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A good style sheet should be as much detailed as possible, covering all anticipated exigencies. And if a new one arises, rather than just trusting to one’s memory, enter the solution decided upon in the style sheet. That is, keep it updated, preferably with version numbers. You will realize the importance of this once you are deep into the project, especially if it’s a big one with hundreds of articles (e.g. encyclopedias). Trust me, you will find every case which you had imagined plus which you could never have imagined for each of the elements: and then the style sheet will bail you out. Or will enable you to take a decision quicker, based on what you had decided for a similar case earlier.

Ditto with a list of word choices and abbreviations. So you won’t forget whether you went for “marxist” or “Marxist”. Or whether “x-ray” or “X-ray” (and whether “X-Ray” at start of sentence). You might be engaged on more than one books/projects at the same time, and you might forget some of the decisions then. Running a search on your old files could be expensive in terms of time, and even not possible always. Again, when an abbreviation comes up in an article and you are sure about the context, you need not query the author for its expansion but straightaway insert it from your list of choices file (and maybe now query the author to confirm the change made).

You can write to me at av (dot) ankur (at) yahoo (dot) com for a sample style sheet and list of choices if you want to see what I mean. Or you could refer to Case Study I. Cheers!


One of the things which many copyeditors conveniently ignore unless instructed specifically by the publisher is abbreviations. While not changing a term to its acronym or abbreviation if it has come before in the manuscript may not be that big a crime (depends!), certainly using the same abbreviation for two different terms is one. If “PI” stands for “persistent infection”, it’s bad practice to use “PI” for “persistently infected”, even though they may not look that much different at first sight. Of course, you do rarely find an abbreviation being accepted for two terms, even if completely different, especially for books dealing with maths, physics or biology to a certain extent. It’s advisable to have a list of glossary terms or nomenclature (even rarer is same symbol for two different quantities) somewhere in the book, or advise the author to do the same, in such a case, so that both terms can be listed one after the other, and the reader when confused in the text can immediately refer the glossary/nomenclature/list of abbreviations.

Abbreviations bring with them a host of other issues, all of which take not as much time as carefulness. This becomes especially true for biology texts, where a figure would have most of its labels in the form of abbreviations, and then you have to cross-check whether the caption has all of them or defined or not. Plus if the caption has some extra abbreviation not present in the figure itself! Different projects would also have different styles, in that whether the captions stand independently of the text, or in continuity with the text. In the latter case, if an abbreviation has already come in the text, it need not be defined again in the caption. Choosing a style would also mostly depend on the editor, unless the publisher has given instructions to this much detail. And then, the editor has to think of the targeted readership, kind of book, estimated bulk and cost of the book (since more lines means more pages means drastic increase in costs), reader-friendliness, and then finally his/her own convenience.

Style might further extend to whether an abbreviation can be at the start of a new sentence/paragraph, whether common acronyms like laser and scuba are also to be expanded at first occurrences, how much of the common ground to be considered really common (i.e., though any reader of such a book would know that DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid and 5-HT is serotonin, you might not expand DNA but still expand 5-HT and even AIDS maybe). Considerations in a book series might also expect you to have a regular coordination with the volume editors, so that an abbreviation stands for only one thing not only in a particular chapter or a particular volume even, but across the whole series! And lastly, brand names, industry names sometimes look like abbreviations. Don’t erroneously query author to provide expansion: there is none! It might not only make you feel dumb later on, but also make the author feel (justifiably) angry.

Acronyms bring a different set of issues altogether. An editor has to know how a particular acronym is pronounced, so that he can insert the correct preceding article. NATO is not pronounced as en-ay-tee-oh but as if it is a word, naatoh. Hence we would say “a NATO meeting”, not “an NATO meeting”. Similarly, “an SS officer”, not “a SS officer”, since the pronounciation now would be ess-ess. Plurals also require care in not adding an “s” blindly. If “region of operation” was abbreviated as “ROP”, then ROPs (not ROP’s!) would mean “regions of operation” and not “region of operations”. “Region of operation” and “region of operations” would be two “different” terms and would require two different acronyms. And a blind search & replace procedure could be dangerous when dealing with abbreviations. They, whether in expanded or abbreviated forms, could be present in quoted matter, references, tables and boxes, glossary/nomenclature, front & back matter (including the chapter title itself!), permission statements, in short anywhere. And all these places would require not a blind adherence to what you were doing in the text, but some other considerations as well. In the text itself, a context might dictate sticking to the redefining of an abbreviation/acronym (even though defined before). For example, the author might be talking about how a certain term got coined, you would hardly replace that whole term itself by its abbreviation making the whole point moot!

Many copyeditors find this confusing, especially when they are deep buried in the context but not familiar with the subject. It is difficult to decide then whether the information contained in the clause begun by a “that” or a “which” is only extra or essential.

To begin with, I will look at the basic difference. Let’s assume that I’ve gone to a nearby field with my friend. There are two cows grazing there, one brown, one red. I say to my friend:

1.a The red cow is mine.

I could have said the same thing as

1.b The cow that is red is mine.

This would simply mean that there is only one red cow out of the two (usage of the definite article) and such a cow is mine.

Now assume that there is only one cow grazing, and incidentally it is red. I now say to my friend:

1.c The cow is mine.


1.d The cow, which is red, is mine.

which translates to

1.e The cow you see is mine. By the way, you can also see it’s red.

“which” is for extra, parenthetical information, i.e. trivia. Note the presence of commas around “which” in this nonrestrictive usage (“nonrestrictive” since I am not restricting that only the red cow is mine; I am simply saying the cow is mine, let it be of any color, the color’s only incidental, mate!).

You will find the following:

2.a He went to Taj Mahal, which is regarded as one of the finest specimens of Mughal architecture.

You cannot say

2.b He went to Taj Mahal that is regarded as one of the finest specimens of Mughal architecture.

The whole “which … architecture” clause is in apposition to “Taj Mahal”: it describes the noun it sets off, i.e. it is just something extra being said of Taj Mahal. The main information contained is just “He went to Taj Mahal”. Of course if there would be more than one Taj Mahals, one regarded as a fine specimen and the others as bad or average specimens, then someone could have said

2.c He went to the Taj Mahal that is regarded as one of the finest specimens of Mughal architecture.

Note that the best option for an editor in cases like 2.a is the following:

2.d He went to Taj Mahal, regarded as one of the finest specimens of Mughal architecture.

This is especially true when some kind of a temporal sense need to be avoided. Refer to the following example:

3.a The scarcity of hay … led to further decrease in the already limited number of draught animals, which were essential for tilling, sowing, and transport in the absence of tractors.

I would prefer to recast the sentence as

3.b The scarcity of hay … led to further decrease in the already limited number of draught animals, essential for tilling, sowing, and transport in the absence of tractors.

Though 3.a was fine I yet choose to remove “which were”, since the necessity of draught animals for the enumerated processes would continue even today, in any society or conditions, if modern equipment (tractors here) were to be absent. Also note that some non-native speakers might write “who were essential” instead of “which were essential”: not changing “who” to “which” would be a grave omission.

Note that usage of a definite article sometimes gives hint of how essential or trivial the information is. Also, “that” is often left out in a restrictive usage, for example:

4.a Do you know the issues still left unfinished? (better)

is same as

4.b Do you know the issues that are still left unfinished?

The same also applies to “who” without a comma (restrictive) and with a comma preceding (nonrestrictive), and to “where” without a comma (restrictive) and with a comma (nonrestrictive).

5.a Taj Mahal, where hundreds of tourists go within a single day, is in Agra. (nonrestrictive; “where … day” is just extra info)

5.b He is at a place where he won’t even find a single drop of water. (restrictive; if you put comma before “where”, you are just saying “He is at a place”: that’s hardly a statement unless you were debating his existence itself)

Hi everyone. Having been in the publishing industry since 2005, one thing I now know is that there are a lot of gray areas, and some of them are good gray areas when it comes to editing, that is copyediting, per se. This could range from Read the rest of this entry »