Eva van Emden (she/her), freelance editor

Certified copy editor and proofreader


December 25, 2011

What changes can you safely make to a URL?

URLs don’t look so good in running text: they start with an incomprehensible code, they contain strange-looking punctation, and they run together all-lowercase words that are next to impossible to read. To try to make them look a little nicer, you may be tempted to leave some parts off and gussy up the rest with some camel casing. But how do you know what you can safely change and what will break the link? Here is what you can and cannot safely change.

Parts of a URL

Without getting into too much detail, the structure of a URL is something like this:
protocolsubdomaindomain nameTLDpath
For our purposes, when I say “hostname,” I mean the domain name including any subdomains (plus the second-level domain if present) plus the top-level domain (TLD). For example, google.com, scholar.google.com, or cra.gc.ca: everything that comes before the first slash.

Editing the URL

So there you are, faced with lots of unsightly and incomprehensible “http”s and forward slashes. How can you make these URLs fit into your text a little better?

Removing the protocol descriptor

Can you remove the http://? Yes.
http://www.google.com = www.google.com

The http in the URL stands for “hypertext transfer protocol,” which is the protocol used by the World Wide Web. It’s there to tell your browser that you are asking for a web page and that the browser should use the HTTP protocol as opposed to, say, FTP (file transfer protocol). But it’s reasonable to expect that any browser is going to assume HTTP as a default, so feel free to leave this off.

If the protocol descriptor is anything but http:// (for example https:// or ftp://) you should leave it in. Otherwise, browsers will assume that it’s an HTTP request and because it isn’t really, the request will fail (if you’re lucky, the server will be kind enough to redirect the request to the right URL, but it’s not a good idea to rely on this).

Changing capitalization

Can you add or remove capitalization? Sometimes. In the hostname, yes:
paulgraham.com = PaulGraham.com
but in the path, no.
slate.me/tbFnWs ≠ slate.me/tbfnws

For the hostname, it’s OK to have a house style that puts capital letters in the hostname (Scholar.Google.com), or even uses camel casing (OurCompany.com). However, the capitalization in the path (the section after the first slash) should not be changed: slate.me/tbFnWs is not the same as slate.me/tbfnws.

The reason is in the way that URLs are processed. The first thing that happens after you type in a URL and press Enter is that your browser sends a request out to the internet. DNS servers accept this request and translate the hostname (philip.greenspun.com) into an IP address (, which is the address of the server that will have the files you’re looking for. Once the request reaches the server at, the server uses the path part of the URL to look through its file system and return the file you requested (/images/pcd0803/florence-bike-6.4.jpg). Only some web servers take the case of the path into account, but you shouldn’t assume that it won’t matter.

As a matter of style, use capital letters very sparingly. Traditionally URLs are all lowercase, and to the purist, capitalization looks funny. Keep your caps for the beginnings of words (PaulGraham.com) and never capitalize the whole URL or the top-level domain name (.com, .ca, etc.).

Removing the www

Can you add or remove a www on the beginning of a URL? No. At least, only sometimes.

The www is a subdomain, just as the scholar in scholar.google.com is. If you take the subdomain designation off, for example to change www.google.com to google.com, you are changing the domain name.

OK, I admit that most (almost all) servers are configured to treat a domain name with and without the www subdomain designation the same way by forwarding traffic from one to the other, so you can usually get away with changing this. But it’s important to understand that if you add or remove a www it’s not the same domain name. If you are determined to add or remove a www, test the new form of the URL to make sure it works.

Try the URLs above and see what happens. The version without the www is invalid. If it works for you, you might be using a browser with aggressive “domain guessing.” That’s fine, but it’s far from every browser that does that: my versions of Chrome and Firefox won’t guess the URL in the above example. By the way, I’m not holding up the above sites as an example of bad design or configuration. I think it’s fine to accept only one version of your domain name, but editor beware.

Removing a terminal slash

Can you remove a slash from the end of a URL? Yes.

The final slash in each of these URLs can be omitted: www.google.com/ or philip.greenspun.com/panda/.

Edit, October 2022: I used to say that there was no web server in the world that wasn’t configured to behave as if there was a slash on the end of the URL, but I found one. Surprisingly, https://www.vlada.gov.sk/koalicia-vita-schvalenie-reformy-nemocnic/ behaves differently from https://www.vlada.gov.sk/koalicia-vita-schvalenie-reformy-nemocnic, and the latter gives a 404 not found error. So I have to amend my advice here to say that it’s almost always OK to remove the final slash.

But don’t these changes only affect people who use out-of-date browsers?

The pitfalls I’ve described above result from the way the DNS servers and web servers on the internet work, not the features of the user’s browser. However, some browsers use “domain guessing” to try other forms of a URL if the first request fails, so they’re more likely to be able to work around missing information in a URL. To make sure the URLs you print works for all your readers, be conservative about how you change them.

November 29, 2011

A scam that targets editors

(Updated February 2021.)

This morning I got a scam request to write an article for an upcoming workshop. The writer mentioned having a speech-distorting condition called apraxia to explain why they preferred to use email and SMS rather than phone conversations. This is fine, but once I asked for more information about the project, the classic characteristics of the scam started to become clear, and when I Googled a few key items in the message plus the word “scam,” I found other people talking about this exact format of scam.

This isn’t the first time I or an editor I know has been approached for a cheque overpayment scam. Here’s how it works: the message is about an editing or translation job, typically with a very quick turnaround time. The client pays by cheque. After the payment has been made, the client “discovers” that they have overpaid and asks the editor to send back the overpayment, or the payer asks the editor to send some money on to another payee. After the editor cashes the client’s cheque, it turns out to be invalid.

Signs that an editing job might be a scam

Watch out for the following clues that something might be wrong with a message about a job.
  • There are signs that the client is contacting many people at the same time. The email you receive might not be addressed to you by name, or you are bcc’d on an email addressed to someone else.
  • The information about the client is incomplete or inconsistent. For example, it’s signed “Sandy Smith” but the email address is “joe-bloggs@domain.com.” Or the name of the person writing to you doesn’t match the byline of the attached article they say they wrote.
  • The client doesn’t seem to care about who you are and what your qualifications are, and they don’t seem to care about the quality or details of the project. In my experience, this has been the tip-off. Real clients who want to pay you to work for them really care about their project and are anxious to hire someone who will do a good job. When you ask for more information about the project, they’re usually eager to give it to you. The scammers come across as strangely hurried and indifferent.

How to protect yourself

Be observant when you get email from a potential new client. Try searching online for the name and email address and see whether they are connected to an existing person. Look for details that show that the project is a real project. And be cautious with cheques from new clients you don’t have complete confidence in.
  • Make sure the name of the issuer of the cheque matches the name of the client. Do a web search on the name of the client and name of the cheque issuer.
  • Be very suspicious of a cheque for too much money. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre recommends against accepting any cheque for more than you are owed.
  • Be aware that just because the money is made available in your bank account, that doesn’t mean the cheque was valid. According to a CBC article on this scam, “Depending on how good the counterfeit is, it can take weeks for a financial institution to detect the fraud. By then, the scammers are long gone with the money, and the victim is on the hook for the amount on the cheque.”
  • Consider using PayPal, Interac e-transfer, or bank transfers.
  • You can decrease your risk by asking for a deposit before starting work, but again, consider that bad cheques can take time to make themselves known.

Further reading

November 22, 2011

Anne McCaffrey

Dragonsong cover I was sorry to hear that Anne McCaffrey died today. I was about twelve or thirteen when I read Dragonsong. It must have been one my first forays into speculative fiction; I remember the strange words—“sevenday,” “blackstone”—and the foreignness of the names of the characters and places. I struggled to understand the mysterious Thread, but I didn’t have any trouble imagining the dragons. Giant, gentle, flying, talking animals don’t need much explanation.

In the years after I read Dragonsong, I read almost all of the other dragonriders books, as well as a selection of her other books. Her characters were thoroughly imagined and their relationships had depth and richness. I appreciated that the people in her books weren’t threatened by mystical forces of evil; they were threatened by natural forces, and by their own inability to work together to solve their problems. They were saved by personal courage and sacrifice.

I still have a selection of my favourite dragonriders books on the shelf, including the lovely edition of Dragonsong shown here. Thank you, Anne McCaffrey.

November 1, 2011

Try hand-kerning some tricky pieces of text

Badly kerned letters This online kerning exercise presents you with words in different fonts and invites you to drag the letters around for the best spacing. Then see how your solution matches the typographer’s solution.

Thanks, Christina Vasilevski for the link.

October 31, 2011

Paris Review interview with William Gibson

Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction No. 211” is a lovely long interview with William Gibson.
“. . . and something I’d heard about from these hobbyist characters from Seattle called the Internet. It was more tedious and more technical than anything I’d ever heard anybody talk about. It made ham ­radio sound really exciting.”

October 27, 2011

Income tax for Canadian freelancers: Track your deductions

Updated for the 2020 tax year
Maybe you started a full-fledged business, maybe you just did your first freelance assignment; either way you need to know how to declare your self-employment income. Even if you plan to get an accountant to do your taxes, knowing what you can deduct and keeping your information organized will make the process faster and easier. In part 2, I talk about filling out your Form T2125: Statement of Business or Professional Activities.

Preparing for tax time

Even if you plan to dump the whole job on an accountant, keeping organized records throughout the year will make a huge difference at tax (or audit) time. From the simplest to the most sophisticated, here are four methods you can use:
  1. Get an accordion file. File expenses according to category (not date).
  2. Buy a notebook or accounts book and write down expenses and income according to category.
  3. Set up a spreadsheet to track income and expenditures.
  4. Use accounting software.

What records should you keep?

  • The CRA suggests that in addition to tracking your income and expenditures you back up your records with source documents: sales invoices, receipts, contracts, bank deposit slips, etc.
  • Make a note on your bank statement to explain any large deposits that are not business income. Seven years later you may be asked why you didn’t declare that money as income.
  • If your bank doesn’t guarantee it will maintain your electronic records for six years from the end of the last tax year to which they relate, then you need to print or save your bank records yourself.
  • Credit card bills aren’t considered equivalent to receipts (but by all means, save them as extra documentation).
  • Print e-receipts or save them as clearly labelled PDF files.
  • Consider photocopying or photographing paper receipts, because some of them are printed with ink that fades quickly.

Allowable deductions

Business use of home

  • Proportion of home used for business: This can be calculated as either the number of rooms used for business out of the total number of rooms in the house, or as a percentage of the floor space. If you use a room for both business and personal use, estimate the percentage of the time that the room is used for business purposes, but if it’s used for business only, you can consider it to be used for business 24 hours a day.
  • Allowable expenses: Rent, insurance, utilities, strata fees, maintenance, interest on the mortgage.
Taxes for corporations are way beyond the scope of this article, but one quick warning: if you have an incorporated company and you rent part of your house to the corporation, the capital gains on your house become taxable.


  • Cell phone fees are deductible, but you are required to calculate the percentage of phone use for business.
  • I’m told (but haven’t checked with the CRA) that with land lines, the monthly fee is only deductible if you have a separate line registered under the name of the business. If the phone is registered to you personally, you can only deduct long-distance business calls. (I imagine this is because local calls are not itemized on the bill, so there is no record of personal versus business use.)
  • Phone hardware is deductible.


You can claim a portion of your internet expenses. Again, calculate what proportion of your internet use is for work. If you claim internet or a computer as business expenses, your internet traffic and computer contents become examinable in an audit.

Business use of car

  • Tracking: Keep a mileage log. The easiest thing to do is to take an odometer reading at the beginning and end of the year and record either all business trips or all pleasure trips (whichever you do fewer of).
  • Allowable expenses: gas, repairs, maintenance, depreciation, interest on a loan, lease payments.
  • Note that the car has to be insured for business use.


This is one is tricky and often disallowed. Here’s what I’ve been told.
  • The expense has to be for the purpose of getting or keeping business.
  • The expense is generally incurred by taking a client out for entertainment.
  • Only clients are eligible, not partners.
  • Only 50% of the expense is deductible.
  • Keep a record of the names of the clients and why you took them out.
Staff meals are a different situation. If you hire someone and part of the contract is that you will provide food, that expense is 100% deductible.


You can claim travel you need to do for work, or to get to professional development events. Your travel expenses will be deducted all together, but keep detailed records of how the expenses break down.
  • Allowable: getting there, travel while there, accommodation, meals.
  • If the trip is part pleasure and part business, prorate the claim accordingly.
  • Travel meals: probably have to be outside the city and are only 50% deductible.

Research and professional development

  • Professional development covers things like courses, books, and magazines.
  • For research, keep records and make sure you can show a clear connection between what you bought and how it contributed to your business.

Capital cost allowance

This applies to anything that you buy—used or new—that has a useful life at the end of the year. Usually this will apply to items that you spend more than about $300–$400 on.
  • For capital costs, you don’t deduct what you paid for the item; you deduct the amount that it depreciated during the year. Look up the percentage to write off in the classes of depreciable property list.
  • If the business buys something that gains value (antique furniture or real estate, for instance) you will have to declare a capital gain when you sell it.

Bad debt

Since you are using the accrual method of accounting, you report your income in the year you earned it, regardless of when you actually get paid. So it might happen that you report income that you never actually receive. Say you did a contract in late 2019, reported the income in that year, and never got paid. You can deduct that income the next year as a bad debt. You could also file a correction for the 2019 taxes, deducting that income, but it probably looks better to claim the amount as a bad debt the following year; at least that way there’s an explanation.

Back expenses

If you forget to claim an expense, you can amend your tax return for that year to include the expense, and you will be credited with the corresponding saved tax (without interest). You can do this going back a maximum of six years.

Deductions not related to your business

CRA links

The CRA help number for businesses and self-employed people is 1-800-959-5525. See the CRA phone numbers page for their hours.

Other tax information

See also:

Income tax for Canadian freelancers: T2125 Declaration of business or professional activities

Updated for the 2020 tax year

How do you declare freelance income?

I covered allowable deductions for freelancers and small business owners in part 1. Here’s some help with filling in the T2125: Statement of business or professional activities.

Do you run a business? Are you self-employed?

If you are carrying on an activity that you intend to make a profit with, then you have a business. The simplest form of business is a sole proprietorship. This means you are not incorporated or in a partnership with anyone. You can run a sole proprietorship business without registering the business, registering a business name, or getting a business license.

The T2125 form: Statement of business or professional activities

If you’re earning money as a sole proprietorship, you simply fill in the T2125 form in addition to your basic personal income tax form. Whatever electronic income tax filing system you use can probably handle this just fine. The T2125 is available electronically; if you do your taxes on paper, you can print out a copy and deliver it along with your general income tax package.
  • Where to get it: the General income tax and benefit package for 2020 doesn’t seem to be available yet (January 7, 2021), but should be soon.
  • The 2020 version of the T2125 is available, but the last update is from January of last year. It doesn’t seem to be specific to the year.
  • How many do you need? Similar business activities can go on the same form, but very different activities (writing and pottery) would have to go on two separate forms. I recommend phoning the CRA if you’re not sure whether two activities can go on the same form.

Sections of the form

Part 1: Identification

  • Was this your last year of business? If you closed down the business during this tax year, say “yes” here. This lets the CRA know that they shouldn’t expect any more tax reports for this business.
  • Main product or service and Industry code: The industry code lets the CRA know what kinds of deductions they can expect to see on the rest of the form. Editors should use the NAICS code or industry code 561410: Document Preparation Services. This code includes “editing service,” “proofreading service,” and “desktop publishing service.”

Part 2: Internet business activities

If you use your website to promoting your business, I wouldn’t consider this to apply.

Part 3: Business Income or Professional Income?

Freelance editors should choose “professional income.” (In general, “business income” applies to selling physical goods and “professional income” applies to selling your expertise.) Fill out 3B and C and ignore 3A and D.

Part 4

This is where you fill in the deductions that you’ve been tracking throughout the year.
  • Rent: this refers to the rent on a purely commercial property. The rent for your living space should go into the “Calculation of business-use-of-home expenses” section in Part 7.
  • Property taxes: same thing here. Put your home property taxes under business use of home.
  • Other expenses: this is where many of your deductions will go: professional development, subcontractors, etc.

Other tax information

See also:

October 24, 2011

How to cite a Wikipedia page


To cite a Wikipedia page, look for “Tools” on the left side of the page and click on “Cite this page.” You will get a list of citations in different citation formats. The article author is given as “Wikipedia contributors.” Example: citing their “Cat” entry.

Copyright and reproducing Wikipedia content

A quick note about reproducing Wikipedia content: Wikipedia content is under copyright, but most of it is licensed under terms that allow at least some reuse. The terms usually allow you to reproduce the text unchanged if you credit the authors, but make sure you check the terms of use for the specific page you’re interested in. You may also have the right to change the text, although you may or may not be required to allow your changed version to be reproduced in turn.

October 2, 2011

Red Pencil in the Woods highlights

Red Pencil in the Woods
Last week I was at Red Pencil in the Woods in Seattle (Kenmore), put on by the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. It was a great event: the cost was very reasonable, the Bastyr University campus was beautiful, and the program was well choosen and presented. I will definitely look out for the next one.

Conference highlights

Carol Saller: “Finding Our Way: Writing and Editing in the New Publishing Landscape”

This was the keynote speech by Carol Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor and senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press. She referred to a report from the Association of American Publishers using BookStats that seemed to show that revenues for print overall were increasing. She also went through an overview of the different kinds of publishing available:
  • Conventional: publisher pays production costs, writer gets percentage of the net revenue. A large number of copies of the book are printed together.
  • Print on demand (POD): a printing technique that makes it practical to print small batches of books.
  • Self-publishing: the author handles the whole production process. See CreateSpace, which provides a collection of online tools, both free and paid, to set up a book.
  • Subsidy publishing: the author and publisher split the cost of production and the author gets a higher percentage of the royalties than in a conventional publishing system.

E-book panel

A panel on e-books that discussed some of the advantages of e-books (authors can continue to sell books that would otherwise not be kept in print) and some of the technical challenges of the formats. Not all e-book publishers eat their own dog food.

How to write an effective book proposal by Jennifer Worick and Kerry Colburn

See how to write an effective book proposal for a summary of this presentation.

Carol Saller on subversive copy editing

The last session of the day was Carol Saller again, talking about her philosophy for harmonious copy editing: carefulness, transparency, flexibility.
  • Carefulness: Before you change something, make sure that it should be changed. An example of lack of carefulness would be meticulously changing every single instance of a misspelling that turns out to be a special term commonly used in the field. To make sure you do no harm, use Google to search for terms that look odd, and if you see an error repeated consistently, query it.
  • Transparency: Show your changes. Explain to the author ahead of time what changes they can expect, and if you’re using a word processor, track your changes. Explaining your changes, showing them, and making it easy to roll them back builds trust with the author.
  • Flexibility: This is the subversive part. Some styles are really pretty arbitrary (for instance, whether you put a comma between the author and date in a citation). If an author wants to do something that is against the house style but isn’t actually going to hurt readability, maybe it’s OK.

Other notes about the conference

  • Kyra Freestar’s conference notes at The Editor’s POV. Includes some follow-up and notes on the keynote speech about the future of publishing and the panel on e-books.

September 27, 2011

What to put into a book proposal from Jennifer Worick and Kerry Colburn

At Red Pencil in the Woods last weekend I heard a great talk on how to write an effective book proposal from Jennifer Worick and Kerry Colburn of The Business of Books. Some of the key points were:

Why do you need to write a proposal?

A book proposal is like a business plan. It tells the publisher:
  • What your idea is
  • Why this idea is interesting and marketable
  • Why you are the right person to write this book
  • How the book can be marketed
Even if you are going to self-publish, the proposal helps you to focus your concept and find your readers.

The key parts of a proposal

Jen and Kerry recommend that you set out these main points. You can tailor the format for each publisher or agent’s specifications.
  1. Introduction: Explain and sell the general concept. Some good ways to begin are with a startling statement or statistic (75% of Americans . . .) or a question (What would you do if . . .).
  2. About the book: State the genre or category, e.g., where it will be shelved in the bookstore, and the format (hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback), dimensions, price range, etc.
  3. Competing titles: Get to know the section of the bookstore where your book will be shelved. Name four or five books in the same category and explain how your book is similar and where it is different. Focus on books that have been published in the last ten years, and any “category-killers.”
  4. About the author: What’s your connection to the material? What makes you easy to work with and marketable? Mention interesting achievements, past careers, and skills.
  5. Marketing: Present clippings and logs for any promotion you did for earlier books. Mention any events, seasonal tie-ins, or regional and historical connections that can be used to promote the book. Describe any social media platform that you can use to promote the book with giveaways, contests, etc.
  6. Outline: Show that you know what the structure of the book will be.
  7. Sample text: Depends what the publisher or agent requests, but usually the introduction and one chapter.
  8. Extra materials: Include material that supports your proposal. It might be clippings to illustrate trends that you described, more information about you, and even audio and video clips that show you giving interviews or doing demos from the book.

More information on writing proposals and query letters

September 12, 2011

The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself by Susan Bell

Book cover: The Artful Edit by Susan Bell

Be your own editor

You won’t always get the perfect editor for your book, and you can’t rely on editors having time to do all the work they’d like to. Be your own editor as much as you can.

Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit is a guide for writers to help them edit their own work and to get the most out of their collaboration with an editor. Bell considers different strategies for editing during the writing process and suggests ideas for getting a fresh view of your draft. She then deals with the nuts and bolts of what to look for when editing. Later in the book, she steps back to look at the role of editing in art by interviewing non-print artists about how editing has improved their work and looking at some famous writer–editor relationships.

The book contains a lot of practical advice and examples. There are checklists and exercises to help you focus on specifics. Bell quotes from letters between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Max Perkins, to show how they worked on The Great Gatsby and quotes passages from different drafts of the manuscript to show the changes they made.

Although the book has some concrete stylistic advice (remove excessive “be” verbs, watch out for redundancy), this is not a style guide. Read it if you’re interested in larger issues (intention, structure, theme) and if you’re interested in thoughts about the role of the editor in creative writing.

Be a mechanic, not a judge. When you edit, do not ask yourself: Do I like this? Ask instead: Does this compel me and can I follow it? If the answer is no, figure out why.

—Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

Tips for getting distance from your draft

From The Artful Edit

  • Read it aloud, with or without an audience
  • Print it in a different font
  • Read it in different surroundings
  • Take a long break: don’t look at the manuscript at all for a few weeks
  • Go through the manuscript with someone else
  • Hang the pages on a line or lay them out on the floor to help you visualize the flow and layout
  • Send it away: giving your manuscript to someone else can make you see it with new eyes

Reviewed from a library copy of the book.

August 18, 2011

A Prehistoric Odyssey by Marie Mai Perron

Cover art for A Prehistoric Odyssey by Marie Mai Perron
A book that I copy edited last spring just came out a little while ago. It’s a great story, and I thoroughly enjoyed working on it.

When his friend tells him he’s solved time travel, Matthew Carrington jumps at the opportunity to prove his theory that dinosaurs could have been as intelligent as mammals. But in his desperation to save his career, he is forced to accept too many compromises in planning the expedition. Facing the prehistoric environment with incomplete information, unreliable technology, and a dangerously unstable team, science soon takes a back seat to survival.

The prehistoric environment is vividly described, with plenty of biological detail. The characters are very real, and their motives and agendas play out in a way that’s inevitable and surprising at the same time.

A Prehistoric Odyssey is for sale at iUniverse.com
ISBN: 978-1462018666
See a preview

June 26, 2011

Pulpfiction Books: 20% off Canadian list price

If you live in Vancouver, make sure you visit Pulpfiction Books. I’ve been dropping in on them from time to time and I’ve always liked their selection. They have an excellent selection of used books, and they sell their new books and special orders for 20% off the Canadian list price! I also see from their website that if you order $50 in new books in one order they’ll deliver them for free.

Read the Pulpfiction Books Blog and follow @pfbvan on Twitter.

June 19, 2011

(In)elegant variation

In a recent BBC News article about a company’s way of rewarding its salesmen, I ran across the following: “The prostitutes had worn colour-coded arm-bands . . . and the women had their arms stamped.” Gosh, I thought, were the prostitutes all men? No—I had been suckered by an elegant variation.

Henry Fowler coined the term “elegant variation” to describe the unnecessary use of different words for the same thing. You see it a lot in journalism: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist,” continues as, “The mother of four also enjoys fishing, knitting and swimming.” We often see “blaze” for fire, “blast” for explosion, “slay” for kill, and sometimes “temblor” for earthquake. Vancouver Magazine is fond of referring to restaurants as “rooms,” although this is probably due to hipness as much as to fear of repetition. Writers pull out the thesaurus to keep from repeating themselves: Fowler’s Modern English Usage gives an example where “have” becomes “possess,” and then “own” as the sentence progresses. This technique can really call attention to itself and make a sentence anything but elegant.

But elegant variation isn’t just annoying; it makes your writing less clear. When I come across “mother of four,” it takes me an extra fraction of a second to think back to “Jane Smith” and connect the two. In most contexts, readers make the connection without any trouble, but sometimes they will think you used two different words because you are talking about two different things—as I did when I read the BBC article quoted above—and that can cause serious confusion.

Other ways to avoid repetition

Bryan Garner suggests that the rule of thumb is to avoid repeating a word in the same sentence if it can be done felicitously. What’s a felicitous fix? I suggest:
  • Use a pronoun: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist. She also enjoys . . .”
  • Leave the word out: “Jane Smith is an avid cyclist and also enjoys . . .” Or after “A fire broke out in Oak Hills last night,” instead of saying “Three people were killed in the blaze,” consider “Three people were killed.”
If there’s no good way to remove the repetition, leave it in. It’s better to repeat the occasional word than to bend your sentences out of shape with clichés or confusing changes of name.

More about elegant variation

June 1, 2011

Google searches as a quick and dirty way to answer style questions

Google’s full-text search provides not only a highly efficient way to find information, it’s also a very easy way to search through a giant corpus of writing. Some people use Google as a spell-checker: just try both spellings of the word and let the number of results decide. The problem with this approach is that you don’t always want to use the spelling or usage that appears most often—after all, the web is not known for being the home of the most careful and polished writing. You’ll get more useful results by narrowing your search to a specific part of the web.

Limit your search to one specific domain

Certain magazines, like the New York Times and the Economist are often used as style standards. When I run into an expression that I’m not sure is standard, or a capitalization or hyphenation question that doesn’t quite match any rules in the style I’m using, I’ll often search the New York Times or Economist websites to see how they handle it.

To get results from a specific site, use “site:” and then the name of the domain, followed by a space and then your search term. For example:

site:nytimes.com "raise his game"
If you forget this syntax (“site:”), you can get the same search by clicking on “advanced search” from the main Google site, and then entering the site under “Search within a site or domain.”

How to use Google Scholar to help you with scientific and academic writing and editing

Google Scholar is extremely useful for editing scientific and academic documents because you can limit your search not only within the academic literature, but within a particular area like biology, chemistry, physics, or medicine.

Let’s say you’re editing a chemistry paper and you come across an unfamiliar use of the term “headspace.” If you just do a regular Google search for headspace, you’ll get references to meditation. Not helpful.

Instead, try the search in Google Scholar and get much more relevant results. You can even search within a specific journal (click “Advanced Search” in the options menu at left.

If you’re writing, you can check your phrasing this way. Maybe it’s late at night, you’re getting tired, and you’re not sure whether to say that the samples were “relatively dilute” or “relatively diluted.” If you plug each phrase into Google Scholar (put quotation marks around them so that you’re searching for that exact phrase, not the two words separately), you’ll see that “relatively dilute” clearly had more hits than “relatively diluted.” That gives you a quick answer to go on with.

May 16, 2011

A quick fix for the all-caps eyesore

Caps lock: not necessary all the time
Source: an unknown internet hero
If some keyboarder of the old, old school sends you a message in all caps that you have to read even though the SHOUTING is giving you a headache, there’s a quick fix. Copy and paste the text into a Word document and use the “change case” feature to convert it to upper and lower case. Select all the text (Command-A on a Mac), go to Format -> Change Case . . .  and choose Sentence case. The capitalization won’t be perfect, but trust me, it will be a huge improvement. LibreOffice will also do this for you: click on Format -> Text.

Bonus tip

If you need to use this feature often (I sometimes edit manuscripts where all of the headings are in all caps), Shift-F3 (or Function-Shift-F3) toggles through the casing modes.

May 15, 2011

Subtleties of Scientific Style by Matthew Stevens

One of the fundamental features of science is the furtherance of knowledge. Poor writing is an impediment to this. A good illustration of this point is a paper by Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty published in 1944 in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which established that DNA was the substance that transmitted genetic information. Although it paved the way for James Watson and Francis Crick’s milestone paper in 1953 in Nature (171: 737–738) establishing the structure of DNA, it was not widely read or appreciated. Author Randy Moore has argued that the way it was written was the main reason for this (Journal of College Science Teaching 1994 November: 114–121). In comparison with Watson and Crick’s paper, it is (as Moore wrote) hesitant, extremely dense, verbose, highly detailed, abstract, impersonal and dull. We’ve all heard of Watson and Crick. Who has heard of Avery, MacLeod and McCarty?
—Matthew Stevens, Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. 46

I always took it for granted that academic papers had to be hard to read. (The reason usually cited is that the authors have to pack an enormous amount of information into the shortest space possible.) The introduction could conceivably be a work of art, but the methods and materials section with its centrifuging at 20,000 g and resuspending, that pretty much has to be a slog, right? Well, after seeing Stevens’s examples of how text can be improved by using the appropriate voice, putting steps in logical order, disentangling parallelism and rearranging sentences (to put subject and verb at the front of a long sentence, for example), I have new hope.

Subtleties of Scientific Style is a fairly short (85 pages), very readable book that doesn’t try to be a comprehensive style guide. Instead, Stevens assumes that his readers know the basics of editing, and he focuses on specific considerations for science writing. He starts with a discussion of substantive editing, and describes how to do a truly thorough editing job (involving seven passes). He then goes on to address various common errors in usage and content, and describes ways to improve expression and visual presentation. Finally, the appendices contain useful notes on Unicode and special characters.

If you’ve done any academic editing, you’re sure to recognize a lot of the problems he discusses: one of my favourites is the discussion of the word “respectively.” I too have had my brain twisted by authors who connected two lists of different length with “respectively.” (“Plants A and B were yellow and green, respectively”: OK. “Plants A, B, and C were yellow and green, respectively”: not OK.) I’ll be going back to this book again to refresh my memory and pick up new points.

Where to get it

The publisher is ScienceScape Editing, Thornleigh, Australia, but their website doesn’t seem to exist anymore. The book is available for download in PDF, and I believe it is the author’s intention to make the electronic copy available for free. Reviewed from the free PDF.

Screenwriters can teach you a lot about fiction editing

I’m not a big movie watcher. When people ask me “Have you seen—,” the answer is usually “no.” Why then the interest in screenwriting? Because I am fascinated by stories, and good screenwriters know how to tell a story. (They also write a pretty good how-to book.) Here are some books on the subject, as well as an introductory note or two on writing screenplays. Thanks to Melva McLean for information about screenplay structure, scriptwriting software, where to find scripts online, and the screenwriting gurus (but any errors are mine!).

The screenplay format

Don’t mess with the format: twelve-point Courier on standard letter-sized paper. Character names and scene headings are in all caps, dialogue and action in upper and lower case.

Screenplay style guide

The Hollywood Standard by Christopher Riley.

Screenplay writing software

Celtx is a commonly used tool. It handles the formatting for you and saves you a lot of typing. A “movie” project will store the script, the novel, and the schedule, and integrates the screenplay with the schedule so that you can see which locations and characters are needed on which days. Best of all, there are a number of sample projects loaded, including the Wonderful Wizard of Oz screenplay and novel. Besides the movie project, there are a number of other project types, including novel and comic book.

I hear Final Draft is good too. Demo version available.

Sample scripts

Unlike novels, which tend to be guarded by their copyright holder, screenplays are often made available online. Fill your boots. I just hope you like monospaced fonts.
Simply Scripts

How to structure a screenplay

This is where the gold is. How long should a screenplay be? What makes a satisfying story arc? Where does the climax go? How soon should the inciting incident come? Following the right structure in developing your story is essential to creating a satisfying experience for the viewer.

Of the authors I list below, Blake Snyder is the one who provides the most step-by-step formula for putting together a movie. Just to give you an idea, here’s a rough outline of a script, mostly based on Snyder’s beat sheet:

  • Length: about 90–120 pages. The rule of thumb is that one page of script comes out to about a minute of screen time.
  • Three acts: Act 1 introduces the situation; Act 2 complicates the situation; Act 3 resolves the situation.
  • Inciting incident (page 12 in a 110-page script): If it’s a murder mystery, a corpse has to be found. If it’s a love story, the lovers have to meet. In a hero’s journey story, the hero is presented with the call to action.
  • The transition into Act 2: The hero accepts the call, or something else happens to turn the plot in a new direction.
  • Fun and games, first half of Act 2: Action that results from the premise of the story. Most of the stuff that’s in the trailer comes from this part of the movie.
  • Second half of Act 2: Complications build until the crisis.
  • Transition into Act 3: Hero confronts their demons and turns the situation around using tools and lessons from earlier in the story.
  • Act 3: Climax and resolution.
See “Three Acts or What?” for a nice comparison of the Syd Field, Blake Snyder, and hero’s journey story structures.

Books about screenwriting

  • Save the Cat by Blake SnyderSave the Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need—Blake Snyder. He has a nice list of genres and screenwriting devices (like the title “save the cat” trick), always with examples, and then discusses in detail his plan on how to set up the three-act structure that he believes is essential to delivering a satisfying experience. I certainly notice the structure he describes jumping out at me in movies like Avatar and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. A very fun book.
  • Story by Robert McKeeStory: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of ScreenwritingRobert McKee. Excellent book. McKee is another script guru who consults and runs workshops. He’s also got a good list of screenwriting resources on his website.
  • The Definitive Guide to Screenwriting—Syd Field. Interesting, not as fun as Blake Snyder’s book, but it covers some different points, including more on the nuts and bolts of selling scripts.
  • Adventures in the Screen Trade by William GoldmanAdventures in the Screen Trade—William Goldman. Very entertaining. An analysis of the workings of the movie industry, from what makes a star (it’s someone who will bring people in to see the movie open) to the role of producers (he hasn’t the foggiest, although he knows they’re essential). There’s also plenty of concrete advice on screenwriting: how to write beginnings, how to write endings, how to protect the star—and how to protect your soul.
  • The Great Movies—Roger Ebert. He goes through about 100 movies that he thinks are important and talks about why they’re good and what they mean to him.

March 14, 2011

Science writing and editing: How to write scientific names

The Latin scientific name of a species, be it plant, animal, bacterium, fungus, etc., is a two-part name consisting of the genus name first (by the way: one genus, two genera) and the species name second. For example, the domestic cat is known as Felis catus. Although the genus name can be used on its own (there are several other species in genus Felis, for instance the wildcat, Felis silvestris), the species name never appears on its own.

The basic rule for writing a scientific name

  1. Use both genus and species name: Felis catus.
  2. Italicize the whole name.
  3. Capitalize only the genus name. (In the past you would capitalize the species designation if it was derived from a proper name, e.g., Megalonyx Jeffersonii, but now the species designation is always lowercased: Megalonyx jeffersonii.)

Rules for abbreviating the genus name

After the first use, the genus name can be abbreviated to just its initial: F. catus.
  1. When a section of the text might be displayed on its own, you might want to spell out the name in full the first time it appears there. For instance, some academic journals require that you write out the genus in full the first time it is used in the abstract, and in all tables and table captions.
  2. When you introduce the name of another species in the same genus, you can use the abbreviated genus name for the new species:1 The domestic cat is species Felis catus. Both F. catus and its wild relative, F. silvestris . . .
  3. If you are discussing two species that belong to different genera that nevertheless start with the same letter, say, Leopardus pardalis, the ocelot, and the Canada lynx, Lynx canadensis, it is better not to abbreviate their genus names.
  4. Abbreviations of more than one letter: I’ve seen a few instances of two-letter abbreviations of genus names, for instance Au. afarensis and Ar. ramidus for Australopithecus afarensis and Ardipithecus ramidus, and I’ve seen discussion of two- or three-letter genus abbreviations for some taxonomic groups. Butcher’s Copy-editing2 says they are to be avoided, but they’re permissible to avoid ambiguity.3 I recommend checking with your target publication to see whether they allow this style.
  5. Sometimes the full genus name isn’t spelled out on first use. Some organisms, such as the famous study organisms E. coli and C. elegans, are so well known that it’s common in informal discussion to just use the abbreviated version of the name.

Names of taxonomic levels above the genus level

The names of higher taxonomic levels (family, order, class, phylum or division, and kingdom) should be capitalized but not italicized (see Chicago 8.126 and Butcher’s 13.5.1). Common names derived from taxon names, for instance “felines” for members of the family Felidae, are not capitalized. A common name that is derived from a genus name, such as gorilla, is not capitalized either (see Chicago 8.127).

Names of taxonomic levels below the species level

Below the level of species there are subspecies and varieties.
  1. The subspecies name is italicized.
  2. In zoology, the subspecies is not indicated by any label; it just follows the species name: the European wildcat is Felis silvestris silvestris. If the subspecies name is the same as the species name, it can be abbreviated: Felis s. silvestris.
  3. In botany, the subspecies is indicated by “subsp.” or “ssp.” (Butcher’s recommends subsp.4): Juncus effusus subsp. solutus. The “subsp.” label is not italicized.
  4. The name of a variety is italicized, but the “var.” label is not: The insecticide BTK is produced by Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki.

Unknown or unspecified species

When referring to an unidentified species, use the abbreviation “sp.”: The meadow contained several sedge plants (Carex sp.). The plural form is “spp.”: The forest floor contained several species of pixie cup lichen (Cladonia spp.). The “sp.” and “spp.” labels are not italicized.

The species author and the sp. nov. tag for introducing new species in the literature

When a species is being formally introduced in a scientific paper, the name of the author (the person who first described the species in academic literature) is usually given.
  1. The author name is not italicized: The straightleaf rush is Juncus orthophyllus Coville.
  2. The name may be abbreviated. Carolus Linnaeus, a biologist who is such a hero his name was Latinized, gets the abbreviation “L.”: The European meadow rush is Juncus inflexus L.
  3. If the author name is in parentheses, that indicates that the species was originally assigned to a different genus.
  4. The abbreviation “sp. nov.” indicates that a species is being introduced in the literature for the first time. Do not italicize “sp. nov.”: “Pyrococcus furiosus sp. nov. represents a novel genus of marine heterotrophic archaebacteria growing optimally at 100°C


Chicago Manual of Style

More help with writing scientific papers

For some more help with formatting and style in scientific writing, see “Making your science papers look good.”


1 Butcher’s Copy-editing 4th Edition, p. 328
2 Judith Butcher, Caroline Drake, and Maureen Leach, Butcher’s Copy-editing, 4th Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2006. ISBN: 9780521847131
3 Butcher’s Copy-editing 4th Edition, p. 328
4 Butcher’s Copy-editing 4th Edition, p. 329

March 13, 2011

“Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles”

Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles” is a short document written in 1937 by Wolcott Gibbs, fiction editor at the New Yorker as an internal style guide. Very funny in a deadpan way.
2. Word “said” is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting “grunted,” “snorted,” etc., are waste motion and offend the pure in heart.

February 25, 2011

Usage: the AP Style Guide on women, girls, females, and ladies

There’s so much to say about how to write about specific groups of people with respect. I find that the style guide of the Associated Press (AP) has a lot of useful information. Here are some notes, in line with AP style, on writing about women.

Use “woman” as a noun, and “female” as an adjective. Don’t use “lady” unless you’d use “gentleman” for a man in the same context. (“This drug may cause beard growth in women.” “She will be the first female president.” “A lady never tells.”)

Referring to someone as “a female something” is fine, but referring to someone just as a “female” is depersonalizing. In everyday speech it tends to have a derogatory sound: “He arrived with some female or other in tow.” In medical writing it’s not rude, but it has a jargony sound: “Our study showed that 38% of females experienced . . .” In some contexts, perhaps if you’re referring to women of all ages, you might choose to use “females” instead of writing something like “female infants, girls, and women,” but wherever possible, I would stick to “women,” “girls,” etc.

I can’t say that using “woman” as an adjective (“Stress fractures are more common in women runners”) is wrong, because I see good writers doing it all the time, but find it unesthetic. AP style is to use female as the adjective and woman as the noun. Maybe people are aware of the negative connotations of using “female” as a noun, and overcorrect by not using the word at all. Don’t worry, it’s OK to say that someone is female (if they identify as female; see the GLAAD Media Reference Guide and recent editions of the AP stylebook for some notes on writing about transgender people).

“Lady” for “woman” is . . . unnecessary? patronizing? Perhaps AP says it best: “Lady may be used when it is a courtesy title or when a specific reference to fine manners is appropriate without patronizing overtones” (Associated Press Stylebook 2013).

Also worth mentioning is another guideline from AP: use “girl” only up until the eighteenth birthday. For adults, use “woman” or “young woman.”

February 20, 2011

Making your science papers look good

The more polished your paper is when it goes to reviewers and committees, the more likely it is to be read favourably. Getting the small things right will inspire confidence that you got the big things right too, but a lack of consistency and attention to detail in layout, spelling, and punctuation will make the reader wonder what else you didn’t pay attention to. Here are some basic points that I often find myself correcting when editing papers.


Put a space between the number and the unit (5 km, 200 g). The exceptions are degrees of temperature or latitude (N 49°15′48.14″, W 123°9′43.34″, 5°C, 5°F), percent signs (5%), and prime signs (6′2″). Some styles allow a space before the degree symbol in temperatures (5 °C). (The symbols for minutes and seconds in latitude and longitude or feet and inches are the prime and double prime. See “Special characters” below.)

Capitalization: the abbreviation for litre (L) and millilitre (mL) may use a capital L to distinguish it from a 1 (one).

When two quantities go together, repeat the symbol only if there is no space between the number and symbol (CMOS 9.17): 3%–5%, 4–5 km, 6″ × 9″, and 39°C–40°C.


You’re likely to have a lot of numbers in your text. Here are a few guidelines.
  • Use en dashes instead of hyphens in ranges of numbers (8–10). The en dash is slightly longer than a hyphen.
  • When writing in English, use a period (not a comma) for the decimal point, and commas (not periods) to separate groups of three digits. Some styles use spaces to separate groups of three digits; use a thin non-breaking space if possible. It is also permissible to omit the comma in a four-digit number. Be consistent.
  • Numerals versus spelled-out numbers. In the absence of other instructions, a safe policy is:
    • Spell out single-digit numbers and use numerals for all others: “all three study areas,” “in 2.3% of the samples.”
    • If a number is given with an abbreviated unit, use the numeral even if it’s a single-digit number: “each test tube contained 2 mL of solution” (not “two mL”).
    • If you start a sentence with a number, it should be spelled out: “Twenty-seven of the volcanoes . . .” But if the number takes a unit (“Two mL of solution was put in each test tube”), then I recommend you rewrite the sentence.

Spacing with mathematical symbols

  • There should be no space between the number and sign: “−1°C,” “1000× magnification.”
  • There should be spaces around the operator in a binary operator “p < 0.005.”

Some codes for special characters

  • En dash: Unicode U+2013, HTML &ndash;, option-hyphen on a Mac
  • Degree symbol: Unicode U+00B0, HTML &deg;
  • Primes and double primes for latitude and longitude: Unicode U+2032 and U+2033, HTML &prime; and &Prime;
  • Minus sign: Unicode U+2212, HTML &minus;
  • Multiplication sign: Unicode U+00D7, HTML &times;
  • How to write typographers’ quotes (smart quotes) in HTML

Scientific names of organisms

See writing scientific names of organisms.

Spacing between sentences

Use only one space after a period or colon.

Text alignment

I suggest aligning your text on the left instead of justifying it. Publishers usually request left alignment in manuscript submissions, and the consistent spacing between words makes it easier to read and edit.

Further references

  • Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition. There’s a free 30-day subscription available. Subjects to check out: guidelines for hyphenation, setting mathematics in type, extensive notes on citations and references.
  • Butcher’s Copy-Editing has 43 pages on science and mathematics. Chapter 13: “Science and Mathematics books” has sections on nomenclature, units, astronomy, biology, chemistry, computing, geology, medicine, and references. There is also material on indexes, special characters and mathematical symbols, and how to produce illustrations that are suitable for publication.
  • New Hart’s Rules also has a section on scientific naming and style. (This book is much cheaper than Butcher’s, so if you only want to buy one style guide, that’s worth keeping in mind.)
  • Two good articles on preparing your paper and the submission process: “How do I write a scientific paper?” and “How do I submit a paper to a scientific journal?” This last article is by Maxine Clarke, executive editor of Nature.
  • Journal Title Abbreviations
  • Subtleties of Scientific Style by Matthew Stevens has some very good suggestions for making academic writing more clear. His book is available for download as a PDF file.

February 5, 2011

Garner’s Modern American Usage

[Edit: the fourth edition is called Modern English Usage and now covers global English usage.]

Garner's Modern American Usage
Bryan A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage is an impressive collection of essay entries on the usage of both individual words and more general categories, such as grammar and punctuation.

His philosophy is a combination of prescriptivism and descriptivism: on the one hand he describes certain usages as “inferior,” on the other hand he justifies that judgement by placing usages in the context of his language-change index. Usage changes over time (“terrific,” after all, used to mean “causing terror”) but that doesn’t mean that certain changes aren’t unnecessary (“priorize” for “prioritize”) or illogical (“could care less” for “couldn’t care less”). The language-change index goes from Stage 1: “rejected”, through Stages 2 through 4 (“widely shunned”, “widespread but . . .”, and “ubiquitous but . . .”) and finally arrives at Stage 5: “fully accepted.” To illustrate the language-change spectrum still further, he uses analogies from various other fields: golf (triple-bogey, double-bogey, etc.), legal infractions (felony, misdemeanor, ticket, warning), and—my favourite—etiquette, which compares a Stage 1 infraction to “audible farting.”

I was thinking that the language-change index could be analogized in fashion terms. Here’s a shot at it:

  • Stage 1: B.O.; wardrobe failure; fly undone
  • Stage 2: thong showing (“whale tail”); fluorescent pink Crocs
  • Stage 3: Uggs; socks and sandals
  • Stage 4: wearing white after Labour Day; shoes don’t match handbag
  • Stage 5: ready for the Oscars; royalty at a garden party
Some further reading:

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.

January 28, 2011

How to make typographers’ quotes in HTML

What are typographers’ quotes?

You’ve probably noticed two kinds of quotation marks in web pages and printed matter. The quotation mark that you get when you just press the " key on your keyboard is the straight quote, and it looks like ' and ". Typographers’ quotes, also known as a smart quotes or curly quotes, look like ‘ ’ and “ ”. You’ll notice that opening and closing marks are drawn differently, and you may also notice that they look a lot nicer.

Using typographers’ quotes on a web page

Straight quotes are convenient for two reasons: they’re easy to type, obviously, but more importantly, they’re part of the basic ASCII character set, and therefore when you use them in HTML they will be rendered correctly on everyone’s browser, all the time, even if you completely ignore the concept of character encoding in your document.

typographer's quotes example If you use typographers’ quotes without specifying the right character encoding for your HTML file, some of your viewers are going to see question marks, boxes, or other crazy symbols instead of the beautiful curly quotes you intended them to see. That’s bad. That can happen if you do something like type up some text in MS Word with the AutoFormat “Replace straight quotation marks with smart quotation marks” feature turned on, and then you cut and paste that text into an HTML file.

Using HTML codes to make smart quotes

The good news is that you can use HTML codes to render your typographers’ quotes, and browsers will know how to render them, even without setting the document encoding. Although these codes are cumbersome in your text, if you’re saving your HTML documents as text files, this is the way to go.

HTML codes for typographers’ quotes

  • left single quote ‘ &lsquo;
  • right single quote (and apostrophe) ’ &rsquo;
  • left double quote “ &ldquo;
  • right double quote ” &rdquo;

Other special characters

But don’t stop there. You can have other special characters: em-dashes (&mdash;), en-dashes (&ndash;), non-breaking spaces (&nbsp;), and accents. Here’s a list of special characters with their HTML codes.

More information about using special characters on the web

January 21, 2011

Nonviolent editing: Delivering editorial criticism with tact

One of the challenges of editing is to point out faults, or possible faults, in a manuscript without crushing the author’s ego or making them want to send you a turd in the mail. Here are some thoughts from some articles I read recently.

Delivering criticism that the author will listen to

Emphasize that you are only speaking for yourself

Andrew Burt, founder and moderator of Critique.org, where writers trade feedback, has a couple of thoughtful articles on how to write a critique so that the author will be most likely to listen to your message. One of his main points is that it’s important to always emphasize that what you’re offering is your opinion and may not be true for everyone. Interestingly, he also recommends against citing authorities. Referring to someone else’s guidelines can seem attractive because it distances you from the bad news (“Hey, don’t blame me, but so-and-so says you should do this differently”), but unless you’re referring to a set of guidelines that the author is required to follow, such as a style guide, Burt is probably right when he says it comes across as another way of saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.”
See “The Diplomatic Critiquer” and “Critiquing the Wild Writer: It’s Not What You Say, but How You Say It.”

Express the effect, not the cause

In The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, “How to Break the News,” Thomas McCormack says, “Always, when citing a fault, first express the effect, not the cause.” So instead of saying, “I felt the protagonist was a very unlikeable character,” in which case the writer may say “I meant to do that!” you say, “I found myself wanting the protagonist to fail because they were not very likeable.” The writer is less likely to say that was their intent. Looking for the consequence of the supposed fault also helps the editor go beyond enforcing rules for the sake of rules.

Nonviolent communication

Critique.org mentions How to Win Friends and Influence People as a source of ideas on how to communicate effectively, and I think the principles of nonviolent communication also offer some useful techniques for presenting criticism in its most productive form.

Softening the blow when manuscript editing

So far we’ve looked at some ideas about how to offer critiques. What about reducing the shock of getting an edited manuscript back and seeing a red line through every third word?

Remind the writer that your edits are only warnings and suggestions, presented for consideration

Editorial Anonymous, in “How to Respond to Copyeditors’ Marks,” suggests to writers that they try to see the edits as warnings and suggestions that help them make informed decisions about how to produce the effects they’re aiming for, and not as judgmental pronouncements.

If you’re using track changes, show the writer the untracked version first

One of the nice things about editing digital documents is that there are some techniques available for making the writer’s first contact with the edited product a little less upsetting.

As pointed out by the Subversive Copy Editor in her excellent book, you can send the writer one copy of the manuscript with all changes accepted and suggest that they look at that version first. Once the writer sees that the writing is still their own, they’ll be in a better frame of mind to look at the individual edits.

If it’s only a suggestion, write a comment rather than making the change

When editing with track changes, you have practically unlimited room to write queries. Of course it’s overkill to comment every time you change a spelling to conform to the house style, but comments are great for warnings and suggestions. If you’re not absolutely sure that the author is using the wrong word, write a comment. Highlighting the word “mistress” and writing a comment (“To my mind, ‘mistress’ carries connotations of a certain type of relationship . . .”) and finishing with a suggestion (“Would ‘girlfriend’ be a better description of Fred’s relationship with Penny?”) explains your reasoning and gives the writer the choice between graciously accepting your suggestion or saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

January 14, 2011

About typing two spaces after a period

Using the double spaces

This article in Slate can say it for me: we recommend against putting two spaces after a period. From an editor’s perspective, I’ll say that the first thing I do with a new manuscript is to replace all multiple spaces with single spaces.

If you’re deciding what style to use for a document you’re producing, keep in mind that the two-space style is fragile, in that it’s much harder to find and correct extra spaces or missing spaces. With the one-space style, you can get rid of accidental extra spaces with a single search and replace operation. But with the two-space style, you have to use a much more complicated search, since you require two spaces after a sentence-ending period but not after i.e., e.g., ellipsis points, etc.). If you display your text justified instead of left-aligned, it will be really hard to tell whether each word gap contains the right number of spaces.

Removing the double spaces

To process a manuscript that has extra spaces (I always do this on receiving a manuscript and again before delivery because it’s easy for extra spaces to creep in), use search and replace to search for “  ” (just type two spaces into the search box) and replace with “ ” (one space in the replace box). I always choose the “Replace all” option to change them all at once, and then run it again until there are no more multiple spaces found.