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The reader rules

Posted on 3rd January 2019

I know it is a bit of a cliché for an editor/proofreader to write about their love of reading and all things book-related, but having read a lot lately for pleasure, it made me think about how this affects my work.

I'm not going to go so far as to say that everything I read counts towards continuing professional development (CPD), but I do think that it can be very helpful.

Reading for pleasure instead of proofreading or editing

I don't feel it's a case of whether or not I can switch off my editing/proofreading mode of reading when I do read for pleasure, but more like how things I notice make me consider what I do change or query when editing or proofreading, and what impact this has on the reader.

Some editing and proofreading issues uncovered by books I've read lately

Should SI units have a non-breaking space?

In almost all the formal style guides I've read, the theory is that SI units should have a non-breaking space, with the % and degree signs usually the exception. This would mean we'd have something like:

The tree is 10 ft high.
Use 7 g of yeast.

But I have recently read quite a few running-related books and they almost always close the space up:

The route is 10km.

I was sufficiently intrigued by this that I went to Twitter to ask my editor and proofreader friends for their opinions. For some, the aesthetics of not having the space was preferred, especially if there would be an issue of hyphens, for example:

A 10km run or a 10-km run?

If we wrote it out, it would be a ten-kilometre run, so I can see why the hyphen might be needed, but by closing this space up, the issue is avoided. What I find interesting from my own perspective is that in my editor head, I think this is a lazy approach, but as a reader, I am fine with it. As ever, I will mention the C word and of course consistency is key; a reader might not even give any of the spaces (or lack thereof) a second glance, but if there's a variation, I expect they would. This is why I find the lack of space in cookery books quite clumsy, as I often see things like this:

200g flour.
1 tbsp salt.

The above bugs me because it seems like an error: if you're going to close up the g sign, why include the space for the tbsp one? I realise that many readers might still not notice or, dare I say, care about these things, but I find how these sorts of elements are approached fascinating, and how heated the debate can get, admittedly usually only between editors.

A final point on this topic was that the consensus was largely that for very scientific, mathematical or technical documents, the space would be more likely to be used, and especially in the non-breaking version. This again highlights the issue of audience, and that does need to be considered when I work on any file, because different readers might have different expectations. And of course, if working on marketing or heavily designed text, space and aesthetics might take precedence over what many in the science community consider to be the 'correct' way.

What counts as a dialogue tag?

There are hundreds of blog posts about speech aka dialogue tags, many focusing on whether to use 'said' or not, but recently I read a fantastic book where my only niggle about the whole book was the use of verbs that don't work as speech. I won't name and shame, but the author regularly used 'smiled' as a speech tag: I found myself trying to speak words while smiling. You're trying it now, aren't you? I can probably say one word, in a weird tone, and then I have to stop smiling and return to actually speaking. The same can be said for so many other words I see authors use: breathed is a common one. Again, try saying something as a breath – perhaps you can get one or two words out, perhaps conjuring up images of exercise (I'll keep things clean), but can you say a whole sentence?

But again, after stumbling over these frustrating speech tags, I had to ask myself whether before I worked on editing fiction, did I think about these things? Did I get annoyed by a multitude of synonyms for said, or did I just enjoy the book for the story and the characters? It's the same when I think about the size of a dash – before becoming a proofreader, I didn't even know what an en dash was, so as long as the dashes were a consistent size, I don't think I'd have noticed what they were or been left wondering why an em dash had been used instead! (My website's font makes hyphens and en dashes look very similar, but I do use en dashes, in case you were wondering.)

Back to speech tags. A few of my fiction clients like to mix things up a bit, and it's certainly their choice what they write and I won't make them change anything, but I will always query if something will actually work. A recent example was a character who 'howled' something – it made me think of an all-encompassing cry or someone trying to be a werewolf, neither of which were what the author intended. I often see 'shrugged' used, or some form of action associated with the speech, but these elements need to be formatted differently alongside dialogue compared with a straightforward speech tag. My theory is that the author doesn't want the reader to stop reading to try to work out how one might say something in the way they are suggesting – it's all about keeping the reader reading, not pondering or getting lost.

Consider the reader, be the reader

I guess what it all boils down to, and what I have been ruminating on lately, is the importance of the reader and the suitability of the document for them. Casting my memory back to the pre-proofreading days has actually proven a very fruitful task, enabling me to focus on what is important to the reader, rather than the editor or proofreader, and I believe this can help with the quality of the editing and proofreading services that I can then offer.

It's always important to keep the reader in mind and I think it's important for editors and proofreaders to read a lot, too, because this helps us keep up to date with modern language usage and also reminds us what it's like to be the audience, rather than thinking about who that audience might be. In a similar vein, I think it's important for authors to read plenty in their genre too – it can help them to get into the zone of their readers and see it from the other side, so to speak. It's also possible to look analytically, for an author to almost take an editor's-eye view, and look at the technical aspects. If authors look at what speech tags work or don't, how dialogue breaks are formatted and what modern language is used (or not), this will help keep the readers in mind and that's pretty pivotal to the success of a book.

Written by Kate Haigh.