Children’s picture books: So few words, so many mistakes!

We’re all guilty of typos at some point, be it due to writing something in a rush, not checking Autocorrect has, erm, autocorrected correctly or because we have something else occupying our thoughts at the same time.

I don’t make a habit of criticising errors in friends’ emails, blog posts or Facebook status updates – what’s the point? – but I tend to be critical when basic errors appear where it really matters.

And this is what I’d like to talk about this week.

This happens all too often in the spellegance household: I get out a beautifully illustrated and typeset book from the library, sit down to read it with the kids, and immediately start noticing typos (I can’t switch off my proofreader’s brain, no matter how hard I try). It wouldn’t be so bad if these were longer books, but these are books of no more than 30 pages, with very few words. And these are for young children to enjoy – children who are learning how to read; children who still don’t fully understand the rules of grammar and spelling. How, then, are they supposed to learn when professional writers and editors aren’t picking up basic mistakes?

A particular bugbear of mine is in the series of Zoe and Beans books (Zoe is a little girl and Beans a dog, for those who haven’t read the books) by Chloe and Mick Inkpen, both well established in the world of children’s books. Yet comma use (or lack of it) seems to be a real problem for them:

Fetch Beans! Fetch!

(Fetch the beans? Are we going to do a spot of cooking?)

What is it Beans?

(?)

Fetch him Beans

(Yes, quickly – he’s hungry!)

Look Beans!

(I give up.)

There are also other issues besides, such as the way ‘Little Bear’ and ‘little Bear’ are used interchangeably and a full stop is missed out altogether, but the comma thing is what really bothers me here, as it’s not a one-off.

In the last batch of library books we had out, we had some odd grammar in rhyming poetry in Upside Down Babies, an otherwise fun and well-written book:

‘What a funny baby, no matter how I try’, Mummy Parrot said, ‘this chick won’t fly!’

What’s wrong with a semicolon or a full stop after ‘baby’?

And this beauty, in The Best Present Ever:

She was posing proudly wearing a beautiful silk dress, that gleamed with gold embroidery, dazzled with diamonds. And yes of course, teamed with stunning perfect pearls!

Oh dear. Even MS Word’s spellchecker knows the first comma is wrong – why didn’t the author or publisher use a spellcheck tool? (Don’t get me started on the missing comma after ‘yes’ in the final sentence.)

The Best Present Ever also had a really odd moment where it got its tenses mixed up in dialogue:

She announced to the King that she had a present for him and it was to be the best present he had ever had. But what could it be? The King tried to guess. “Was it a new crown?” he asked. “No,” said the Queen, “you already have lots in the Royal Jewels Room.” “Was it new shoes?” he tried to guess. “No!” sighed the Queen. “When you already have 412 pairs!” “Really!” he gasped.

(Surely ‘Is it a new crown?’ [etc.] would have been a more usual thing to say…and starting the last exclamation with ‘When’ doesn’t work at all.)

Along with the Zoe and Beans books, I had another series of books in mind, as the last one I tried to read was so full of errors I refused to take it home – but alas! the only one they had to loan out was already in some poor child’s home. I would have had a field day with that one.

I guess the point of this rather rambling post is that if writers, editors and proofreaders can manage to shape a several-hundred-page novel into something relatively error-free, how is it possible to make even one error – let alone several – in books of under 30 pages? If anything, it’s more important to get it right early on than at any other point in people’s lives. Children learn from what adults tell them. If those adults are teaching them wrongly, the same mistakes will be made again and again.

Have you spotted anything in a children’s book recently that’s bugged you? I’d love you to share examples with me on here or on Twitter (@spellegance).

Until next time,

Sarah

My new reference tool – an investment purchase!

It’s half term this week, and I’ve been in charge of finding activities for the kids, so it’s been quiet on the work front. However, I did manage to add a new dictionary to my collection during the last week before the holidays:

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I figure that I’ll soon be able to subcontract work out to the two five-year-olds, which will have the double bonus of keeping them occupied during school holidays and increasing our income. I’m sure the £4 I spent with The Book People will turn out to be the best investment I’ve ever made.

Who needs a red pen when a crayon will do just as well?

A peek inside my ‘editor’s toolkit’: shaping the textual garden

The whole editing process is a bit like tending an overgrown garden: you start off faced with the unruly greenery (the text) which you first need to weed (remove obvious and repeated errors), then work out a design for (structuring and styling), and finally water and maintain (ensure textual flow, prune to remove unnecessary words and sentences, check that everything is still where it should be and not encroaching on another section).

In any kind of writing, the same kind of errors tend to crop up again and again. Word’s ‘find and replace’ function is useful for finding a lot of these (I know creating macros can also be a big help, and this is something I still need to get to grips with and may well write about in future). By taking a few simple steps at the beginning of the copy-editing process I can save myself time and ensure consistency throughout the manuscript. Here are the steps I take when editing a text.

The pre-editing stage

I like to think of stages 1–6 as ‘pre-editing’ – removing surface errors before getting down to the ‘bones’ of the text, where I’m looking at each character in turn and the overall structure.

1. Style guides

Firstly, when I’m given a text I make sure I’m using the correct style guide for the publisher in question. I give this a quick read-through to refresh my memory, as they’re all a little different from each other. In the absence of a style guide, I check with the publisher or author what they prefer to use (my default would be Oxford, as it’s so widely used as a standard for writing and editing).

There might, for example, be a requirement in the style guide I’m using to write all numbers up to ten as words rather than numbers. (Oxford suggests all to one hundred. There are exceptions to this rule, but that’s one for another day.) So I might add this to my list of ‘things to check’ for this particular manuscript.

Some publishers have a preference for particular spellings of terms, so it’s worth doing a specific search for these as well. One company I work with which prefers to use ‘Quran’ (rather than ‘Qu’ran’ or ‘Koran’) for the Muslim holy book and ‘The Second World War’ (rather than ‘World War 2/II’, which is how you often see it written). I tend to put these on the end of my checklist (see below) to make sure they don’t slip through the net.

2. Using a template (not always applicable)

I then copy-paste the manuscript into the template provided by the publishing services company. (If I’m editing for one particular company I’ve been supplied with a template containing all the different styles I normally need. The template strips out extraneous formatting and makes the document easier to work with.)

3. Document styling

Once the document is in the correct template, I can format things like headings, chapters, body text, quotes, epigraphs and image references correctly. This makes it far easier to find my way around the text later on. It’s very difficult to edit several hundred pages of text with no formatting to provide a ‘map’ of the manuscript.

4. Using the paragraph mark button (¶) to spot additional errors

The next stage for me is to remove all tabs, extra spaces after full points, spaces at starts of lines (search for ‘^p’ to find these) and line breaks. I keep the paragraph mark button selected at this stage to see where these are. (Manual page/line breaks aren’t necessary if you modify your styles to include a page break before or after the style in question.) Likewise, you can set a requirement for ‘Normal’ text (the majority of the text) to inset the first line of a paragraph so it’s easier to see where one paragraph ends and the next starts after you’ve switched off the paragraph marks.

5. Spelling/grammar checks

Now I can run the manuscript through a spelling and grammar checker. It’s surprising just how many errors this can pick up. I have access to a spellcheck tool used by one of the companies I do regular work for (I appreciate that not everyone has this luxury) and I find this tool invaluable. As well as having all the functions of the Word spellchecker, it can check against the following different spelling standards:

  • British with Oxford -ize only;
  • British with -ise only;
  • American;
  • British -ize and -ise comparison;
  • American and British -ise difference; and
  • American and British -ize difference.

This won’t find everything, necessarily, but finding even one error is better than it getting missed in the editing process! Because it comes up with a list of all the mistakes in alphabetical order, it also makes it easy to spot where difficult-to-spell names have caused the writer to come unstuck.

6. ‘Common error’ checklist

I’ve created a table in Word of all the things I need to check before beginning on the main task at hand. This is a working document which I add to as and when additional issues crop up. It includes the points above, and also a list of common errors to check for. The ones currently in the toolkit are:

  • Ensure apostrophes are the right way round in date abbreviations (’30s).
  • Remove all bold text (File > Replace > ‘Find What’ > Ctrl + B > ‘Replace With’ > More > Format button > Font. Select ‘Regular’ under ‘Font style’).
  • Use ‘Find and Replace’ to weed out double spaces after punctuation, and to remove any spaces immediately before punctuation marks.
  • Check correct types of dashes are used (for example, en dashes (–), which are longer than a hyphen, are used in number spans). (Different style guides will have different types of dashes used to interrupt words, sentences, etc., so I make sure I know the guidance before I start.)
  • Ensure ellipses (…) are only ever 3 dots, and that they’re formatted correctly. (CTRL + ALT + . will do this.)
  • If document contains any references, ensure there is a space immediately after the full point following the ‘p’ or ‘pp’ (p. 6, not p.6).
  • Make sure all speech marks are the right way round, paying particular attention to quotes that have quotes within them. (Word often gets confused and tries to immediately follow opening quotation marks with a closing apostrophe, regardless of what’s written on the page.)

The ‘proper’ editing stage

Once all these fiddly technical bits are done, I can get down to reading through the text itself with ‘Track Changes’ highlighted so I can show the author/translator what I’ve done and add any queries using the ‘Comments’ function so they can reply and clear up any confusion or state their preferences.

Normally I’d send a sample of ten or twenty pages to the author with all errors highlighted to ensure they’re happy with the way I’m working and suggest that I only track changes where it’s a matter of preference or more clarity is needed in the text, rather than one of us having to approve changes that are amending outright errors. Once I have their approval, I can work my way through the manuscript and get the first edited draft to them for approval and for any questions to be addressed.

And that’s it, really. Once all the issues are addressed, the manuscript is ready to go off for typesetting and, after that, to be proofread.

You don’t have to be a copy-editor to take the steps above to create documents that are easier to navigate and more internally consistent. Establishing your own (or the organisation’s) preferences at the start for common words used, font type, etc. can give you a common ‘thread’ that runs through all your business documents, styling will help you and others navigate through your writing, it’s surprising how much the paragraph mark button can show up that you hadn’t noticed, and a ‘common error’ checklist could pick up quite a few things that are hard to spot when writing a document – particularly when you’re up against a tight deadline.

And with that, I’ll say goodbye for this week, and happy gardening!

Colons in the red corner, semicolons in the blue…which one will win? Some tips

I’m willing to bet most people are happy with using full stops, exclamation marks and question marks. I’d also hazard a guess that commas don’t cause too much confusion in general (although I may return to these at a later date). And parentheses? No problem.

But what about those other ones – the ones that are a little more tricky? I’m thinking first of all about the colon and semicolon, which often seem to be used interchangeably (and incorrectly). Let’s take a closer look.

The semicolon (;)

Let’s start with the good old semicolon.

New Hart’s Rules (NHR) has a good rule for remembering when to use the semicolon, seeing it almost as a light full stop:

The semicolon marks a separation that is stronger than a comma but less strong than a full point. It divides two main clauses that are closely related and complement or parallel each other, and that could stand as sentences in their own right [my emphasis].

The semicolon can be used to break up lists where commas are used within single elements of the list, to aid readers’ understanding of the text. For example:

Yesterday I went to visit my mother, who is recovering from an operation; walked my neighbour’s dog, as he is away on holiday; and went to the sports centre to do an exercise class, swim, and catch up with an old friend.

This doesn’t just apply to lists written as sentences – it is also useful in bulleted lists, as I was reminded when attending the Plain English Campaign’s training on writing for websites:

Before going on holiday, I need to:

  • pack my suitcase;

  • take the cat to the cattery;

  • use up any perishable food in the fridge; and

  • give the spare key to the neighbours so they can water the plants.

NHR also suggests using it in place of a full stop if the sentence immediately following begins with a symbol, describing it as ‘confusing and unattractive’ to begin a sentence in this way:

Let us assume that a is the crude death rate and b life expectancy at birth; a will signal a rise in…

The colon (:)

To begin with, here’s a list summarising the point (or points, perhaps?) of the colon. This punctuation mark should be used:

  1. to introduce a list, bulleted or otherwise (see what I did there?);
  2. as a ‘follow-on’;
  3. after the title of a work; or
  4. to introduce direct speech.

Please note that in British English the colon isn’t followed by a capital letter, unless the word immediately following is a proper noun (although in US English it is). This makes sense in light of the point below about the second clause not needing to be a complete sentence.

1. Lists: The colon isn’t necessary in a sentence which contains a list if it’s already a complete sentence in itself. NHR gives the following example:

Other Victorian authors worth studying include Thackeray, Trollope and Dickens.

You could, however, restructure this sentence and use a colon instead:

There are other Victorian authors worth studying: Thackeray, Trollope and Dickens.

2. Follow-ons: This is probably the time you see colons used the most. Unlike the semicolon, the colon doesn’t need to be followed by a phrase that could stand as a sentence in its own right. Instead, it’s used as a ‘follow-on’, i.e. to precede something that follows on logically – cause and effect, premise and conclusion, statement and example(s).

NHR advises thinking of it like this: if you can precede the phrase in question with a word like therefore, namely or for example, a colon would be just as valid.

The book also notes that you can insert a dash in place of a colon with this type of usage, but this is normally better if saved for more informal contexts.

3. Titles and subtitles of works: Many works, particularly more academic titles, have a title and a subtitle. The colon is used to separate these, with house style determining whether the subtitle should begin with a capital letter or not.

4. Introducing direct speech: Although it’s more usual to see direct speech immediately preceded by a comma, it’s perfectly valid to use a colon instead. NHR says that a colon is ‘typically used to introduce more formal speech or speeches of more than one sentence, to give emphasis to the quoted matter, or to clarify the sentence structure after a clause in parentheses.’

NHR notes that you can also use a dash in place of a colon in example

Alternatives to the colon and semicolon?

Back in 2013, the College Humor website ran an article entitled ‘8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks’. If you read this whole blog post, you’ll never need to think about using the hemi-semi-demi colon.