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Industry Insights: The RPGnet Interviews

The Lost Art of Copy Editing

by Mark Bruno
Edited by Drew Meger
August 16, 2001  

A while back I had initiated a thread on the general RPG.net forum asking the question: Is copy editing a lost art? All too often I have seen common editing mistakes within the pages of various RPG books that make me cringe every time I see them. So, why are these common mistakes making it into the pages of RPG books? The reasons are many, but the general consensus seems to suggest that as more small-press publishers and "one-man operations" come into existence, the cost involved in hiring a freelance editor can be prohibitive. Also, when you have an instance where one or two people are tackling a 200-page manual themselves, most skimp on the editing to save time.

Many people bemoan that fact that copy editing is slowly becoming a lost art (such as myself). Others, however, argue that it is no longer regarded as an essential element to writing. The bottom line, however, is that most people, even those not trained as journalists or academically trained in the art of copy editing, become aggravated every time they see an instance of poor editing. What follows are some examples of the most commonly abused forms of punctuation and ways to prevent abuse by following a consistent journalistic approach to copy editing.

The comma

The comma is one of the most abused forms of punctuation and its improper use is viewed as an indicator of sloppy writing. Use a comma to introduce an introductory word group or a transitional word ("in fact, that's what he was just talking about") or to separate items in a complex or simple series ("I had ham, eggs and toast for breakfast").

A common convention in academia is that a comma should always be placed before the and if there are more than three items in a series. Recently, however, that mind-set has been changing; it's no longer a required principle. In fact, more and more publications are following journalistic style, which follows a different convention. Let's take a look at how it differs in usage.

According to The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, editors and writers will insert a serial comma to separate elements in a series, but not before the conjunction in a simple series ("I believe in truth, justice and the American way"). However, they will place a serial comma before the concluding conjunction in a series if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction ("I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast"). Journalists also use a serial comma before the concluding conjunction if it is within a complex series, such as: "The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure their training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude."

Maureen B. Collins, director of legal writing at DePaul College of Law, states in her article, "A Punctuation Primer" (Illinois Bar Journal, Aug 2001, pp. 432-433), that a comma should only be used to avoid confusion. For instance, use commas with dates, addresses, titles ("John Doe, editor, is an excellent writer") and numbers (to reflect place value). Also use a comma to separate the words "yes" and "no," and nouns of direct address ("of course, Mr. Doe, I would be happy to write this article") and to set off parenthetical expressions, such as "give or take a few."

Commas are most often misused to facilitate a run-on sentence or to embed too many clauses. As Collins states, "too many commas in a sentence suggests that words are being used too far away from those they belong with, suggesting that the meaning could be clarified if the words were rearranged."

The apostrophe

Apostrophes are easy to misuse. For safety's sake, check your draft to be sure that all words ending in -s neither omit needed apostrophes nor add unneeded ones. Also, remember that the apostrophe or apostrophe-plus-s is an addition. Before this addition, always spell the name of the owner or owners without dropping or adding letters.

Use an apostrophe to indicate that a noun (woman's) or indefinite pronoun (anyone's) is possessive. If the noun is plural and ends in s (writers'), add only an apostrophe. Collins also states that if adding an s would make it awkward to pronounce, you may omit the s and just use an apostrophe to indicate the possessive (Sophocles' plays).

Also use an apostrophe to indicate a contraction, such as can't or won't. And for the love of God, will people ever learn the difference between its and it's? For the record, its is the possessive and it's is the contraction!

Quotation marks

As we all know (or should know), a quotation mark is used to identify a direct quotation. However, there's another distinction that bears emphasis--the indirect quote. Unlike a direct quote, indirect quotations report what was being said or written, but not in the exact words of the person being quoted. Indirect quotations are not enclosed in quotation marks (The psychoanalyst Karen Horney remarked that life is a good therapist).

Punctuation marks, such as commas and periods, are placed inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons, however, are placed outside.

Resource Guides

I agree with Collins when she writes that prevention and education are often the most effective tools in combating punctuation abuse. When you have that final draft in your hand or before sending it off for a proofread, require that the person editing it has access to a good manual of usage and style. There's a million of them out on the market, but the few I've found to be most effective are The Little Brown Handbook, Grammar for Smart People, and The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. All three of these "style guides" should still be in print and available at Amazon.com and most major bookstores.

So, what's the solution?

Now, I'm not trying to cast RPG publishers in an unfavorable light, but I feel there's a serious problem here. If the excuse for poor editing stems from being rushed or not having enough man-power, then who's to say that other elements of an RPG book won't get overlooked as well, such as consistence in game mechanics, world background or rule development. Would it stop from there?

Can you recall the adage in real estate that asserts the three most important elements are location, location and location? Well, in writing it's consistency, consistency and consistency. How can we be expected to become a premier form of entertainment when we cut corners? How will our "niche hobby" grow to a mature, viable form of literature? Despite what critics have said, regardless of the fact that RPG books contain scads of "rule mechanics," it's no less a work of fiction than a game-based novel or a short story in Dragon.

This brings up another point: Before you even begin writing your book, consistency should be first and foremost on your mind, especially if more than one author is contributing to the work. For instance, if you decide to scrap traditional academic grammar and style, opting instead for AP style, then make sure you follow it throughout the entire draft. Never mix and match copy edit conventions just because it suits you or because you forgot what style was initiated in the first place; if you intend to use a serial comma before the and, then make sure every complex or simple series is consistent.

Also consider taking more time during the editing process. In fact, RPG publishers should devote just as much time editing their work as they do in writing and developing the creative worlds we love to play in. Here are a few other suggestions:

* Utilize an intern. Most college undergraduates are hungry for experience, especially if they are studying print journalism--the media industry is incredibly hard to get into without it. Even if you're not an established company, but rather a one-man operation, you can post flyers on university bulletin boards, calling for students with writing and editing experience.

* Hire a freelancer. This option may not be cost effective for everyone, but a copy editor worth his weight in red ink can be an invaluable tool to make sure your final draft is ready to be printed and sold. You might even find someone to work for free or for a nominal fee (hint, hint) with a promise that their name will be featured in the credits along with possible prospects for future work. I use RPG.net as an example of this--there's a forum here specifically created for freelancers looking for work so use it!

* Give yourself a new title. If you are a small press or a one-person operation, take it upon yourself to edit the work you've written, but don't rush the process or cut corners. Even if this process delays your book and sets it back a few weeks or a month, you'll at least know that your customers will be getting a top-notch product that is consistent and easy to read.

* Put an editor on staff. Having a full-time editor is the best option, but admittedly the least viable considering the number of small presses we have in the industry. However, having someone on staff that can become familiar with your products and your "style" will undoubtedly assure that your products are consistently error-free and make sense.

The bottom line is this: there is simply no excuse for sloppy editing. If you care enough about the product that you're willing to dedicate hours upon hours crafting and writing your game, then you should take pride in the way it's presented.

On the other hand, as consumers we should demand that our hard-earned cash is going towards a product that is complete, well written and doesn't insult our intelligence or bank on the fact that we'll "let it slide" as long as the content is entertaining.

I like Collins' advice: The next time that you read a document [or RPG book] and are appalled at the punctuation [and poor editing], simply attach a copy of this article and return it to the author. It's easier than wringing your hands about the dumbing down of America and, hopefully, a bit more effective.

Mark Bruno has been a professional editor and writer for more than 10 years, having worked for a variety of commercial and industry trade magazines, both nationally and internationally. He often freelances for numerous publications and currently works as senior copy editor and media spokesman for a consumer advocacy group. More importantly, however, he has been an avid lover of role-playing games since 1984. He can be reached at xwingpilot@earthlink.net

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All Industry Insights

  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews China Mieville, April 24, 2002
  • lizard's Condensation of All Game Fiction, April 18, 2002
  • Sandy's "God or Whore?" GTS'02, March 26, 2002
  • Allan Sugarbaker with GAMA Trade Show '02: An Inside Report, March 22, 2002
  • Aldo of Impressions on the GamePlay CD, January 3, 2002
  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews Ken Hite, February 8, 2002
  • Gareth-Michael Skarka interviews Tim Powers, January 18, 2002
  • Aldo Ghoizzi on Inside the Making of GamePlay, January 3, 2002
  • The RPGnet Awards Cabal presents the RPGnet 2001 Awards Results!, December 5, 2001
  • Ken Whitman teaches us with A Note About Creating a Good Promotional Campaign, October 12, 2001
  • Sean Jaffe on The Fallout, September 27, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • Sean Jaffe on Interesting Times, September 21, 2001 [about 9/11]
  • GodLike: Dennis Detwiler and Greg Stolze, September 14, 2001
  • Jared Nielsen on Tribe Gamer, August 31, 2001
  • Mark Bruno teaches about Copy Editing, August 16, 2001
  • Ratings not just kid's stuff for RPG industry, reported by Matt Snyder, August 9, 2001
  • GenCon '01 News, reported by Matt Snyder, August 3, 2001
  • Origins Report: Would you send your mother to buy from them?, part 4 of 4
  • Origins Report: Booth Babes, part 3 of 4
  • Origins Report: Overview, part 2 of 4
  • The Origins Awards, part 1 of 4, reported by Jason Paul McCartan
  • Gary Gygax Interview, part 1 of 3, by Scott Lynch
  • Why I Write Gaming Materials by Greg Stolze, November 16, 1999
  • Blowing out the Nostalgia Candle by John Wick, October 19, 1999
  • Interview with Sean Pat Fannon, Shards October 5, 1999
  • Portuguese is not Spanish! by Thad Blanchette, September 14, 1999
  • Intuition and Surprise by M. J. Young, July 27, 1999
  • Fear and Loathing in the Wizards of the Coast Game Center by John Tynes, January 26, 1999
  • Breaking In,, on how to break into writing for RPGs, by Steve Kenson, December 22, 1998
  • ALT.RPG, first of a series looking deeply at what gaming is all about, by Matt Miller, September 1, 1998
  • The Night They Tore Old Mecca Down, GenCon report by Randy Porter, August 20, 1998
  • GenCon Fun: con, city, and even housing tips from Randy Porter, June 30, 1998
  • GenCon Lore Vol 3: Program Books, update on GenCon 98 attendance, by Randy Porter, June 23, 1998
  • The Missing and the Dead, update on GenCon 98 attendance, by Randy Porter, June 2, 1998
  • The Definitive Count on who is and isn't attending GenCon 98, by Randy Porter, April 28, 1998
  • How to Scam Games Part II by Steve Johnson, March 24, 1998
  • The Perils of Penniless Publishing by Aaron Rosenberg, February 3, 1998
  • Polyhedral Dice & Mirror Shades, by Greg Costikyan (or, the death of paper).
  • Ken Whitman: A Love Hate Relationship by (of course) Ken Whitman
  • Interview with Sean Punch, GURPS line editor, by Bob Portnell, October 1997
  • YOU DID WHAT? Perspectives On Becoming A Full-Time Writer In The RPG Industry, by Steven Long, September 1997
  • A Resurgence of Role Playing, by Gary Gygax, August 1997

    Other columns at RPGnet

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