The freelancer and … BIG DOGS

Q. Why is a non-fiction manuscript like a big dog?

A. I’m delighted you asked.

Dogs are brilliant, rewarding and fun companions – so long as you (the human) are in control of them. Dogs are pack animals, and packs aren’t democracies. In every pack there is a dominant dog in charge, and in the human-dog ‘pack’, this is still true from the dog’s point of view. If you don’t take the boss’s role, they will. Then you are in the company of a powerful, disruptive (at best) and downright dangerous (at worst) predatory hunting animal, with big teeth, over whom you have no control. You have no idea what might happen after that. Maybe nothing much. Maybe a minor nuisance. Maybe something very bad indeed.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

OK, if a manuscript gets away from an editor’s control, it won’t actually bite the editor or destroy her furniture. One hopes. But a number of undesirable things may happen in unpredictable ways as a result, and I think it’s safe to say that authors and publishers hate that.

If the text is full of invisible characters, extra spaces and tabs, and weird formatting that is going to fly off in all directions once it gets into contact with page make-up software; if the structure of the text, the hierarchy of headings and subheadings, etc, is a mess; if the different elements of the text (not just headings but also displayed and boxed matter, quotations, captions, and so on) are not clearly identified; then how can the designer do a good job? It won’t be a surprise if page layouts arrive in a mess and need a lot of time-consuming and potentially expensive fixing. Perhaps they can’t be completely fixed, and then the final printed book will be a mess. Readers and reviewers will certainly notice and probably complain. (They will, likewise, soon realise if the text itself is littered with confusing inconsistencies, omissions and errors, but for the moment I’m thinking mainly about issues of text mark-up and presentation.)

Good reasons exist, then, to get that metaphorical dog on the lead and walking to heel. It’s a great idea for editors to write or record their own clean-up macros, or at least have a list of search and replace options that they run through systematically and thoughtfully (customised for each project, of course).

I’m a great fan of using the Style function in Word to flag up headings and other items such as boxed matter. There are other perfectly good ways of doing it, including the time-honoured one of typing (e.g.) <BOX STARTS> and <BOX ENDS> at the relevant points in the text. (By the way, I recommend not using those tempting text boxes that Word will insert for you. Often when text is selected, copied or printed, the contents of those boxes will disappear …!) There are some lovely things about using named styles, though. You can look at them in Outline view and see your structure; you can search by style name; you can change the formatting of (e.g.) all of your B headings consistently and in one operation if you need to do so. Styles avoid the need for a tonne of applied formatting (individually marked italic, bold, fonts, etc), and it’s the applied formatting that often makes Word files large and prone to crashing.

And, best of all, if you can coordinate with the book designer, he or she can set up a template in Quark or InDesign with the same style names, and the text will flow in and style itself correctly. Good dog!

(By the way, if you don’t define and apply your own styles, Word will try to apply a random selection of its own. There is pretty much no such thing as a text without styles in Microsoft Word, so make sure they are the ones you choose.)

A clean, well-behaved, housebroken text is welcome in every publishing office and design studio. It will not make the designer’s job unnecessarily difficult or cause a welter of unforeseen layout or typesetting problems. Therefore, everyone’s working life will be that bit easier and the freelance editor will get a reputation for being well-organised and look good to her employers. Wagging tails all round.

(By the way, I would love to have a big dog. Unfortunately, I’m already Chief of Staff to two cats, and they would fire me on the spot at the mere suggestion.)


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