Focus Time

Right now I am finalizing content for a presentation this weekend – so I have moved from writing to revising, editing and polishing. This kind of work takes focused effort. Yesterday, a major news story developed in my state, as several large fires were burning out of control, impacting the homes of friends. So last night when I sat down to do some revising and polishing on my project, my mind was distracted. I had too many news feeds going and I couldn’t focus my thinking.

When I got up this morning, I decided that I would work without any news feeds or social media going in the background. I needed all my thoughts focused on the final honing, which would make the difference between good content and great content. So I worked 2 solid hours without distraction. Then I allowed myself to check news sources before taking a walk to freshen my thinking for the final editorial push.

The project management side of editorial work involves lots of juggling and multi-tasking, as an editor takes action on future stories and projects even while current content is undergoing revision. However, in the midst of many editorial projects in different stages of completion, the ability to focus quality time and energy on bringing one project to a successful conclusion is essential. The art of editorial work is knowing how to bring creative energy to all the various stages of a project, and how to manage both time and focus to bring forth excellent results.

Names

Names are important to people. It actually matters to me if I am addressed as Carla or Karla. One is my name and the other is not. And Carol is a great name, but it isn’t the same name as Carla. However, names are difficult to proofread because of the variety of spellings and forms even for common names. One of my most difficult proofreading tasks is for an event program with multiple workshop speakers. Each name matters and there are so many possible ways to be wrong and only one way to be right with a name.

Here are some tips for verifying names:

  • If you are interviewing someone in person, hand them your notebook and ask them to write down their name for your records. Then look at it to make sure you can read their handwriting. Having someone write their own name is much better than having them spell it for you while you write it down, because you may transpose letters when someone is speaking.
  • If you are verifying a name for a well-known person with a web presence, verify the spelling of their name on their own website, not just by googling their name. Other websites might have erroneous spelling of an unusual name, but someone’s own website should have the correct spelling.
  • Be direct, just ask the person to verify the spelling of their name, because you care about getting it right. They will appreciate the effort and your desire for accuracy.

Unfortunately, mistakes happen with names. Many years ago, I asked my soon-to-be-husband to verify the spelling of the names for his side of the family on our wedding invitation draft. He approved the draft, and  when we got the invitations back from the printer, he noticed that his middle name was spelled “Allen” rather than “Alan.” Being frugal, he said it didn’t matter, that we could use the invitations and no one would notice. I responded that of course it mattered, we had to get his name spelled correctly in the invitation or my grandfather would enter it incorrectly in the family history book. We got the invitations reprinted, because names matter.

Take a Break

March is a high volume editorial month in my world. In addition to the regular quarterly issue of MomSense magazine that went to print yesterday, our annual special edition went to print earlier this month. And many other departments have projects that need my editorial eyes at the same time. So some days my editorial brain is definitely taxed.

Here are some practices I have found to be useful in keeping up quality standards in a high-volume editorial cycle:

  • Taking physical breaks – getting out of my chair, walking to the kitchen for a glass of water, sticking my head outside to get some sun – sometimes even 10 minutes can refresh my brain and help keep me sharp.
  • Switching editorial style – going from the computer screen to paper-based editing is often enough to give me a fresh perspective.
  • Planning my day – I am definitely sharper in the morning than the afternoon, so I try to queue up projects in a way that uses my best time for the most intense brain work.
  • Watching my attitude – I know I need to take a break when I find myself accepting mediocre word choices or inconsistent grammar just because it would be simpler to have fewer changes in a rush project.
  • Pausing when I am tempted to push too fast to get another page done – sometimes I am tempted to start on one more page in the few minutes I might have before a meeting rather than saving the file and coming back later.
  • Saying no – this is the hardest but often the most important step to keep high quality. Rather than an outright “no,” I might suggest an alternate time: “I want to do a quality job on this extra project. I can’t have it done by 10 am today, but I can finish it by 1 pm.”

In addition to the practical tips that I often implement, the most important way to keep myself sharp is to build margin into my schedule. This is true for editorial project planning and also overall life planning. Something will go wrong during a project, and while I can’t plan for exactly what will go wrong, if I have left some space in the schedule for breathing, then I can more easily accommodate issues that come up. And after a very busy month of editing, a day off to enjoy fresh air is the best way to rejuvenate myself for the next project.

Word Count Matters

The most frequently repeated advice that editors give at writing conferences is, “Follow the guidelines.” Potential writers who want to get published in a magazine, blog, e-newsletter or website can maximize their opportunity to get published by following the guidelines for the organization. It is amazing how many people ignore this simple advice. Word count is one area that is frequently violated in submissions.

As an editor, the reason I establish a word count for a particular type of article or feature is that I know what length of article will fit best in a particular slot. On an e-newsletter, I use an established template, and if an article is too long or too short, it doesn’t look good in the template. In a magazine, I know how much space my graphic designer needs to grab the reader’s attention with design, and I know how many words I want on a particular page. On a website, I know how many words, on average, are above the fold, so that readers don’t need to scroll to read. Word count matters as part of the overall editorial decision-making process.

Obviously quality of content is more important than length of content, but given two submissions of equal quality, the submission that follows the word count specifications has a better chance of getting published. Not because editors are lazy, but because we are busy and it takes time to do an excellent job of cutting down a submission that is too long. Sometimes I enjoy the challenging of revising a piece to fit the necessary word count, but it definitely takes time and effort.

For the writer, word count can make the difference between getting published and getting put in the “maybe” file. For the editor, adherence to word count builds a smooth relationship with designers, who need space on the page or e-mail template to make the content package effective. Word count is one aspect of excellence in the writing and editorial process.

When Correct Grammar Looks Incorrect

In the course of everyday communication, most native speakers in any language don’t stop and think about grammatical rules as they speak or write. English is my native language, and I compose sentences and paragraphs without consciously thinking of grammar in every phrase. The conscious editing occurs when I go back to refine content. As a native speaker, I am actually grammatically correct most of the time, because in the course of growing up immersed in a language, I have internalized the rules, exceptions and patterns of language. If I switch to French, I have to think about grammar and construction in the written word. In conversational French, I just hope that good will rather than good grammar can communicate most of my intention.

When we move from “gut level” grammar to refined, edited communications, sometimes there is a conflict between what is grammatically correct and what looks correct. And this conflict can lead to interesting editorial conversations. I remember an incident quite a few years ago when I corrected a grammatical error several times in a communications piece, but the project manager insisted that my correction didn’t look good, so she didn’t want to make the change. Of course, I didn’t want something going out with my editorial approval that had a grammatical error, even if it was an error that only 1% of the population would notice.

Our particular conversation was over the use of an apostrophe on a word that was actually plural, not possessive. We were focused on the plural of the words “do” and “don’t.”  These words are often used as a pair, referring to lists of items we should or shouldn’t do. The usage that many people think looks correct is do’s and don’ts.  However, depending on which style guide you follow, dos and don’ts can be correct.

In the particular case of “dos and don’ts” the Chicago Manual of Style says “dos” is correct, and the AP Stylebook prefers “do’s” with the logic that the apostrophe is used to clarify the meaning or pronunciation, not signify possession. And for those who don’t think one of these options looks correct, that’s the role of style guides, to confirm what is correct.

I can’t remember who had the final word in our disagreement, but I do know that the role of editor sometimes includes a touch of diplomacy.

Incomplete Sentences

Overzealous editing can result in boring content. Rendering a grammatically perfect article or essay means that incomplete sentences are edited out, and emphatic expressions get toned down. So the goal for an editor is to balance grammatical accuracy and readability with the writer’s voice and purpose in the article. This is where the art of being an editor intersects with the science of correct grammar and an editor needs to exercise good judgment.

When I approach editing an article where the author uses incomplete sentences as part of her style and voice, I ask the following questions:

  • Does the whole piece make sense to an independent reader?
  • Does the author’s signature phrasing and style create ambiguity for the reader?
  • Are the first paragraph and the last paragraph tight and clear?
  • Are the stylistic elements appropriate for the readers?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer for each of these questions, but rather each is an opportunity for editorial judgment. The balance I seek as an editor is a clear piece that represents the author’s voice and communicates to the reader. Obviously, editorial judgment will vary for an academic audience versus a consumer audience.  A conversational style of writing includes incomplete sentences, because we don’t speak in complete sentences all the time or we would sound like stilted actors. Academic writing will result in different editorial judgments because the goal is precision and authority, not conversation.

The goal in editing is to clearly communicate with an audience. Accuracy is important, but voice is what breathes life into content, so both are considerations in editing. The art of editing is finding the right balance, and as the Fine Print Editorial tagline says, the difference between good and great is in the details.

Overuse of Quotation Marks

Some writers regularly use quotation marks to show special usage of a word. The use of quotation marks to indicate irony or a loose definition is meaningful but can also become tiresome. For example, consider the sentence:  Julia walked into the party with her “friend” and Julia quickly moved toward the center of the room. The use of quotation marks in this situation can imply sarcasm. The person with whom Julia arrived at the party might think he is Julia’s friend, but a real friend doesn’t warrant quotation marks around the label. However, the meaning is unclear, because the person accompanying Julia could also be more than a friend, perhaps her lover pretending to be a friend.  In either case, the quotation marks imply that the definition of the word is not the common meaning and the quotation marks also draw attention to the word.

Every now and then, such emphasis is interesting in prose. However, overuse of quotation marks is a sign of lazy writing. When I am editing a selection with too many quotation marks that do not signify actual quotations, I push the writer on word choice and suggest alternate words that are stronger and can stand on their own for meaning, without the use of quotation marks.

Sometimes the use of quotation marks is silly and illustrates a lack of knowledge about punctuation. I was recently at the emissions testing site, waiting for my car to be tested. There was an instructional sign on the door of the waiting room. At the end of the instructions, was a “Thanks” in quotation marks. If the maker of the sign wanted to emphasize how much he appreciates us as customers, then bold and/or italic font would be a good way to say Thanks in a stronger voice. Putting “Thanks” in quotation marks borders on sarcastic. We are actually captive to the emissions testing site, required by regulations to comply, so perhaps the workers don’t have to be actually thankful for us as customers. Obviously I am reading too much into the quotation marks. The sign maker thought that it was a good idea to put “Thanks” in quotation marks. And the sign did make me smile, mostly because of the unintended irony. I also was thankful because in the course of doing an errand I was provided with more material for my editorial blog.

Pitfalls of Spell Check

Spell check is a great feature of word processing systems; however, spell check is not perfect. There are too many words in the English language that are similar and require actual proofreading to rely simply on spell check. For instance, consider the sentence: I like to eat dessert in the desert. Spell check would approve of the words even if one “s” was placed differently: I like to eat desert in the dessert. The latter sentence is meaningless. We don’t sit in a chocolate cake and eat dust. However, recently in the grocery store, I whipped out my pen and added an “s” to a sign in the bakery department advertising “desert.”

Proofreading also depends on vocabulary knowledge, which was illustrated to me in a church worship service where I was dumbfounded at the lyrics: “His yolk is easy and his burden is light.” This song is based on a Bible verse using the analogy of a yoke, a wooden bar that joins together animals who are working together, to describe being joined to God. No mention of eggs and yolks, the yellow center of an egg, in this Bible verse. When I saw the lyrics on the screen, I looked around the room and didn’t see anyone else looking perplexed. Was is possible that I was the only one in the room who saw the egg on the face of the person who had prepared the lyrics? I know it is shallow of me to be distracted in my worship, but words actually do convey meaning, and the wrong words are sometimes extremely distracting.

Spell check is a great first step in the editorial process, but it cannot replace the careful proofing of each word and its meaning.

One final note – after I wrote this blog post, I used the spell check feature on my word processor. It actually performed well and flagged the crazy usage of “desert” and “dessert” in my examples and asked if I wanted to change them. I left them intact to illustrate my point. Then I went over to another word processing system and tested the sentence. It passed without flagging any errors. The “yokes” and “yolks” were not flagged in either system.

Final Proof Checklist

Even for a small project, such as a postcard, the difference between good and great is in the details. Last month I received a postcard promotion from a small arts organization in my town. They had gone to the expense of buying a mailing list, and I was a good potential customer as I do buy tickets to theater and music events. The postcard was promoting two different productions. However, in the 30 seconds that I scanned the postcard, I noticed a glaring error. The dates for the production were different each side of the postcard. I could infer what the correct dates might be, but without going to their website, it wasn’t clear when each performance would be taking place.

You only have a few seconds to engage a customer on a direct mail piece, so every piece of information has to be accurate and focused. The sad result is that all the money they spent on the right mailing list, nice graphic design, glossy printing and postage was wasted by not taking an extra 10 minutes for a detail check on the final proof. Rather than dumping the postcard in the recycle bin, I saved it, thinking that perhaps for their next project, I will offer editorial services in lieu of the ticket price.

Here’s what to look for on a final proof detail check:

  • phone number – actually dial the number to see if it is correct
  • website – actually type in the URL to see if it goes to an active page
  • dates – recheck them against an independent calendar to make sure they are accurate and that they represent the correct day of the week
  • any other detail identifiers – take the time to recheck accuracy

The few minutes that you spend on a final proof detail check can make the difference between a customer who engages and a frustrated or confused customer. Details matter.

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