Nonfiction editing: Little things

Nonfiction editing: Little things

March 9, 2021 By Frank Steele Resources

“Sometimes when I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think there are no little things.”—Bruce Barton

That’s certainly true in editing. Little errors, problems, or inconsistencies can drag a manuscript down, while little editing tips or procedures can make it shine and make clients (and editors) happy. I’d like to share some of the little things that have helped me in editing for the last nearly forty years. Many of you may already know these things and be better qualified to write on them than me, but perhaps something will still be helpful.

The majority of my work involves copyediting or proofreading nonfiction books and material using Chicago or APA style. The authors are often coaches (personal or business coaches) or experts in various fields, but not always good writers. Some manuscripts come from independent authors publishing their first or second book, while others come from small publishers or university presses.

Flexibility: In years past, I was often very strict about imposing a certain style on authors, and if I’m working with a publisher’s style guide, I still am. But for independent authors, some of whom are publishing their first book (or coaches and speakers who simply want a good, professional-looking book to sell in the back of the room after their presentations), I’m more flexible. Chicago’s preference for the down style—the sparing use of capitals—rubs some authors the wrong way when it comes to academic or corporate titles or certain important principles that they’d prefer to have capitalized. When I start on a manuscript with a lot of nonstandard capitalized terms, I’ll prepare a list of the caps and send it to the author, recommending what should and shouldn’t be capped. I do something similar with numbers. Chicago advises spelling out numbers from zero to one hundred in nontechnical situations, but sometimes there’s a key number in the text (such as 24) that’s used a lot and would look awkward spelled out, so I’ll recommend that we just spell out zero through nine. I’ve found that authors appreciate this, and it leaves them more open to other edits. (I use PerfectIt, a style and consistency program, to make sure caps and numbers, as well as other points of style, spelling, and usage, are consistent throughout.)

Author queries (and tact and compliments): Some of my authors are good, clear writers, while others are more prone to use business buzzwords or dense language that’s neither clear nor appropriate for their audience. I try to simplify, clarify, and use plain language where I can, without changing the author’s voice, and I add queries to the author where I can’t. I used to say things such as “I don’t understand this” or “This seems unclear,” until one day I realized that authors might be thinking things like “That’s because you’re an idiot” and just be too polite to come out and say it. So now I usually word my queries from a reader’s standpoint: “Will the readers understand this?” or “Would this be clearer as …?” or “Will readers take this to mean …?” I also provide alternative wording where I can, sometimes even two or three alternatives. And I’ll definitely reread all my queries before the file goes back to the author to make sure I’m being tactful and clear myself.

Putting myself in the author’s shoes, I also add compliments and encouragement in the text where the author has used good examples, memorable wording, striking illustrations, or other things worthy of compliment. The book is something that they may have worked on for years. It’s not fair (and it’s discouraging) to only tell them the things that are wrong with it or that need improvement. There’s almost always something that you can compliment. Don’t get so caught up in the prose that you lose focus on the author, as Seth Nichols wrote not long ago. (Carol Fisher Saller’s book, The Subversive Copy Editor, has very helpful advice on author-editor relationships, among many other things.)

Getting the facts right: In nonfiction editing, you want to be sure that the facts truly are facts, not fiction—that they’re not wrong in some way. Are the quotes attributed to the right person? Are names spelled correctly? (Was that Steven or Stephen?) Are names of businesses, schools, and institutions correct? Is something really the “first,” “best,” “youngest,” or only one of its kind? Will you remember that the eighteenth century spans the 1700s, not the 1800s? Did this historical event (or current event) really happen that way? Do percentages add up to 100? Are only seven people mentioned when the text said there were eight? There can be a lot to check, and as the saying goes, “There are no stupid questions, only fact-checkers who regret not asking them.” So check carefully; previous articles on the ACES blog and in Tracking Changes (such as Sasha Nyary’s) provide good advice. A few other recommendations:

Word searches (and replacing) with wildcards: Very helpful when you need to change something in your file that a normal search and replace won’t handle: moving AD from the end of dates to the beginning, changing number formats or the order of words (John Smith to Smith, John or vice versa, and much more. There are intros and examples here, here, and here. Practice on a junk file beforehand, because a careless search and replace of any kind can have unintended consequences.

Reviewing the basics: Most of my work involves Chicago, so I find it helpful to review the parts I check most often, to try to pound them into my memory. Every several months I go over sections like “Word Usage” (CMOS 5.250), “Hyphenation Guide” (7.89), the names and titles in 8:9–8.201, and the numbers in 9.1–9.64. I still wind up checking them in my work, but I do so less often. (And occasionally I browse through Word’s menu tabs to refresh my memory of old features and explore features I’ve never used. I use Word daily, and the better I can use that tool, the quicker my work goes.)

Google Alerts: This is a little outside the realm of nonfiction editing, but Google Alerts can still be very useful for editors. (This tip comes from advice shared by Katharine O'Moore-Klopf and her wonderful Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base.) This Google service monitors the web for new content on the search terms you provide and emails you a set of links to material that fits your search terms. I have alerts set for the names and interests of recent clients (to congratulate them on books published, for example, or to send them news articles they may find interesting). This not only helps authors, it also makes them more likely to remember me when they have another book or paper. Google Scholar provides similar alerts that cover more scholarly material (there may be some overlap in results).

A final tip that might be a lifesaver: Get regular exercise. Editors sit a lot, and my southern hemisphere often reminds me of that fact. For your health’s sake, for your sanity’s sake, get up and get out and move about in your favorite way—stretch, dance, jump around, walk, jog, bike, or do some sort of regular exercise to get the heart pumping and keep the body healthy. It relaxes the eyes, renews the mind, and may add years to life, so regular doses of exercise are highly recommended for any editor! To your health, and your editing!

Header photo by Alfons Morales on Unsplash.

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