Editorial Exercises

by Nic McPhee
by Nic McPhee

Many people just starting out as freelance editors ask us how to grow their skill set. Today we share two exercises to do just that! Play with them, and let us know how they work for you.

The Style Guide Challenge

How many of you delete a comma or add a dash because it feels right rather than because you have a specific rule in mind? Come on, raise your hand. Editing certainly takes talent because you need to understand the flow of a text and the voice of the author. However, a huge part of editing is internalizing rules. Your feelings could be spot on for taking out that comma, but you also need to know the rule (or the exception) behind the edit. You need to know the why.

One of the best ways to really understand the why (and dig into the guts of a style guide) is to use a style guide to justify every edit you make. Here’s an example using The Chicago Manual of Style.

  1. Pick up a flyer or brochure for something local—perhaps it is for a vet’s office or perhaps it is the manifesto of the Legal King and Owner of the United States (I have one of these for realz; he wants to install a sprinkler system in the national forest).
  2. Edit it, but for every edit you make, you must also note the rule number with your markup. If you are deleting that comma, is it because of a restrictive clause (CMS 6.22) or because the independent clause is short (CMS 6.28)?
  3. See how often your editorial Spidey sense is in line with rules of grammar and punctuation.

The Google Translate Challenge

Sometimes you need to simplify a text as much as possible—if only for your own sake while editing to figure out where the subject and verb are and how they relate. This exercise will help you figure out the core of what the text is saying and will help you realize how complex English is. (Part of the difficulty of this exercise is that Google Translate doesn’t always do a great job, which is why translating is a profession.)

  1. Take a sentence of English text.
  2. Put it in Google Translate, and translate it into any other language.
  3. Translate it back into English.
  4. Edit the sentence and repeat steps 1–3 until you get the same sentence back that you put in.

As a warning, we have yet to encounter a sentence this works on, so let us know if you figure this puzzle out!

So there you are: two ways to beef up your relationship with editing and text. Good luck!

Chicago Manual of Style Q&A | August 2015

Every month, the Chicago Manual of Style folks answer questions they’ve received. Following are a couple excerpts from the Q&A of August 2015. To read the full month’s Q&A, visit www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/latest.html.

Q. Dear CMOS Editors, Although strict grammar would suggest that “if I had been you, I wouldn’t have done that” is correct, I feel that using “if I had been you” in this case instead of “if I were you” implies that the condition of my being you is impossible only in the past and may somehow have become more possible as time went on. Because it is not a changeable condition—I cannot be you, whether in the past or the present—I feel that “if I were you” is the right conditional to use in this example. I have not been able to find an authoritative explanation either way. What do you reckon?

A. This isn’t philosophy—it’s just grammar. “If I were you” puts the reader in the present. If you want to stage “if I were you” in the past, it becomes “if I had been you.”

Q. “The larger the parameter, the smaller the region.” This construction is just fine, but what’s the justification for implied rather than fully present verbs? Why don’t we get to imply parts of speech whenever we want to? And as an editor, am I wrong to delete the verbs when they are used? “The larger the parameter is, the smaller is the region”?

A. You are right to delete the verbs. Your first version is idiomatic English; the second is pedantic overkill. As for your whys and wherefores, I’m afraid you will need a linguist rather than a style guide to get the technical backstory. Let us know what you find out!

What Editing Should Be

reading sculptureAs a quick follow-up to the post on the magic of Maxwell Perkins, I want to share an article titled “The Better Angels of Our Writing” from The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it, Rachel Toor, associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program, writes of two modern-day Maxwells: Carol Saller and Mary Norris.

Saller is best known for her work on Lingua Franca and the CMS Q&A (as well as the book  The Subversive Copy Editor), and Mary Norris is the author of  Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. These women are shining examples of what Maxwell Perkins showed us editing could be, what editing should be.

Instead of becoming nitpicking bullies who are offended by the mistakes of authors, editors should work to understand authors’ choices. After all, suggestions and corrections can be made without drawing blood. Author and editor must work together to achieve the mutual goal of a good book. As Toor notes, “Our duty is to the reader.” Editors should strive to be what Mary Norris describes as “a person who who can correct us, point out mistakes we all make, and manage not to make us feel bad, because . . .  [we make] the same mistakes.”

Toor reminds us that making art and making friends are not mutually exclusive.  After all, she says, “good copy editors see me not just for who I am but for who I want to be, and they help me get there.”


Maxwell Perkins: The Author’s Editor

Maxwell PerkinsWe live in a world of instant gratification. We can watch our choice of television shows whenever we feel like it, cue up the specific songs stuck in our heads, and order nearly anything on Amazon and receive it within two days. This instant world has had interesting effects on writing and editing. As soon as I finish this blog post, for example, I hit publish, and it will magically be ready for the world to see. There’s a word for this: disintermediation. It means skipping the middle man, or in the world of publishing, going straight from writing to the distributor and skipping the editorial steps completely.

Such massive changes in the creation and delivery of information makes me wonder what Maxwell Perkins would think. For those of you unfamiliar with Perkins (1884–1947), he is considered—according to Matthew Bruccoli—America’s most famous literary editor. While working at Charles Scribner’s Sons, he went against the grain of popular opinion and revolutionized American literature by discovering the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and Ernest Hemingway.  Continue reading “Maxwell Perkins: The Author’s Editor”

Chicago Manual of Style Q&A | July 2015

Every month, the Chicago Manual of Style folks answer questions they’ve received. Following are a couple excerpts from the Q&A of July 2015. To read the full month’s Q&A, visit www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/latest.html.

Q. Do you use a or an before a word that begins with the letter S?

A. If the S is pronounced with a hissing sound (“sss”), use a: a snack. If the S is pronounced as the letter S (“ess”), use an: an SVGA cable.

Q. I’m hoping you can clarify the meaning of this line in 8.22: “Queen Elizabeth; Elizabeth II; the queen (in a British Commonwealth context, the Queen).” What counts as a “British Commonwealth context”? I’m editing a novel that takes place in the UK but refers to a meeting between the sovereigns of the UK and another country. Should these be styled as “the Queen” and “the king,” or “the queen” and “the king”?

A. If you are editing a novel for a UK publisher primarily for UK readers, or a novel that takes place in the UK with characters or a narrator who wouldn’t dream of lowercasing their queen, uppercasing is appropriate. For consistency, you would style all kings and queens in that document in the same way.

Formatting and Editing Help: Editor’s Toolkit Plus

GutenbergToday, I thought I’d tell you about a set of tools I use in my daily editing.

One time-consuming part of copyediting a manuscript is fine-tuning the formatting. This involves meticulously using the find-and-replace function to seek out double spaces, soft returns, non-curly quotation marks, hyphens that should be en or em dashes, and the like. For the past six years, I have been using a program called FileCleaner to quickly and efficiently deal with this monotony in one easy click. It’s my first step when opening a file. Continue reading “Formatting and Editing Help: Editor’s Toolkit Plus”

Chicago, Chicago

My first encounter with the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) was in an editing course in grad school. Up to that point, I’d only really known MLA, though I did use CMS’s bibliography style at the magazine I worked at in college. Holding the big, orange 14th edition in my hands was both terrifying and exhilarating.styleguides

Continue reading “Chicago, Chicago”

Dash It All!

To folks outside the publishing industry, the various dash lengths available can be quite confusing. Hyphen, en dash, em dash . . . what’s the difference? And how do you get your keyboard to do that?

As Chicago Manual of Style 6.75 states, “Though many readers may not notice the differenceespecially between an en dash and a hyphencorrect use of the different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.” So let’s take a moment to look at each. Here are examples of all the dash lengths in relation to one another:


Continue reading “Dash It All!”