Four levels to accessible communications

I presented this four-level accessibility framework at a few academic conferences this year, and some people have requested a non-academic summary, so here it is. I’ll leave out the methodology details, but if you’re curious about them, please get in touch!


Is your communication accessible? This question can be tricky to answer, because access means different things to different people. By analyzing the themes in a series of articles about accessibility, I’ve found that most definitions of access fit under four main categories, and I’ve organized these into a framework I use as a checklist of sorts when I create communications (pamphlets, books, videos, podcasts, webinars, etc.) for the general public. I hope you’ll find it helpful, and I welcome suggestions to make it better.

The four levels are:

  1. discovery—can users find your communication?
  2. acquisition—can users get your communication?
  3. use—can users use your communication?
  4. comprehension—can users understand your communication?

Continue reading “Four levels to accessible communications”

Everybody in the house make some noise

The two Bobs from the movie "Office Space," saying "What would you say you do here?"

For the stereotypically introverted editor, marketing and promotion can feel unnatural and effortful. This discomfort has obvious consequences for a freelancer who’s always on the lookout for the next contract, but it can also hurt in-house editors: when editorial departments aren’t vocal about their function within the larger organization, their work may be ignored or undervalued. Continue reading “Everybody in the house make some noise”

Communication Convergence 2015

Building on last year’s inaugural event, Cheryl Stephens and Kate Harrison Whiteside put together a full day of sessions at Communication Convergence 2015, most of them looking at the ways technology has affected writing, publishing, and other means of communication.

Fawn Mulcahy—How has technology changed how we communicate?

Fawn Mulcahy has more than twenty years of public relations experience and has taught PR at Langara College and Simon Fraser University. At Communication Convergence she talked about how technology has changed the way we communicate and why we need to do our best to keep up.

Her advice about language and communication isn’t based on linguistics—“I’m not a linguist!” she disclaimed—but is informed by her interactions with her students and her seventeen-year-old step-daughter. Millennials will make up 44% of the workforce by 2020, and their communication is all digital. We have to get comfortable working in that space and learn the language of shortcuts like acronyms, emoticons, and emojis so that we can all work effectively with one another.

Technology is how we tell our stories, and we’re relying more and more on imagery, which can instantaneously and effortlessly communicate emotion and attitude. In presentations, images are key to avoiding “death by PowerPoint”: “If you have slides of black-and-white text in bullet points, you’ll lose them.”

More people have mobile phones than desktop computers, and youth have abandoned email in favour of communicating through their phones and on social media, which encourages all of us to keep our communications brief, simple, and short. That said, “we still need to honour communication,” said Mulcahy. Exclamation marks, all caps, and smiley faces have no place in a professional email, and we still have to differentiate between language used in texting and standard written English. People accustomed to writing for the 110 to 150 million blogs out there sometimes don’t understand why they can’t keep the same voice for everything they write.

When asked how technology has affected her teaching, Mulcahy admitted that it has shortened attention spans. “It’s tempting on computers to multitask,” she said. “An average person checks their phones 150 times a day—it’s a tic you can’t control.”

As an instructor, “You feel like a dancing bear—you have to entertain them to keep them listening and engaged.” In every classroom, “60 percent will think you’re an idiot, 20 percent will love you, and 20 percent are on the fence. You’re trying to win over that 20 percent.”

“Teach to one person,” Mulcahy advised. “Find your friend in the room. You can’t please everybody.”

How has technology changed relationships between writer, editor, and publisher? (panel discussion)

Editor, writer, and instructor Frances Peck moderated a discussion between Roberta Rich, author of The Harem Midwife and The Midwife of Venice and Paula Ayer, managing editor at Annick Press’s Vancouver office, about how technology has changed the publishing landscape.

“The biggest shift is that everything is electronic,” said Ayer. “Editors no longer work on paper proofs. And everything is expected faster; I think we’re offloading more onto freelancers because there’s less and less time to do things in house. Editors become surrogates for the publishing house.”

Rich, in contrast, has stuck to hard copy. “As you can deduce from all of this,” she joked, “I really hate change.” Her first novel was edited in three rounds, but her most recent book was edited in two. “Part of it was that I learned from the mistakes I made in my first two books,” she said, explaining that her first draft was probably a little more polished. “But I’m very fortunate to have been published in Canada first, because in the U.S., publishing houses don’t have that kind of patience—to do a third pass.” U.S. publishers, said Rich, don’t want a fixer-upper. They want a finished product. “In order to get a publisher to read it at all…it has to be almost perfect. You pay for your own editor.”

Rich recommends Booming Ground, part of UBC’s non-credit creative writing program, which offers editing and manuscript evaluations for up to 120 pages. “Send in 60 pages a month, and they send you feedback. It’s very economical. For $500 you get a lot of work and very detailed criticism.”

Ayer warned about unscrupulous businesses exploiting people who want to get published. To counter some of the volatility, Ayer said, Annick relies on a core group of freelancers who know the brand and understand what kinds of books they publish. But she’s constantly feeling pressure to get projects done more quickly: “We need sales materials sooner, so we need a clear idea of the book and an illustrator very early on.”

Peck said that editor Barbara Pulling has also mentioned the contraction in time for each project and the pressure to turn then around more quickly. She used to have six months to go back and forth with the author to develop ideas, and now she doesn’t have that luxury. “As a reader,” said Peck, “I pick up books that feel that they’ve been rushed through and that have substantive issues.”

“Has there been a change in readership?” Peck asked the Ayer and Rich. “Are needs, expectations, and attention spans changing?”

Rich said, “I have a pretty clear idea of my readership—they’re primarily female. Fiction readers are generally female, between ages twenty and sixty. Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing fewer young readers and writers at events like writers’ festivals and book clubs.”

“Our market,” said Ayer, “is mostly schools and libraries, so we’re affected more by budget cuts.” And Annick’s books have changed: “We use more sidebars, more illustrations. We’ve redone books in graphic novel style to make them more visual. It doesn’t mean they’re dumbed down. We’re giving readers short bursts of information. We want it to be interesting and engaging.”

“People used to read the first few pages at a bookstore,” said Rich. “Now we have to hook the reader in the first couple of paragraphs.”

“The title and cover have to get people’s attention right away,” said Ayer.

“Let’s turn our conversation back to relationships,” said Peck. “Has technology made relationships easier or harder? Do you get to have any face-to-face interaction?”

Rich said that she talks to her editor on the phone, but whenever she’s in Toronto, her editor takes her out for lunch. “I have an old-fashioned relationship with my editor,” she said.

Ayer said, “We work with people from everywhere—New Zealand, Poland, Japan. There’s usually no chance for face-to-face communication. If they’re in town, we try to make time for a face-to-face meeting. Freelancers are usually only dealt with via email, but some are close enough to be friends on Facebook.” It’s tempting to resist face-to-face meetings from a time-management point of view, she said, but they can create a stronger relationship.

“What trends do you see on the horizon?” asked Peck.

“Publishers will be less willing to take risks and will try to take only sure bets,” said Ayer. “Publishers have become slaves to numbers,” said Rich. “They’re very numbers driven.”

“Publishers used to have the patience to develop a writer, but when a small house develops writers, often they just go to bigger houses,” said Ayer.

Peck noted that some authors are now intentionally going to smaller publishers because they know they’ll get personal attention. Some decide to self-publish. “Will there be a resurgence of smaller presses, or will they change their roles?

“Self-publishing is good for people who have a built-in audience,” said Ayer. “There’s a bit of a mentality that publishers and record labels will mess with your creative vision. But often things get better with other people’s input.”

Blake Desaulniers—We are all publishers now in the era of internet distribution and multimedia platforms

Blake Desaulniers is a writer, photographer, videographer, and content marketing expert who worked in magazines in the 1980s and saw the transition from wax paste-up to fully digital production. Today, anyone can be a publisher—but if you choose to go that route, know what you’re getting into and have a clear idea of what you’re trying to do with your publication.

“What do we expect from our audience?” said Desaulniers. “We want them to buy our product, buy into our ideas. Set goals to understand the nature of engagement you expect from your audience. Often people don’t look that far. They’re good at packaging and distributing, but once it’s out there, they don’t think about it.”

You should also have a clear concept of your publication so that you can develop a set of keywords. “The internet is Google,” said Desaulniers. “If you want to get to your audience, you’ve got to be good with Google. Understand from the outset what your keywords are going to be. They should inform every aspect of your publishing venture. In a sense, it’s branding.”

Next, look at audience development, which may be the hardest part of all. Subscriptions are expensive and hard to manage. “Getting a subscriber audience is the most difficult aspect of the game, whether you’re an individual or a large-scale commercial publisher.”

So what can we do to develop an audience? “Build an audience using social media,” said Desaulniers. Use personas—representations, including goals and behaviours, of who you want or expect your audience to be—to build your communication efforts. Make sure you develop your personas based on real data, though, not just speculation.

Marketing automation (like the kind services like HubSpot can provide) requires a large budget—about $25,000 a year—to manage, but a good system can provide everything you need to automate distribution of your content, including newsletters, emails, and social media. Most importantly, it provides granular tracking of anything anyone does. “People used to say, ’50 percent of my advertising works—I just don’t know which 50 percent.’ This kind of tracking ends that uncertainty.”

“Audience engagement is more important than number of views,” said Desaulniers, and it’s important to have reliable metrics of engagement for your content. Knowing what your readers are actually using means “You’re customizing information, not wasting resources on things people aren’t interested in. Turn your users into your sales force.”


I’ll be writing up Cheryl Stephens’s session about the hidden intricacies of the modern reading audience in a separate post. To volunteer for or contribute to future Communication Convergence events, get in touch with Kate Whiteside.

Overview of publication project management (Beyond the Red Pencil, 2015)

Melissa Duffes, editorial director of Marquand Books and previously head of publications and media for the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, moderated a panel discussion including three of her fellow project managers:

Anderson discovered she had an affinity for project management at an early age. “All the jobs I had sort of ended up involving project management.” She fell into her role after watching coworkers reinvent the wheel with each proposal they submitted and offering to make a template for greater efficiency.

“I became a project manager out of self-defence,” said Marsh. “If you’re an editor now, you’re already project managing: you take a big thing, break it into discrete chunks, figure out the order of the chunks, schedule, and distribute chunks to other people.”

“Project management is planning and being ready to change all your plans at the last minute,” Marsh added. It’s important to keep the big picture in mind, he said, because sometimes when you run into a problem, something else will come up to cancel it out. “Ignore it till it goes away,” he deadpanned.

Athans suggested looking at your set of skills as an editor: “How much of a project manager are you already?” You may find you can claim expertise as a project manager even if you’ve never had that title.

Anderson manages in-house staff and a couple of contractors in her work to produce content in a variety of document types, including websites, proposals, and reports. She calls it “controlled chaos” and understands that she has to be flexible when schedules shift. She tries to empathize with her contractors and authors. “My piece of advice is to try to put yourself in their shoes—be flexible, understand where they’re coming from, and always have a smile on your face.” A key component of good project management is “a ton of communication. I don’t expect people to come to me with updates. I have to go to them. I just have to bug nicely.”

Marsh agreed: “Communication is one of the essential abilities of a project manager. You need to understand the priorities of the client in terms of deadline, performance, cost, quality. You will have to make decisions and adjustments. Are they worth the cost?”

“A good project manager will put in wiggle room,” said Athans, but contractors should be proactive: “If you need you’ll need more time, the second you’ve determined that, communicate with the project manager.” Most of the time, if you ask for it, you’ll find you can get it. If you have a Friday-afternoon deadline, for example, you can be reasonably sure that getting your project in by Monday morning would be fine, but ask, don’t assume, and be professional about it. “It’s the difference between missing a deadline and blowing a deadline.”

“The first deadline you miss affects more than just you and your client,” added Duffes. “It affects everyone who has to work behind you.” And even if you know the deadlines will move, creating a schedule is still important, said Anderson. “It keeps things less chaotic” and helps clarify team members’ responsibilities.

Sometimes we all find ourselves so mired that we feel we don’t have time to plan ahead or hire someone to help, but that attitude is self-defeating, said Marsh. “Take the time now, even if you are very pressed, to save time later on.”

One of the major challenges Duffes has is to keep her team interested. Her company produces catalogues for art galleries and museums, and the projects are often an afterthought for the busy curators and gallery staff who have to supply much of the raw material and review and approve the various stages of book. “I remind them, ‘You’ll get a book in the end—it’ll be like a baby!’ I have to be like a scout leader and keep everyone marching forward in the nicest way possible.”

Project managers appreciate team members who actively check in with them. “Freelancers who get repeat work are the ones who communicate,” even if it’s to ask for more time. And if you get done early, that’s even better.

The panellists all seemed to use spreadsheets rather than specialized project management software to track their projects. Duffes prefers them, whereas Anderson and Athans said that the problem with a lot of project management software is getting people to agree on a system and actually use it. Spreadsheets are ubiquitous, and most people will agree to use them.


Fellow editor Eva van Emden attended the same session and blogged about her main takeaways from the discussion.

Self-publishing and the oft-neglected index

For some of my editorial colleagues, working with self-publishers is their bread and butter. Many of these editors become de facto project managers, capably shepherding each book through its editorial and production phases—and sometimes even helping with sales and marketing campaigns. Yet, they often forget about the index, even though it can help an author’s work gain credibility and longevity.

I’ve worked on a handful of self-published projects managed by others. In one, the designer asked the author if he wanted an index, but by that point, he didn’t have room in his schedule to add one. In another project, a corporate history, the client couldn’t afford to add pages at the proofreading stage but may have been able to make it work had an index been brought up earlier. In a third project, the designer suggested adding an index when she was hired, and the client agreed. The client says now that her book wouldn’t have been complete without it.

A back-of-the-book index is usually one of the last things that get done in a book project, so I can understand how it can become an afterthought, but I’d love to see editors and project managers consider indexes earlier on, as they develop a project with a client. Most nonfiction works would benefit from an index: corporate and family histories, memoirs, and biographies should have a proper noun index at least, and indexes are a must for cookbooks and how-to books.

Hiring an indexer (and adding pages to accommodate an index in a print book) will add to the budget, but here’s how you can sell it to your clients:

  1. An index will increase a book’s credibility. As much as we like to say that self-published books aren’t any less legitimate than conventionally published works, self-published titles that can better emulate conventionally published books are more likely to be taken seriously in the market.
  2. An index can transform a book from a one-time read to an important part of the historical record. A nonfiction book with an index is much more likely to be found and used by future researchers, including historians and genealogists. Most authors, even if their main motivation is writing a memoir for family, for example, would be delighted to think of their work as having a wide reach and long-lasting impact. (Incidentally, Canadian self-publishers compiling personal, family, or community histories may be interested in the Canada 150 project.)
  3. An index lets readers see what the book is about. It shows not only what topics are covered but also in what depth. Cross-references help readers understand the relationships between the book’s concepts.
  4. People named in the book will want to look themselves up in the index. Yup—vanity is a factor, and finding their names might be enough to convince them to buy and read the book.
  5. Indexers invariably find the odd typo or inconsistency as they work. Because of the way we read and select terms to index, we notice problems that proofreaders sometimes miss.

Ultimately, indexes help sell books. As indexer Jan Wright pointed out at an Indexing Society of Canada conference a few years ago, Amazon wouldn’t include indexes in their “Look Inside” feature if they didn’t help sales, right?

PubPro 2014 recaps

The second annual PubPro unconference for managing editors and publication production professionals took place on Saturday, May 24. We had ten fantastic sessions in a day packed with peer-to-peer learning and networking. Volunteers Megan Brand, Lara Kordic, and Lana Okerlund took notes, and their summaries of the sessions have been appearing weekly throughout the summer on Editors Canada’s BC branch newsletter, West Coast Editor. The last of them was posted last week, so I thought I’d give a round-up of the links:

Many thanks to this year’s attendees, including our stellar volunteers!

Want to see PubPro 2015 happen? Get in touch with me or with Editors Canada’s BC branch professional development co-chairs. I’d be keen to organize this unconference again but want to make sure others share my enthusiasm.

Take a walk on the wild side—nonbreaking space edition

Why nonbreaking spaces?

Line breaks like



World War

hinder readability because readers have to scan to the next line before they receive the information that completes the concept they’re reading about. In these cases, we want to keep the words together, and the best method is to use a nonbreaking space.

I once worked with a company that output its final reports from Word, and whenever something like “$6 million” broke over a line, the in-house staff would use a soft return before the “$6” to push it to the next line. In general, using soft returns is poor practice, because if you delete anything from the line above, you end up with a short line or unsightly gaps (if the text has been fully justified). It’s also poor practice for text that may be repurposed for a reprint or in a different medium: whenever the text reflows, the soft return will yield a shortened line that buggers up the flow of the text.

Instead, a nonbreaking space between “$6” and “million” would tell Word not to break a line at that point. It would keep the entity of “$6 million” together, without disrupting the line length.

You can insert a nonbreaking space in Word by using the shortcut key Option + Space on a Mac or Ctrl + Shift + Space on a PC. The control code for nonbreaking spaces in Word’s Find and Find & Replace functions is ^s.

Isn’t it a proofreader’s job to catch bad breaks?

In a traditional print workflow, the proofreader flags these instances of bad line breaks for the designer. But changing them at the copy-editing stage would head these problems off at the pass and allow the proofreader to focus on other typos and design infelicities that a global search wouldn’t catch. These kinds of global changes are also much easier to do at copy editing—an instance of where a few seconds of effort on the copy editor’s part can save the proofreader a lot of time.

Further, for text destined for a digital format—say a website or an ebook—adding nonbreaking spaces at the copy edit will ensure that the text appears as it should, regardless of reflow.

Wildcard searches for nonbreaking spaces

To save you from having to search each case individually, here are some wildcard searches that can help you do global searches for situations that require a nonbreaking space. This list isn’t exhaustive but should cover the most common cases.

Make sure you have checked off “Use Wildcards” in Word’s Find and Replace dialog box. In some cases, you can safely use the Replace All button; in others, you should go through each occurrence and evaluate it individually.

(Some workflows expect the designer to make these global changes. In InDesign, the codes are different, and I won’t cover them here, but the situations in which you would use the nonbreaking spaces are the same, so you can still use the list below as a reference.)

Dates and times


Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
([0-9]) (<[ap]m>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) ([ap].m.) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

These searches will put a nonbreaking space after a digit and before “am”/“a.m.” and “pm”/“p.m.”


Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
(<[ADFJMNOS][A-z]{2,8}>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case
(<[ADFJMNOS][A-z]{2,8}>.) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

These will put a nonbreaking space both between the month and date and between the month and year (e.g., June 15, 2014 or June 2014).

Transpose the stuff in the parentheses if your style is to state the date before the month (e.g., 25 July).

BC, AD, BCE, etc.

Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
([0-9]) (<[BC]>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<[AD]>) OR (<[AD]>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<BCE>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<CE>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
([0-9]) (<BP>) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

These searches will put a nonbreaking space between the year and AD/BC; BC/BCE; or BP (before present).


Depending on style:

Find what Replace with Notes
(<c.>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all
(<ca.>) ([0-9]) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

These searches will put a nonbreaking spaces after “c.” or “ca.” for circa.


If you are using the spaced en dash (rather than a closed em dash), the first space should be nonbreaking. (The pound sign # should be replaced with a tap of the space bar when typing these into the “Find what” box.)

Find what Replace with Notes
#– ^s– Safe to replace all

Same thing if you have spaced ellipses:

Find what Replace with Notes
#… ^s… Safe to replace all

(In French, there’s a nonbreaking space before colons and sometimes exclamation points and semicolons. If the text was created with the French dictionary and autocorrect on, those nonbreaking spaces were probably automatically inserted; otherwise you may have to put them in.)



If your style has a space between initials, that space should be nonbreaking:

Find what Replace with Notes
([A-Z].) ([A-Z].) \1^s\2 Probably safer to evaluate case by case

(If your style has a space between initials but no periods, then, for the love of all that is merciful, ask whoever decided on this readability-hindering style to change it.)

Honorifics, etc.

Again, replace # with a tap of the space bar in the “Find what” box.

Find what Replace with Notes
<([DM][rs]{1,2}.)# \1^s Safe to replace all

This search puts a nonbreaking space after “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” “Mr.,” and “Dr.”

Find what Replace with Notes
<(St.)#([A-Z]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

This search puts a nonbreaking space after “St.” Although the uppercase letter that follows probably makes it safe to replace all in most situations, evaluating case by case will let you exclude instances where “St.” is used as an abbreviation for something other that “Saint.”

And, once again, replacing # with an actual space in the “Find what” box:

Find what Replace with Notes
#(<Jr>) ^s\1 Safe to replace all

This search puts a nonbreaking space before “Jr.”

Numbers and units

The most common problem is a break between the number and “million”:

Find what Replace with Notes
([0-9]) ([bmqt]?{1,5}llion) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

This search should replace the space between any digit and “million,” “billion,” “trillion,” “quadrillion,” and “quintillion.”

For cookbooks, these searches will cover most cases where you’d need a nonbreaking space. In all cases you can replace all.

Find what Replace with
([0-9]) (tsp) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (Tbsp) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (cup) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (lb) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (oz) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (mL) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (L) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (hour) \1^s\2
([0-9]) (minute) \1^s\2

If your style calls for a space before °C or °F, do an additional search for

([0-9]) (°[CF]) \1^s\2

In all other contexts, especially scientific ones, there are too many units for me to offer a canned wildcard search that will cover all of them, so just do global searches as you come across them (replace UNIT with your unit name).

Find what Replace with
([0-9]) (UNIT) \1^s\2

For example:

Find what Replace with
([0-9]) (kg) \1^s\2


Find what Replace with Notes
(et) (al.) \1^s\2 Safe to replace all

This search keeps et al. together

Find what Replace with Notes
(War) (I{1,2}) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

This search will work for both World War I and World War II.

In text that uses binominal nomenclature where the genus is abbreviated (e.g., E. coli), the genus and species should stay together for readability. With your cursor in the “Find what” box, go to the “Format” button at the bottom of the dialog box, select “Font,” then select “Italic.”

Find what Replace with Notes
([A-Z].) ([a-z]) \1^s\2 Evaluate case by case

For text that features math, you’ll want to add nonbreaking spaces before symbols for operations (e.g., +, –, ×, ÷, ±) and possibly also after.

Be on the lookout for these kinds of constructions, where the nonbreaking space should also be used:

  • Section A, Chapter 1, note 5
  • Boeing 747
  • 137 Main Street

Working with designers

Unfortunately, in a Word-to-InDesign workflow, the nonbreaking space (Command + Option + x on a Mac and Ctrl + Alt + x on a PC in InDesign) sometimes doesn’t come through properly. Occasionally it renders as a fixed-width nonbreaking space (which you don’t want, especially for justified texts, because it causes uneven spacing) or as a weird nonsense glyph. Alert the designer that you’ve used a nonbreaking space when you submit your manuscript so that he or she can replace it with a variable-width nonbreaking space if either of those glitches happens.

Text destined for digital

Again, if starting from Word, the nonbreaking space may not come through properly in the conversion process, but they’re important for readability in text that will reflow. The HTML code for nonbreaking spaces is &nbsp;. Talk to whoever is responsible for the conversion to digital to see whether it may be best to search for ^s and replace it with &nbsp; (or whatever the markup system you’re using uses for nonbreaking space) in Word before you submit it for e-production.


This list is meant to cover common cases only. If there’s an obvious one I’ve missed (or if you notice an error in any of the above), please let me know and I’ll add it.

House style and the zombie apocalypse: How a poorly thought-out style guide can cost you

Professional freelance editors will be familiar with a few industry-standard style manuals:

  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • Canadian Press Stylebook
  • Associated Press Stylebook
  • MLA Style Manual
  • APA Publication Manual

These references offer broad coverage of most style issues; they’ve been honed over several editions and generally serve editors well. Yet, the vast majority of organizations that regularly produce written communications and publications—including businesses, non-profits, government, as well as traditional publishers—will want to have their own house style. The key is to tame your house style before it takes on a life of its own.

Why do you need house style?

House style is important—for branding and identity, to accommodate audience expectations and ensure subject coverage, and for efficiency and workflow.

Branding and identity

As Barbara Wallraff of The Atlantic Monthly wrote in The Art of Making Magazines, “Even a bunch of highly skilled writers won’t do things consistently. And consistency strengthens the identity of a magazine.” The fact that you can see the word coöperation and know immediately that it comes from The New Yorker shows how powerful a style decision can be to a publication’s identity.

Even for non-publishers, house style ensures consistency of your brand: your organization’s name, its divisions and position titles, should always appear the same way. (For example, in Editors’ Association of Canada communications, you’ll see the organization called “EAC”—and never “the EAC.”)

Audience expectations and subject coverage

Industry-standard style manuals are fairly general and aren’t meant to cover specialized topics, so you may want your house style to fill in the gaps if you’re publishing in a particular genre. An example is cookbooks: publishers of cookbooks for the North American market have discovered that using only metric measurements and giving ingredients like flour in sugar in weight rather than in volume will basically doom the book to failure. These kinds of details would be helpful to have in a house style guide for a cookbook publisher.

Further, some specialized audiences have certain expectations; in some academic circles, for example, usage of particular words is restricted to specific situations, and capitalization and hyphenation can have carry special meaning. (For example, geologists will capitalize “Province,” “Zone,” and “Subzone” but not “subprovince.”)

Efficiency and workflow

Specifying a preference for one of several equally valid options helps establish your editorial authority and helps your editorial team work together. Nobody has to make the initial decision and communicate that to the rest of the team. You reap the most benefits if you use the same editors over and over—they’ll quickly adapt to your house style and use it automatically for your projects.

As for workflow, some house styles will also include special formatting and tagging instructions for editors to follow when they prepare a manuscript for typesetting. These elements are also important but, as I’ll argue later, should be separated out as process guidelines rather than style rules.

How do zombies fit in?

House style guides serve a legitimate role. The problem is that too many house styles are rife with zombie rules.

Zombie rules, a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, refer to rules that may have made sense in the past but no longer apply. Some people like to make the distinction between zombies (which were alive at one point and are now dead) and bogeymen—which never made sense and were, in linguist Geoff Pullum’s words, “just mythical beings invented to frighten children.” For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to all nonsense rules—previously alive or not—as zombies. Further, I’m extending Zwicky’s term beyond grammar and usage to all rules that should no longer rear their heads—because of changes in language, technology, or process. Other zombies creep into a house style guide because of personal preferences and pet peeves.

If you’re responsible for your organization’s house style, you can ultimately do whatever you want, but bear in mind that every zombie rule in your style guide is costing you money.

A case study of poor house style

Here’s an example from my own work: I’d sent an edit back to a journal publisher, and the in-house editor reviewed my work and gave me feedback, which I generally welcome. This time, however, the feedback was confounding. She wrote, “For future reference, please note that we use the serial comma before ‘and’ but not before ‘or.’”

Typically, when a client gives me feedback, I’ll thank them and let them know I’ll keep it in mind for the next project. This time I pushed back a little, explaining that I found that rule puzzling. After all, “and” and “or” are both coordinating conjunctions used in series, and usually, in most style manuals, we us a comma before both or before neither. I also told her that her style guide mentioned only “and”—and that she’d have to add the “or” rule if she really wanted to make the distinction clear. I ended by reiterating my confusion about the rule.

She responded, “It may not make sense, but it is our style.”

First, this is something I’d hope you’ll never have to say to your editors, who are likely to operate on logic and consistency. Second, think of all of the actions and interactions this exchange required. The in-house editor had to:

  • find my error,
  • fix my error,
  • correspond with me about my error (over several emails), and
  • update or clarify the style guide.

She would have to repeat most of these steps every time any other editor made the same mistake.

I had to:

  • correspond with the editor, and
  • add the item to my personal checklist.

Worst of all, I will be second-guessing myself about every rule and slowing myself down for every project I do with this client in the future. After all, if the style guide has this strange rule, what other ones does it have?

Each of these interactions cost the client time and money—and all for a rule that didn’t matter. It did nothing to strengthen the journal’s brand or communicate more clearly to readers, and it certainly didn’t lead to greater editorial efficiency.

Isn’t it a freelancer’s job, you might ask, to adapt to different styles? Absolutely—but rules that needlessly contradict industry standards are costly to both you and your editors. What’s more, freelancers are human. If your style guide is too long, we won’t necessarily remember everything when it comes time to work on your project. And any rule that makes editors stop or stumble will cost you money.

House style best practices

House style guides should supplement, not replace, industry-standard style manuals. Otherwise you’re not only reinventing the wheel; you’re essentially replacing a precision-engineered Formula 1 wheel with the wheel off a shopping cart. Because house style guides are supplements only, they should be no longer than five to ten pages—with the upper end reserved for extensive websites, magazines or series.

Further, house style should be audience focused in two ways:

  • the rules in your style guide should serve your readers, not editorial whims;
  • the guide itself should serve its readers—that is, your editors.

To make your house style the most efficient it can be:

  • regularly review your house style for validity (what I call house style audits)
  • separate policies and procedures
  • put it online
  • update to the latest edition of your industry-standard style manual

If you haven’t already chosen an industry-standard style manual to follow, that’s your first step. Next, you’ll want to audit your house style.

Audit house style

Gather your editorial team and at least one external consultant, maybe one of your regular freelancers, to critically evaluate each item in your house style guide. The external consultant will be able to come at the project with more objectivity and ask why the rules you have are there.

For each item in your house style, figure out whether it matches your chosen style manual.

If so:

  • If the rule is a common one, take it out of your house style guide; your editors will know to follow the rule in the style manual.
  • If the rule is uncommon, cite the location in the style manual where the rule appears (e.g., “We follow Chicago 8.82, which states that…”). Referring to the style manual will let you give an abbreviated version of the rule in your style guide.

If not, ask yourself why:

  • If you can’t figure out a reason the rule exists, take it out of your guide.
  • If there’s a legitimate reason for it, such as specific audience expectations, explain it. Your editors may not know your topic as well as you do.
  • If there’s an illegitimate reason for it (e.g., Diana in marketing hates hyphens), explain it. Not only will the clarification help editors remember the rule, but you’ll also know that when circumstances change (e.g., Diana takes a job at another company), you can immediately kill this zombie for good.

Basically, each item in your house style should be justifiable. When you review your house style, watch out in particular for places where your style guide contradicts itself, which can happen if it’s the product of several people’s input.

Finally, ask yourself if you can live with internal consistency alone. If you publish books, for example, each book will have its own style sheet, and readers are unlikely to compare the style of two of your books or care if they differ.

Good times to review your house style are:

  • when people leave,
  • when you introduce a new process, or
  • when you upgrade to a new version of software or update to a new edition of a reference.

Separate policies and procedures

Is your house style document just a style guide, or have you inadvertently canonized it? Some organizations put everything into their house style, from their mission statement to publishing and editorial philosophy. New editors may appreciate the background information, but, for the sake of efficiency, make sure you separate it from the reference material that the editors will have to access regularly. Having to read through preamble to find a rule slows editors down, and you’re paying for that time.

Also separate out style matters (e.g., serial comma or not) from process matters (e.g., formatting and tagging for workflow). Process will probably change much more frequently with changes in technology.

Put it online

I’ve evangelized extensively about the usefulness of editorial wikis, so I won’t do it again here, but I’m a firm believer in putting house style online so that you have one master copy that is

  • easy to revise,
  • easy to search, and
  • easy to make modular.

In a wiki, it’s simple to isolate the parts of your house style that apply just to copy editing, for example, so that you don’t overwhelm your copy editors with irrelevant details that only proofreaders would need to know.

Update your industry-standard references

Use the latest editions of style manuals and dictionaries as your references. Many freelancers now have online subscriptions to their references and have access to only the latest editions.

Taking the leap to a new reference may be an annoyance for in-house staff, but the aggravation is temporary. Freelance editors have to switch between styles all the time, so you’ll adapt in no time. To ease the transition, keep a running checklist of changes to run global searches for (or better yet, make a macro to automate the process).


A house style guide is an essential piece of a communication or publishing operation. Despite the quality of existing style manuals, I’d never suggest going without a house style. Writers and editors benefit from having some guidance and structure on projects, particularly if they’re new to your organization. Just be sure to keep your audience(s) in mind as you develop and maintain your house style guide so that you’re getting the most out of it.

Book review: The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects

Jim Coutu is an arbitrator who works with freelance job sites; essentially he’s a judge in what he calls “project divorce court.” When a project goes sour, it’s his job to pore over correspondence between the client and freelancer, interpreting often vague contracts to figure out who ultimately gets the money. In other words, he’s an expert in what can go wrong in a project, and he’s written an ebook, The Employer’s Guide to Hiring Freelancers and Managing Outsourced Projects, to shed light on common problems and offer suggestions on how to avoid them.

This book fills a critical void: whereas freelancers have banded together to form communities online, whether for stress relief through humour or for advocacy, there aren’t that many resources out there for people on the other side of that relationship. Clients are left to feel out their first projects on their own, and, without guidance, many of them are liable to make mistakes—some of which may start out as minor but can snowball to the point of jeopardizing a project.

Coutu’s background is in software, but his book covers all kinds of outsourcing, from web and graphic design to writing and virtual assistance (although neither editing nor indexing are mentioned). Helpfully, he gives specific tips and examples for each of these areas, as well as more general advice about

  • writing a solid project description so that bidding freelancers will know what you’re looking for
  • assessing the quality of a freelancer
  • paying by the hour versus paying by the project
  • looking out for potential copyright issues
  • keeping projects on schedule
  • working across different cultures and time zones

Coutu offers advice about how best to use the freelance sites’ features to protect yourself. For example, some of these sites will take screen shots of the freelancer’s desktop as they work as proof that they’re billing only for work on your project; the sites will also allow you to hold money in escrow and store a record of all of your correspondence with a freelancer so that an arbitrator can easily review the contract (and any changes to it). Although Coutu advocates care and rigour on the employer’s part, what I appreciate most about the book is that he never describes the client–freelancer relationship as an adversarial one. In fact, one of the first suggestions he gives is to “set the freelancer up for success. Make sure that they have everything that they need before you accept their bid, including specific requirements of what you want completed.” Your aim when using a freelance job site isn’t to get away with paying the least; rather, “the goal for both parties should be to get the work done at a fair price. The employer is happy that the work got done for a fair price, the freelancer is happy that they are paid a fair wage.” He also urges wary employers to consider the freelancers’ perspective: “Remember, the worker is also taking a risk working with an unknown employer who may take their work and not pay them.”

Coutu gives sample arbitration scenarios to show how the process would assess and resolve different kinds of disputes. Not surprisingly, problems in projects often result from poor communication, and Coutu emphasizes that both parties share a responsibility of ensuring that they have a common understanding of the contract. “Ambiguous wording issues are the fault of the employer,” he writes, and if you’re not getting what you need, it’s up to you to communicate clearly what the issues are. “Unfortunately,” Coutu writes, “I have seen many cases where poor feedback and poor feedback alone has caused a project to fail.” When a freelancer doesn’t meet expectations, advises Coutu, “Even if you absolutely hate what has been delivered, resist the temptation to reply with an emotional response. Always be professional.” He adds, “Emotional responses lead to arguments, not discussions.”

Also commendable is Coutu’s attention to copyright issues. He tells employers to be vigilant about running images used in a design through a reverse image search and text through Copyscape or Google to make sure there’s no infringement or plagiarism. He also notes that “freelancers who come from countries where copyrights are not enforced are simply not aware of the issues.”

Although Coutu makes his living as an arbitrator, he advises employers to use arbitration as a last resort, encouraging self-mediation as a first step. “As an arbitrator, I am keenly aware that the arbitration process is difficult for all parties. Even if you have a rock solid case that clearly documents abuses by the other party, arbitration is going to cost time that would be better spent on other endeavors.”

Because this book focuses mostly on one-off projects through online freelance job sites, it probably won’t be terribly useful to managing editors and production managers in publishing, whose day-to-day work involves hiring editors, designers, and indexers for a steady stream of projects. It doesn’t, for instance, suggest places other than freelance job sites—such as member directories of professional associations—to look for skilled freelancers, nor does it address the all-important relationship building and need to create a strong network of professionals you know you can trust to work on project after project. These ties are essential to keeping training costs down and ensuring coverage for all of your projects through the publishing cycle.

In contrast, self-publishers may find a lot of value in this book; some of them may choose to use a freelance job site to find a cover designer, for example, or someone to convert a print book to an EPUB. Unfortunately, The Employer’s Guide isn’t a comprehensive reference for self-publishers, as it doesn’t talk about the role of editors or indexers at all. In fact, in his advice about how to give feedback to a freelance writer, he writes, “If something is awkwardly worded, give examples of what might work better”—a task that a professional editor would certainly be in a strong(er) position to do.

Incidentally, as a self-published book, The Employer’s Guide is clear and easy to read, although, as an advocate for my profession, I have to say that I’d have preferred the book if it had gone through a copy edit and had a linked index. In terms of its content, a managing editor’s manual it is not, but for those who want to explore what the global work force has to offer, this book brims with sage advice that will help maximize your odds of getting what you want while minimizing your risks.

PubPro 2014 attendees can enter a draw to win a copy of The Employer’s Guide.

Editors’ Association of Canada members who have contract disputes with clients can turn to EAC’s mediator for help:

PubPro 2014—Registration opens soon!

Registration opens this Friday for the second annual PubPro unconference for managing editors and publication production specialists, co-hosted by the Editors’ Association of Canada’s BC branch and SFU Publishing Workshops. This year, the event will take place on Saturday, May 24, beginning in room 1420 at Harbour Centre, and, like last year, it will consist of a day of participant-driven presentations and group discussions and a mid-afternoon networking tea.

People who do publication project management and production tend not to have the same kinds of professional development opportunities as professionals in other areas of publishing. PubPro is an attempt to close the gap and offers us the chance to learn from one another. Presenters and discussion leaders are invited to share their slides and notes, which are shared with all registered participants.

This year, in addition to sponsorship from Friesens, Scrivener CommunicationsTalk Science to Me, and West Coast Editorial Associates, the Association of Book Publishers of BC is offering a travel subsidy to ABPBC members outside the Lower Mainland who want to attend. Contact Margaret Reynolds if you’d like more details.

Freelancers who want to chat up a roomful of managing editors are invited to join us for the networking tea for a mere $5. (The networking tea is included for participants who’ve registered for the unconference itself.)

At PubPro 2013, participants presented about such diverse issues as interactive editing, print on demand, and editing platforms beyond Microsoft Word and held discussions about project management software and digital workflow tools. I was heartened to see that the event reached two populations that EAC traditionally has always aimed, but has sometimes struggled, to reach: in-house and senior editors. I’m hoping that participants who came out last year and witnessed the process will be more comfortable coming forward to give a presentation or lead a discussion this year.

For those of you who plan to be there and are thinking about possible presentation or discussion topics, here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • The care and feeding of freelancers: What are some simple ways to build solid relationships with your best freelance editors, indexers, and designers? What kind of training, if any, do you give your freelancers?
  • Testing, testing: Do you test your new freelancers? With a test you developed in house? Is it reliable? Would you trust a third-party test? Would you trust credentials resulting from a third-party test?
  • One house, many imprints: Whether you’re a book publisher that has recently merged with another or a periodical publisher that puts out several different titles, you have a lot to juggle. How have you integrated your workflows? How do you reconcile differences in style and process?
  • XML first: How close are traditional publishers to an XML-first workflow? Some communities, like the technical communicators, have been “single sourcing” for years. What can we learn from them?
  • Editorial archiving: After each project, you’re left with a large stack of documents—whether physical or virtual. What do you keep? What do you recycle? What do you shred? How do you store the documents for easy retrieval? What security, liability, and ethical issues do you need to consider? What is the historical value of a set of editorial archives?
  • Mentorship: Thirty years ago, when publishing programs weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today, in-house mentorship was the foundation upon which editors built their careers. Does mentorship still have a role to play? What does it look like? What should it look like?
  • Indexing: Are your publications indexed? Should they be? How do you find quality indexers? What is your indexing workflow? Do you have your indexers do embedded indexing?

Please spread the word about this one-of-a-kind event. For more information about PubPro 2014, visit the event’s main page. Read a recap of last year’s event on EAC-BC’s newsletter, West Coast Editor, or my previous blog posts.

UPDATE (April 12, 2014): Registration is now open!