by Chris Cameron
Published at 2015-08-26
A large manuscript has always presented stylistic challenges to editors, as we are charged with maintaining consistency through the entire work. If the author used a hyphen in “co-operation" on page 20, did he then spell it without one on page 236? Does a "well-known movie actor" become "the well known movie actor" later in the article? We can mandate that a serial comma is to be used, but how can we check that we have caught every occurrence where they are missed?
A style sheet is the standard tool used by copyeditors and proofreaders to keep editorial decisions all in one place. In addition to the high points of the chosen editorial style (APA, Chicago, in-house), the style sheet lists specific decisions of spelling and usage. But this tool has always been a manual reference at best. We need to look at it in order for it to work. We also need to keep the style sheet in mind while working through the manuscript.
At the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto in June, I watched a demonstration of PerfectIt, editing software created by Intelligent Editing that acts like a style sheet in a box. They offer a 30-day free trial, so I signed up so that I could test drive the product.
Installed as an add-on to Microsoft Word, PerfectIt can race through my document performing more than 25 different tests, ranging from consistency in hyphenation and capitalization to missing captions for tables or figures. It will flag a table number that is out of sequence and will warn you if a parenthesis is missing its mate.
I edit a fair number of scientific papers and proposals, and I find the abbreviation checks to be very useful. PerfectIt will tell me if an abbreviation has been defined twice; or has been defined but not used; or if it has been used without being defined (for instance, when I checked this blog post, the abbreviation “APA” was flagged because I had not defined it).
A more advanced feature is the ability to create and customize your own style sheet. For example you can outline whether you want a Latin phrase like a priori to be italicized, but not et al. or alma mater.
Of course all these issues are the purview of the copyeditor, and a human eye is still very necessary. I find that I use PerfectIt to check my own work after I’ve been through a document, rather than turning it loose on writing that I haven’t seen yet.
PerfectIt will not do anything on its own, it simply points to something it thinks is an error or inconsistency and waits for me, the editor, to decide what to do about it. I have complete control (as an editor should!). I can correct the errors one at a time or all at once, as I like.
Despite its name, PerfectIt is not perfect. One limitation of the software is that it slows down when it has to check a document of more than 500 pages or so. Conversely, PerfectIt prefers to work with a document that is large enough to contain a number of consistency errors. This is not a tool for editing your one-page cover letter for a job application. If you are using Track Changes, your document should be displayed in “FINAL” mode. PerfectIt does not like mark up.
But overall, I find it fun to use and a valuable second pair of eyes. It’s nice to feel as if there is someone (or something) keeping me company as I work through a long, dense document.
PerfectIt is a useful tool to save writers and editors time so that we can better focus our energy on issues of accuracy, clarity, and correctness. It is currently for sale from Intelligent Editing at US$99 for a one-year license (about C$130 with the current exchange rate).