Recently I obtained my Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing. *Pats self on back*
But does this make me a better copyeditor? Probably not. Though I’m across the Atlantic from my managing editor, I can hear his gasp from here. But let me explain.
I think a good editor possesses an innate ability to notice something amiss. (I can spot a double space after a period from a mile away.) This is also how I recognize spelling errors; words just look “off” to me if spelled incorrectly.
But what I did learn by obtaining my editing certificate is the importance of knowing when and where to look something up. So, I’ve developed this list of essential references.
A style manual
My first line of defence is The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS). It’s heralded as “the indispensable reference for writers, editors, researchers, and students” and contains everything you’d ever want to know about grammar, punctuation and usage. Thanks to our ever-changing world of technology, the seventeenth edition contains updated guidelines on social media posts and comments, ebooks, and app content.
It’s also where I look up things like the use of commas, semi-colons, and hyphens. And when I question whether I should compliment or complement a writer on a job well done, CMOS has the answer.
The important thing to remember is to choose a style manual and always use it, and only it. I have an old copy of The Associated Press Stylebook from my days at a Michigan newspaper, but I rarely refer to it because the spellings and hyphenations vary so wildly from CMOS. You definitely want to keep consistent.
As with your agency’s or company’s chosen style manual, choose a dictionary and stick to it. And don’t ever be afraid to look up words you think you “know”. I was editing a document last week and ran across the phrase “just and equitable”. Now, I’ve heard this used quite often and at first thought nothing of it. But then I decided to look those words up in Lush’s dictionary of record, the Macquarie Dictionary, because I get paid to question and investigate everything. (How cool is that?)
Did you know each definition contains the use of the other word? I argued unsuccessfully that the phrase “just and equitable” was redundant, but at least I now know for certain the meanings of those words. But you know what? When I run across that phrase again, I’ll search for definitions once more.
An in-house style guide
An in-house style guide details rules and guidelines that aren’t covered in your other resources. It can range from a page to more than a thousand. (The Chicago Manual of Style actually began more than a hundred years ago as the in-house style guide of the University of Chicago Press.)
The first step in creating an in-house style guide is to select a style manual of record and a dictionary of record and document these selections in your style guide. These resources should be the only ones of their kind that anyone who writes or edits for your company uses.
Arrange your in-house style guide much like a dictionary, arranging the topics alphabetically. For example, your style guide might contain the following entries and details about those entries:
- Abbreviations: which abbreviations are acceptable
- Company names: whether to use the formal version, such as Microsoft Corporation, or the informal Microsoft
- Em dashes: whether to style as a hyphen or an actual em dash
- Job titles: capitalised or lowercased
- Serial commas: will you use them and are there exceptions.
Also, don’t forget a word list of any highly specific technical term your agency uses that is not listed in the dictionary or any word where you’ve chosen to use a variant spelling.
Remember not to get carried away replicating rules contained in your style manual or dictionary of record. Remember, too, that an in-house style guide is a living document subject to change at any time, so create an online version in Dropbox or Google Docs to allow others access.
CIA World Factbook
I have to admit I didn’t know it existed until I started writing this blog post and fired off the first couple of paragraphs to my managing editor for his approval. He asked what else I was planning to include, “Perhaps The CIA World Factbook?”
You would have thought that as an American, I would have been exposed to this before. But I had no idea the Central Intelligence Agency had such a handy resource! The CIA World Factbook is a comprehensive guide to 267 country-by-country statistics and contains a wealth of information on the history, geography, population, politics, economy, energy, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues of these entities.
It’s an incredibly valuable writing resource and I guarantee you will learn something new every time you open it. Once I discovered it, I spent nearly an hour exploring everything from life expectancies to health expenditures to import and export commodities.
Okay, so reading isn’t a true resource, but reading will definitely make you a better writer. William Faulkner said, “Read everything – trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”
Reading doesn’t just allow you to learn a little bit about a lot of stuff. If you read the classics, it also allows you to learn the styles used by the great authors. Remember all of those grammar rules drilled into you by your English teacher? Reading – reading anything – allows you to see these rules, or the lack thereof, in action. Facebook is one of my favourite places to read for errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation.
Not all grammar violations are equal. Some indicate a blatant disregard for what’s acceptable. They’re the result of laziness or ignorance or perhaps due to the lack of a copyeditor.
But by reading great literature, you learn that there are a few famous authors who made it okay to commit grammar no-noes.
Charles Dickens used run-on sentences in A Tale of Two Cities. E. E. Cummings often used lowercase spellings; even the pronoun ‘i’ did not escape his poetic expression. And you’ll often see his name styled as e e cummings. William Faulkner bent all sorts of grammar rules, taking liberties with capitalisations and beginning sentences with conjunctions. Even the great William Shakespeare ended sentences with prepositions.
These rule-breaking choices demonstrate a command of language and the ability to wield it. Rather than distracting their readers, the masters chose to bend the rules to enhance the theme or mood of their stories and thus enchant their readers.
I once read (see what I did there?), “Read so that you can write writing others will read.” And that is ultimately the goal, so go ahead and abuse those library privileges!
If you need editorial services, including copyediting services, Lush – The Content Agency is a full-service content marketing agency in Perth, Australia, providing editorial and proofreading services to people all over the world. Get in touch.