The following is a guest post by Associate Editor Jim Bessent is the responsibilities of a production editor in sherpherding books from manuscript to finished codex.
I could do several entries on the issues and decisions production editors face in their jobs, but I’m going to compress a bunch of them into just a couple entries so it will make us seem more important and exciting. First, an insight: Among production editors, there are few pleasures in life more satisfying than detecting an inconsistency in another editor’s project, and if it’s an outright error, I cannot describe the euphoria without embarrassing myself. Persnickety, nitpicky, hairsplitting, picayunish are all words we equate with correctness, quality, a job well done—rightness even. By the way, nit-picking, as opposed to nitpicky, is hyphenated.
There are several areas in which our penchant for precision gets called into play. Like lawyers, whose profession is often described as adversarial by nature, production editors could be said to be looking for trouble, and where do we find it? Our marketing colleagues, who disdain to speak or write in complete sentences. Sacrilege! Our designer colleagues, who are “visual”; their attention to and allegiance to the meaning of words is secondary to how they look. (I see that Microsoft’s grammar check has its little squiggly green line under the word is in the preceding sentence. Are you talkin’ to me? ARE YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?!!!)
Authors? Well, authors are our bread and butter, so we extend to them a little more benefit of the doubt. Some are meek and deferential, and those we obligingly patronize as we repair their prosaic misdemeanors. Authors can also be strident in their insistence on a given usage, in which case we try to trick, cajole, or bludgeon them into propriety, or failing that, “give them their voice.” We do make a good-faith effort to protect and enhance their credibility, but in the end, there are things authors know best.
Now let’s look at a sampling of items that have come up for discussion today.
10:00 am I’m double-checking the fourth pass of one of my colleague’s book cover mechanicals. Looks pretty clean. Wait, what’s this? Harley-Davison? OH, MY GOD! Am I working with illiterates? It’s Davidson. I wonder: What would Captain Bligh do?
Style Peeves and Preferences
We work with outside copyeditors and proofreaders a lot, many of whom have their pet peeves and preferences when it comes to style. One in particular stands out for his uncompromising position on between and among. To him, between always has two objects; and it has to be among if there are more than two. So he would change, “Between you and me and the deep blue sea…” to “Among you and me, etc., …” We bowed to this strict constructionism for a while, until…
10:30 am One of us grows suspicious and curious and finally looks it up. Lo, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, devotes a lengthy paragraph to explaining more precisely when one or the other is most appropriate, the last sentence of which reads, “When among is automatically chosen for more than two, English idiom may be strained.” This prim display of grammatical ankle brings forth a maelstrom of departmental mirth: “I’m sorry, I would help you move this weekend, but I strained my idiom.” We are laughing, rolling on the floor. Of course, this kind of merrymaking (one word) is not the norm.
The Not-So-Humble Hyphen
11:00 am Decorum is restored. Let’s talk about hyphens for a moment. Hands down (no hyphen), hyphenation gives rise to more dictionary grabs than any other lexicographical crisis. Determining whether a compound should be two words, hyphenated, or closed up can lead to some very emotionally charged discussions. I mean, we haven’t had any assassinations or dismissals over it, but hey, day ain’t over. So here’s a little interactive, audience-participation exercise. In the following list, which of the three choices do you think is correct?
Open versus Hyphenated versus Closed
- blind sided (v.) versus blind-sided versus blindsided
- feet first (adv.) versus feet-first versus feetfirst
- clear headed (adj.) versus clear-headed versus clearheaded
- trouble maker (n.) versus trouble-maker versus troublemaker
- flim flam (n.) versus flim-flam versus flimflam
Mmmm-hmmm. Not so obvious is it. And you may get different answers depending on which dictionary you consult, even which edition of the same dictionary, so to avert chaos it’s important for all the editors at a given publisher to use the same dictionary. One of the most action-packed couple of hours in my editing career came when one of our typesetters inadvertently turned on the German dictionary feature of his software when setting one of our books, which resulted in a host of perplexing end-of-line hyphenation breaks.
And then there’s the oddity of all editorial oddities, hyphen strings, which are stacks of three or more hyphens at the ends of consecutive lines on a page. Can you say “consternation?” We insist on resetting when this occurs. One of my co-workers found a string of eight once. Imagine the odds against that. I printed out the page and push-pinned it to my wall.
Jim returns with part two of a Day in the Life of a Production Editor tomorrow. Stay tuned!
Jim Bessent is an Associate Editor at AMACOM. He works in the production department and sees finished manuscripts through the various stages of production: copyediting, proofing, indexing, all correction cycles, etc. Prior to joining AMACOM, Jim worked as an editorial freelancer and had a small collectibles business. Visit our website for freelance editorial opportunities.