When Spellcheck won’t help you…and Autocorrect fails.

Spellcheck is many people’s favourite tool when writing; it’s great for picking out niggly spelling and grammatical errors. However, what it’s less good at is spotting words used out of context. If it’s in the dictionary, it’s deemed ‘acceptable’.

So you get odd things happening at times, such as articles where the writer has obviously become confused by two homonyms, and the results come out something like these (the below come from a Digital Tutors blog post about the game engines Unity and Unreal):

one engine might rain supreme

And this particularly poorly structured sentence – who are its ‘dominants’, exactly? The people who’ve been oppressing a game engine?

When it comes to mobile games that is where Unity really shows its dominants, with many popular mobile games created with it, it’s really become a mobile developers go-to game engine.

Finally, the penultimate paragraph has this recommendation:

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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!