Communication Convergence 2014

Plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Katherine McManus teamed up with the Society for Technical Communication’s Autumn Jonssen and EAC-BC’s Amy Haagsma to organize the first Communication Convergence mini-conference as part of the Vancouver celebrations of International Plain Language Day, October 13. Because IPL Day coincides with Thanksgiving this year, we celebrated one weekend earlier, on October 5.

The afternoon included a networking buffet lunch, followed by three panel discussions. I was a panellist on the first, which explored the tendency for different communication fields to apply a common range of methods. Joining me were:

Frances Peck moderated.

The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured

Katherine McManus moderated.

The third panel, hosted by

  • Lisa Mighton, director of communications and community liaison at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
  • Paula LaBrie, marketing communications specialist;
  • and Cheryl Stephens, who moderated,

was more of an open discussion asking where we—as a community of communicators dedicated to plain language—go from here.

We had eleven speakers and three moderators, as well as plenty of comments and questions from the floor, so although the format made for invigorating discussion, I couldn’t capture everything that everyone said in my notes. Not pretending to do all of the participants justice, I’ll just give an overview of my impressions and the points I found most interesting. Because there was a lot of overlap among the three sessions, I’ll focus on the day’s themes rather than the specifics from each panel. (Find photos of the Communication Convergence event on IPL Day’s Twitter.)

Writing and editing for the audience (sometimes easier said than done)

We all agreed that the audience is paramount when we craft our communications. Joe Goodwill pointed out the importance of considering the audience’s cultural context, which can be very different from our own.

What can get especially tricky is when your work has to go through several layers of approval, said Heidi Turner. Frances Peck agreed: often at each of those levels managers and directors reintroduce jargon and officialese and undo all of the work you’ve done to make that text accessible. Turner always tries to advocate for plain language, telling those clients for whom she writes grants that “A funder won’t want to give you money just because you use big words,” but from a business standpoint she ultimately has to give her clients what they want, and sometimes they don’t have a very good idea of who their readers are.

How do you write for disparate audiences? Sometimes you have to create more than one document, and Stephens reminded us that there will always be some people we can’t reach with our writing. But if your hands are tied, Elizabeth Rains said to “use the plainest language possible that will satisfy your readers’ needs.” She firmly believes that “no matter what type of information you have, it can be explained simply. And you may find that you can use that same language to explain concepts to very, very different audiences.”

Tools and resources

Pam Drucker’s work as a technical communicator has evolved over the years; today, she no longer works on large manuals but instead writes individual articles or topics. Her most consulted resources include the

She also uses structured writing techniques (e.g., Information Mapping).

Plain language as a right

Beyond the arguments that clear communication is more efficient and will get better results, what motivates many advocates of plain language is that we feel it’s a human rights issue. Information can be life altering, sometimes life saving. Citizens need to understand their government’s legislation to participate in a democracy. People with health issues deserve to understand their treatment options to achieve the best health outcomes. What can we do get people the information they need?

Christabelle Kux-Kardos works with immigrants and seniors, among others, to help them access community and government services. Her approach is to do what she calls a literacy audit: she tries to step back and try to see the world through the lens of a new client. This process has shown her that some services, even essential ones, have poor signage and are hard to find, particularly if you don’t know the language well or aren’t comfortable with technology. She sees it as her responsibility to point out to those services what they could be doing better. A lot of her work, she said, involves talking with her clients to tease out the right questions. What don’t they know that they need to know? Often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Nicholson reminds us that for some people, there is value in misrepresentation. “There are circumstances in which people are vested in obfuscating,” she said. “We have to be loud enough to cut through the clutter.”

Beyond comprehension to persuasion

Did the audience understand the message? Achieving understanding is always the communicator’s goal, but should it stop there? How do we persuade people to act on that information?

Hompoth, an image consultant, said that we are judged on

  • how we look,
  • what we do,
  • what we say, and
  • how we say it.

What we say accounts for 7 percent of the message, but how we say it counts for 13 percent (with other non-verbal communication making up the balance). In other words, our delivery is more important than our content.

That reality certainly jibes with health and science communications. How best to achieve persuasion is an unanswered question from a knowledge translation point of view: we can present people with evidence that smoking harms health, but evidence alone isn’t enough to convince some smokers to quit. Whether our message spurs change depends on the audience’s level of motivation.

As much as some of us may shy away from marketing, if we really want to effect change, we may have to study it. Will a course in psychology eventually be a required part of communications training?

Communication in and from academia

Those who know me know that one of my life’s missions is to try to eradicate turgid writing from academia. Academese is unnecessary, it hinders understanding and collaboration, and, because research is mostly taxpayer funded, it is undemocratic. Part of my research in knowledge translation involves finding alternative means of communicating research so that stakeholders beyond a researcher’s own colleagues can find and use it. Journal articles haven’t fundamentally changed in sixty years: if you print one out, it will still be in tiny type, packed onto a page with no space to breathe.

But we are making some gains. Many journals, North American ones, especially, are more accepting now than ever of first-person pronouns in journal articles. The style can be more conversational, and as research necessarily gets more interdisciplinary, researchers are beginning to recognize that they need a lingua franca to work together, and that lingua franca is plain language. We still have a long way to go, but we can celebrate these small victories.

Jandciu’s programs at UBC try to tackle the problem earlier, with communications courses designed specifically for science students. Although the Faculty of Science had always acknowledged that its students needed to develop communication skills, it usually left that training to first-year English courses. Feedback from graduating students, though, showed that those courses weren’t adequately preparing them to write reports and scientific articles or prepare and give presentations. Now the Faculty of Science offers a first-year course that integrates communication into science training and helps students develop scientific arguments. A third-year course has students interview researchers and develop videos and podcasts. Even funders, said Jandciu, are wanting researchers to do more outreach using social media, videos, and multimedia. Research communication can no longer be just text based.

He occasionally still hears students say, “But I’m in science because I don’t like to write,” or “I can’t do presentations,” but after the courses they realize the value of being able to communicate their scientific expertise. They begin to grasp that a lot of legislation hinges on policy makers getting sound information, and right now scientists aren’t doing a good enough job getting it out to them or to the public. “We need science students to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science,” said Jandciu.

Jeff Richmond, a journalist, responded that a lot of blame is put on “the media” for distorting research. And although it’s true that some stories can get sensationalized, if you talk to individual journalists, they typically have the sincerest of intentions. How does the distortion happen, and how we can express ideas in plain language without altering the facts?

Increasing awareness and uptake of plain language

We were all preaching to the converted at Communication Convergence—we all understand the value of plain language. But not everyone thinks the way we do. Nicholson said that we know that clear communication is the ethical choice, but when it comes to convincing others, some people and organizations simply won’t respond unless you show them the economic benefits.

And Stephens said that although professional legal associations support plain language, there’s still a culture of resistance among practising lawyers. I believe the key is in subtle shifts—a kind of quiet rebellion. There are several tacks to plain language; do what you can within the bounds of the culture, but start gathering evidence that what you are doing is producing results.

Does the public at large realize what they’re missing when communication isn’t clear? How can we raise awareness of plain language?

Paula LaBrie suggested that we all find a way to celebrate International Plain Language Day at our workplaces and spread the word about it. Lisa Mighton said we should always look for opportunities to turn our work into a media story.

The ideas from the crowd reinforced the community’s need for a central repository of plain language information: research, case studies, history. I urged everyone to join the Clear Communication Wiki and start contributing to it. It has the potential to become a valuable resource, but it needs a critical mass of participation.


My key takeaway from Communication Convergence is that being able to say “I don’t understand” is a privilege. The most disenfranchised among us may not realize that there’s an alternative to confusing communication or may feel that revealing their lack of comprehension might make them look ignorant, compromising their position.

We communicators need to acknowledge our privilege and use it to push for change. “By not calling people on their poor communication practices,” said McManus, “we’re making people—maybe generations of people—put up with a lack of information. It becomes the responsibility of communicators not to just throw up our hands and give up.”

Stephens and McManus hope to make Communication Convergence an annual event. If you have ideas for session topics or speakers, get in touch via LinkedIn or Twitter.

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.

Stefan Dollinger on the changing expectations of the Oxford English Dictionary

Until December 24, 2013, Rare Books and Special Collections at the UBC Library is running an exhibition, The Road to the Oxford English Dictionary, that traces the history of English lexicography and the work that eventually led to the OED. To kick off this exhibition, Stefan Dollinger, assistant professor in the English department at UBC and editor-in-chief of The Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, gave a free public lecture titled “Oxford English Dictionary, the Grimm Brothers, and Miley Cyrus: On the Changing Expectations of the OED—Past, Present, and (Possible) Futures.”

The OED, said Dollinger, bills itself as “the definitive record of the English language.” So what happens when you try to look up a recently coined word like “twerk”? The Oxford English Dictionary itself returns

No dictionary entries found for ‘twerk’.

but, the contemporary dictionary, gives this definition:

Pronunciation: /twəːk/
[no object] informal

dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance:

just wait till they catch their daughters twerking to this song

twerk it girl, work it girl

Will words like “twerk” and “bootylicious” eventually make their way into the OED? We don’t usually expect these kinds of neologisms to become accepted by the dictionary so quickly, but earlier this year, the OED quietly added the social media sense of the word “tweet,” breaking its rule that a word has to be current for ten years before it’s considered for inclusion—a move that possibly signals a change in our expectations of the dictionary.

Dollinger took a step back to the roots of the OED. As much as Oxford University Press would like to claim that the dictionary was a pioneering publication, a lot of the groundwork for the kind of lexicography used to put it together had been laid by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm a few years earlier when they published the first volume of their German language dictionary (Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm). Nor is the OED‘s the world’s largest monolingual dictionary; that distinction belongs to the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal (Dictionary of the Dutch language), with over 430,000 entries running almost 50,000 pages. Is the OED the most historically important dictionary? Dollinger offered the contrasting example of the Dictionary of American Regional English, a project of the American Dialect Society, which used detailed questionnaires to collect rigorous regional, social, and historical data about words used in American English. Although the number of entries pales in comparison with the OED, the level of detail is unparalleled and probably more important to researchers of the English language.

Still, there’s no denying that the OED has been extremely influential and is still considered an authoritative resource. Dollinger gave us a run-down of the dictionary’s history.

In November 1857, Richard Chenevix Trench, Dean of Westminster Abbey, addressed the Philological Society in London in a talk later published as On Some Deficiencies in Our English Dictionaries. In this publication, which planted the seeds of the OED, Trench outlined seven problems with existing dictionaries:

I. Obsolete words are incompletely registered; some inserted, some not; with no reasonable rule adduced for the omission of these, the insertion of those other.

II. Families or groups of words are often imperfect, some members of a family inserted, while others are omitted.

III. Oftentimes much earlier examples of the employment of words exist than any which our Dictionaries have cited; indicating that they were earlier introduced into the language than these examples would imply; and in case of words now obsolete, much later, frequently marking their currency at a period long after that when we are left to suppose that they passed out of use.

IV. Important meanings and uses of words are passed over; sometimes the later alone given, while the earlier, without which the history of words will be often maimed and incomplete, or even unintelligible, are unnoticed.

V. Comparatively little attention is paid to the distinguishing of synonymous words.

VI. Many passages in our literature are passed by, which might be usefully adduced in illustration of the first introduction, etymology, and meaning of words.

VII. And lastly, our Dictionaries err in redundancy as well as in defect, in the too much as well as the too little; all of them inserting some things, and some of them many things, which have properly no claim to find room in their pages.

Trench’s recommendations included using quotations to show usage, a practice now known as the “OED method” but that should, accordingly to Dollinger, perhaps more accurately be termed the “Grimm method,” seeing as they used the same approach for their Wörterbuch. Trench also wrote

A Dictionary, then, according to that idea of it which seems to me alone capable of being logically maintained, is an inventory of the language… It is no task of the maker of it to select the good words of a language. If he fancies that it is so, and begins to pick and choose, to leave this and to take that, he will at once go astray. The business which he has undertaken is to collect and arrange all the words, whether good or bad, whether they commend themselves to his judgment or otherwise, which, with certain exceptions hereafter to be specified, those writing in the language have employed.

This most progressive thought of Trench’s echoes the Grimms, who, three years earlier, in their 1854 Wörterbuch, had written

“And here the difference between adorned language and vulgar (raw) language comes into effect… Should the dictionary list the indecent words or should they be left out?… The dictionary, if it is supposed to be worth its salt, is not here to hide words, but to show them… one must not try to eradicate such words and expressions.”

Trench, incidentally, never acknowledged any of the Grimms’ innovations, many of which the OED‘s lexicographers (consciously or unconsciously) borrowed.

In 1879, Oxford University Press appointed James A.H. Murray as editor-in-chief of the OED, and he edited more than half of the entries in the first edition. In 1928, the dictionary was published in twelve volumes, at which point it already needed updating. William Craigie and C.T. Onions edited a supplement, published in 1933; the thirteen volumes together are referred to collectively as OED1. Edmund Weiner and John Simpson co-edited the dictionary’s second edition, OED2, which was published in print in 1989 and on CD-ROM in 1992.

Did these editors follow Trench’s suggestion that the OED be a comprehensive inventory of the language? Dollinger noted that colonial bias in Victorian times, and consequently, in the OED, was pervasive, and despite the editors’ best intentions of keeping the dictionary up to date, likely more than 50 percent of the original entries remain unchanged. Dollinger argued that perhaps the tagline “The definitive record of the English language” should more accurately read “The definitive record of the English language (as seen by Oxford [mostly] men largely of the [upper] middle class).” For instance, the dictionary has long been criticized for relying on literary texts for examples of usage. Dollinger offered the example of “sea-dingle,” whose OED entry reads as follows:

sea-dingle n. (now only arch.) an abyss or deep in the sea.

a1240 Sowles Warde in Cott. Hom. 263 His runes ant his domes þe derne beoð ant deopre þen eni sea dingle [= abyss of the sea: cf. Ps. xxxv. 6 Vulg. Judicia tua abyssus multa].

c1931 W.H. Auden in M. Roberts New Signatures (1932) 30 Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.

Yet, as Seth Lerer has noted, W.H. Auden (an Oxford man) “mined the OED for archaic, pungent words.” Does his use of the word really reflect common usage? Not, said Dollinger, if you look at the Urban Dictionary entry for the term:

1. sea-dingle

A sex act involving two people in which salmon roe is used as lubrication facilitating anal penetration by a penis.

Yeah, I was out camping with my wife. I got lucky when we went fishing and then again when we went back to the tent. She was totally down for a sea-dingle.

(This practice of recycling old terms in a “reification of literary writers” brought to my mind this XKCD cartoon on citogenesis.)

Dollinger pointed out a problem with the way the OED describes itself:

the Oxford English Dictionary is an irreplaceable part of English culture. It not only provides an important record of the evolution of our language, but also documents the continuing development of our society.

What is “English culture,” and what is “our”? In other words, who owns English? As early as the late 1960s, linguist David Crystal noted that, in order to be a comprehensive record of English, the OED would have to include World Englishes. Today the number of people who speak English as a second language outnumber native speakers five to one, and they use a kind of global English for trade and other interactions. Who are native speakers to say that their terms—handy for “cell phone” in Euro-English, prepone for “rescheduling to an earlier time” in Indo-English, and batchmate for “cohort member” in Philippine English—aren’t proper English usage?

As far as Dollinger is concerned, the OED is at a crossroads and can go down one of three paths:

  1. Take an Inner Circle focus (i.e., UK, Australia, New Zealand, North America, South Africa).
  2. Retreat to focus on British English only (which would in itself be a challenging task, owing to the variations of English spoken across the country).
  3. Include all World Englishes, in which case the dictionary should treat the Inner, Outer and Expanding circles on an equal footing. If its aim is truly to be the “principal dictionary of record for the English language throughout the lifetime of all current users of the language,” as the preface to the third edition of the OED claims, this path is the only logical choice.

Dollinger closed by encouraging all of us to check out the exhibition at Rare Books and Special Collections.Road to the OED poster

Going out of style

This post also appears on The Editors’ Weekly, the Editors’ Association of Canada’s official blog.


“It’s house style.”

I don’t think I fully appreciated the power of that sentence until I could no longer use it. As editors we’re constantly striving to balance the needs of the publisher, author and reader, but with the growth of self- and custom publishing, the needs of the publisher are becoming irrelevant in more and more projects. You’d think having one less item for editors to juggle would make our lives easier, but upholding certain editorial standards can get tricky when the author is the publisher and the client.

As much as we’d love to believe that all parties in the traditional publisher–editor–author relationship are equal, in reality the publisher holds the bulk of the power, as the one who signs the editor’s paycheque and decides whether an author’s work will make it to market. I’ve leveraged that tacit hierarchy (which is particularly apparent in academic publishing, where production efficiency is a priority, and corporate publishing, where brand building is important) when working with authors: in some cases it has allowed me to build a sibling-like rapport with them. We understand that we’re both answering to “Mom,” and when I invoke house style, I’m pretty much saying, “Mom says you need to go mow the lawn. Sorry.” I’m not that sorry, of course: I know that following these house rules will, in general, give us an ultimately stronger, more consistent text.

In the editor–self-publishing author dynamic, however, the concept of house style is meaningless, and because the author’s the one paying the editor’s invoices, the editor has to be prepared to bend. As Amy Einsohn advises in the The Copyeditor’s Handbook, “For the working copyeditor, deference is the better part of valor: if the author’s preference is at all acceptable, it should be respected.” (p. 336) The author insists on uppercasing all corporate titles? Well, okay. The text might look a bit funny, but readers probably won’t get confused. But what if an author wants to do something so unconventional that even a casual reader would be baffled—and responds to “But The Chicago Manual of Style says…” with “I don’t care!”?

When editing sans publisher, other instruments of persuasion in our usual editorial toolkit can also lose their power. Even “I’m concerned that this editorial approach will hurt your sales” doesn’t always work, because many self-publishing authors either won’t have thought that far ahead or won’t believe you. I’ve had more success with “Your readers won’t be used to seeing that style; they’ll think it’s a mistake, which might affect your credibility,” but when that strategy fails and the author really digs in his or her heels, I have to take a step back and remind myself whose name is on the book.

Of course, I’m by no means suggesting that editors should blindly follow house style even when it is available; in many cases doing so would be to the detriment of the text. What I am saying is that I miss being able to lean on house style—and other aspects of a publisher’s editorial vision—when the publisher is out of the picture, and I have to admit that those situations leave me feeling a bit more vulnerable in my dealings with the author. But with that vulnerability, I suppose, comes a creative freedom that may allow this minimalist publication team to produce some truly innovative work.

What strategies have you developed to persuade your self-publishing authors that your style choice is in the best interest of their text?

Not-so-lazy summer days

I’ve been meaning to post a write-up of a recent event I attended, but I just haven’t had the time (hence my silence for almost two weeks). Seasoned freelancers will laugh at my naïveté, but having worked in house for the past several years, I was used to having my work get just a wee bit lighter at this time of year—and I wasn’t at all prepared for the deluge of projects from clients trying to cover for vacationing editors. But I guess I’ve just discovered another perk of the flexibility that comes from freelancing: if you’re willing to take your holidays off season, the summer is, apparently, rife with opportunities.

Anyway, I’m hoping to get caught up this weekend. Check back soon, and thanks for your patience!