Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Change: What I’ve Been Doing and Where I’m Going

Oregon sunset-bIt’s been about two years since I decided to transition to freelance work. However, it’s been a bumpy road. I’ve taken on contract work that took time away from doing freelance work. In some ways, I’ve decided to focus on writing posts on here not about what I do for others, but about my own personal interests.

Lately, I’ve been trying to re-examine the choices I’ve made. Some of those choices, like freelancing, are things I’m still happy with. However, I’ve realized that I really need to try and move my blog beyond book reviews and talking about tea (both of which are quite fun, I admit!) to discussing things that other people want to learn or know more about.

What this means is that over the next few weeks and months, regular readers of this blog are going to see a bit of a shift in what I’m talking about.

I’ll still talk about books and publishing, and write the occasional book review on here if the mood strikes. I’ll still talk about pop culture, geeky things, and things that make me think.

However, I’m also planning to discuss in more depth the things that I’ve learned about the kind of business that I’m trying to run, and also talk about the projects I’m working on. In other words, I’m trying to make my blog more of a personal/business hybrid, instead of a personal one alone. My goal is to do roughly one post a week, alternating between discussing personal topics and professional ones.

Here are a few things I’m planning on talking about soon:

  • The aftermath of being a graduate of Ryerson’s publishing program, including commentary from fellow Ryerson publishing alumni
  • What working with a business coach to change my personal focus and development has been like
  • Interesting things I’m learning about the state of content marketing and what people in my industry/niche have been going through lately
  • What it’s been like to be part of a writing critique group, and what I’ve learned from joining one

This may not be the most exciting-sounding stuff on the planet to the people who have followed my posts in the past, but I figure that being honest about my thoughts and discussing upcoming changes in public is the best thing to do.

I hope that this leads to some good things. And I hope that you readers like it too.

The EAC 2014 Conference: Live Tweets, Landmarks, and Lost Voices

Conference logo for the Editors' Association of CanadaI’ve been a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada since 2009, but haven’t attended every conference since then. I’ve only attended the ones requiring minimal travel, like the 2010 one in Montreal or the 2012 one in Ottawa. Luckily enough, the EAC 2014 conference, which happened just last weekend, was in my hometown of Toronto. It was a pretty fun ride, most things considered – here’s what it was like.

Friday June 6th

Friday did not start off well for me, as I woke up with an alarmingly scratchy throat. As the day progressed, I felt worse as muscle aches started to set in. Understandably, I was filled with dismay, as having a cold would affect my ability to talk to others, but I soldiered on and went to the reception anyways.

I have to admit that while it was good to talk to people and see familiar faces, I didn’t enjoy the reception as much as I could have, as the cold ruined things. I went out with some other attendants afterwards for dinner in the hope that some Tom Yum soup would fix me up, but alas, it didn’t.

Saturday June 7th

Since I live on the edge of Toronto, it took me a while to travel to the conference location, so I missed the opening moments of Douglas Gibson’s keynote. I enjoyed what I did manage to hear though, especially his anecdotes about Alice Munro and W.O. Mitchell (“now that’s what I call a ‘deadline’!”). I ended up attending the following sessions:

Faster Editing: Using PerfectIt to Check Consistency and House Style with Daniel Heuman: PerfectIt is a software program designed to help editors maintain consistency in a document by automatically checking for things like hyphens and capitalization. I’ve never used it, but this seminar gave everyone in the room plenty of reason to try. The entire room was filled with a low-grade murmur of phrases like “oh my god” and “wow” and “that’s a lifesaver” throughout the hour. I live-tweeted this one.

e-Merging in Social Media to Win Clients with Erin Brenner: Erin is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter, and made an impact with her writing blog and other social media efforts. Her seminar focused on using a blog as an online presence hub with social media profiles as the spokes reaching out from that hub. A lot of this information was already familiar to me (hell, I was live-tweeting this seminar too), but I do admit that it gave me some ideas about how to revamp the static pages on my own site.

Working as an In-house Managing Editor with Brooke Smith, Robert Steckling, and Tracy Torchetti: I didn’t get a lot out of this one, but I attribute that to the fact that I was really crashing due to my cold. However, I did get a chance to reconnect with a former coworker, and that was definitely worth something.

There were a few hours between the end of the sessions and the start of the EAC’s Awards Banquet, and the idea of going back home only to return downtown made little sense. Luckily, I found two editors who came from out of town who were also wondering how to spend the intervening time, so I offered to take them on a little tour of the landmarks close to the conference location.

We ended up going to Old City Hall (which was closed), where I managed to dredge up some of the facts I remembered from Doors Open a few weeks ago, the current City Hall (where we took a look at the diorama of the downtown core), Campbell House, and some of the grassy grounds leading out near the rear of City Hall. We then had an afternoon snack at a local pub, and went back to the hotel where the other two were staying to spruce up for the Awards Banquet.

The Awards Banquet  itself was interesting, but with my cold, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy it. I had run my voice ragged by the time it started, so I couldn’t talk as much as I wanted with the people sitting at the same table as me. Also, as it was the first time I’ve ever attended one of the EAC banquets, I didn’t know what to expect, especially in terms of length – I had to run to catch a taxi after it was done, and if the banquet had lasted one minute longer or if my taxi had stalled for one more minute in traffic, I would have completely missed my train home from Union Station.

Sunday June 8th

This was the day when all of my previous talking took its toll. My throat was sore and scratchy, and any attempts to raise my voice above a whisper resulted in a hoarse squawk. Before I took the train back downtown, I took matters into my own hands, which resulted in this:

I was undaunted, though, and went to seminars in all of the available timespots. On Sunday I attended:

Career Mojo at Work: Deceptively Simple Strategies for Times of “Crazy Busy” with Eileen Chadnick: Lately I’ve been working with a business coach to see how I can make my freelance business more effective. This seminar, run by a different business coach, talked about how stress affects the brain, and discussed methods that freelancers can use to minimize stress and maintain positive well-being. This was a change of pace for me, but I appreciated having the chance to reinforce the lessons I’m learning with my own coach.

Protecting Yourself in Your Digital World: Preventative Maintenance from a Computer Security Perspective with Jeffrey Peck: This session talked all about passwords, encryption, privacy, security breaches, backups, viruses, and more. I admit that I probably piped up a bit too much in this session as it seemed like I already had a lot of these security settings in place, but issues like password management (yay, LastPass!), Carbonite, and two-factor authentification can really do that to a girl. A note to other editors reading this: Lifehacker is your friend. Seriously.

How to Edit a Blog (and When and Why You Should) with Tammy Burns: This seminar talked about the history of blogging and the issues surrounding what it takes to edit blogs for both personal and commercial interests. There was some useful information here, but I’m considering contacting the facilitator directly for more customized advice.

The Future of Self-publishing and Editors with Arlene Prunkl, Donna Dawson, Mark Lefebvre, Vanessa Ricci-Thode: This seminar was definitely the highlight of the conference for me in retrospect. There was so much useful information here about how editors can find self-publishing authors to work with, and what rates are typical for editors to charge. This seminar was done in Q&A format, which I think worked quite well. It also helped that the room was packed. This was the only seminar of the day that I didn’t live-tweet, because I was worried about my phone’s battery.

How to Leverage LinkedIn to Showcase Your Editorial Expertise with Leslie Hughes: The audience for this seminar was so big that it got moved into the auditorium. This was wise, because it was the seminar with the highest attendance of the entire conference. As a bonus, my seat was near an outlet, so I was able to recharge my phone. This seminar served as a good refresher course, since my LinkedIn profile is a bit dusty – I need to work on my social media strategy in general.

The whole thing ended with a closing keynote by Terry Fallis. It was hilarious, but I had heard him deliver almost exactly the same speech in a previous event I had seen him speak at – although this time it had snazzier visuals and a heightened sense of electricity just because of the sheer size of the audience.

That electricity continued as editors filed out the door to return home, because of the final announcement of the conference: Toronto will be next year’s host as well, and the EAC will be partnering with editing organizations from other countries to make the conference fully international. It would be quite the coup if successful – Bryan Garner could be speaking next year, you guys!

Summing it all up

My conference experience would have been better if I hadn’t gotten a cold on Friday. In fact, it’s Wednesday and I’m still in its clutches, despite drinking copious amounts of tea (because of course I am). Otherwise, I felt I got a lot out of it, and have a huge list of ideas about how to develop both personally and professionally.

Other editors have already written about their experiences, too. Check out the roundups below if you want a fuller portrait of the EAC 2014 conference:

Vanessa Ricci-Thode

Suzanne Purkis

Sue Archer

Iva Cheung

Adrienne Montgomerie’s extremely comprehensive Storify of live tweets from the conference, broken down by theme

Attending the Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Ottawa

It appears that when I watch a movie three times in the theatre, it causes me to drop off the face of the earth for nearly a month. But don’t worry – I have been productive during my absence.

A week ago I attended the annual conference for the Editors’ Association of Canada. The last time I went was two years ago in 2010, when it was hosted in Montreal. This year, it was in Ottawa.

My reaction to it this year was similar to when I was in Montreal: the conference was exciting and informative, but also overwhelming. There were so many sessions to attend, people to talk to, and things to write down that I’m surprised my hand didn’t cramp up from all the note-taking and live-tweeting I did. These were the sessions I attended this year, in order:

Day 1 – June 2nd, 2012

Adult Literacy: Why it Should Mattter to You (presented by Mary Wiggin)
This seminar focused on what we mean when we talk about literacy, and the challenges that adults with literacy problems face. Much of the advice in the final portion of the seminar about editing text to address literacy problems – using short sentences, removing jargon, using the active voice, and so forth – was already familiar to me. More interesting was the discussion of the various types of literacy that exist, the various definitions of literacy, and the statistics regarding functional literacy in Canada.

Editing eBooks (presented by Greg Ioannou)
This seminar focused on the basics of eBooks – their history, the different types of formats they come in, and so forth – and how a publisher produces an eBook. I hoped it would guide us step-by-step through the process of creating an eBook. Instead, there were some general tips about how to properly format things like punctuation (open em-dashes!) and columns (don’t even try!). This was still useful, but I was really looking forward to a hands-on demonstration.

Creating a Professional Development Revenue Stream (presented by Emily Dockrill Jones)
This seminar attracted a very large audience. However, the title didn’t match up completely with the subject matter. I thought that it would talk about how to build a business through providing professional development services to others. Instead, it focused on how to be a good, engaging presenter when running a PD program. Despite the mismatch between title and content, the information within was useful and applicable to many fields.

Day 2 – June 3rd, 2012

The Great Text-Talk Debate (with Ian Capstick and James Harbeck)
Ian Capstick argued in favour of text-talk, and James Harbeck argued against it. Unsurprisingly, most of the audience took the “anti-text” side at the start of the debate, but Ian’s points were so persuasive that by the end, the room had almost completely flipped its stance on the topic.

What convinced me was Ian’s argument that text-talk is just the latest solution to limitations built into our methods of communication. For example, when printed books were introduced in Europe, the binding technology was so poor that most books had spines so thin that the only way to accommodate the text was to use an extremely small font. This made me think of all the time I spent in WoW raiding Kara with my guild, speed-running noobs through Zul-Farrak, and rezzing priests with my Goblin Jumper Cables.

In other words, I remembered the years I spent playing a game with slang (text-talk) designed to convey a lot of information (communication) quickly (limitation). Ian Capstick won me over because 3.5 years later, I still can’t stop thinking about World of Warcrack.

Technical Writing and Editing for Usability (presented by Kerry Surman)
“Usability” is a topic I’ve researched at my day job. Much of the information in this seminar was already familiar to me, like the importance of using white space, bullet lists, and bolding to make text easy to skim. However, the discussion of how perception affects usability was interesting. Also, this seminar introduced me to the term “Web 3.0” – I remember “Web 2.0” being bandied around a lot a few years ago and thought that the term had become outdated. It’s interesting to know that instead it’s evolved to mean web customization and personalization. A really good example of the applications – and pitfalls – of trying to personalize the Web and commerce can be found here.

How SEO and Editing Can Wreck Each Other (presented by Greg Ioannou)
SEO is something that I’ve been learning about a lot both inside and outside of work. Imagine my chagrin when Greg went into the “do’s” and “don’ts” of editing web copy to improve web traffic, and I found that I had been guilty of committing some SEO sins on this website! Once I returned from the conference I followed his advice and edited my landing pages to reduce the number of times certain keywords were repeated. In the seminar, Greg used humour to great effect in the case studies he showed the audience.

Freelance Editing: The Top 10 Things I Wish I’d Known (presented by Elizabeth D’Anjou)
Elizabeth D’Anjou runs a very popular workshop about “taking the plunge” and becoming a freelance editor. This seminar was on a similar topic. I won’t go into all 10 lessons here, but I did find Number 9 – “A good read is not the same as a good editing project” – surprising. I’ve been trying to reposition my own editing services and work with fiction writers because they’re the kind of writers I find myself coming into contact with the most often; it was weird to see her advice so directly conflict with my own choices.

A Thought about Ligatures

Evidently, attending the conference was a big tax upon my resources – I didn’t post anything at all in June.

Even so, I still had lots of ideas for content swirling around in my head.  To get the ball rolling again, I’ll start talking about something small: ligatures in typography.

In typography, ligatures are when two letters written in sequence fuse together to appear as one character. Typically, the use of ligatures in English is restricted to letters following a lower-case “F” and even then, they don’t occur in many common typefaces. However, I do have some examples to show you, using that ever-trusty typeface Caslon:

In the image above, the “F” and “L” merge together in fly, and we see an interesting example of a double ligature in waffle. Perhaps the most unusual example I’ve provided is the third word. What is Umuofia?

Umuofia is a word that was the bane of my first year in University. As part of my introductory course in International Development Studies (one of the fields I eventually chose to major in) at Trent University, my class had to read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – Umuofia was the village that the story took place in.

And why was that word the bane of my studies? Because of that goddamned ligature – how on Earth was that last set of characters supposed to be pronounced? Feee-ah? Feee-yah? Fyah? I was convinced that the ligature was not simply a convenient way of typesetting the letters “F” and “I”, but that it was a special diacritical mark affecting the entire pronunciation of the name – was the second “U” silent? Where did the emphasis fall? It drove me to distraction.

So, ligatures. As I found out in my book production course at Ryerson, they are not in fact some fancy literary device – at most, they are a fancy aesthetic device, and that makes all the difference.

Montreal, Day 2: Eight Step Editing

As an editor, my goal is to make writing better and more concrete – and my responsibility is to make those changes in a reasonable, consistent, and justifiable manner.

How appropriate, then, that the seminar I took today was all about explaining editing to professional editors – it helped me clarify some approaches to text that I was already using instinctively, but hadn’t been able to put into words.

Other EAC members will know exactly what I’m talking about: Eight-Step Editing.

Eight-Step Editing doesn’t teach you about grammar. It doesn’t teach you about punctuation. It doesn’t even teach you about spelling. Instead, it teaches you about how to look at a piece of writing, and how to make it clearer by applying a number of steps in sequence, thus streamlining the editing process while keeping the author’s voice in mind. Each step, applied in sequence, progressively shifts the balance of the writing voice away from the author to the editor; the goal is to minimize this shift during each step.

In short, the eight steps are:

  1. Shorten sentences:  break longer, run-on sentences into shorter, more compact sentences. Each sentence should contain one individual idea.
  2. Remove useless words: get rid of verbal filler – text that doesn’t further the point of the writing. The reason to do this is because if you write too many useless words like I am writing about at this point in time, your sentences will sound unnecessary and redundant, and your audience will get bored as they will lose interest in what you are taking so much time to talk about.
  3. Use positives instead of negatives: you should never not try for clarity, because not doing so will not make your writing easy for your audience to read.
  4. Avoid unnecessary complexity: reduce words with lots of prefixes and suffixes down to their root words, and recast the sentence accordingly. Antidisestablishmentarianism, anyone? Alternately, recast sentences containing three or more long, obscuring words in a row. Because it is your job to eschew superfluous obfuscation.
  5. Reduce the use of linking verbs: especially variations on “to be.”
  6. Reduce the use of the passive voice: it is used by too many authors to inflate their word counts.
  7. Start with strength: place your most important or attention-grabbing piece of information first in writing. I can only wonder in the irony of having this step placed seventh in the list.
  8. Structure your paragraphs: make each paragraph start with a strong topic sentence, and give each shift or alteration in the topic at hand its own paragraph. Ideally, each individual topic sentence, read in sequence, should tell the reader all they need to know.

What’s really interesting is that I was doing a lot of the higher-level (parts 4-7) in my own editing projects. Sometimes the big, important steps, like making new sentences out of longer ones, is so obvious you forget to think about it.

(Edit, March 12, 2011: Jim Taylor originally developed the framework of concepts behind Eight-Step Editing in 1971. Many thanks to Elizabeth d’Anjou, the person who ran the seminar I attended, for pointing out that I needed to acknowledge the man behind it all. Thanks, Jim Taylor!)

Language Post #4: “Ensure” versus “Insure” versus “Assure”

Certain words – no matter how hard editors or other language mavens may try – will always cause confusion because they are different from, but closely related to, words with similar meanings. Most of the time, this problem occurs in pairs: “comprise” versus “compose,” “imply” versus “infer“, and so on. But today, we’re going to tackle something a little different, and instead focus not on a pair, but on a trio of words that cause confusion: “assure,” “insure” and “ensure.” First off, the definitions, all provided by the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

assure (verb)
1. To inform positively, as to remove doubt: assured us that the train would be on time.
2. To cause to feel sure: assured her of his devotion.
3. To give confidence to; reassure.
4. To make certain; ensure: “Nothing in history assures the success of our civilization” (Herbert J. Muller).
5. To make safe or secure.
6. Chiefly British To insure, as against loss.

ensure (verb)
To make sure or certain; insure: Our precautions ensured our safety. See Usage Note for assure (above).

insure (verb)
a. To provide or arrange insurance for: a company that insures homeowners and businesses.
b. To acquire or have insurance for: insured herself against losses; insured his car for theft.
2. To make sure, certain, or secure. See Usage Note for assure (above).

To buy or sell insurance.

On the surface, all three of these words have a similar concept at heart: that of safety, reinforcement, and protection. And why not? All three words are derived from the Latin word “securus,” meaning “safe” or “secure.” Furthermore, American Heritage 4 says that “assure” can be used interchangeably with the other two words, and even that “insure” can  be used interchangeably with “ensure.”

So what are the differences? They’re mainly ones of nuance. To me, the word “assure” evokes the idea of psychological security, as outlined in the first three definitions of “assure” that were listed above:

  • You can rest assured that Mighty Mouse will come to save the day
  • Laurie assured me that she had everything under control

As a side note, I find it interesting that the definition above states that “assure” and “reassure” mean the same thing, because then it seems that my dictionary is inconsistent. American Heritage 4 has this to say about “reassure”:

re·as·sure (verb)
tr.v. re·as·sured, re·as·sur·ing, re·as·sures
1. To restore confidence to.
2. To assure again.
3. To reinsure.

If we take these definitions at face value, “assure” means “to reassure,” which means “to assure again” – which means that “to assure” means “to assure again.” Maybe I’m reading everything wrong, but isn’t this rather tautological? Shouldn’t dictionaries try to guard against such things?

No matter – onwards we go!

If “assure” implies psychological security, then “insure” implies financial or economic security. Buying life insurance or home insurance means putting an economic safeguard in place if your house burns down, or if you die: your family gets some sort of financial compensation for bad things happening.

Finally, if “assure” relates to psychological security, and “insure” relates to financial security, what does “ensure” relate to? I feel pretty comfortable saying that “ensure” relates to most other tangible and intangible forms of security:

  • Please ensure that your seat belt is buckled during take-off and landing
  • Loretta, by agreeing to be my child’s babysitter, you ensure that my child will be safe while I’m at work
  • We must ensure that the important company report is delivered to Mr. Calhoun by Tuesday

So, there we have it. There are other websites you can visit to get a better handle on this particular issue; I highly recommend Grammar Girl if you’re looking for an explanation that is more compact.

Musings about the EAC

With only about a month and a half to go before the EAC conference, I still have to book my accommodations. I just can’t decide what hostel to stay in, or even if I should stay at a hostel at all. Research on where to stay has been inconclusive, but I really have to break away from the victim mentality that comes too easily from being a young woman visiting an unfamiliar city by herself.

Other than that, I found out about two nice EAC initiatives today: the Conference Buddy system and the mentoring program.

The mentoring program is exactly how it sounds: people with experience partner up with new editors and provide guidance on how to become a better editor. The pilot project has now finished, and now the program has been opened so that Toronto branch members can act as mentors or mentees. I’m still working on my application, but you get three guesses as to what I’m applying to be.

The mentor program is something that I’ve been expecting to become public for the last little while. However, I only found out today about the EAC’s “Conference Buddy” program. If you join, you’re matched up with a group of other “buddy” editors and are encouraged to chat and get to know each other before heading to Montreal. Then, at the conference, these people become your anchor group that you’re encouraged to keep in touch with during seminars, lunches, and other social events. Since this is my first conference, it seems like a wonderful way to meet new people and  break the ice. I’m really looking forward to it.

Modifiers: they only want to help!

A few days ago when I was browsing The Economist online (I know it sounds odd, bear with me!), an advertisement caught my attention:

Champagne only comes from Champagne.

It turns out that the ad promotes the proper labelling of wine so that only those wines coming from the Champagne region of France can be given the appellation “Champagne.” Fair enough. I can understand why they chose to phrase the ad in this way: it sounds mysterious, or at least somewhat cryptic, at first glance. Plus, it’s short. I’m sure that the copy writers behind this ad  calculated the word order and repetition for maximum impact. Whatever the intention of the ad gurus though, it got the portion of my brain that is hypersensitive to language going: “it only comes from Champagne in the sense that it’s grown there, in comparison to being fermented, aged, or imported from there?”

It appears to me that this ad, whether intentionally or not, has fallen victim to one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the English language: misplaced modifiers. In particular, the word “only” is a very thorny modifier capable of completely altering a sentence’s meaning when placed in front of the wrong word. My favourite example of this is one I culled from an old edition of Reader’s Digest when I was but a mere lass:

He told her that he loved her.

Now, take that sentence and see how the meaning changes when the word “only” is inserted into the text in varying locations.

  • Only he told her that he loved her.
  • He only told her that he loved her.
  • He told only her that he loved her.
  • He told her only that he loved her.
  • He told her that only he loved her.
  • He told her that he only loved her.
  • He told her that he loved only her.
  • He told her that he loved her only.

Obviously, all of these sentences are grammatically correct, but each sentence conveys an entirely different impression about the relationship between Him and Her. For example, let’s look at the two sentences where “only” precedes the word “he.” Although the “only he” word order is the same between the two sentences, the writer could be saying respectively that 1) both He and many others love Her, but that He was the only one brave enough to tell Her so, or 2) He the only one who loves Her, and no one else. How confusing if you happen to misread it!

Being sloppy with your modifiers can only lead to pain. Besides sounding odd by having such a distinctive word repeat itself so soon, the ad’s placement of “only” causes ambiguity: what if there are other things that happen to Champagne (the wine) when located in Champagne (the region)? Besides, what do they mean by Champagne “coming” from Champagne? Do they mean the growth and harvest of the vine? The pressing of the grape? The fermentation process? The bottling and corking process?

I can think of no way to rearrange this sentence without making it longer and uglier, so I applaud the writers behind this for keeping it short. But it still irks the hell out of me.

Update: I revised and republished this post on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015.

Language Post #1: The Serial Comma

When I first posted on this blog, I mentioned that I also wanted to use this space to foster a discussion about grammar, punctuation, and many other issues surrounding language usage. For a while, I hemmed and hawed about how to start, and figured that one of the things I gave a lot of though to (and had a lot of internal debate about) was the serial comma.

Then I got a mass mailing from the EAC asking members to vote about their opinions on the serial comma, which would then be published in the next volume of their publication Active Voice. Since I had been mulling over posting about it, this just sealed the deal. So: a discussion of the serial comma it is!

To those who don’t know, the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma, don’t ask me why) is the comma placed before “and” or “or” in a series of listed items. I’ve made use  of it at the end of the first sentence in this post: “I also wanted to use this space to foster a discussion about grammar, punctuation, and many other issues surrounding language usage.” As a comma-happy writer, I used to think that the serial comma was unncessary – that the use of “and” or “or” in the phrase in question indicated clearly enough the proper speaking rhythm. There are many people who continue to feel the same way.

However, I have come to the realization that when I write, or when I read what is written by others, that even the slightest ambiguity in cadence or rhythm disturbs me. As well, the copy editor’s job is to review text and make sure that any grammatical or syntactical ambiguities are removed in the text in question, and many times adding a serial comma makes sentences clearer, especially when the items in a list consist of conjunctions, are long, are participial phrases, or when parallelism needs to be reinforced. Here are some examples:

  • Otis’ favourite chores are grouting the bathtub, sweeping and cleaning the litter box, and dusting the bookcases. Here, the serial comma is imperative, or else the end of the sentence would read “sweeping and cleaning the litter box and dusting the bookcases” – which just makes you sound like you’re five years old. We want readers to understand “sweeping and cleaning the litter box” as a single discrete chore.
  • Adding a serial comma makes sentences clearer, especially when the items in a list consist of conjunctions, are long, are participial phrases, or when parallelism needs to be reinforced. A trick I often use to understand long lists and to see whether their grammatical constructions are sound is to remove items from a list and see if the resulting sentence scans properly: “Adding a serial comma makes sentences clearer, especially when the items are long” or “especially when parallelism needs to be reinforced.” Because “consist of conjunctions,” “are long,” “are participial phrases,” and “when parallelism needs to be reinforced” all have multiple words, adding the serial comma here reinforces that all items in this list individually make sense when preceded by the word “when.”

Here’s an example of where I don’t think the serial comma is necessary:

  • I would like to give my thanks to Bob, Lorraine, Delia, Cory and Otis. Here, the items being listed are so short and unambiguous that the serial comma just adds clutter.

So, to sum up: serial commas aren’t always necessary, but they often make for easier reading. It is best to use them when the items being listed are long phrases, or when not doing so would invite ambiguity.

Edit (November 30 2009): Of course, in the interest of consistency, once you are copy editing a document, decide whether or not you wish to use the serial comma and STICK WITH YOUR CHOICE. Put it on your style sheet. This is one of the biggest reasons why I’m pro-serial comma: because there are so many more instances where I think it’s needed than where it isnt, it’s easiest to just use it and be consistent.

Little Seeds of Success

So, I have three lovely developments to report:

  1. As of today, I am officially a Student Member o f the Editor’s Association of Canada. While I have yet to fully investigate the resources they have available, it looks like they have a veritable bonanza of forums, postings, publications and seminars to take advantage of. Thanks go to Sharon Crawford, who originally suggested I join.
  2. A contact called to tell me about a speech-writing opportunity that might be available in the future. More details are pending, but I’m quite excited.
  3. I have received some feedback from the author of my first editing project. While she agreed with my decision to rearrange the order of paragraphs to highlight the topic of the article, her reaction to some of my other editing choices was less favourable. In particular, I reworded or deleted words and phrases that have important meanings in the context of the article’s topic, and she’d like me to reincorporate those words. Now, in fairness, I didn’t know some of the terms she was referring to were professionally relevant , or (as in one particular case) that they even existed.

This brings me to a new feature I’d like to introduce as I post more: Lessons Learned. As I make my way through this new industry, I realize that I’m going to need to learn and adapt to the needs of my clients.  So, as I finish projects, I’m going do to little post-mortems to figure out what I did well and what I need to remember next time.  It’ll be our own personal little cheat sheet.

So, what were today’s lessons?

  • Be aware of the cultural and professional context in which you are preparing a project. If there are specialized terms that you are not familiar with or words that you think don’t belong, bring them up with the author or project manager, and do the following:
    • Ask the person who has commissioned your work for style guides or references to help you understand the terms in question
    • Make sure to update your style sheet, if you’re using one

In any event, I think today’s been fairly successful. I’ll go over the EAC’s member area in more detail over the weekend, and prepare an application for that very tempting scholarship of theirs that is due on November 30th.