concept to publication

Category: editing Page 1 of 2

Say what?

“Hilburn . . . had the access and longevity to get to know musicians better than few in the media do today.”
— Associated Press

Is “better than few” the same as “less well than many”?

Is none singular? Are none plural?

“Good sense is a thing all need, few have, and none think they want.” — Benjamin Franklin

“I strove with none; for none was worth my strife.” — Walter Savage Landor

Whether none should be singular or plural is the kind of question that makes the nonprescriptive linguists feel smug and superior. But people who work in publishing know that some standards are needed — even if not the same ones for every book.

So, which is correct?

  1. None of the editors really understands language.
  2. None of the editors really understand language.

A role for the copy editor

Some authors rail against copy editors, and, sadly, the editors sometimes bring the enmity upon themselves. The latest author with a copy editor horror story is George Lakoff, who reports that his classic Metaphors We Live By would have been called Metaphors By Which We Live if his University of Chicago Press copy editor had his way.

According to Language Log

Lakoff wrote a 23-page single-spaced blast against this man’s recommendations, showing in detail and with clear arguments the nature of the hole up which the editor’s head was. And then unusually it turned out to be all happy endings: the linguists won, the editor resigned from the project, the editing changes were not made, the title was kept, and the book was a huge hit.

Is a happy ending from editing so unusual? Is there then no useful role for the copy editor? Of course there is. These folks can and often are quite helpful — even to nonprescriptive linguists — but they need to bring the proper attitude to the job. (It shouldn’t be necessary to say this.) Rather than seeing their role as grammar dominatrices they need to recognize that their assignment is to help authors realize their goals according to the strategies implicit in their works.

Years ago one of my favorite free-lance editors was an aspiring actress. Working with her I realized that copy editors are not unlike actors. Both are trying to immerse themselves in and in effect embody an author’s words. Copy editors need to be flexible, let go of their own voice, and adapt to the author’s individual style. Each edit should be a collaboration between the author and the editor, a unique work of art.

Some editors, though, can’t let go in that way — they stick to their guns come hell or high water. But don’t damn the whole profession because of them.


image via


It’s urgent!

Via Craigslist:



Spelling test

spelling test

According to, these are the 25 most  commonly misspelled words in English.

I don’t consider myself a very good speller, for an editor (I just look everything up). But this test seemed easy to me. The only question that I thought was a little tricky was the one that asked about a British spelling, since I’m only familiar with U.S. style.  I figured it was a trick question and answered with the U.S. spelling, which luckily was right.


What the heck is the past tense of spec?

Believe it or not, this comes up all the time, and after all these years I have yet to decide what’s right.

For example, I e-mailed a print rep earlier today to ask, “Would the 60# Natural Smooth paper be cheaper than the one I had speced?”

Should it be specked? speced? specced? spec’d? or something else?

And no, no one would say “the one I specified.”


Two more tough words to spell

I wrote yesterday about a word that was misspelled by thirteen out of fourteen experienced editors. Here are two words from the test that were each missed by ten of the editors. The second one is a little surprising; at least, I consider it a basic word that any editor should know.

Pick the spelling preferred by Webster’s New Collegiate:

___ supercede
___ superceed
___ supersede
___ superseed

___ miniscule
___ minniscule
___ minnuscule
___ minuscule

Answers after the break . . .

A hard word to spell


It means “to dry; to preserve by drying.”

I’m hiring a temporary replacement editor for a colleague who will be out several months on a medical leave. I got a lot of very qualified applicants. To whittle them down I produced a test of 85 objective questions. I tested the top 14 candidates, all with sterling credentials. Apparently the test was harder than I thought — the average score was 66 percent.

The first twenty questions were multiple choice spelling questions. Thirteen of the fourteen editors disagreed with Webster’s New Collegiate on how this word is spelled:

___ desicate
___ desiccate
___ dessicate
___ dessiccate

Correct answer after the break . . .

Poor, poorer, porous

editorial mishaps: porous copy on the mall in washington, dc

Some pretty porous copy on this text panel about porous paving at the National Botanical Gardens near the capitol building in Washington, DC. (Official, nonpartisan, federal government-approved typos.)


Why are book editors so gullible?

love and consequencesFake memoirs are in the news again, with the usual hand wringing. No need to go into the details, which have been thoroughly reported. Instead, let’s think about what might make book editors so gullible.

Book editors are a peculiar mixture of optimism and cynicism. They begin as idealistic literature enthusiasts — they probably start with a ridiculously low-paying job, just because it’s “in publishing” — but those who survive are all too likely to get fried by the strains of book publishing (an extremely difficult business) and turn into cynics who will publish any crap if they think they can push it off the shelves.

But inside these crusty exteriors an optimist still lives. Each time a manuscript arrives on their desk they are hoping that it will be the book — the one that will sell like crazy, maybe be a critical success. The editor’s career, in fact, depends on that manuscript showing up.

So when editors find a promising memoir, they want it to be true. They are predisposed to believe. That’s the optimist in them. Meanwhile, the cynic in them says, Even if it isn’t true, who will know or care?

This might sound extreme, but I think it is fair to say that on some level many editors today despise their readers — they know they are putting out garbage, so if people are buying it, it must mean they have no discrimination. So the editor has come over time to believe that readers aren’t smart enough to question the authenticity of the book to be published. After all, they’ve swallowed plenty before now.

What can be done? If publishers care to change — and they will, if their bottom lines start to suffer — they need to take the process of vetting manuscripts out of the control of editors. A book editor is never going to be like a newspaper reporter who at least understands the concept of challenging sources (that’s another story).

The only safe way to handle this is for an independent person, a fact checker who is not reporting to the editor, to vet manuscripts whose authenticity can be questioned. Unless an approach like this is adopted the fake memoirs will continue to flare up periodically, as natural a phenomenon as sun spots.


wordsmith ambigram

WORDSMITHING: The process of going through a document and making sure the best possible word is used in all circumstances. —

If there is one word I would like to ban permanently it’s wordsmithing. In my day job there is someone who likes to say “Give it to Tom for wordsmithing.” The implication, to my ear, is that editing is merely cosmetic. In fact, as we know, style is content and content is style, and a good editor’s work is substantive and not just superficial.

An analogy would be accusing a politician of not being substantive because he gives a good speech. But surely no one would ever make that charge, right?


The screenshot above is from John Langdon’s Wordplay. Wordsmith is one of the ambigrams shown on the site. An ambigram is a graphic that spells a word in more than one direction. Wordmithing in this Lewis Carrollian sense is an acceptable usage.



Recently there has been an uptick in talk about semicolons. Witness:

arabic semicolon

What does this signify? I’m not sure. Could it be another sign of the trend to the literate class becoming a cultural elite, eager to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi?

Well, maybe that’s reading too much into what might just be a random flare-up of semi-colonitis. In any case, I like this exchange from the Colbert link above.

  • Tulugaq: Kurt Vonnegut’s take on it was a little less warlike and more of a mandate: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Me, I like the poor semicolon and the colon alike, so I guess I just have to be a conscientious objector. Sorry, Steve Colbert.
  • The Ridger, FCD: How can a hermaphrodite be a transvestite? Do they dress like asexuals?

For anyone with market aspirations in today’s publishing climate, Vonnegut’s advice remains sound. But what would Flaubert be like without the semicolon as the hinge on which his crafty sentences swing?


Shown: Arabic semicolon from


Refute vs. rebut

When it comes to copy editing, I’m not particularly strict — let the author have some personal style. We all use words a little differently.

But one thing that has been annoying me lately is what I regard as the misuse of the word refute. Newspaper journalists and others consistently use refute when they mean rebut. They will write, “Senator Obama refuted Senator Clinton’s argument that she is the most electable candidate.” What I understand from that sentence is that Obama proved that Clinton’s statement was wrong. Whereas what the author means to say is that Obama responded to Clinton’s assertion and argued for a different point of view — in other words, he rebutted her argument.

  • refute: to prove to be false or erroneous
  • rebut: to oppose by contrary argument

I know that some would say that these words are or can be synonymous, or that words are defined by their usage, which should just be described and not prescribed. But that sacrifices a distinction that we are otherwise able to make, one that seems to me worth preserving.


The need for editorial direction

Web 2.0 experiments with open content are showing the value of moderated forums. Democracy is great, but chaos isn’t necessarily so hot.

Once upon a time tech types used to track stories on When a post got promoted to Digg’s front page it would bring your site a huge amount of traffic. The web economy is a numbers game — the more views you get the more likelihood of getting links, clicks on ads, subscriptions, and so on. Therefore, getting on the Digg front page was valuable. And when something is valuable, people will figure out ways to improve their chances of getting it.

What happened at Digg was that a clique of “power users” gained control of the system for their mutual benefit. The voted up each other’s stories, and voted down those of others. As a result, Digg became less useful to regular users. It no longer has the influence it once had. It is said that Digg blacklisted stories from some sites and manually killed others. Finally, last week, Digg announced fundamental changes to its algorithm.

Occasionally you will see stories in the upcoming section with 100+ Diggs – this is evidence of our promotion algorithm hard at work. One of the keys to getting a story promoted is diversity in Digging activity. When the algorithm gets the diversity it needs, it will promote a story from the Upcoming section to the home page. This way, the system knows a large variety of people will be into the story.

In other words, Digg is counting some votes as worth more than others (shades of Animal Farm). Similarly, Google once counted a link as a link in figuring page rank. Now they use a complicated formula for determining the value of links, and they further moderate page rank with several other factors. Finally, with Wikipedia we have seen problems caused by ineffectual refereeing of stories, which has led to the creation of Citizendium, a sort of refereed version of Wikipedia, which frequently has more reliable content.

And that’s why we need editors. Without some directing vision a publishing company is nothing but a random house.


RELATED: Digg Demonstrates The Failure Of Completely Open Collaborative Networks

Disappearing hyphens?

Since a big deal is being made about supposedly disappearing hyphens, let’s apply a little perspective to the discussion.

The first thing to realize is that the furor is the result of a promotional campaign for a new edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary; the sixth edition has omitted 16,000 hyphens that were included in the previous edition. The popular press has blamed e-mail for this, but the trend toward reduced hyphenation has actually been going on since at least the middle of the twentieth century.

What makes this a nonstory for me — besides the “who cares” aspect — is the source. If you are using the Oxford English Dictionary as a guide to spelling, all I can say is, stop now. The OED has no equal as an etymological and historical dictionary of English usage. But as a guide to spelling it has always been decades behind the times, and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here. The sixth edition of the Shorter is playing catch-up with other dictionaries, and now is hardly the time to make a fuss about hyphens that perished half a century ago.

Check out these examples — not chosen by me but just picked up from the press reports — of words that according to SOED6 have changed from being hypenated to being spelled open or closed:

  • Words that the SOED now spells open:
    • fig leaf
    • hobby horse
    • ice cream
    • pin money
    • pot belly
    • test tube
  • Words that the SOED now spells closed:
    • bumblebee
    • chickpea
    • crybaby
    • leapfrog
    • logjam

Okay, now compare those to versions from a dictionary that people actually use as a guide to spelling, Websters New Collegiate. Just to make things clearer, I’ll use the ninth edition, published in 1983.

  • fig leaf
  • hobbyhorse
  • ice cream
  • pin money
  • potbelly
  • test tube
  • bumblebee
  • chick-pea
  • crybaby
  • leapfrog
  • logjam

You see? This has nothing at all to do with e-mail. Already a quarter century ago — in the real world if not in the OED — there was only one hyphen remaining in the entire lot that is now being used to support this story. Congratulations to the Oxford folks for successfully framing this story as one about disappearing hyphens. But the real story is that the OED is beginning to take its head out of the sand and move closer to the practice of real contemporary dictionaries.

RELATED: Typophile: What’s your favorite hyphen?

Advice from an editor

Do we really need copy editors?

The impotence of proofreading

via India Ink

Seen on eBay

It must be the desk that ups the price.

writhing desk

This “writhing desk” recalls Harry Potter, or maybe Lewis Carroll:”The regular course was Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with; and then the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.”

Editing Reality

No, despite the title this is not another post about the Bush administration. It’s a link to an interesting video demonstrating how editing can manipulate viewers’ impressions of reality — the basis of “reality” television shows.

Via Swiss Miss via Random Culture

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