Archive for 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 Your magazine might even ban certain words and phrases because they’re overused, outdated or offensive—or just because the editor-in-chief can’t stand them.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?


Insert clever display copy here: 8 nifty tricks for heds and deks

Today I have a treat for you: tips on display writing from Kisha Ferguson, writer, editor and journalism teacher. I’ve been an admirer of Kisha’s since her Outpost Magazine days (she was the founder and editor), and I’m excited to share her advice on Editfish. 

kisha_fergusonIt’s no surprise so many journalists end up being spin doctors, speech writing flaks, or ad copy writers. In order to entice a reader to read, you have to first sell them on what you want them to read. Storytelling comes second. And these days, it’s no longer “Come take my hand, gentle reader,” but rather, “Read this or else.” The visual noise is becoming louder as more and more information competes for our attention, increasing the need for every headline to scream.

There is no denying that writing a he(a)d, de(c)k, teaser, bumper, banner, value-added, kicker, sub-headline, etc., is an art. A great example of this is Twitter. Cramming enough info into 140 characters is an amazing exercise in explanatory brevity, especially when your aim is pushing someone to read an article they can’t see at that exact moment. In other words, getting them to “click on through to the other side.” (More on that later.)

Having gone back and forth over the years between working in magazines and TV news and current affairs, I’ve managed to apply that art to both media. Especially now, as I primarily bang out news copy for a living, viewers “read” TV a lot. Talking heads and voiceovers now compete with screen text, often scrolling, popping up or changing several times within a two-minute item.

I was once told to “Find the meat and sell it,” as a way of coming up with great headlines. Replace “meat” with pathos or drama…but always remember the selling part of it. Below are a few things to keep in mind when you’re waiting for a visit from the clever copy fairy.

1. The best things in life are 3’s.

When in doubt, employ the magic power of “3” to sum up the elements in your story, preferably with alliteration: “Guns, God and Guantanamo” or “Coffee, Capitalism and Culture.” Even better, throw in an ampersand or a plus sign…works especially well on cover copy.

2. I’m OK, you’re (not) OK.

Ask a thought-provoking question. Put the onus on the readers – using “you” – to make them question themselves or their beliefs, or worry about something they never thought to worry about before, thereby giving them almost no choice but to read the next few graphs. This is especially effective in women’s and parenting publications, where inducing fear, a sense that something’s wrong, sells the magazines and the products advertised inside: “Are you getting the most from your 90-minute workout?” “Do you really know the man you’re sleeping with?” “What dangers are in your child’s lunchbox?”

3. You’re a poet and you know it.

Use rhyme to riff on common expressions: “The Great Stall of China” (a story about a three-day traffic jam); “Lush Hour” (about drinking on the tube in London); “Coffee, Tea or D.V.T.” (how people develop blood clots on airplanes).

4. Perturbed lines.

Riff on song titles or lyrics. See graph #3.

5. Love it and list it.

Before the rise of data visualizations, infographics and “charticles,” there was the list – short, punchy bits of info that fall somewhere between copy and display copy. Lately, they seem to occupy more space in front-of-book sections, often replacing articles rather than complementing them.

6. One word to rule them all.

A single word can make a big impact, especially if splashed across a double-page spread, and even more so if you can invoke a sense of doom and gloom: “Aftermath: The Story of…” Or use a fairly banal word, hopefully given a great graphic treatment, followed by an alarming premise: “Water: Why the World Will Soon Run Out of It.”

7. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

You’ll always get someone’s attention if you can somehow use “Armageddon,” particularly when it comes to fairly benign events or weather stories: “Snowmageddon.”

8. Gate-crashing.

Using the “gate” from “Watergate” as a suffix never fails. I now regularly screen All The President’s Men in the journalism classes I teach, after students asked me why they keep seeing “gate” in headlines.


Kisha Ferguson (@kishaferguson) has spent a lifetime putting words in a readable order so they make some kind of sense. As well as editing other people’s words, she also teaches a generation of wannabe journos how to make it in the big, bad media world. She’s currently working on a book and a documentary despite a full-time job delivering bad news by writing and producing TV news and current affairs stories.

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!


Take-away tips for freelancers

Conference name badges
My brain’s still buzzing with the good advice I picked up last month at MagNet 2012 and the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) conference in Ottawa. Here are five tips that stood out.

Pitch stories to custom publications. I already work with custom pubs, but “The Lucrative World of Custom-Fit Publications” at MagNet showed me that there’s a lot more opportunity here than most freelancers realize. Panellists Arjun Basu, Joseph Barbieri and Brian Borzykowski say that few writers approach custom publishers, although pitching and writing for custom is very similar to working with consumer mags—and it pays as well or better. To find markets, start by checking out the Custom Content Council.

Get creative with display copy. Jim Sutherland’s MagNet session “Display School: Bringing Readers to the Text” inspired me to be more adventurous with heds and deks. Instead of a hed with a straight-up approach, would a question, quote or declaration work? How about a sentence or even a list? And don’t neglect your deks; Jim pointed out that they’re an “astonishingly versatile and effective means of communication,” not just filler between heds and body copy. Another great tip: “Wit is welcome even when humour is out of place.”

Target hungrier markets. Ed Gandia’s “How to Land More and Better Clients in a Crowded Global Market” was one of the most popular MagNet sessions for writers. Sage advice: Consider where budgets are shifting—every project in an organization is either “urgent,” “important” or “nice to have,” and when finances are tight, it’s the first two categories (usually projects that generate revenue or profits) that get the green light. Focus your marketing efforts on prospects that are well positioned with “urgent” and “important” products, services or information. Gandia is also offering a free online course for freelancers.

Collaborate on a corporate writing guide. Here’s a project that corporate writers and editors can pitch to steady clients: developing a guide to help employees keep communications consistent, clear and concise. Rhonda Helman, editor at Farm Credit Canada, made an excellent presentation about corporate writing guides at the EAC conference. My four favourite tips: get the support of managers by understanding what they prefer and why; ensure that the guide is a collaborative effort and that everyone involved stands to benefit; keep in mind that the guide is a work in progress; and never underestimate the power of your expertise.

Spruce up your speeches. I enjoyed “Go From Ho-Hum to Humdinger,” a presentation by speechwriter and trainer Wendy Cherwinski of Echelon Communications, at the EAC conference. She offered several practical tips, such as: write the way people talk (including contractions, idioms and sentence fragments); use highlighters to check your use of pronouns, verbs, transitions, etc.; 100 words is about one minute of speaking time; and take advantage of tools such as the Flesch Reading Ease Scale to measure readability. For more tips on speechwriting, sign up for Cherwinski’s free e-newsletter, Pen & Podium, by emailing

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. 

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?