on my website. If you’d like a quote for some work, just contact me, attaching your text, and I’ll take a look.

 


Proofreaders, libraries and a love of reading

During the last few months, various articles about beautiful libraries around the world have caught my eye, and I’ve posted some of them on my Facebook page and on Twitter. Something weird happens to me when I see pictures of shelves full of books. I feel happy and positive, as well as nostalgic, and generally feel a warm glow inside. I imagine many proofreaders and editors have a similar reaction. I’ve always loved reading and the physical feel of having a book in my hands and turning the pages, but it’s hard to explain why these images should have such a dramatic effect.

Reading from a young age

I’m sure it’s something to do with the fact that my mum introduced me and my sister to our local library when we were toddlers and we used to go once a week, pretty much without fail, until we were old enough to go on our own, which I continued to do until I left home. The library was pretty small, and by the time I was about twelve I’d read all the books I was interested in in the children’s section and graduated to the adults’ books. I read a lot of books I didn’t understand, but I loved reading new words. I don’t remember looking many of them up – I think I just enjoyed the process of reading them rather than understanding them at that stage.

Having access to hundreds of books was a luxury and amazing, and although I was bought books for Christmas and birthdays, I wouldn’t have read the several books a week I often got through had it not been for the library. I still feel a rising sense of anticipation when I go into my local library and see rows of books, there for the taking.

I’ll always be grateful to my mum for starting my love of libraries and reading – which has continued throughout my adult life. It’s led me to a career that I love and I feel that I have the right skills for.

Library closures and a decline in users

Sadly, there have been dramatic cuts to libraries’ budgets over the last few years, and about 105 libraries have closed in the last twelve months. By October of last year about 500 libraries (of the then total of 3,745) were run by volunteers because the only other option was closing them. These community-run libraries often have no professional librarian and tiny budgets. Of course the problem is complicated, and I don’t have room to discuss or even mention all the issues here. The number of library visits has been declining for at least 25 years, though, and fell by almost a third between 2006 and 2016. It is continuing to decline by 3% each year.

There’s been a lot of debate about why this has happened, and it was hoped that the Carnegie UK Trust Report on Public Libraries of April 2017 would make it clear what was needed to get library user numbers up. But the report received heavy criticism, most notably from Tim Coates, former head of Waterstones, publisher, and campaigner for the improvement of public libraries. You can see some of his criticisms here. The parts that I found most interesting are from the ‘Complaint’ section of the article:

  1. The second piece of evidence is the finding that is not sufficiently emphasised is that only 6% of library use is of computers and 70-80% is dependent on the quality of available printed reading material in the library. Public Library User Surveys of 10 years ago show that the figure for computer use was then was about 15-20%: it has declined dramatically in ten years
  2. The third piece of information in the report that is not given sufficient weight is that among library users the single improvement they seek most is an improvement in the range of books available when they visit and online
  3. In simple terms the significance of these findings is that the comments we so often hear from local councillors, library professionals and government officers that ‘library use is changing’ and that ‘we need to emphasise that libraries are not just about books’ are misleading for both the public and for library managers. Those officials imply that increasingly the public use libraries to access the computers and reading in digital forms that are available and that libraries should concentrate less on their book collections and pursue other activities than book reading. This research shows that the opposite is true. Use of computers in public libraries is less than half what it was a decade ago. It is a very small part of library use. What matters to users are the collections of available printed material when they visit and their ability to obtain quickly what they need. Improving these features is the key to increasing use. That is a really important management finding that the report fails to highlight or even mention.

Just. More. Books.

So it seems that one of the simple answers to this complicated problem might be to have more books in libraries that users want to read. But surely if that’s the answer then that would have been sorted out years ago as soon as the number of users started declining? Obviously not.

I’m not suggesting that my life would have been completely different if I’d never been to a library, but I know that my local library was a hugely important part of my childhood and was essential for the development of my reading skills and my lifelong interest in reading and words. I’m very grateful to have had access to a local library all my life, and I hope that in the future all children and young people will have access to and will want to use this fabulous and invaluable resource.


The ellipsis – how to use it in non-fiction

The ellipsis

You wouldn’t think three innocuous little dots would cause too many problems, but it’s clear from some of the texts I work on that some clients find that using the ellipsis properly and consistently can be a headache. Does it need a space before and after it? Should there be a space after the first and second dots? Should the ellipsis be in square brackets? Is it even needed at all? (And, yes, I know the picture above isn’t of an ellipsis, but there’s a bit of a reference there, and I’m getting into the Christmas spirit, so … just humour me, please.)

I’ll focus in this post on using the ellipsis (also called ellipsis points) in non-fiction writing such as journal articles, books, reports, and dissertations and theses. It’s impossible to cover all aspects of its use here, but my aim is to cover some problem areas that I come across all the time when I’m proofreading and copy-editing.

Definition of ellipsis

Oxford Dictionaries online defines an ellipsis as follows:

1. The omission from speech or writing of a word or words that are superfluous or able to be understood from contextual clues

1.1 A set of dots (…) indicating an ellipsis

The main use for the ellipsis in the non-fiction work that I proofread and copy-edit is to indicate that words have been omitted from a quotation, and that’s what I’ll concentrate on below.

How do you type an ellipsis?

It’s important that the full stops that make up the ellipsis don’t get separated – you don’t want two dots appearing at the end of one line and then one dot at the start of the next. There are two ways of avoiding this.

The first is to type the following: a space, a full stop, a non-breaking space, a full stop, a non-breaking space, a full stop, and finally a normal space. A keyboard shortcut for a non-breaking space is Ctrl+Shift+Space Bar. Another thing to consider is that your preferred style might be to allow a new line to start after the ellipsis but not before it, in which case you’ll also need to insert a non-breaking space before the first full stop.

The second way to avoid having a line break in the middle of an ellipsis is to use the ellipsis character, which can be found via the Insert tab (go to the Symbol option and click More Symbols and then Special Characters, or click on More Symbols and then enter Unicode 2026) or can be inserted using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Alt+. (just to clarify, that last bit means ‘plus a full stop’). This character has no spaces between the dots, so if you have a publisher, it’s best to check whether they want you to use the ellipsis character.

When do you use an ellipsis?

An ellipsis is used to indicate that you have omitted a word or words, a sentence, or even a paragraph from words that you have quoted. It’s standard in non-fiction texts to have a space before and after the ellipsis when you’re showing an omission that is somewhere other than the beginning or end of a quotation (but always check any style guide you’re following), for example

Smith, in her critique on the ellipsis from 1972, writes, ‘Those wretched little dots … are the cause of many a sleepless night for the conscientious author.’

But what if you want to omit at least one sentence? This is where the use of a full stop followed by an ellipsis comes in. The standard British English style guide that lots of professional editors use, New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, says that omission of one or more sentences can be shown in the following way:

Smith concludes, ‘I am determined to use the ellipsis correctly. … I’m sure it’s not as difficult as it sounds.’

New Hart’s Rules suggests that when using four points like this, the words before and after them should function as complete sentences.

Do you need an ellipsis at the start and/or end of a quotation?

I’m talking here about when you are only quoting part of a sentence so the quotation starts with a lower-case letter. Both New Hart’s Rules and The Chicago Manual of Style (a standard style guide used for US English) say that it’s not necessary to have an ellipsis at the start or the end of such a quotation. However, if you plan to publish your work, it’s best to check what your publisher’s preferred style is in this respect (as it is for all style issues if the style guide is silent about a particular aspect). If you’re a student and your university doesn’t provide a style guide, it’s likely that your university will simply want your style to be consistent, but it’s best to check with your supervisor if in doubt. I proofread one thesis this year that had lots of quotations from interviewees in it and the student had been told that the preferred style was to have an ellipsis at the start and end of the interviewees’ words where only part of a sentence was being quoted.

Do you need square brackets round an ellipsis?

The short answer is no, unless the style guide you’re following requires them or the original quote itself contains an ellipsis. The Modern Humanities Research Association style guide, for example, requires them (https://www.mhra.org.uk/style/5.7). If the original quote includes an ellipsis, you’d put square brackets round the ellipsis that you as the author have inserted. This is so that it’s immediately clear which of the two ellipses appears in the original quotation. Here’s an example:

Smith’s final paragraph ends with the following description: ‘The discussion about whether a space was needed before the ellipsis went on all afternoon … and even continued the next morning. It was […] a very heated debate.’

This post has covered some basic points about how to use the ellipsis, with particular reference to its use in quotations. I hope you’ve found it helpful.

 

If you have a text that needs copy-editing or proofreading, just send me your text by email via bev.sykes@superscriptproofreading.co.uk and I’ll take a look and give you a quote

 

References

The Chicago Manual of Style (2010), 16th edition. The University of Chicago Press, pp. 637–641 (sections 13.48 to 13.56 inclusive).

New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (2014), 2nd edition, edited by Anne Waddingham. Oxford University Press, pp. 81 and 82 (section 4.7), p. 167 (section 9.3.3).

Oxford Dictionaries online https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/ellipsis

 

 

 


Proofreaders and the paparazzi: getting headshots taken

Every two months, members of the South Warwickshire and Coventry local group of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders meet at a pub in Leamington Spa. Our discussions include all sorts of work-related topics, and I think we all find the meetings a very valuable resource – for sharing information about our proofreading and editing work and as social events too.

A different sort of meeting

Our recent meeting had a different flavour to it. Jenny Gibson, who co-organises the group with me, arranged for some headshots to be taken of any members of the group who were keen to have an updated one. Her husband Ian is a keen amateur photographer, and Jenny had chatted to a few members at a previous meeting about this, and they seemed keen. Jenny checked that the pub had no objections, and we were ready to go.

I’m not sure whether having an up-to-date headshot on your website and other places online helps when it comes to securing work. But it’s probably a good idea to keep updating it. Imagine if I’m about to meet a client for the first time and they’re on the lookout for the person in the first photo below, but in fact I look like the person in the second photo below. Enough said.

The proofreaders start posing

The next decision was what to wear to look professional and smart, even though only a very small area of clothing would be showing. It seemed to take me a ridiculously long time to decide on this, almost as if I thought my photo would be shown on news channels across the globe, with ‘Proofreaders have photo taken’ as the shocking and wildly exciting headline.

I arrived a bit earlier than usual at the pub, and Ian and Jenny were pretty much ready for their first victim: me. It was a bit odd to be staring down the lens of a camera being used by someone I’d met only a minute before, and I kept holding a cheesy grin for a while, only to realise that Ian was adjusting a setting on the camera. I’d then stop smiling, only to blink at the exact second he took the photo. I had warned him he’d have his work cut out with me. Ian’s lovely, and very patient, and by the end of my little session I was getting into it, even at one point subconsciously flicking my head and hair back, Hollywood-red-carpet style. Oh dear. Perhaps it was best that we ended the session there before I started getting ideas above my station.

Several other members of the group had their photos taken too, and I think we’ve now got great professional-level photos to replace our old ones on our websites and social media profile pages.

So on behalf of the group, I’d like to thank Jenny and Ian for organising this and being so calm and good-natured in surroundings that weren’t ideal. I think we all enjoyed the photo session, and I suspect in a couple of years we’ll be asking Ian if he’d like to come to the pub with us again – free burger and chips if he brings his camera!


What are the benefits for proofreaders of meeting clients face to face?

You might have read my last blog post about many proofreaders enjoying getting out of the office now and again, even if they love their job. So while the dominating features of many self-employed proofreaders are spending a lot of time alone working, doing admin and marketing, and generally running a business, another, for me at least, is rarely seeing a client face to face. Some proofreaders, though, for example those who work with local businesses, charities, and other organisations, will probably see clients regularly, and in-house proofreaders will have their colleagues for company. But I suspect it’s not uncommon for many proofreaders to work as I do most of the time: it’s just me and my computer. And to be honest, most of the time I enjoy this set-up.

Business trip to the Caribbean, anyone?

About 50% of my clients live outside the UK but in the EU, and I have several clients who live beyond Europe, in countries such as China, Mexico, and Canada. I don’t have any clients who live in my local area. It would be lovely to have business trips abroad to meet some of my clients (especially to glamorous, warm locations, preferably with a nearby beach!), but almost all of my communication is done by email. Most clients seem to prefer that anyway, and it’s rare that clients phone me. Emailing is quick and can be done any time, and my clients are usually busy people with pressing schedules.

I’ve worked for quite a lot of my clients for several years now and have got to know them fairly well through email. I’m lucky – they’re very nice people and I enjoy communicating with them. But a face-to-face meeting probably can’t be beaten as far as cementing a relationship is concerned.

The benefits of meeting face to face

A few months ago I was contacted by a Portuguese client whose book I had recently proofread. He said he was coming to England to visit his daughter (also a client) and would be staying in a nearby town. He asked if I’d like to meet up. A couple of months later, I met the client and his wife in a local café and had a really enjoyable morning chatting about work, families, and a whole list of other things. They’re lovely people and are interesting, easy to talk to, and a lot of fun (Carlos, I owe you a cup of tea and a scone next time you visit!).

I came home from the meeting feeling lucky that I have such great clients and full of enthusiasm for proofreading more of their texts. A big part of my job satisfaction comes from maintaining good relationships with clients and making sure they’re happy with the work I do for them, and a face-to-face meeting, certainly in this case, confirmed that the client was delighted with the work I’d done and had already recommended me to a colleague, so I came home with a warm, fuzzy glow. I think it’s time to start planning another leisurely chat over tea and scones…


Why it’s good to escape from the office – the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders 2017

The proofreader’s office

I wonder what people would say if they were asked to describe the sort of office a self-employed proofreader might work in? Would they describe an isolated, minimalist office overlooking a well-tended garden with an amazing view of distant hills? Or would they picture a dingy back bedroom cluttered with junk, piles of books, and cold cups of half-drunk tea? It would be interesting to find out, and I suspect most freelancers’ offices are somewhere in between these descriptions. I doubt many professionals would confess that their office fits the latter description! It’s probably true to say, though, that most of us spend a lot of time alone with our computers, which is fine but often means that it’s essential to socialise and mix with friends and colleagues when there’s time.

A proofreader’s escape

A week ago I spent a day at the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I’m a Professional Member of the society, which offers a huge amount of support and guidance for members, works hard to maintain and improve editorial standards, and provides opportunities for editorial professionals to communicate with one another, among other things. I co-run the South Warwickshire and Coventry local SfEP group, which allows local members to meet face to face to discuss all sorts of work-related stuff, and I’ve found our meetings invaluable in many different ways.

My day at the conference was a great opportunity to spent time with other proofreaders and editors – to network and to learn new things. I attended workshops on different ways of pricing work, learned more about the software I use, and discovered, with relief, that we (that is, editorial professionals) will be able to prevent our jobs from being taken over by robots in the next thirty years or so. The talks and workshops certainly provided food for thought and were fun too. I met new people and learned quite a lot in just a few hours. I’ve come back even more enthusiastic about the work that I do and keen to try out some new ideas.

So it’s good to get out of the office now and again, and coming back raring to go and full of even more enthusiasm for proofreading can only be a good thing. I’m really grateful to all those who organised the conference, gave talks, and attended. It was a great event. Now back to the real world!


Theses and dissertations (part 2): How to avoid inconsistency of style

 

In part 1 of this post, I suggested an easy method to avoid being inconsistent in the use of tense in your thesis or dissertation. This post considers a quick and easy way to avoid inconsistency of style. Examples of such an inconsistency could be applying italics to only some instances of the same word or phrase, capitalising some terms but not all of the same ones, or starting off using double quotation marks but later in the text using single ones.

What a proofreader can do about inconsistency

When I’m proofreading for students, it’s my job to check and correct errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation and to check that a style that’s mostly consistently used throughout is checked and corrected. It’s not the job of a proofreader, though, to decide on certain style points and then implement them from scratch. I can of course point out what the inconsistencies are and give you information and advice to help you decide what to do. But this still means that if you haven’t decided on a style and tried to stick to it, the work on consistency will mostly need to be done by you at a later date. However, to save yourself time at this later stage, there are some decisions you could make when you start writing.

How to save yourself time

Before you start writing your thesis or dissertation, think about the sorts of inconsistency that you might easily introduce and start a list about the styles you’ll use. It might look something like this:

  • double quotation marks for authors’ quotes
  • single quotation marks for particular terms/labels
  • italics for unfamiliar foreign words but not for words like per se and faux pas that have become embedded in English and will be understood by all readers
  • capitalise Chapter 3, Figure 1, Table 1 and so on
  • lists – bullet points not numbered points; no punctuation after each item apart from the final one (full stop)
  • numbers – words for zero to nine, figures after that unless round hundreds or thousands
  • displayed quotes – no quotation marks. Source to appear in brackets after the full stop at the end of the quote
  • abbreviations and full names for them – initial lower case letters for the full names unless there is a special reason not to have these (so, for example, ‘FWST (foolproof way to save time)’.

There are lots of other style points you could add as you are writing. You can then refer to and continue adding to the list periodically. You’ll save a lot of time by doing this and will feel the benefit nearer to the date of submission, when you might be struggling to fit in all the work you need to do.

I know that making a list doesn’t appeal to everyone as a way of working, but I’m sure that for this particular purpose it will work really well.


Theses and dissertations (part 1): An easy way to make sure tense is consistent

 

How tense is used has been a problem area in nearly all of the theses and master’s dissertations I’ve proofread since I started my business in 2009. In addition to correcting spelling, grammar and punctuation and doing checks for consistency of style (use of italic, capitalisation, hyphenation, and so on), I check whether tense is used in a consistent way. I usually find inconsistencies.

What work is done on tense during proofreading?

Changing the use of tense across an entire thesis or dissertation isn’t within the remit of a proofreader when it comes to students’ work because such extensive changes could constitute collaboration or even collusion in the eyes of an academic institution, but I can highlight examples of inconsistency for you so that it’s clear what needs amending. I can also give some advice about which tense you could use for each purpose and give an opinion on which tense it would be easiest or best to use. The Oxford Dictionaries blog includes this useful blog post that gives a simple description of different tenses: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/grammar/verb-tenses

Once I’ve read through an entire thesis or dissertation and can see that the present tense is usually used to refer to what authors say, e.g. ‘Smith (2009) states that/argues that/points out that’, I can confirm this to you. You might then decide to take the most time-efficient option and make this tense consistent for this purpose. Sometimes, though, the tense is wildly inconsistent, and this means that you will have to spend tedious hours sorting this out.

How to save time when working on tense

No-one wants to spend any more time than is necessary on the nuts and bolts of a thesis or dissertation when the most important part of the writing is the content. It’s easy to save time at the outset in relation to tense if you have some sort of plan that you can refer to. Your plan could look something like this:

  • Present tense for what I say I am doing in this thesis as a whole, e.g. In this thesis I consider X/carry out a study of X/complete a literature review/explain my methodology …
  • Present tense for what I say occurs in each chapter, e.g. In this chapter I investigate …
  • Present tense for what authors say, e.g. Smith states that …
  • Present tense for what I draw from my research, e.g. This suggests that/the table illustrates that/the results show that …
  • Past tense for what I did during my research, e.g. I conducted data analyses of/I interviewed/I gathered information from …
  • Past tense for what interviewees said, e.g. She confirmed that/suggested that …
  • Past tense for comments regarding what I have done in the thesis, probably just in the concluding sections of a chapter and at the end of the thesis, e.g. In chapter 3 I looked at/in the thesis I illustrated that …
  • Future tense for what will be in the next chapter or a future chapter, e.g. In the next chapter/in chapter 4 I will discuss …

Not everyone likes lists, but a little bit of planning will save you a lot of time in the long run. In part 2 of this post, I will look at how to avoid inconsistency of style in your thesis or dissertation (i.e. things like capitalisation, the use of italic, using double or single quotation marks, and so on).

 


Grammar: the generation gap

grammar-british-italian

Once a week for about the last five years, I’ve sneaked off to a two-hour Italian lesson at a language college in Birmingham. I’ve loved it, though it’s been a challenge. Strange though it may sound to some, I like learning Italian grammar rules.

I’ve recently stopped going to these lessons, but an email exchange with a client a few days ago about different people’s sometimes wildly varying opinions on the rules of grammar made me think about some of the discussions that went on in these Italian classes.

All of my classmates were at least ten years older than me, and some of them were probably at least twenty years older. That’s irrelevant in terms of learning together as a group, but when we talked about British English grammar, it was clear that we had different opinions.

Italian grammar

Our teacher was a big fan of grammar and liked nothing better than to spend a good forty minutes each lesson entertaining us with things like the joys of indirect and direct object placement, how to construct the imperfect subjunctive tense and why it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know nothing’ in Italian.

The generation gap

Sometimes our teacher wanted to compare Italian grammar with British English grammar and would ask us what the equivalent rule is in English. This was when classmates said things like, ‘No, you definitely can’t start a sentence with “and”’ or ‘You can’t split an infinitive’. I didn’t really want to get into an argument about this type of thing during the lesson, because it wasn’t usually important in terms of the Italian construction we were discussing. It was interesting, though, that the answers were usually given with certainty and seemed to be agreed on by everyone except me. This gave me the impression that when my classmates were at school, grammar was probably taught in terms of absolute rules that couldn’t be broken.

The grammar gap continues – or does it?

I have two teenage children, and sometimes I’m surprised by how they use language in a different way to me. They use new words that I’ve never heard of, for a start. And they sometimes use constructions like ‘I’ll go do that’ (which I think of as more of a North American way of putting it) rather than ‘I’ll go and do that’, which is how I’d phrase it. On the whole, though, the gap between how I use written language and how they use it is very small, so perhaps it had already become acceptable to break the rules by the time I was at high school in the 1980s and has been so ever since. (And whether ‘the rules’ are in fact rules is probably best left for another day.)

A couple of weeks ago, though, I was proofreading a storybook written for children about to start school when the publisher contacted me to say that the teacher who was due to sign off the storybook had said that a sentence beginning with ‘But’ would have to be changed because children are now taught that it’s wrong to start a sentence this way. So perhaps what was taught twenty years before I started school is now being taught again and the grammar differences have come full circle since then.

Even if that’s the case, it seems that today there is a far bigger grey area than there used to be, even in formal writing. Is it right to stick to what you believe to be the rules even when this makes the sentence awkward or difficult to read? I don’t think so, but that’s a whole other story.


Editing a style guide – when is editing needed?

editing-style-guide

You may have read my last blog post, ‘A new experience: copy-editing for a publisher’. It was about working for a different type of client for the first time (a publisher) – I usually work for individuals. I mentioned in that post that parts of the style guide for this first copy-editing job I did for a publisher had been unclear and I’d had to ask the project manager to clarify them. I’d also thought that the guide was a bit lacking in content. When I was sent the second job to do for the same client, I was told that the style guide included minor amendments, one of which proved to be quite problematic.

Style guides are rarely perfect

The style guide was helpful but not comprehensive. There was one guideline in particular that just didn’t seem to make sense. I was sure it was incomplete or needed editing. When I’d been working on the first job and had asked whether a particular guideline was correct, I’d been told that it was and asked to stick to it. Unfortunately, this time the project manager was on holiday, so I had to use my own judgement to get the job done within the fairly tight timescale.

I interpreted the confusing guideline as best I could, applied it with exceptions that I thought were essential and explained in a note to the project manager what I’d done and why.

The project manager was pleased with the work I’d done and admitted that the style guide wasn’t perfect. She asked me if I was interested in editing the guideline I’d found so confusing so that it was unambiguous, which I did. I also mentioned a couple of other things that I thought it would be useful to include or change in the style guide. I drafted some minor changes and these have now been incorporated.

How long should a style guide be?

I was very grateful to have had a style guide at all, as I’m used to working without one and creating my own, but I found this editing exercise really useful in terms of thinking carefully about the minimal instruction needed to save the copy-editor and later the proofreader a lot of time.

I was tempted to suggest more changes, and ideally I think this particular style guide would benefit from having more detail, but, given that I’d only been asked to consider a couple of items, I decided to do what had been asked and no more. It’s possible to go on for ever with a style guide, and one that’s too long may be a hindrance rather than a help. I once had to check that a relatively short text was consistent with a 48-page style guide. I think it took almost as long to read and absorb the style guide as it did to copy-edit the text. So a style guide that is concise but covers the essentials is probably better than grappling with a monster like that.

Editing a client’s style guide was something I’d not done before, and this second move into doing something new was a good exercise in thinking and working in a slightly different way.