Archive for copy editing

A crash course on magazine style guides

As a copy editor, I’ve worked with more than a dozen magazines, including consumer, custom, trade and web publications. No matter what category, magazines benefit from a detailed and up-to-date style guide. If you haven’t refreshed yours in a while—or if you don’t have one—this is a great project for the year-end holiday slowdown when you can’t get anyone to answer your emails anyway!

What is a style guide?

It’s a document that outlines the magazine’s “house style”—the preferences in punctuation, grammar, capitalization, word usage and more that editorial staff should follow. Using a style guide improves consistency, saves everyone time and supports your publication’s unique identity and feel. (Note that a style guide isn’t the same thing as writer’s guidelines, which offer broader direction to contributors pitching stories—see EnRoute’s example.)

What makes a good style guide?

I think style guides should offer enough direction without trying to cover everything. The definition of “enough” depends on your magazine; I’ve seen style guides as short as two pages, and some thick enough to require a binder. If you’re building your style guide from scratch, start with the basics that come up frequently, such as punctuation, numbers, capitalization, abbreviations, symbols and place names.

I don’t know anything about this stuff.

You don’t need to invent your own style—look at commonly used reference books such as Canadian Press Stylebook, Canadian Press Caps and Spelling, The Globe and Mail Style Book, Editing Canadian English, The Chicago Manual of Style and, for web stuff, The Yahoo! Style Guide. You could simply adopt one of the first three as your style guide, but you’ll still need to make some decisions, and you’ll want to make at least a few exceptions. Your magazine might even ban certain words and phrases because they’re overused, outdated or offensive—or just because the editor-in-chief can’t stand them. (See examples of words unwelcome at The Washington Post, New York Magazine and

What’s a lexicon?

Many magazines keep a list of words, on its own or as part of a style guide, to save editors the time and trouble of looking them up—or because the words aren’t in the dictionary. This unique vocabulary could include specialty lingo, brand names and celebrities’ names, for example. I love lexicons (yep, I’m a geek) because they’re like a snapshot of a magazine’s essence—a taste of what makes it special.

Where can I find examples of style guides and lexicons?

Here are just a few: The Economist, Faith Today, Film Matters, National Geographic, Carleton University and The Guardian. The ones from Vice and Buzzfeed are even kind of fun to read. You can also find specialized style guides, like the one from the Council of Science Editors. Check out, and Smashing Magazine for more thoughts on style guides.


Do you have thoughts on magazine style guides?


Links on language

Image of piled-up wordsDid you know that the U.S. government requires its agencies to use plain language when communicating with consumers, businesses and other groups? The Plain Writing Act came into effect in July 2011, and the first-year report card is out. The Dept. of Agriculture scored highest, and the Dept. of Veterans’ Affairs flunked big-time.

There is no single prescription for plain language; in general, it’s language that’s easy to read, understand and use. Learn more from the Center for Plain Language, a non-profit organization whose motto is “Plain language is a civil right.” You can also visit Plain Language Association InterNational—founded in 1993 by a couple of Canadians. And if you’ve got an hour of down time, do an online plain-language course from the Federal Aviation Administration (random, right?).

Here at home, we have the Language Portal of Canada, which offers a wealth of tools, guides, dictionaries, databases and quizzes. The Translation Bureau website has recommendations for translators working with English and French, including how to handle web and Twitter terms. TERMIUM Plus, the government’s terminology and linguistic data bank, provides 17 tools for writers. These include The Canadian Style, a guide to written English in the Canadian context, and HyperGrammar2, a self-teaching tool for better grammar and punctuation. And, last but definitely not least, bookmark A Way with Words and Images, a concise guide to fair and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities.

Can you recommend any language-related websites? Share the links below!


Fracking wind chill!

CP releases 20th edition of Caps and Spelling

Cover of Caps and Spelling 20th editionFellow word geeks: Yes, it’s true, Canadian Press is releasing a new edition of Caps and Spelling, on April 25.  (And you can win a copy – details below!)

This handy little guide to troublesome, confusable and oft-misspelled terms has been a fixture on editors’ desks across the country since the first edition came out in 1965. Each book is also a snapshot of the prevailing concerns of its day. That first slim volume (just 46 pages) contained some words rarely heard today, such as “H-bomb” and “Churchillesque.”

The 19th edition of Caps came out in 2009, and it’s overdue for an update. “It’s constantly evolving, and a lot of that evolution has taken place over the last couple of years,” says James McCarten, senior national editor at CP and the editor of both Caps and Spelling and Canadian Press Stylebook. “It’s a living thing, a constantly changing document, and we have to try to keep up with that.”

Please forgive the longish blog post, but I couldn’t resist including a condensed and edited version of my recent Q&A with McCarten.

JL: What’s new in the 20th edition of Caps and Spelling?

JM: There are constantly new terms cropping up that we want to reflect, either driven by general usage in the public domain or by the news. The best example, the most recent, is “fracking,” which is short for “hydraulic fracturing,” a term we expect to see more. Another would be “bitumen,” the proper word for material that’s coming out of the oil sands and will be in the Keystone XL pipeline. These are things we’ve been talking about in the past couple of years and have earned their way into the book. They’re also words people are misusing – people refer to what’s in the pipeline as “crude oil,” which is not true. Opponents of the pipeline would argue it’s “bitumen,” which is much more problematic to have in the environment. It’s a germane point, and it’s significant from the point of view of telling a story accurately and fairly.

There are dozens of additions. Some are almost procedural: names for new MPs elected to Parliament that are potentially problematic. The i-words: “iPad,” “iPhone” and others; we used to only have “iPod.” “Keystone XL.” “PlayBook.” There was a fairly significant name change in the military ranks last year when the government decided to reintroduce the “Royal”: “Royal Canadian Air Force” and “Royal Canadian Navy.” Those are historical terms – 1968 was the last time they were proper names, and the government has reinstated them. We added “Tea Party,” which came into vogue in the last few years in the U.S. Western University has asked to be known as “Western University” instead of “University of Western Ontario.” Everybody refers to it as “Western,” and they wanted it to be codified as that. “Wildrose,” which we’re hearing about right now because of the Alberta election. One term we used to get requests for a lot was “wind chill” – it’s absurd that it wasn’t in there, given that it’s a Canadian book! People were never sure if it’s one word or two. We have it in there as two words.

“Zipline.” And “ebook,” “e-reader,” “e-waste” – those are all new. And interestingly enough, they are frustratingly inconsistent. That’s an interesting example of a term that has evolved over time but you can’t really apply a consistent model to it. Some are just more common that others. “ebook” and “e-reader” – one is hyphenated and one isn’t. The evolution of these terms is that they always start as two words and become hyphenated terms, and as the terms become more and more accepted, the hyphen disappears. That reflects our perspective on “ebook” and “e-reader.” “ebook” has no hyphen, but “e-reader,” it’s kind of awkward without the hyphen, so it cries out for the dash to be there, so we kept that. You have to consider how these words look and sound when you write them down. “Economic action plan” is another term that’s been added. It’s a term the government likes to use to describe its economic strategy. We don’t like to cap terms like that, so it’s lowercase.

Are there any interesting celebrity or pop culture additions? Maybe Justin Bieber? 

Part of the problem with celebrities is they’re fleeting. And I probably would get all kinds of rockets if I said that Justin Bieber isn’t going to be around forever! Maybe he’ll be a fixture for a long time, but you do have to be careful about creating these entries. You don’t want to add a bunch that you’ll just have to delete four years later.

What about deletions from the last edition?

We don’t track omissions or make them very often. We try to be careful with dropping terms – they’re usually in the book because someone’s had trouble with them. If they’re not making a lot of headlines, that doesn’t mean someone doesn’t need to refer to them. So we try to be more judicious about taking them out than putting them in.

How many terms are in Caps?

There are 4,420 current entries.

Caps and Stylebook are available online by subscription. Do you think there will be a time when you’ll stop printing the book?

Logically, I’d have to say yeah. I think cost is going to be an issue. It’s an evolving document, and the online tool is just so much more valuable in that respect than a static book. It’s also a searchable archive that allows you to punch in the word, and it can respond to different spellings of a particular term. So it’s just far easier to use, more effective and cheaper. That said, there’s always going to be a demand for a desktop version. Everybody loves that tactile experience of reaching for a book.

Have you thought of doing a mobile version?

Absolutely. And it’s a sort of newsroom resource issue. We’ve got a very small and very, very burdened IT department. Everything now is focused on reinventing the delivery system, the way we get our news to our readers, and the pace of change has been blinding in the past several years, and the IT department is racing to catch up. [Mobile] is definitely one area where we see some wonderful opportunities. AP is a really good example of a similar organization that has its own apps. Their stylebook app is very much a version of the online one. I definitely think that in the next few years, you’ll see [CP apps] emerge. It’s bound to happen – it’s just a question of when we can make it happen.

What does it mean to you to help shape these guides? I’ve always thought of words in Caps as being somewhat elevated, because they’ve been included.

It’s absolutely an honour and a privilege to be part of it. It’s my perfect, almost dream opportunity in a sense, because I’m particular about these sorts of things. I’m a style geek. The opportunity to make decisions on that score…I do it in consultation with colleagues and supervisors, and we probably don’t wring our hands about these decisions as much as we did in the old days because there just isn’t time, but…we take it seriously, and it’s very satisfying to have the opportunity to make things clearer for people – our staff, but our readers well. You get a lot of feedback from people who agree or disagree with your decisions. To see that level of engagement is gratifying, because in this day and age, it’s hard to know if these things are as important as you think they are, and to have that validation from colleagues on a regular basis is very satisfying.

Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle “for occasional missives on the world of CP style.”

WIN A COPY of the new Caps and Spelling! I have two to give away, courtesy of editor James McCarten. Just leave a comment about Caps and Spelling below (deadline: Monday, April 30), and I’ll enter your name in a draw. 

Better editing: Double spaces and foot marks

Manual typewriterI’ve taught a number of workshops on proofreading and copy editing, all of them for working writers or journalism students. At first, I worried that the content was too basic and that people would be bored. Eight workshops later, I’ve discovered that when it comes to grammar, punctuation and word usage, everyone can use a refresher. I’ll share some of the things that have elicited “Aha!” moments.

Nobody knows all the rules by heart (I look things up in Chicago all the time), but there are common problems you can snuff out. This is especially helpful if you don’t have a copy editor. Here are two things you could stop doing today:

Double-spacing after periods.

This habit is a holdover from the days of typewriters. The characters were the same width, and the second space provided visual relief. Most computer fonts have characters of different widths, so double-spacing isn’t necessary anymore.

I took a typing course in Grade 9, and my class was one of the last to use electric typewriters. That was back in 1992, so I was surprised to see, just last year, fourth-year J-school students double-spacing after periods.

Editing tip: In Microsoft Word, kill double spaces with the find-and-replace function. Type two spaces into the “Find what” window and a single space into the “Replace with” window, then click “Replace all.” (When I’m editing for a client, I do this before turning on “track changes,” to avoid cluttering the page with deleted spaces.) Still not convinced? Check out this impassioned article from Slate.

Using foot marks as apostrophes or quote marks.

Foot marks are the straight-up-and-down marks used for feet and inches – and nowhere else. Real apostrophes and quote marks should be curly (a.k.a. “smart quotes”). The only exceptions: Some fonts have identical foot marks, quote marks and apostrophes – ick.

Where do unintentional foot marks come from? They aren’t on the keyboard, yet they mysteriously appear. I find it happens when I copy and paste text, e.g., from a webpage or text file into a Word document. A site called Typography for Lawyers (which is kind of wonderful in itself) offers examples and explains how find-and-replace can repair the damage.

Another common problem: Using a quote mark when you really need an apostrophe. Apostrophes replace missing characters. If I write the short form of “1980s,” it should look like this: ’80s. But your word processor doesn’t know what you’re doing, so when you hit the shared quote mark/apostrophe key, it gives you an opening quote mark instead. The result: ‘80s. Solution: Hit the key twice, then delete the first mark. (And if you’re using apostrophes for plural nouns, stop! This is just plain wrong, with the exception of multiple letters, e.g., “I got three A’s this semester.” Get schooled by the Apostrophe Protection Society – no joke.)

What if you actually need foot marks? Look for “Symbol” under the “Insert” menu in Word.

Now that you know (and knowing, of course, is half the battle), how would you punctuate this copy?

Ive liked rock n roll since Guns n Roses November Rain came out in the 90s
back when I was a kid no more than 4 10 tall



Not dead yet!

Have you seen this National Post article about the demise of “lowly” copy editors? When I read it, the Monty Python refrain “Not dead yet!” popped into my brain…followed by “but deeply undervalued.” This was, of course, after I gagged on the characterization of copy editors as second-rate editors and social misfits, among other stereotypes – seriously?!

Copy editors are far from the only people who think copy editing is important – and our jobs go way beyond spellchecking and enforcing style guides, as countless grateful writers and “real editors” will attest.

Read reactions from The Baltimore Sun, the Post‘s own Steve Murray, Poynter columnist Craig Silverman, and irate copy editors on Twitter.

Your thoughts?

On-site or off-site? Part 2

Dictionary definition of editor: one who edits for publicationThis is the second of two posts about freelancers copy editing or proofreading for magazines during production. Earlier, I looked at working on-site. How does working off-site compare?

Freelancers working off-site: When I work at home, editors sometimes send me paper proofs by courier. I mark them up and ship them back in one batch, on the magazine’s dime.

More often, I receive PDFs by email, one or two stories at a time, or sometimes the whole issue. I read onscreen and make a list of changes in a Word document (a dual-monitor setup helps), then email comments for each article. Example: Col 1, para 4, line 2, delete comma. This approach isn’t as cumbersome as it looks, for me or the editor. It keeps things neat and clear, and there’s room to offer explanations and solutions.

Some clients want comments inserted into PDFs. I often do it, but it’s not my preferred method. When there are lots of things to ask about, the page becomes cluttered and the bubbles are difficult to work with. I also worry that the editor won’t see every remark, although I’ve heard this isn’t a problem with Adobe Acrobat Professional (a pricey upgrade from the free viewer).

Freelancers: Being at home enables you to work on other tasks between articles, but the magazine should be the priority — it likely has daily production deadlines to meet, and the editorial team is relying on you to be available, so take care not to overbook yourself. There are also plenty of distractions in a home office, including email, phone calls, social media, family members and pets. (Of course, that’s a standard part of the freelance life, no matter who your clients are.) My fellow introverts: I know you prefer the sanctuary of your home office, but visiting clients is an opportunity to deepen relationships; if you never do it, you’ll remain faceless to most of the staff.

Magazine editors: The freelancer is essentially on call for your publication; however, you won’t know where he or she is at any given moment, or have a constant sense of how the work is progressing. Also, an off-site freelancer won’t be attuned to the overall flow of production unless you communicate (“I need story X by end of day” or “Story A is lower priority than B – can you read A first?”). You’ll save some money because you’re not paying the freelancer when there’s nothing to read, but the savings might be offset by courier costs for paper proofs, and you’ll have to enter changes yourself unless your freelancer has InCopy (most don’t).

In many cases, a combo of on-site and off-site works well. I’ve worked on-site all week and gone home for the weekend with printouts to return on Monday, and I’ve worked on-site during the heaviest production days and off-site on slower days.

Regardless of the arrangement – editors, provide adequate time and direction (including a style guide) for freelancers to meet your needs. If your editorial team is behind on production, avoid placing the burden of catching up on freelancers’ shoulders. Many are willing to help by reading in the evenings and on weekends, but don’t assume they’re always available. Also, try to treat freelancers like part of the editorial team. You should always expect high-quality service, but it’s human nature for people to want to do a great job for clients they enjoy working with.


What are your pros and cons of freelancers working on-site and off-site? 

On-site or off-site? Part 1

Jar of writing utensilsIf you’re a magazine editor looking for a freelance copy editor or proofreader to help out during production, or you’re a freelancer hoping for magazine work, you might be wondering: “On-site or off-site?” I’ve found there are pros and cons for both workflow scenarios and both parties, and I’ll share them with you over the next couple of blog posts.

Freelancers working on-site: When I go into the office, editors give me full-colour, glossy layouts (variously called proofs, irises, boards or van dykes), which I mark up with a pen. The editor reviews the recommendations and makes changes onscreen while I start the next article. Sometimes, I read and enter changes onscreen. (This usually requires familiarity with the application InCopy, but picking up the basics is fairly easy.) If needed, I can pop over to editors’ desks to ask or answer questions, and we resolve problems together.

Magazine editors: The nice thing about bringing someone on-site is that you can discuss copy problems immediately and in person, and perhaps save yourself time by having him or her enter changes (or sit down with your designer, if that’s your process) – but first you need a workspace for your freelancer, preferably a quiet one. Having a freelancer on-site means you’ll have his or her services all to yourself; however, if pages are delayed for some reason, you’ll also pay for idle time. To ensure you have help when you need it, book your freelancer a few weeks or months in advance. Good ones are in high demand!

If you’re asking a freelancer to read copy before production – pre-layout, as Word documents – having him or her on-site probably isn’t necessary, as there is less urgency and the work is likely more spread out, time-wise. As long as you’re both comfortable using Word’s “track changes” feature, it’s a reliable, straightforward tool for providing detailed feedback from a distance.

Freelancers: You might find that you look forward to working on-site – I like how it offers variety to my routine, interaction with colleagues, and a chance to briefly feel like part of a magazine staff again. If you’re a real creature of habit, though, it could take some getting used to; you’ll be on someone else’s schedule, and you won’t have much control over your working environment (noise, distractions, interruptions). Other factors for freelancers to consider: travel time and expenses (not billable) and having to dig out your office attire!

For me, the main disadvantage is that I have to put other projects on hold or do them at night and on weekends. On a typical day at my home office, I’m shepherding multiple writing or editing projects to completion, and that’s not feasible when working on-site, even if there’s down time. Aside from replying to a few emails or making a quick call, it’s simply awkward to do one client’s work at another client’s office.

Is it challenging to juggle multiple projects? Sometimes, although I’m careful not to overbook myself. It would be nice to devote one to two weeks out of each month exclusively to a magazine, but I can’t afford to turn down all other projects, especially if the publication’s schedule is a moving target or the articles come to me in a sporadic fashion. Magazine copy editing offers steady work, but pay rates tend to top out at about $35 per hour plus HST. It’s not minimum wage, but it also hasn’t increased in the 10 years I’ve been copy editing – the only thing that’s gone up is the sales tax. Meanwhile, the cost of running a freelance business has crept upwards. I love magazines, but I have to limit the number of publications I copy edit for.

Having off-site freelancers has its pros and cons too — we’ll look at that next time!

Copy editing or proofreading?

What’s the difference between copy editing and proofreading? Some people use the terms interchangeably, especially outside the publishing world. Often, people ask for proofreading when they actually need copy editing. (It hardly ever goes the other way around, because few know what a copy editor is.) Who does what?

Let’s rewind. In magazines, the editing process begins with structural or substantive editing, done by a story’s top editor, or handling editor. This is the person who assigns a story to a writer and then works with him or her to shape its content, structure, tone and flow. Any editor who assigns and/or performs structural editing on a story can be called a top/handling editor — this is separate from job titles like senior editor, associate editor, etc.

Next comes copy editing. The copy editor gives the story a deep, line-by-line edit to polish it for publication. Copy editors look for problems with grammar, punctuation, usage and style (including adherence to a magazine’s house style). They also ferret out issues related to consistency, clarity, readability, logic and organization, and flag possible factual errors. If a story needs substantial changes, the copy editor consults the handling editor, who may also check with the writer.

Factchecking is usually handled in conjunction with copy editing — sometimes before the copy edit, sometimes after (I’d say the rougher the copy, the more important it is for the copy editor to review it first). A researcher (staff or freelance) verifies the copy’s accuracy by retracing the writer’s footsteps, then discusses changes with the handling editor or copy editor.

The story, whipped into shape, then goes to the art department for layout. (Graphic designers may also receive an earlier version — often the same one the factchecker gets — so they can plan the layout and order images.) There’s typically back-and-forth between art and copy, or art and the handling editor, to fit the story to the layout, fill in stuff like captions and credits, and clean up the copy flow (gaps, bad breaks, widows, orphans) and design (say, inconsistent leading or missing indentations, drop caps and turn arrows).

Finally, proofreading. When the proofreader (staff or freelance) sees the layouts (or proofs), the final article copy has been flowed in, and the display copy (cover lines, heds, deks, callouts) and other elements (captions, credits, bylines, etc.) are in place. The pages should be as close to perfect as possible, especially since making changes at this stage can be expensive. The proofreader, who ideally is bringing “fresh eyes” to the process, looks for lingering errors and points them out to the copy editor. Corrected proofs become the printed magazine.

The roles of handling editor, copy editor, proofreader and factchecker can overlap, especially at smaller publications. A handling editor on one story might be the copy editor for another, or the whole team might proofread a story. A solo magazine editor might do it all or hire a freelancer to factcheck and copy edit.

These days, there’s a lot of opportunity for freelancers in this process, for both print and web. When I started working at Chatelaine in 2001, the copy department had a copy chief, an associate editor, a freelance copy editor who came in during production, and a full-time factchecker (me). When I left in 2005, we had all that plus another associate copy editor and a second full-time factchecker. Now that many magazines outsource at least some of these roles (recall the cuts at Reader’s Digest in 2010), a copy department that big — actually, the existence of a copy department at all — is quickly becoming the stuff of fiction. (In five years, Bright Lights, Big City will read like a fantasy novel.)

Better to outsource these steps than skip them, though. Maybe it’s because I started my career as a factchecker and copy editor, but it makes me nervous when editors go with a “light check” or “light copy edit” rather than the full treatment (especially if we’re talking about print) because they’re pressed for time or money. It’s not often that I see copy free of factual and/or technical errors. The mistakes will inevitably be hiding in the half you don’t check, so bring in fresh eyes if you can!


Tech tools for easier editing

I spend way too much time flipping through reference books, so I’m glad that the most popular ones for Canadian editors have all gone digital. Throw in a desk setup that’s conducive to multitasking, and my workdays suddenly seem a little bit shorter.

Canadian Oxford Dictionary

The Canadian Oxford, 2nd ed., is the dictionary of choice for pretty much every publication I’ve worked with, and it’s the one I recommend to clients who haven’t picked one. It also weighs six pounds and is as bulky as a phone book (remember those?), which matters when you’re dragging it to clients’ offices for copy editing gigs. But guess what? There’s an iPhone app. It’s $29.99, but the portability and search function are worth it. The text is nice and crisp, and it can be enlarged – great for tired eyes – and you can tap words in definitions to find out their meaning.

The Chicago Manual of Style Online

Recently I discovered that my copy of Chicago, the 14th edition, came out in 1993 – making it a year older than Justin Bieber. It’s also a decade older than the 15th edition, which I skipped because I figured that grammar and punctuation couldn’t have changed very much. But Chicago has evolved with the times, and so should we. The 16th edition came out in 2010, and an editor I work with recommended the online version. In the past, I hesitated at the annual $30 US fee (a print copy is about $45), but here’s why I’ve signed up for the free 30-day trial and why I’m going to subscribe: I’ve never liked navigating the book, and the online manual’s fully searchable; I can use it anywhere via my iPhone; it’ll always be up to date; and users have access to the Q&A archives, a discussion forum and tools to personalize the guide. Attention, managing editors: Group subscriptions are available.

Canadian Press Stylebook

Rounding out the trinity, there’s an online version of this reference book too, for $4 per month, or $6.25 if you want access to Caps and Spelling. (Licences are available for multiple users.) The Stylebook is on its 16th edition (released in 2010), with expanded chapters on writing for and about the Internet, writing and editing for broadcast, and PR. I’ll probably pick up the print editions, though; I think they’re updated often enough (every two years), and they’re a more economical – though not searchable – option.

photo of dual-monitor workstation

An extra monitor, keyboard and mouse make me more productive...and so do mochaccinos.

Dual monitors

For my first three years as a full-time freelancer, I worked on my 13-inch laptop, chosen for its portable size – I took it to coffee shops for a change of scenery. When my IT guy (my husband) suggested I get a 20-inch monitor, keyboard and mouse and use them together with my laptop, I refused, saying, “I don’t need them!” He convinced me to try it, and now I’d rather stay at my desk than go to Starbucks. The screens are oriented to behave like one monitor – I can drag my mouse across both in one swipe – and the extra space saves time and boosts productivity. It’s just so convenient, for example, to have a PDF or webpage open on one screen while I type notes into a Word document on the other…plus the setup makes me feel like an operator in The Matrix. (The laptop is nicely angled thanks to a stand.) Now I’ve got a bad case of size envy: Last week, another editor told me she has a 15-inch laptop next to a 26-inch monitor.

What online resources, apps and tech tools are making your editing life easier?