Kelly Maxwell—Transcription, captioning, and subtitling (EAC-BC meeting)

Kelly Maxwell gave us a peek into the fascinating world of captioning and subtitling at April’s EAC-BC meeting. Maxwell, along with Carolyn Vetter Hicks, founded Vancouver-based Line 21 Media Services in 1994 to provide captioning, subtitling, and transcription services for movies, television, and digital media.

Not very many people knew what captioning was in the 1980s and ’90s, Maxwell said. But the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, required all televisions distributed in the U.S. to have decoders for closed-captioning built in, and Canada, as a close trading partner, reaped the benefits. Captioning become ubiquitous and is now a CRTC requirement.

Line 21 works with post-production coordinators—those who see a movie or TV show through editing and colour correction. Captioning is often the last thing that has to be done before these coordinators get paid, so the deadlines are tight. Maxwell and her colleagues may receive a script from the client, in which case they load it into their CaptionMaker software and clean it up, or they may have to do their own transcription using Inqscribe, a simple, free transcription program. They aim to transcribe verbatim, and they rely on Google (in the ‘90s, they depended on reference librarians) to fact check and get the correct spelling for everything. Punctuation, too, is very important, and Maxwell uses it to maximize clarity: “People have to understand instantaneously when they see a caption,” she said. “I won’t ever give up the Oxford comma. We’re sticklers for old-fashioned, fairly heavy comma use. It can make a difference to someone understanding on the first pass.” She also edits for reading rate so that people with a range of literacy levels will understand. “Hearing people are the number-one users of captioning,” she said.

Although HD televisions now accommodate a 40-character line, Line 21 continues to caption in 32-character lines. “Captioners like to think of the lowest common denominator,” Maxwell said. They need to consider all of the people who still have older technology. Her company doesn’t do live captioning, which is done by court reporters taking one-hour shifts and is still characterized by a three-line block of all-caps text rolling on the screen. Today the captioning can pop onto the screen and be positioned to show who’s talking. The timing is done by ear but is also timecoded to the frame. Maxwell and her colleagues format captions into readable chunks—for example, whole clauses—to make them comprehensible. Once the captions have all been input, she watches the program the whole way through to make sure nothing has been missed, including descriptions of sound effects or music.

Subtitling is similar to closed captioning, but in this case, “You assume people can hear.” Maxwell first creates a timed transcript in English and relies on the filmmakers to forge relationships with translators they can trust. Knowing the timelines, translators can match up word counts and create a set of subtitles that line up with the original script. Maxwell then swaps in these subtitles for the English ones and, after proofing the video, sends it back to the translators for a final look. How do you proofread in a language you don’t know? “You can actually do a lot of proofing and find a lot of mistakes just by watching the punctuation,” said Maxwell. “You can hear the periods,” she added. “Sometimes they [translators] change or reorder the lines.”

Before the proliferation of digital video, Maxwell told us, they couldn’t do subtitling, which had to be done directly on the film. Today, they have a massive set of tools at their disposal to do their work. “In the early ‘90s,” she said, “there were two kinds of captioning.” In contrast, today “we have 80 different delivery formats,” and each broadcaster has its own requirements for formats and sizes. “People ask me if I’m worried about the ubiquity of the tools,” said Maxwell. “No. Just because I have a pencil doesn’t mean I’m a Picasso.”

As for voice-recognition software, such as YouTube’s automatic captioning feature, Maxwell says it just isn’t sophisticated enough and can produce captions riddled with errors. “You do need a human for captioning, I’m afraid.”

Maxwell prides herself on her company’s focus of providing quality captioning. One of her projects was captioning a four-part choral performance of a mass in Latin. According the to CRTC regulations, all she had to do was add musical notes (♪♫), but she wanted to do better. She bought the score and figured out who was singing what.

In another project, she captioned a speech by the Dalai Lama. “Do you change people’s grammar, change people’s words?” The Dalai Lama probably didn’t say some of the articles or some of the verbs (like to be) that appear in the final captions, Maxwell said, but captioners sometimes will make quiet changes to clarify meaning without changing the intent of the message.

Captioning involves “a lot, a lot, a lot of googling,” she said, “and a lot of random problem solving.” She’s well practiced in the “micro-discernment of phonemes.” Sometimes when she’s unable to tell what someone has said, all it takes is to get someone else to listen to it and say what they hear. Over the years, Maxwell and her team have developed tricks like these to help them help their clients reach as wide an audience as possible.

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 processer 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.

Ethics for editors—with Mary Schendlinger

Mary Schendlinger, senior editor at Geist and faculty member in SFU’s Master of Publishing Program, led an eye-opening and thought-provoking half-day EAC-BC seminar about ethical issues in editing. When we edit and publish, she said, we are mediating culture and knowledge—a big responsibility. Most of us get into this field to make a better world, but we also work in a business, and many of the ethical questions we face arise from having to balance the needs of a publication’s many stakeholders. As we saw through the seminar, these questions often don’t have black or white answers, but an ethical editor is one who recognizes an ethical question when it comes up and who thinks constantly about who is affected by her decisions and recommendations.

Schendlinger divided ethical considerations for editors into six broad categories:

  • Responsibility to the earth
  • Responsibility to the profession
  • Responsibility to writers and artists
  • Responsibility to confidential sources
  • Responsibility to other stakeholders
  • Responsibility to society

Responsibility to the earth

How can we editors reduce the impact of our work on the environment? Schendlinger admitted she feels pangs of guilt each time she prints out a hard copy to edit or proofread but that she often works better that way. We can mitigate our effects on the environment by reducing, reusing, and recycling, of course, but it’s also important for us to voice our opinions about using printers and suppliers that actively support environmentally friendly initiatives, for example.

Schendlinger also raised the issue of the carbon footprint of online activities. Although we’re inclined to believe that working on computer is more environmentally responsible than working on hard copy, Schendlinger pointed out that two Google searches produces the same amount of carbon emissions as boiling a cup of water, so those of us working digitally aren’t as green as we might think.

(Not discussed at the seminar but pertinent to this topic is the ability of editorial quality-control systems to keep waste to a minimum. Discovering a mistake that must be corrected too late in the production process could mean that an entire printing of a publication has to be pulped. Systematically using editorial checklists and carefully checking galleys and printer’s proofs can help you see those problems before they’ve been committed to hundreds or thousands of paper copies.)

Responsibility to the profession

Schendlinger gave us several scenarios to discuss, relating to how we participate in our industry and how we treat staff, colleagues, clients, subcontractors, and suppliers. For example, what do you do when a client asks for your opinion of a fellow editor whose work you think is subpar? What do you do if you, as a copy editor, discover several problems left unresolved by the substantive editor? Is it acceptable to charge a fee to a colleague to whom you’ve referred a client? Do you tell a client if you subcontract a project to another editor?

Schendlinger advocated honesty, integrity, and transparency in all cases. Always assume competence on the part of your colleagues and give them the benefit of the doubt. Be diplomatic and tactful, but always convey your honest opinion, keep your promises, and do your best to avoid conflicts of interest.

Responsibility to writers and artists

How do we talk to an author about what we do? Schendlinger cautions against using negative language that we may be so accustomed to that they seem standard: “cleaning up a manuscript,” “correcting errors,” “resolving problems.” Instead, she recommends something along the lines of, “making the language more appropriate to the situation,” emphasizing that for every project we have to keep in mind audience, purpose, and occasion.

That triad is the reason Schendlinger does not recommend editing a manuscript pre-publication or pre-agent. She said she’s seen a number of authors get burned by having paid an editor to work on their manuscript only to have to start from scratch when a publisher or agent picks it up and has a different vision for the work. Copy editing is fine, she said, but she discouraged doing any kind of developmental or structural editing.

Schendlinger then asked, is it okay to go the wall arguing a point of grammar or syntax that you know is right? She pointed to Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook, in which Einsohn noted that if you do argue, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons and not for ego. Make it clear that you’re motivated by wanting to maintain the author’s credibility in the eyes of readers.

Finally, we discussed the case of Gordon Lish’s work on Raymond Carver’s books, as documented in this New Yorker article. We all agreed that Lish was overstepping in the way he altered the author’s voice. Schendlinger pointed out that Carver was dependent on Lish to have his books published—and thus to earn his income. As editors, we are often called upon by publishers to offer our opinion, and that puts us in a position of power; it’s important that we don’t abuse it.

Responsibility to confidential sources

Editor–author relationships can be very intimate, Schendlinger noted. Authors may confide in you or tell you things that they expect you to keep confidential. Keep your promises, both explicit and implicit, and protect confidential sources and information.

Responsibility to other stakeholders

We know that as editors we have to mediate between author, publisher, and reader. Who else might have a stake in a written work?

  • printers and other suppliers
  • designers
  • photographers and illustrators
  • production managers
  • advertisers or sponsors
  • sales and marketing reps
  • booksellers, retailers, and e-tailers
  • libraries
  • people in the media
  • private or public investors
  • researchers
  • people named in the work
  • future artists who might create a derivative work

The list of stakeholders is long and not necessarily predictable. We have a responsibility to all of them, to varying degrees.

Editors have to keep an eye out for plagiarism, libel or potential libel, invasion of privacy, and obscenity, among others issues. Schendlinger emphasized the need to be careful and tactful when approaching authors about these issues; for example, plagiarism isn’t necessarily malicious or even intentional. Quoting from Oliver Sacks’s “Speak, Memory” in The New York Review of Books, Schendlinger demonstrated how malleable memory can be and how easily an author can internalize another writer’s work and regurgitate it as his or her own. It’s important to approach these cases sympathetically, said Schendlinger, never accusingly.

When advertisers or sponsors are stakeholders in a publication, ad–edit boundaries become concerns for the editor. Organizations such as Magazines Canada have issued guidelines (PDF)  based on principles of editorial integrity that deal with issues such as adjacency and proximity (where ads are placed relative to content) and how pieces such as advertorials are labelled.

Responsibility to society

Writing not only reflects society; it also shapes it. We have a responsibility to the public record: we need to do our best to check facts and to ensure that biases and stereotypes don’t get perpetuated. She led us through an exercise to identify problematic language such as

  • non-parallel references that give unequal status to people who should be equal
  • unnecessary categorization of people
  • negative connotation of illness
  • stereotypes based on gender, sexual orientation, social status

and to suggest fixes.

Finally, we discussed the fuzzy boundaries of truth in creative nonfiction. After all, we never remember something exactly the way it happened, and different people remember events in different ways. Schendlinger noted that readers approach nonfiction differently, because knowing that something actually happened to someone makes that story more compelling. How far can we push creativity and still bill a work as nonfiction? Is it okay to change people’s names? Is it okay to combine several different people into a single character? Is it okay to change the order of events? No easy answers, but Schendlinger pointed us to John D’Agata and Jim Fingal’s book, The Lifespan of a Fact, for guidance.


Schendlinger’s seminar was incredibly illuminating, although I have to admit that I left not only with more questions than I had going in but also with a new sense of paranoia that I’ll miss an ethical problem or make the wrong call in my work. The main takeaway—and this might sound trite and simplistic—is to be professional:  keep your promises, be honest and transparent, and flag problems early.

Ethical issues are a tricky but unavoidable facet of our work. I’ve always maintained that you can excel at the mechanics of editing—even fulfilling all of EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards—but may still be unethical, which reflects poorly on the profession. As Schendlinger pointed out repeatedly, sometimes we err not because we want to but simply because we don’t know any better, which is why I would eventually like to see an organization like EAC develop a code of ethics, if only to educate and inform. I understand that the association currently doesn’t have the resources to police a code of ethics, but having an aspirational document would still provide us some guidance and move us toward becoming a genuine profession. Until then, we can learn so much from one another: if Schendlinger offers this seminar again, I’d wholeheartedly recommend it for all editors, no matter your level of experience.

Fact-checking timesavers

Checking facts in the realm of general knowledge is a part of a copy editor’s job, and for some genres, like history or biography, it can be one of the most time consuming. Fortunately, a couple of really simple tools can help make the fact-checking process a little less tedious.

Record a macro to create a list of terms to check

I used to fact check as I worked through a manuscript, interrupting my own reading to plug a name into Google. This practice was probably a relic of working on hard-copy manuscripts, and it took me much longer than it reasonably should have to realize how dumb I was being. Instead, I now copy the terms into a separate document and deal with them all at once in a focused fact-checking session, then I go back to the manuscript and fix any discrepancies. Handily, the list of terms you create in this process can also serve as the basis of the word list in your style sheet.

To cut down on the number of keystrokes you have to input to make your word list, record a simple macro in Microsoft Word. (If you’ve got Word 2008, you’re out of luck here, but you can still copy and paste manually and use the tool in the next section to save you time.)

  1. Open a new document, and save it, giving it a descriptive name (e.g., [Project name] word list).
  2. Open your manuscript document in Word. *Note: your word list and the manuscript must be the only two documents open in Word for this macro to work.
  3. Highlight the term you want to copy.
  4. Under Tools, point to Macro, then click Record New Macro.
  5. Give your macro a descriptive name, and assign it a shortcut key combination. Click OK.
  6. Input the following:

On a Mac

  • Command + c (copies highlighted text)
  • Command + ` (tilde key; switches to the other open document)
  • Command + v (pastes copied text)
  • Return
  • Command + ` (returns to manuscript document)

On a PC

  • Ctrl + c
  • Alt + Tab
  • Ctrl + v
  • Enter
  • Alt + Tab
  1. Under Tools, point to Macro, then click Stop Recording.

Now anytime you want to copy a term into your word list, all you have to do is highlight it in your manuscript document and press your macro’s shortcut key combination.

Note that your word list doesn’t have to be limited to names; it can include any search terms you’d plug into Google (e.g., Indian Act 1876)

Once you’ve got all of the terms copied out of the manuscript, you may want to scan the list and tweak it a bit so that a Google search will return meaningful results. For example, very common names (e.g., John Smith) may need more specific context (e.g., John Smith Jamestown), or you may have to put quotation marks around terms you want to search exactly.

Use SearchOpener to do multiple Google searches at once

Plug your word list into SearchOpener and click Submit. Then click Open All to have each search open in a separate tab. Now you can go through each of the tabs to confirm your list of terms, refining your searches as needed.

If your list of search terms is long, you may want to do this process in batches, but the approach will still save you time, and it certainly beats copying and pasting each term separately into Google.