Joe Kimble—Wild and crazy tales from a decade of drafting U.S. Federal Court Rules (PLAIN 2013)

Joe Kimble, a professor at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and the editor-in-chief of the Scribes Journal of Legal Writing, is a stalwart of the plain legal language movement. His book Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please is an invaluable reference for any plain language practitioner.

Starting in 1999, he led a decade-long project to redraft the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the Federal Rules of Evidence. At the PLAIN 2013 opening reception, Kimble shared some stories from that experience.

We all know that legalese is cumbersome to read, but its much more serious problem is that it leads to ambiguity. “Legalese is not precise,” said Kimble. “It’s pseudo-precise. It only seems precise.” Using before-and-after examples from the U.S. Federal Court Rules, Kimble showed how complex legal language results in

  • semantic ambiguity—when a word or phrase has more than one meaning
  • syntactic ambiguity—when the structure of the sentence gives rise to more than one meaning
  • contextual ambiguity—when inconsistencies or internal contradictions raise questions about which alternative should prevail

Ambiguity, Kimble was careful to point out, isn’t the same thing as vagueness, which presents uncertainty at the very margins of applying a term. Vagueness is unavoidable in legal drafting; the goal is to arrive at the right degree of vagueness.

Semantic ambiguity

A convenient example of semantic ambiguity in legalese is “shall”—does it mean “must,” “may,” “will,” or “should”? Kimble worked to eliminate all five hundred instances of “shall” from the Federal Court Rules and succeeded, until one “rose from the grave,” as he put it. Deciding the meaning of “shall” is a substantive call, and in Rule 56 of the Civil Rules, the “shall” had been changed to “should” during the restyling. Later, a debate flared up over whether it should have been changed to “must.” Rather than deciding the issue, the advisory committee resurrected the “shall,” while acknowledging in their report that it is “inherently ambiguous.”

Syntactic ambiguity

At the heart of many syntactically ambiguous sentences is the lack of a clear antecedent for a modifier or a pronoun. The committees working on the Court Rules often raised the concern that Kimble’s changes might alter the meaning, to which Kimble once responded, “It’s odd to worry about changing meaning when nobody seems to know what the meaning is.” In several of those cases, the committees decided to “keep it fuzzy” because the original language didn’t indicate which interpretation was the right one; that decision would be left to the courts.

Contextual ambiguity

Contextual ambiguity is particularly troublesome: are inconsistencies deliberate, or are they the result of sloppy drafting? Kimble’s examples show that “Most lawyers, no matter how skilled and experienced, are not good drafters.”


Of course, beyond untangling ambiguity, Kimble also worked on cutting wordiness. Why write, “the court may, in its discretion” when “may” implies “in its discretion”? For comparison, whereas the old Civil Rules had 45,500 words, the new rules have 39,280 (14% less). The new rules have 45 fewer cross-references and have more than twice as many headings as the old rules. The difference in the readability of the original and plain language versions is stark. An example (from the Evidence Rules):


Evidence of the beliefs or opinions of a witness on matters of religion is not admissible for the purpose of showing that by reason of their nature the witness’ credibility is impaired or enhanced.


Evidence of a witness’s religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness’s credibility.

The process that worked well for Kimble and his team was to have a plain language expert write the first draft; that version persisted unless it created a substantive change. This approach was more effective and efficient than having a plain language expert edit a document after the fact.

Book review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

If you fireproof your home, you protect it from the ravages of flames and heat, right? I wondered if that was the connotation Don McNair had in mind when he titled his book Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave. Was he implying that editors will muck up your text if you don’t take steps to protect it? Too often authors enter into a relationship with an editor thinking exactly that, and they expect the editing process to be adversarial.

Fortunately, McNair—an editor himself—is quick to emphasize the value of good editing to writers, including (perhaps especially) those thinking of self-publishing. McNair unapologetically writes, “That treasured manuscript of yours came back from publishers and agents several times, right? Well, maybe—just maybe—they knew what they were doing.” (p. xii) Far from claiming that his book is the only thing writers need to get themselves published, McNair acknowledges that his advice is just one piece of the puzzle and suggests writers “have that manuscript edited professionally before sending it out. Have experienced eyes look it over and tell you what the problems are, and perhaps help you solve them.” (p. xii)

Editor-Proof Your Writing focuses primarily on stylistic editing for fiction (a point I don’t think was as clear as it should have been in the book’s cover copy and marketing materials). Structural work—making sure the narrative has a strong arc and that there are no problems with continuity—is not covered, nor is the detailed nitpicking (a term I use affectionately here, of course) of copy editing. Further, McNair’s expertise lies in romance and mystery novels, so writers of less commercial genres, such as literary fiction, may not find his examples as helpful. Still, McNair offers some useful reminders of writing pitfalls that can prevent an otherwise good story from engaging the reader. In particular, his book looks at the sins of what he calls “information dumping,” “author intrusion,” and “foggy writing” (often in the form of verbosity that slows the reader down).

“Information dumping” is a technique that inexperienced writers often use to convey details they think readers will need; in essence, it’s telling rather than showing. McNair writes

Readers do need certain information so they can follow the story. Some fiction writers provide it, in part, by having two people discuss the information in an early scene. Often, this takes place in the heroine’s apartment (or its equivalent). Nothing else usually—or ever—happens in the scene.

This approach is deadly. Readers sometimes feel they’re forced to sit on a couch in this cramped apartment and listen as the heroine and her sidekick discuss these must-have acts, perhaps glancing at the readers occasionally to see if they are picking up what the author is trying to impart… A much better approach is to provide that information as part of some other action or event. (p. 33)

That “glancing at the readers” is an example of author intrusion, when authors, who “should stay invisible,… unwittingly leave clues to their presence,” says McNair. And when that happens, readers “are pulled out of fiction’s magic spell.” (p. 35)

Author intrusion can manifest in several ways—for example, when a writer uses ‑ly adverbs or dialogue tags other than “said” (such as “countered,” “mumbled,” “volunteered,” etc.). The action is interpreted via the author, which plucks the reader out of an immersive experience.

Eliminating these kinds of telltale traces of the author is only part of McNair’s twenty-one-step process to “lift the fog” on writing and make it more engaging. These steps include changing passive voice to active, taking out expletive constructions like “there are,” and eliminating clichés and superficials (his term for some types of metadiscourse, including phrases like, “It goes without saying that…”). He also gives specific suggestions for how to deal with dialogue, and I particularly like this point, which he repeats a couple of times in the book:

Some may say, “But that’s the way people talk!” Perhaps. But dialogue isn’t supposed to be an exact copy of conversations. We don’t include all the “uh’s,” belches, and repetitive chit-chat, do we? The writer’s job is to make conversations sound real in as few words as possible. Present the meaning without the mess. (p. 63)

The main problem with McNair’s steps, though, is that many of them overlap, which means that systematically applying them from beginning to end (as “steps” would imply) would lead to some duplicated work in some places and missed stylistic infelicities in others. For instance, some of his steps are “Eliminate double verbs” (like “sat and watched television”—step 7), “Eliminate double nouns, adjectives, and adverbs” (like “complete and utter”—step 8), “Watch for foggy phrases,” (changing “make a stop” to “stop,” for example—step 9), “Eliminate redundancies” (step 15), and “Get rid of throwaway words” (step 17).” To me, all of these are variations of “Edit for conciseness” (step 18), and some of them are variations of one another.

In contrast, McNair’s final step is to “Stop those wandering eyes,” meaning that writers should take out tired expressions like “her eyes were glued to the TV set.” That metaphor, says McNair, is laughable, and so it will break the reader’s concentration. A fair point, but why is that particular metaphor the focus of its own step—at the same level as “Edit for conciseness”? A better approach might have been to talk about metaphor use in general, explaining the pitfalls of  mixed metaphors and overused metaphors that have lost their meaning. As it stands, this step in McNair’s book comes off as one of his personal bugbears.

Despite its problems, Editor-Proof Your Writing is a quick, easy read, thanks to McNair’s casual and conversational writing style. His advice is sensible and digestible, although it is by no means comprehensive, even for stylistic issues alone, so consider this book a starting point rather than an authoritative reference. Editors who work primarily on non-fiction or literary fiction might not get as much out of this book as editors of commercial fiction.

What we can all appreciate, however, is that McNair, is a champion for the professional editor. Now that anyone can self-publish, he says, “we’ve killed off the gatekeepers, and now both our great and our garbled manuscripts go freely through those gates into the readers’ hands. If readers find garbage instead of a well-crafted story, they spread the word.” Not only can quality editors prevent this kind of bad publicity, says McNair, but they may also help an author “turn a stream of rejections into a writing career.” (p. 169)

Editors’ show and tell: time-saving tips and tricks

We kicked off the 2013–2014 EAC-BC meeting season last evening with a packed house and an editors’ show and tell of some of our favourite time-savers. Here’s a summary*:

Fact checking

  • Frances Peck showed us CanLII, the Canadian Legal Information Institute database, which is handy if you need to work with a document that has legal citations or references to acts and regulations. The searchable database covers both federal and provincial case law and has up-to-date wording of legislation. The University of Victoria Libraries vouch for the database’s reliability.
  • I mentioned the Library of Congress Authorities as a reliable place to check names.
  • Lana Okerlund told us about GeoBC for fact checking B.C. place names.
  • Naomi Pauls and Jennifer Getsinger both mentioned the Canadian Geographical Names Data Base for place names within Canada.
  • I also told the crowd about SearchOpener, which I’d mentioned in a previous post. The tool lets you perform multiple Google searches at once—a boon for checking fact-heavy texts.

Notes and bibliography

  • Stef Alexandru told us about RefWorks and Zotero, which are bibliographic management programs. The former costs $100 (USD), whereas the latter is free. In both of these programs, you can enter all of your bibliographic information, and it produces a bibliography in the style (e.g., Chicago) that you want.
  • Microsoft Word’s bibliography tool does the same thing (under “Manage Sources”)

The trick to all of these programs, though, is that you would have had to work with your client or author early enough in the writing process for them to have used them from the outset. Nobody knew of any specific tricks for streamlining the editing of notes and bibliographies, although Margaret Shaw later mentioned a guest article on Louise Harnby’s blog by the developer of EditTools, Richard Adin, in which he writes:

The books I work on often have reference lists of several hundred entries. Using the Journals macro, I can check and correct most of the entries in the list automatically. I once timed it and found that I can check about 600 references in approximately 15 minutes; it used to take me hours, especially if I had to look up obscure and rarely cited journal names. Now I look them up once, enter them in the dataset, and move on.

  • For fact checking bibliographical information, one suggestion was to use WorldCat.

Document cleanup

  • Jack Lyon’s Editorium has a FileCleaner Word add-on that helps with a lot of common search-and-replace cleanup steps. NoteStripper may also help you prepare a file for design if the designer doesn’t want embedded footnotes or endnotes.
  • Grace Yaginuma told us how to strip all hyperlinks from your file by selecting all (Ctrl + A) and then using Ctrl + Shift + F9.
  • To remove formatting from text on the clipboard, suggested apps include Plain Clip and Format Match.

Ensuring consistency

  • Nobody in the room had tried PerfectIt, but there seemed to be positive views of it on EAC’s listserv. It catches consistency errors that Word’s spelling and grammar checkers miss, including hyphenation, capitalization, and treatment of numbers. You can also attach specific dictionaries or style sheets to it.

Author correspondence and queries

  • Theresa Best keeps a series of boilerplate emails in her Drafts folder; another suggestion was to have boilerplate email text as signature files.
  • For queries that you use again and again, consider adding it as an AutoCorrect entry, a trick I use all the time and saves me countless keystrokes. Store longer pieces of boilerplate text as AutoText.


  • Naomi Pauls and Theresa Best talked about the utility of checklists. I concur!

Structural editing

  • A few people in the audience mentioned that a surprising number of editors don’t know about using Outline View or Navigation Pane in Microsoft Word to do outlining and structural editing.
  • One person said Scrivener is a fantastic tool for easily moving large chunks of text around and other aspects of structural editing.

Business administration

  • Janet Love Morrison uses Billings for time tracking and invoicing, and she highly recommends it. Other options recommended include iBiz and FreshBooks. (Someone also mentioned Goggle as a time tracker, but I can’t find anything about it. Can anyone help?)
  • Theresa Best has just begun using Tom’s Planner, which she described as a free and intuitive project-management program.
  • Peter Moskos mentioned that years ago, his firm had invested in FastTrack Schedule, which cost a few hundred dollars but, he said, was worth every penny, especially for creating schedules for proposals.
  • One recommended scheduling app for arranging meetings is

Editors’ wish list

  • Naomi Pauls said that she’d like to see a style sheet app that lets you choose style options easily rather than having to key them in. (Being able to have your word process0r reference it while checking the document would be a plus.)
  • Someone else proposed a resource that would be a kind of cheat sheet to summarize the main differences between the major style guides, to make it easier to jump from one to another when working on different projects.

Thanks to everyone who came out to the meeting and especially those who shared their tips and tricks!

*Although I knew some names at the meeting, I didn’t catch all of the names of the contributors (or I’d forgotten who’d said what). If you see an entry here and thought, “Hey—that’s me!” please send me a note, and I’ll be happy to add your name.

Unconference session for senior editors (EAC conference 2013)

A group of experienced editors gathered for an open discussion at the EAC conference. Especially helpful was that Moira White, Director of Professional Standards on EAC’s National Executive Council (NEC) was there, not only contributing ideas of her own but also promising to take some of our thoughts back to the NEC.

Professional development, technology, and software

How do senior editors find professional development opportunities? What are experienced editors looking for in professional development?

Gisela Temmel mentioned that simply being able to meet other editors and  discuss common problems is enormously helpful. One editor said that keeping up with new software was her biggest challenge, especially as a freelancer. Moira White and Anne Brennan both mentioned the EAC listserv as a great place to keep on top of new developments in software and technology. White told us that some organizations, particularly ones with stringent security checks, are only now just upgrading to Word 2007 (!). By keeping up to date on new releases of common software and playing around with them, editors can set themselves up as consultants to teach users at these organizations about new features.

One editor lamented how unintuitive the proofing tools were on PDFs. I mentioned that InCopy may be an option for some projects; the program allows text changes to a document designed in InDesign without changing its layout. Further, there’s a third-party plug-in that allows designers to accept or reject proofreaders’ changes marked up using Adobe Acrobat’s reviewing tools. (Thanks to Grace Yaginuma for the initial tip about that plug-in.)

One participant made some offhand comment about how complaining to Adobe about its proofing tools would be useless, and I responded by telling the group about the efforts of the American Society for Indexing‘s Digital Trends Task Force (DTTF), which created a working group as part of the International Digital Publishing Forum, the consortium that defined the new EPUB 3 standard. Because the DTTF made itself known to the technology community on an international stage, that small group of indexers was able to voice its  concerns directly to a group of Adobe engineers, and now Adobe InDesign accommodates linked indexes. I remarked that editors should strive to do more of this kind of advocacy. White commented that isolating specific features we as an editing community would like to see in particular programs and presenting those findings to the people who might be able to do something about it sounded like perfect projects for task forces to undertake. According to White, the NEC has found that creating task forces and assigning people specific tasks has led to increased efficacy in EAC volunteer efforts.

On that note, one of the members raised the possibility of resource task force dedicated to looking at the possibility of creating a third edition of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary.


How do experienced editors approach mentoring junior editors? Some members of the group have had bad experiences with mentoring, saying that some people “can suck you dry.” These editors have lost motivation to mentor because of how much time and effort mentoring has taken, “and then those editors go and set themselves up as your competition!”

Mentoring is often done on a volunteer basis, but is there a possibility of charging junior editors for your time and billing your time as consulting? An alternative to that model suggested by some editors in the group was to apply for  small business grants that exist to support interns.

David Holt, editor at OptiMYz Magazine, said that the time he spends coaching interns on copy editing when they start definitely pays off later on. Janice Dyer said that she’s had success mentoring but that it’s very important to set clear boundaries when agreeing to mentoring someone. Most of the people she has mentored haven’t been looking for editing advice; rather they’ve looked for tips about ways to find work, ways to improve their resumes, and so on.

I mentioned that once you’ve mentored someone once, those that follow will often come with the same questions. Keep an archive of the information you give out so that you can reuse and repurpose it. Moira White concurred, telling us that she takes this approach with clients as well: she’s developed a standard fact sheet outlining to clients the different levels of editing and giving guidelines about how long the work will take.


The discussion was lively, and it was still going on when we had to clear out of the room to make way for the next session. Many of our topics aren’t necessarily unique to senior editors, but I enjoyed hearing the perspective of those in the room.

Gael Spivak and Lisa Goodlet—Volunteering as professional development (EAC conference 2013)

Gael Spivak and Lisa Goodlet are both seasoned volunteers, for EAC and beyond. They shared some of their insights on the benefits of volunteering and tips to get the most out of your volunteering experiences.

Volunteering, said Spivak, is a good way to get training. She quoted the 70/20/10 formula for learning:

  • 70% comes from real-life and on-the-job experiences, tasks, and problem solving
  • 20% comes from feedback and from working with role models
  • 10% comes from formal training.

Getting professional development from volunteering is like getting it from a course, only you’re paying with your time rather than with your money.

Volunteering lets you try something new without having to worry about getting fired. Goodlet told us that one of her first introductions to editing was when she volunteered as a proofreader for Project Gutenberg. You can also use volunteering to test whether you’d be a good fit for a particular type of job or career. Both Spivak and Goodlet emphasized the importance of asking for feedback on your work, even when you’re volunteering.

If you work alone, volunteering can give you team experience and let you meet valuable contacts. If you work in an office and aren’t in a management position, volunteering can offer you the opportunity to gain experience that you can’t get at work (strategic planning, project management, etc.). You can branch out beyond your usual skill set and develop negotiating skills and flexibility (since volunteer-run groups can sometimes move slowly and have different or evolving hierarchies and reporting systems). Goodlet quoted an HR consultant in suggesting that you shouldn’t separate your paid work from your volunteer work on your CV—experience is experience.

Spivak told us that, as conference co-chair in 2012, she learned about marketing and communications; in her many other EAC volunteer positions (director of volunteer relations for EAC, EAC governance task force member, National Capital Region branch membership chair), she has gained experience that she couldn’t get at her job and at her current level, including coordination, strategic planning, and policy development, which are promising to open up new opportunities and roles for her at work. Beyond her volunteer work with EAC, Spivak also writes, edits, and serves as webmaster for Not Just Tourists—Ottawa.

Goodlet said that she got her first office experience through volunteering, which allowed her to get higher-paying summer jobs than she would have gotten otherwise. As NCR branch membership chair and 2012 conference speaker coordinator, she made a lot of valuable contacts and gained project management experience. By volunteering, Goodlet also learned about herself: she’s discovered that she’s better suited to in-house positions rather than freelancing. She also volunteers as a Girl Guide leader and Humane Society foster parent.

If you decide to volunteer, said Spivak and Goodlet,

approach it strategically

  • Do you want to get better at something you know how to do or learn something different? Understand your goals before you plan how to achieve them.
  • Do you want to gain or improve a specific skill (e.g., indexing, medical editing)? Look for organizations that deal with these areas and see if they have volunteer opportunities.
  • Do you want to do something at the branch level or nationally? You can have input on how an organization is run by volunteering at the national level.

approach it consciously

  • How much time do you want to spend? Don’t overcommit yourself.
  • Do you want to volunteer long term or for a one-off project or event?
  • Are you interested in the opportunity? Just because the opportunity is there doesn’t mean you have to take it.

Approach it creatively

  • What are the secondary benefits of the volunteering opportunity? Making contacts, helping others, or simply getting out of the house are all good reasons to volunteer.
  • Do you want to use your editing skills or branch out into other areas? Some people don’t want to do for a hobby what they do for a job.

Spivak added that EAC is developing a new volunteer directory that will connect people to volunteer opportunities at the branch and national levels. People can register in the directory and specify what kinds of opportunities (short- versus long-term, branch versus national) they might be interested in, and this information will be shared with committee chairs who are looking for help.


(A reminder that volunteering for EAC in an editorial capacity can earn you credential maintenance points for certification, precisely because volunteering can be enormously instructive professional development and make you a better editor.)

Helena Aalto and Laurel Boone—Good Reads: Fiction for adult literacy and ESL learners (EAC conference 2013)

Good Reads is a project spearheaded by ABC Life Literacy Canada and funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC) to address a shortage of pleasure reading books for adult literacy and ESL learners. Over the past three years, Good Reads has worked with Edmonton-based Grass Roots Press to publish nineteen short, easy-reading books by well-known Canadian authors; the aim of this series was to increase reading engagement and reading confidence, turning learners into lifelong readers. With the project just wrapping up, project manager Helena Aalto and editor Laurel Boone spoke at the EAC conference about their work.

Good Reads was inspired by a similar initiative in the UK, known as Quick Reads, which launched in 2006. Aalto told us that Good Reads sought out established Canadian authors with an adaptable writing style who were interested in the challenge of writing compelling stories using accessible language. Among those who accepted the challenge were Tish Cohen, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Joy Fielding, Rabindranath Maharaj, Frances Itani, and Robert Hough—names that librarians and literacy educators would know well and would be enthusiastic in promoting to readers. Robert Hough documented his experiences as a Good Reads author in a Quill & Quire article, “Not as Easy as It Looks.” Although the books were short, they often went through many revisions to meet the guidelines for adult literacy learners.

These books, around 12,000 words each, had to be adult-interest stories—these were not kids’ books—with plots that would encourage readers to continue reading, using devices such as cliff-hanger chapter endings. As Boone told us, they had to have adult frames of reference and adult complexities. Authors were encouraged to minimize changes in perspective and time; to introduce only a few characters, each with a distinct name; and to identify speakers in dialogue. Boone, who described Good Reads as “the best project of my life,” edited the books with the understanding that “readers deserve our very best. These readers are adults, and they know a lot.” Her secret intention was for no one to notice the text’s low reading level. Boone’s description of her editorial process was fascinating.

Structural editing

Boone started by assessing the structure of the whole book. Each book had to be suitable for individuals, individuals with tutors, classes, and ESL learners. As such, the chapters had to be approximately equal in length, and they had to stand alone but also work together as a whole. Paragraphs had to be short but varied.

The plot had to be absolutely tight, with no loose ends. Continuity had to be perfect, because, as Boone explained, non-readers’ memories are better than the memories of most readers. Authors had to make any changes in time or place perfectly clear, using devices such as line spaces, changes in verb tense, or changes in person as clues for the reader.

Characters had to have distinct, easy-to-read names. More importantly, they had to be true to life, and through the stories, their motives and personal growth had to be clear. Boone encouraged the authors to make most of the main characters fairly agreeable, because beginning readers are more likely to identify with likeable characters.

Finally, the setting and context had to be familiar.

Stylistic editing

Boone edited toward the goal of a certain reading level (Microsoft Word allows you to check a document’s readability statistics). Literacy learners read word by word or in very small gulps, and the meaning of each of these gulps must be clear. No word could be out of place. Boone gave an example of dangling modifiers: as seasoned readers, we’d laugh, but we’d understand the intent of the sentence; beginning readers, however, would not. While performing a stylistic edit, Boone focused on the following areas:


Boone developed strategies to offer readers complete information without explicitly explaining. “I don’t wish to be told that there’s something I don’t know when I’m in the middle of a story,” she said, and phrases like “that is” or “meaning,” followed by an explanation, can come off as patronizing. She encouraged authors to bury descriptions in the context (e.g., “Victor would know where he could sell his million-dollar Picasso painting to pay off his debts”), and keep terminology consistent.

Fact checking, explained Boone, was essential, because adult readers are very knowledgeable, and errors breed mistrust. For example, she learned the difference between a pipe wrench and a monkey wrench and was careful to make sure the right term was used. Otherwise, readers could too easily dismiss the story as stupid and stop reading altogether.

Boone also looked out for situations where there was too much non-essential information. For example, an author had written out a series of American cities as train destinations, but the names of the cities themselves weren’t important to the story. Names can be hard to read and confusing, so she recommended simplifying the sentence simply to refer to “cities across the United States.”


Sentences in Good Reads books had to be short—typically fewer than fifteen words long, and certainly no more than twenty words long. They had to be simply constructed but still varied, with superior transitions. The end of one sentence must lead on to the next one. Parallelism was paramount, and she tried to eliminate passive voice, weak uses of “to be,” and adverbs ending in “-ly.” “Everything ought to be in the context and characters,” Boone explained.


It’s easy to lose track of the speakers in dialogue, Boone told us, but saying “he said, she said, he said, etc.” can get tedious. She encouraged authors to use frequent attributions but to vary the style.


Boone encouraged authors to use common words of one or two syllables (not counting -ed or -ing) in general, but there are some longer words (e.g., university) that are familiar and some short words that may not be. Any substitutions of terminology, then, had to be precise and sensitive to adult experiences, and technical words had to be correct. Swearing and sex are part of adult experiences, of course, so Boone found ways of including these themes while making sure they were not so explicit that they would make readers or their tutors uncomfortable.

Copy editing

The copy editing was handled by an editor working for Grass Roots Press, but Boone did offer some guidelines, including a style sheet for each project. In particular, she encouraged using commas for absolute clarity (e.g., around “too” and even short clauses), explaining that commas give the eye and the mind a break. Speakers’ individual voices were respected in dialogue, but standard grammar, punctuation, and spelling were enforced in the narrative.


Supporting the text, Aalto told us, were clear page layouts with a readable typeface and a lot of white space . The books were given eye-catching covers. Beyond the books, the Good Reads website features further resources for readers and instructors, including videos of interviews with the authors, text of the first chapter of each book, and audio of the authors reading from their books. Teachers could also download a free guide for each title. The series has done quite well, Aalto was proud to say, although she added that there’s no way HRSDC would fund such a series today; all literacy efforts are going into workplace training, leaving little room for pleasure reading. However, Orca Books has started a similar series called Rapid Reads, and Grass Roots has committed to distributing those titles.

As for Boone, she found the project extremely rewarding, explaining that the usual pleasure and intimacy of working with authors was increased by working together toward an altruistic objective. She said that the ordinary principles of effective writing are easily forgotten by fluent, university-level readers, writers, and editors but that simpler is always better, even for complex ideas. Practising simple expression can help sharpen thought.

EAC Publications and the new Editing Canadian English (EAC conference 2013)

EAC’s Publications Committee gave us an update on its activities, primarily on its work developing a new edition of Editing Canadian English. The second edition of ECE is showing its age, said editor-in-chief Karen Virag, and it’s due for a revision. The committee gathered teams of experienced editors to go over every chapter of ECE, word by word, and make recommendations on the content, addressing such questions as whether there is such a thing as Canadian usage of punctuation. In keeping with the trend of similar language resources, the next edition of ECE will be exclusively online. Subscriptions will cost $30 per year, and it will launch in 2014.

Beth Macfie, one of the managing editors, then explained how the committee has spent the last year and a half analyzing the existing ECE to figure out how to make it into a modern product. The title of the new publication will be Editing Canadian English: The Guide for Editors, Writers, and Everyone Who Works with Words, to emphasize that it is aimed at a much broader audience than just editors. ECE will explain what Canadian English is, how to handle special situations in language, and where to find additional information. The publication will feature sections about

  • editorial roles
  • editorial niches
  • an editor’s legal responsibilities (including in cases of subcontracting) and where to keep up to date on new legal developments
  • Canadian usage
  • inclusive language
  • spelling
  • compounds and hyphenation
  • capitalization
  • abbreviation
  • punctuation
  • measurements
  • documentation
  • working with bilingual documents

The new edition’s electronic format will allow the Publications Committee to update and annotate the content as time goes by. The aim, explained Macfie, is to provide something that no other publication provides.

Over the next year, as the publication takes shape, the committee will need more researchers and writers, copy editors, proofreaders, and beta testers.

Finally, production editor Carolyn Pisani gave us a glimpse of how this new publication will be implemented. She recruited volunteers to test existing databases that provide a similar reference function, using the resources as they were working to get a sense of the systems’ advantages and disadvantages in applied, real-world situations. Volunteers answered an eight-question survey to evaluate these databases for writing and editing, including

  • What makes this online database user friendly?
  • What did you like in terms of ease of use, thoroughness, etc.?
  • What seemed to be missing? What didn’t you like?

Pisani is compiling this feedback and will work together with EAC’s executive director, Carolyn Burke, to find a team that can handle the technological implementation of the new ECE.


Certification Steering Committee co-chairs Anne Brennan and Janice Dyer also presented at the same plenary session, but whatever I have not written about before will be covered in important updates to the Certification section of the EAC website. I’ll tweet or post the link once the updates have happened.

Marjorie Simmins—The editor and the memoirist: creating your best working relationship (EAC conference 2013)

“Between every line of a memoir is a pounding heart,” said Marjorie Simmins. In her presentation at the EAC conference in Halifax, Simmins, an award-winning writer who makes her living as a journalist, editor, and instructor, shared some of her wisdom about how an editor can make the most out of the sometimes intimate, sometimes delicate, and often rewarding relationship with a memoirist.

“Memoir is impossible to define,” said Simmins. “It’s a bit like a pool of mercury.” Memoirs can be poetry; they can be prose; they can be hybrid of genres. They can be illustrated; they can be literary. They can be about a regular person, a celebrity, or even a family. “Memoir,” Simmins explained, “is a chapter in someone’s life,” in contrast to an autobiography, which is a look at the whole life. “Memoir is supposed to be a piece of time, and it often relates to a particular event.”

Simmins brought along a selection of her favourite memoirs, from Linden MacIntyre’s Causeway to Laura Beatrice Berton’s I Married the Klondike to Joanna Claire Wong’s Wong Family Feast, to show us the vast range that memoirs can cover. Common to all good memoirs, however, is an affecting story, said Simmins, and it takes a skilled writer to achieve just the right balance of sentiment.

Editors can make a meaningful difference in the life of a memoirist, Simmins explained, but not every memoirist–editor pair will work. Luck, and chemistry, also factor into the relationship. “Trust your first impressions,” she advised, when considering whether to take on a project, and define the limits of the relationship through clear communication. “I try to avoid the phone,” she told us, “because people don’t think it takes you any time.” When she agrees to work on a memoir, Simmins first evaluates the manuscript, offering the author a candid overview of her response to the writing and detailing the sections that work well and those that don’t. Candour doesn’t mean insensitivity, of course, especially since memoirists often find it hard to separate themselves from the text and may take umbrage at what they perceive as criticism. After her evaluation, she performs careful line and copy editing to polish the text.

She’ll do her best to fact check, confirming names, dates, and historical references. Some manuscripts require a lot of fact checking, said Simmins, and you’ll generally know how intensive it will be from the first page. Some facts simply can’t be checked, however, and although truth and accuracy are important, so is imagination, Simmins emphasized: “No one can truly remember being three years old,” and even real people, when they are characters in a memoir, still need to be engaging and believable.

Making sure someone gets published, she said, is not her job. Having a work published may not even be a priority for some memoirists, who might write simply to unburden their souls. Memoirs are “truly written in heart’s blood,” said Simmins, and a memoirist might produce only one work in a lifetime, and so it’s particularly important for an editor to be diplomatic and open minded. She warned us that, especially for editors who work as writers, the work lines can get blurred. Occasionally she’ll catch herself thinking, “Oh, I can fix this!” but before she does, she has to remind herself to pull back and instead offer the author guidance and suggestions on what could improve the text.

Memoirists can take things very personally, and Simmins suggested that editors “learn to fend off bullies. They’re out there. Some people just want to criticize everything you do. But you know when you’ve done a good job, and you can beg to differ in a polite way.” She advocated keeping a professional distance from the work. If you get too invested, “you’ll be eaten alive.”

Not every editor is suited to working with memoirists. Some editors, for example, prefer not to work with people and might be better off quietly editing government documents. For Simmins, however, editing memoirs is enormously rewarding, as she knows that her contribution can bring a stranger “great psychic happiness.” She closed her talk with some terrific perspective, courtesy of Plato: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”


Marjorie Simmins’s own memoir, Coastal Lives, about her embracing the identify of Maritimer after moving to Nova Scotia from the West Coast, will be published by Pottersfield Press in 2014.

ISC/EAC conference notes and news

I’ve been back from the Indexing Society of Canada/Editors’ Association of Canada conference in Halifax for almost a week now but have spent these past few days trying to get caught up.

As with last year, I’ll be posting summaries of the talks I attended at the conference, but, as I learned last year, they might take me a few weeks to finish; the pockets of time I need to write have been elusive.

The ISC and EAC conference committees put on a wonderful event: the sessions were engaging and well balanced, and I loved being able to see and catch up with fellow editors and indexers from across Canada and beyond. I was also honoured to receive a President’s Award for Volunteer Service from EAC at the awards banquet—a million thanks to Frances Peck, Anne Brennan, and Eva van Emden for nominating me. I work on committees with some of the most dedicated people I know, and there’s no way I deserve this award any more than they do.