Pay attention to your interior text

It is easy to find articles and blog posts dealing with the importance of cover design. If a design is inappropriate, amateur or dreadful no one will buy it whose first encounter with the book is its cover. The assumption is that if the cover is bad the contents will be too.

The interior text is another matter. There are articles on this subject too, but not so many, and they can be a little dry. Why is that? Because the subject is a little dry and that can’t be helped. There is no way round it. Though less exciting than eye-balling graphic images of vampires, dragons, space ships and malevolent corkscrews, the quality of the text must be taken seriously, because a reader coming across a few errors in the opening chapter will not be impressed.

What sort of thing are we talking about here? One example. There is a difference between a hyphen and a dash. In fact, there are two types of dash, the ‘n’ dash and the ‘m’ dash, the ‘m’ dash being longer. We might use a hyphen to create a compound word. Okay, so I drink the occasional brandy, but only as a pick-me-up. (For purely medicinal purposes, as they used to say in the old books and films.) I might use dashes to insert an addition into a sentence. Well I’ll be cornswaggled – as my old grandpappy used to say.

Now inserting a hyphen is easy, there is a hyphen on your keyboard – but you will look in vain for ‘n’ or ‘m’ dashes on your keyboard. So where do they come from? Probably from your word-processing software but – and it’s a big ‘but’ – your software may not always get it right. You have to check, you have to use your eyes. Now let us say your book is 350 pages long, that’s a lot of checking. And if you read those 350 pages absorbed by the narrative then you will miss most of the errors they contain. Proof-reading calls for discipline and a capacity to withstand boredom. Some of us have this, more of us do not.

Here’s another example to catch the unwary. One of your characters is speaking and her sentence tails off.

‘You can’t possible mean that, Herbert  . . .’

But if by mistake (and we all make mistakes) you leave a space after the last point before inserting the closing inverted comma, look what happens.

‘You can’t possible mean that, Herbert  . . . ‘

Yes, your inverted comma is now the wrong way round. Come on, I hear you say, I wouldn’t fall for that one! Well, maybe you wouldn’t, but I have just found this error in a novel where the author goes so far as to thank her editor. And this was not the only error to pass her editor by.

I know of an author who had a team of eight ‘beta readers’ checking an advance copy of her text. I read the published version and found mistakes. But if I had written the book myself I might well have missed them too because the text is already in my head. It is usually easier to spot textual errors in other people’s work than in your own.

In my second book I referred to several television sets tuned ‘to the sane channel’. I did not spot this error myself, but another author did and, thanks to her, it is corrected. How she spotted it I do not know, since the words ‘sane’ and ‘same’ are remarkably similar. But, as you can see, they have given me a chance to bring the letters ‘n’ and ‘m’ back into the conversation. And it’s worth noting here that since the word ‘sane’ exists and since the phrase ‘sane channel’, however nonsensical, is perfectly grammatical, neither a spell check not a grammar check would have brought this mistake to my attention. It had to be seen to be identified. (Yes, I’m really hitting the high spots now.)

About the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Since the entire sentence is in brackets, the closing bracket comes after the full stop. However, if only part of a sentence is in brackets, and that part ends the sentence, then the closing bracket would come before the full stop. Gripping stuff! You’re on the edge of your seat, right?

But these are errors on the small scale. There is also the question of paragraph and page layout. How does it look when your chapter ends with a full left hand page and only one word on the facing right hand page? Not too good. Here we are entering the territory of widows and orphans, a term covering words and phrases left metaphorically dangling. There is some dispute over precise definitions, but avoiding bad or unsightly paragraph and page layout will be difficult, bordering on the impossible, if you are relying entirely on word-processing software to do it.

To give some indication of the factors involved, the following is from Wikipedia.

Writing guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, generally suggest that a manuscript should have no widows and orphans even when avoiding them results in additional space at the bottom of a page or column.[4] However, in its 16th edition (2011) the Chicago Manual of Style suggests a new convention in which pages may end with the first line of a new paragraph.[5] Some techniques for eliminating widows include:

  • Forcing a page break early, producing a shorter page;
  • Adjusting the leading, the space between lines of text (although such carding or feathering is usually frowned upon);
  • Adjusting the spacing between words to produce ‘tighter’ or ‘looser’ paragraphs;
  • Adjusting the hyphenation of words or characters within the paragraph;
  • Adjusting the page’s margins;
  • Subtle scaling of the page, though too much non-uniform scaling can visibly distort the letters;
  • Rewriting a portion of the paragraph;
  • Reduce the tracking of the words;
  • Adding a pull quote to the text (more common for magazines); and
  • Adding a figure to the text, or resizing an existing figure.

So if you are one of the many people who finds all of this challenging, and if you are self-publishing, you might consider using the services of an editor/proof-reader rather than, say, buying an interior text service from Create Space. A named person who knows what he or she is doing and is easily contactable by email, rather than an anonymous member of a team you cannot contact directly.

There are obviously quite a few people out there offering editing and proof-reading services. I only have experience of one, but have found her excellent. Her name is Sarah Holroyd and she is to be found at Sleeping Cat Books.

I should perhaps add that I have no beneficial interest in Sleeping Cat Books and also that the various specifics mentioned in this post I have learned the hard way.

8 thoughts on “Pay attention to your interior text

  1. And getting them right is so demanding. Why don’t we just paint and have our works selling for a couple of hundred in local tea rooms and galleries?

    • I was a sculptor for twenty plus years. In the latter period made life heads for my bread and butter. This was remarkably labour intensive and I probably earned 2p an hour. As my brother said, I should have advertised in the Homes and Gardens and charged several thousand per head… but I didn’t.

  2. This is amazing. I have just sent you an email on this subject. My friend Fiona does animal portraits, dogs and horses mostly. I have never asked her what she charges.

  3. Just to be really picky, it’s en dash and em dash. Which as you probably know is a throwback to old typography and pica point sizes. Don’t forget there is a considerable difference between British and American style too. Eg, quotation marks, and placing of full points. A few posts back, I wrote about British authors who had received negative publicity from American reviewers because of their allegedly faulty spelling 🙁 ie it wasn’t americanized.

    On the same theme though, when we work with authors, a lot of style issues are based on choice (obv not spelling and basic punctuation) and it is always up to the author to make final decisions. I have read very few ‘perfect’ books. And I too cringe when there are outpourings of love for my wonderful editor who has missed a few choice errors. But maybe I miss them too. Hope not though. With which, must dash to give a final edit…

  4. Thank you for being really picky. Every little helps, as a store says round here. It is hard to believe that American reviewers would not know about spelling differences, but I have managed to do it. The French would regard this as a sign of cultural imperialism, no doubt.
    As for me, I find it difficult to adjust to ‘fit’ as a past tense, so who am I to talk?

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