Proofing and Edit Marks: A Primer

As technology advances, we often lose the manual skills that tech is meant to replace. Even knowledge fades away as new techniques are developed. How many of us have the Dewey Decimal system memorized anymore? Know how to rebuild a carburetor? How about canning your own jellies, sewing a quilt by hand, or raising chickens*? If we’re lucky it becomes trendy to “revive” these skills (in the same way that some of us collect “artifacts” like Depression-era glassware and vinyl records**), but many less popular bits of information are lost.

The problem is, we often discover that we still needed what we thought we’d outgrown — usually at the worst times. Because of this, it becomes important to save the bits of history and knowledge that are part of lost skills, even when we’re told some new advancement means we don’t need to know how to do that thing anymore. Otherwise, the information is lost, as far as the general population is concerned.

One of the skills we’re not taught anymore is how to read and use editing marks. I’m referring to the little symbols editors use to mark-up a hardcopy document for editing. Before Track Changes became the editing go-to method, we used to transform a clean, white, sheet of paper into a tangle of red ink reminiscent of a football playbook, using these symbols.

In fact, it’s often faster to edit on paper this way than it is to use the track changes feature in a Word document. Depending on what the recommended edits are, it’s sometimes easier to clearly see the suggestions. Since Adobe lets you markup a PDF in the same way, making it possible to proof digital documents already in their print layout, even if you’ll never receive old-school paper edits again, there’s still a reason for you to know these symbols.

Better: knowing how to use and read these marks will let you keep working even when your internet is down, your laptop goes missing, your desktop computer suffers the blue screen of death, or you suddenly realize your deadline means that you have to finish those edits in the 45 minutes before your next panel while your editor sits next to you marking up pages a moment before she hands them to you to read.

Editing marks are a little different from proof marks, because copy editing is about looking for errors in spelling, grammar, or semantics. Proofing a document should keep an eye out for those errors, but is largely concerned with whether the document is ready to go to print. Is it clean, formatted well, and set properly on the page? Did any new errors get introduced after the final editing pass? Do slight changes need to be made from the organic placement on the page to fit traditional publishing rules (like whether a single word is left over on the next page, or if a sentence breaks in a way that gives it an unintended meaning)?

Editing marks will suggest changes: substituting, deleting, or transposing words; changing or adding punctuation; asking for clarification; requesting a return to a previous version.

The following list of marks is taken from figure 2.6 of the 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style:


Click for the larger version.

Note that it includes the same marks as you’d find in an edit pass, but also has symbols for typesetting changes. Other editing marks include:

en En dash.
em Em (long) dash.
sp Spell it out.
awk. Awkward phrasing.
dang. mod. Dangling modifier.
mis. mod. Misplaced modifier.
>frag. Sentence fragment.
wc Questionable word choice.
ref. Faulty or ambiguous reference.
r-o Run-on sentence.
c-o Comma splice.
S-V agr Subject-verb agreement.

There was a time when elementary school students all across the nation were taught how to proof their own work in this way. I wasn’t exposed to them until high school, but my English Composition teacher made sure we knew. At that time, though, it was clear we were among the last to learn this skill as part of a public school curriculum. Given that we’ve dropped these marks from our standard education here in the US in the last few decades, these proof marks might seem to be an invention of early 20th century grammar school teacher. Brought in to codify white American middle-class English in the same way as Strunk’s Elements of Style

In fact, they were developed around the same time as the printing press. From A Census of Print Runs for Fifteenth-Century Books***:

According to the contract of 22 May 1499, Beroaldus provided the paper, the copy, proofreading and correction, and promised to promote the edition during his lectures on the text at Bologna University. This document was cited but not transcribed in Albano Sorbelli, Storia, della stampain Bologna (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1929), 61, citing the original in the “Archivio notarile di Bologna, atti del notaio Agostino Landi, 22 May 1499.”

Early editions are full of these marks — along with the frequent request by printers and proofreaders for an author to strike a particular word from their vocabulary… ever again.

See? Some things never change. Forgetting the use and meaning of these marks means forgetting 500 years of editing shorthand which served us from the dawn of the Information Age. I can’t be the one to let that go. Can you?

Any questions? Feel free to leave a comment, and I’ll answer whatever I can.

* Yes, I can do those things.

** This is me, too. My car even has a cassette deck. But I don’t have a hipster beard. I had to draw the line somewhere.

*** by Eric Marshall White, Curator of Special Collections, Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, 2012.


Editing Tips #3: Who’s Telling the Story?

Before I can edit I story, I have to know a few things. I have to read it over to get a sense of the author’s voice (editing means making the story better, but that doesn’t include making it not yours anymore). I also need to know where the plot ends, so that I can shepherd the opening and middle bits along to their conclusion in a logical way*. But the most important part that I need to know, that I have to be absolutely clear on, is who’s telling this story.

That isn’t the same as identifying the main character, or even the narrator. Think of it this way: in order for you to be reading the story, someone from that world has be telling it to you. Ignore the author; unless it’s an autobiography, the author is just the vehicle. They’re the medium allowing the ghost of your dead husband to inhabit their body in order to tell you where he hid the family valuables. The storyteller is going to be the character that gets the story to the writer.** This is the character who lives all the way the through to end, sees everything that happened, or gathers the information from everyone else.

Sometimes they’re easy to find. A story that begins in the first person, and doesn’t end with the narrator’s death, is probably told by that narrator. A story which features more than one perspective can be harder to reconcile, so you need to read carefully to find the common thread. The person who was there in each scene, or the one who could have talked to everyone else, and gotten their stories.

Sure, not all tales have a single teller. They should, but it’s so much easier to go the “third person omniscient” route, and make your narrator God. Sees all, knows all, lazy fucking storytelling. Yeah, people do it. (But not you, right?)

Say I have a story where a single narrator is travelling through the jungle. It’s first person, narrator uses “I”. I know whose story it is, and it doesn’t change. Now what? Knowing that this is Bob’s tale means that I know where certain things should happen in the plot, because that’s how it would happen to him. When he’s talking about going through the jungle and discovering a camp, he’s describing the trip, the weather, the beat-up road… what comes next? It should be his view of the camp as they come up on it. If it’s anything else, a piece of the later story, and then the narrator goes back to describe the setting, it’s going to feel out of place.

When Helen walks into the room and sees a crime in progress, there are a million ways to describe that. The easiest, and worst, is to tell us things she couldn’t possibly know.

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor, obviously afraid that the masked man was about to kill her.

How exactly is that obvious? Helen can’t know what Mary is thinking, and there’s no description of the other woman’s face, body language, or anything else that would tell us. She could be afraid that the masked man will steal her jewels, rape her, torture her to get the location of the Maltese Falcon, or even be obsessing about the fact that her new carpet is getting dirty. But the author knows what Mary is afraid of, so let’s rewrite it to say that:

Helen saw her friend Mary, hands tied, kneeling on the floor. As tears rolled down her face, a masked man stood a foot away, his gun pointed at her head. Helen wanted to cry out, but was afraid the man would kill them both.

We still have the same characters, we get a little more description (because we’re seeing what Helen is seeing), and we have the threat of death. You can even take out that last line and leave it ambiguous; the audience will certain pick up on the fear and tension here. Depending on the rest of the story, the death threat could have already been expressed, or left as implied. But this way, you’ve removed a place where someone might wonder, “How does she know?” You cut out a chance for the readers to lose their interest in the story. Instead, you keep them in the moment, in that room with Helen and Mary, wondering what’s going to happen next.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our readers look for that storyteller. We pick up a book and we expect it to be told to us. This goes back to our childhood experiences of being read to before we read ourselves, and further back to our cultural experiences of oral storytelling. We exist in a society that encourages active telling of tales (through music, tv, plays, movies and other performances). It’s even in the way we describe how we take in a show: we read a story, not “a story was read by us”. We consume entertainment; we create advertising to portray it as energetic, in your face (or your ears), actively trying to push an experience on you.

We bring that perspective to reading, and find the teller in the story. If you know that ahead of time, you can make sure you’re choosing who that narrator is, and how they transfer their tale to the reader. You can make sure that it flows smoothly, the voice is consistent, and there’s no place where the reader wonders, “How would they know that?” without finding out by the end. You can make clear the path from teller to reader, so nothing stands in the way of them enjoying your story.

Or you can hire an editor to help you with that.

* Logical doesn’t mean straightforward. It means that it has to fit whatever rules you’ve decided apply to your story. There’s always rules, a framework, the physics of the thing. We’ll talk about that another time.

** I don’t mean in a metaphysical way, whether you ascribe to pantheistic multi-ego solipsism (aka “World as Myth“) or not.

Editing Tips #2: Know What You’re Getting When You Have an “Editor”

Whether you have a story accepted at a magazine or you’ve hired an editor to help you smooth off the rough edges on your current wip, you will eventually be working with an editor. The kind of editor you hire, or the type of editing that’s done to your work, depends on whether it’s sold yet and what it needs. Your edits will fall into one of these categories: developmental editing, line editing, typesetting, and proofreading. (Usually in that order.)

Developmental Editing

Also called structural editing, deep (or heavy) editing, or collaborative editing. This is the first round. Here an editor will help you with your story structure, ask important questions about the character, language, or setting, and suggest improvements. An editor can break up long chunks of narrative exposition with more action, or too much internal monologue can be externalized into dialogue. Your plot will be checked for continuity. Maybe you’re using food words to describe people of color, or you’re inconsistently using the language you’ve made up for your alien race. If there’s something problematic about your characters or story, this is where you’d find out.

Paragraphs may get moved around, dialogue cut or rewritten, and the “comment” function will be used to add notes on a range of topics. This kind of editing fixes stories where the idea was good but the author had trouble making it work. It’s rare to get much developmental editing (DE) after you’ve sold a short story, though the market may want you to change one or two things that impact the story but aren’t indicative of a problem with the entire piece. DE is largely done for novels (after acquisition) or for anything you want to make better before you submit it.

While novelists often realize the value of having an editor on board here, I wish more short story authors hired editors at this stage of their writing. I’ve had to turn down so many shorts and novellas that we would have otherwise bought for Dagan Books, because the idea was stronger than the execution.

Line Editing (Copy Editing)

The is the most common kind of editing, because everyone goes through it. When you sell a story, it’s going to be copy edited. Hire an editor? They’ll do this for you. Your work may not need developmental editing, but it will certainly need to be checked for spelling and grammar problems. A copy editor (CE) will find and correct homonyms, or other correctly-spelled but incorrect words your spell checker function won’t point out (like “heir” instead of “their” or “an” instead of “and”). They will catch the little things you missed: italicizing the wrong words, run-on sentences, and paragraphs that need to be broken in two (or those that should be joined with the one next to it).

The CE isn’t there to rewrite your work, or to substantially change it from what it was. The editor is there to see your vision, your ideas, and clear away anything getting in the way of your reader seeing it, too. Continue reading

Editing Tips #1: Personal Style Guide

I’ve been asked to post some editing tips for people in the process of revising their own work. Most editing notes are universal — applying equally to people editing a short story or those revising their novel. You don’t have to follow every one of my suggestions, but if you at least consider them, your work will be much better than it was as a first draft.

Today’s suggestion is a foundation for a lot of the later tips to build on: create your own style sheet.

A style guide is a set of guidelines an editing house follows. It allows an organization to maintain uniformity across multiple publications. Editors are often given a style guide to work from, and while they average around 5 pages, I’ve worked from guides that were 20 pages long. It’s different for each publisher, and often changes depending on the field.

I’m suggesting something less comprehensive: a single-page style sheet. You can skip a lot of the formatting notes because you’ll be using a standard manuscript format for your submission, or tailoring it to a publishers specific request, and that means you won’t need to have those rules in front of you when you edit the first time. (I always put my ms. in standard formatting from the beginning, and then double-check a house’s rules right before submitting.) What you need is a handy go-to guide that reminds you of all the little mistakes you commonly make but might not be thinking about.

Your personal style sheet will evolve as you go along, and it should. Maybe you’ll learn you were using a word or type of punctuation wrong; you might successfully teach yourself to stop making one mistake only to develop another. It happens. What matters is that you update your style sheet whenever you need to, and refer back to as you edit. Continue reading

Some Notes on Editing a 10-Year Old Writer

A few weeks I mentioned on Twitter that a child in my son’s fourth-grade class wanted me to read his novel. He had a first chapter, he knew what his story was about, and he wanted to know if – based on that – it was publishable. (Sound familiar?)

Since then he’s emailed me the chapter, and he and I had a meeting about where he was, and what he should do next. I can’t excerpt the story for you, but I can share some of what I told him:

  • It’s not ready to be published now, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It means it isn’t done yet. Just like homework and sports and games have a lot of steps, writing has a lot of steps, too. Chapter 1 is just the beginning.
  • You can’t* publish something until after it’s been edited, and you can’t edit until it’s been written, so the fact that you’ve written something – anything – is a good first step.
  • In your story, you have a lot of things that you’re making up. You have a world that doesn’t exist, you have a main character flying through space (you’ve never been to space), and your character is 15 years old… so he’s going through experiences that you haven’t had yet. Your reader needs to have something real in the story to hold on to. Like when a story has a cat-like alien in it – even though it looks green and scaly, it acts just like a cat would, so you can identify with the animal and the creature who owns him if you’ve ever had a cat. The reader has to be able to find what’s familiar to them, and that’s going to be something that you know so well you can describe it clearly. It’s okay to have a made-up world, or a made-up person, but you should have at least one part of the story be based on what’s real in your life.**
  • Now that you’ve written the first draft of your story, go through and re-read it as if everything were questions. Then, answer those questions. For example, if you say he’s wearing a space suit, what does that look like? If he ate breakfast, what did he eat? How did he cook it? What color is his hair, the walls of his ship, his toothbrush? If you know the answers to those questions, you don’t have to put all of the information into your story, but you can choose to give us a few more details that will help us see the scene in our heads.
  • When you go through to re-write it, read your story out loud. If the words the character says don’t feel right when you say then, change it to something that sounds like what the character should say. If you write a really long sentence and have to stop to take a breath, consider stopping it at that point and making two sentences, or at least adding a comma. If you have two different things going on in the same paragraph, or someone else starts speaking, that should be a new paragraph. At the same time, if you have one thought broken up into two different paragraphs, and neither one is more than a few sentences long, make it all one paragraph and see how that reads.
  • The best thing that you can do to become a better writer is to read as much as possible. Check out books from the library! Read other books that have characters the same age as yours, or that are set in space, or Steampunk books. Read every night if you can, even a few pages. Read so that you know what you like, and what you don’t.
  • Keep writing! Anything you write, you can make better, except a blank page.
  • And, lastly, thank you for letting me read your work.

Anything else I should have told him?

Oh, and my favorite part of the meeting – he never asked if he was a writer. He didn’t say he was an “aspiring” writer. His friends, who wanted to know what his story was about and how long it was and if things blew up, never asked if I thought he was a writer. As soon as he had written, he was a writer, and he knew that in the black-and-white way in which kids know things.

The truth is that the only time you’re an aspiring writer is if you’ve thought about writing but haven’t actually done it yet. After that you can aspire to be a better writer, to be published, to sell a certain number of copies or be picked up by a certain publishing house or agent, but you’re past aspiring to be an author. Write, or don’t, those are your two choices. And please, stop calling yourself “an aspiring writer”.

Even a 10-year old knows better than that.

* Yes, I said “can’t publish”. I’m aware that many people interpret that as “shouldn’t publish, unless you’re certain it’s brilliant, in which case, go ahead”. I’d like to start the kid off on the right path by encouraging him to edit his work before he considers it finished.

** He decided to make the main character 10 years old, so that he could put a “real” person into his “fake” setting, and keep all of the Steampunk/space aspects he was having fun with.