Questions on Editing


Question: We publish a bi-monthly newsletter, and various members submit articles for this publication. During a Communications Committee meeting recently (committee which oversees our publications), questions were raised about what types of liability I have as an editor for this publication. Do we need to place a legal disclaimer in our newsletter? As a standard, to what extent can I alter the text? Do I have the right to do so?

Answer: What is the content of your newsletter? There is no harm in placing a legal disclaimer, but the content of most newsletters is so innocuous that few newsletters find it necessary to include one. If, on the other hand, you think that your contributors might libel private citizens, you'd be wise to place such a disclaimer.

There is no standard for the extent to which you can alter the text, but as a matter of editorial ethics, you must allow the authors of your articles to approve the changes you make. In my experience, those authors will tell you clearly and loudly when you have overstepped your editorial prerogative.

I once worked for an academic journal with a reputation for printing well-written articles which, of course, meant that most of the articles were very heavily edited. We classified editorial changes in three broad categories:

C: Changes made to the copy without the author's permission. These included spelling changes, grammar changes, capitalization changes, and changes made to comply with the rules in the house style manual.

QC: Changes made to the copy accompanied by a query informing the author of the change. These included changes where the house rules were judgment calls.

Q: Suggested changes or calls for more information. These included substantive rewriting of paragraphs, where the original and changed versions were provided so that the author could provide them easily, and calls for more information or further explanation.

We were working on computers, and this system worked fairly well. After a while, however, I noticed that the more I treated "C" changes as "QC" changes, the more often the author agreed with my "Q" suggestions. The managing editor and I talked this over and decided that forcing the author to look over every easy change built up a bank of goodwill that I could draw on when I wanted to make a substantive change. "Well," the author mused, "she saved me from myself and didn't let me spell 'foreword' as 'forward.' She has my best interests at heart and is probably right about this sentence as well."

I find your problem very interesting. Although technically, of course, it's not about grammar, it's certainly about the grammar business.


Question: It wasn't clear on your web site whether you would accept inquiries from non-N.C. State-affiliated questioners. But I'll give it a shot, just in case. I am helping a newly formed publication house device their house style manual, and a question about capitalization after colons came up.

Answer: See the archives on Questions on Colons. I'm always happy to answer questions from off-campus and as a matter of fact, the traffic on the line is about evenly split. I doubt, however, that you will appreciate my position on house style manuals. I am firmly against them. As a working editor, I find them a maddening and unnecessary nuisance. I recommend that you choose a published style manual from the many excellent manuals available in print, and then, if you absolutely must, write an addendum of not more than one page of terms of art for your field of specialization. No term should appear on this list unless its form is different from the form that would be generated by your chosen style manual.

My reason for taking this position is dead simple: A style manual is an efficient working tool in publishing. If you make the tool less efficient, the task is complicated, not simplified. Most competent freelancers will not work for publishers who ask them to use unindexed house manuals. And if they do, they warn the publisher that their fee is likely to be doubled.


Question: Can you give the correct setup for an interoffice memorandum?

Answer: There's no standard worth worrying over. The editorial principle is to adopt an order that will save the reader time. You might think of the individual lines as successive bail-out options for the reader.

To: (If it's not to me, I'm bailing out now.)

From: (If this guy's a jerk, I'm out of here.)

Date: (If this has already played itself out, I'm going to lunch.)

Re: (If this is none of my business, my golf clubs are in the trunk of my car.)

If your reader is still holding the memo after the preliminaries, it is incumbent on you to get straight to the point. No interoffice memo should be longer than a page. This, of course, is not as easy as it sounds. Henry David Thoreau once ended a lett er with this postscript: "I apologize for this letter's two-page length. I didn't have the time to shorten it."


Question: I am currently writing a book, and have several typed single spaced 8.5 x 11 pages. My questions are

1. Should I doublespace the manuscript?

2. Approximately how many book pages will a 8.5 x 11 convert to?

I realize the second question depends on the size of the book, fonts, typesets and etc.; however, I am simply trying to get some idea.

Answer: My answer today is very different from what I would have said a decade ago, but that answer is: It doesn't really matter. Your book will probably be edited on disk, and the editor will change it to the format he (or the press) prefers. < /P>

A decade ago, when editors worked primarily on hard-copy manuscripts, the rules were that all manuscripts had to be double-spaced (including quoted extracts and scholarly footnotes), and in a noncompensatory font (e.g., Courier). This format generated pages of approximately 250 words. In general, three pages of manuscript made two pages of set type (assuming a 6x9 trim size. Figure about 375 words per page, and you won't be far off. This standard will allow for chapter titles, display heads, and an occasional chart or illustration.


Question: I'm using the grammar/spell checker included in Word from Office 97 that (which?) is standard in my academic department. Do you know of a software package that (which?) can check my manuscript for compliance with the MLA Handbook?

Answer: I know of no software that can check a manuscript for compliance with a stylebook. Furthermore, if the current state of grammar checkers is any guide, there will not be such software in my lifetime. Editing a manuscript for compliance to a style book involves identifying an editorial vulnerability, classifying the error, finding the applicable rule, eliminating exceptions, and applying the rule in context. The whole protocol involves human judgment at many stages, and human judgment is the stumbling block in all artificial intelligence applications.

On the other hand, I am a little more optimistic about the time line for software that could convert notes written in one consistent style into a different consistent style. When I am editing notes and bibliographies, I write macros to correct consistent and chronic punctuation errors. For example, (",) can be converted to (,") with a simple search and replace command, and this conversion will always be appropriate in American English. I believe this is something a grammar checker does.

Before Microsoft Word came out, a number of my friends were using a software package called Note Bene. I never used this package, but I believe it was designed primarily to help academic authors with citation-style conversions. Its chief innovations were its ability to convert footnotes to endnotes, and its ability to renumber notes if the text was rearranged or if additional notes were added. It may have helped with punctuation style of notes as well. I'm not sure if Note Bene is still around, but this might be a place you could start.

On to more solid ground: restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. You have queried two that/which choices.

I'm also using the grammar/spell checker included in Word from Office 97 that (which?) is standard in my academic department. Do you know of a software package that (which?) can check my manuscript for compliance with the MLA style book?

The first introduces a nonrestrictive (also called "descriptive") clause. Nonrestrictive clauses are set off in commas and begin with which. The clause "which is standard in my academic department" gives more information about Word from Office 97, but does not distinguish one Word from Office 97 from another Word from Office 97. Thus, the first sentence should read:

I'm also using the grammar/spell checker included in Word from Office 97, which is standard in my academic department.

The second introduces a restrictive (also called "essential") clause. Restrictive clauses are not set off in commas and begin with that. Thus, the second sentence should read: "

Do you know of a software package that can check my manuscript for compliance with the MLA Handbook?


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