An American Editor

January 25, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1)

One way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their resource library. The professional editor knows that to do a quality job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library (would you trust your doctor’s drug guide to Wikipedia?). Professional editing does equate with a quality book.

Professional editors are familiar with and use style guides, for example, The Chicago Manual of Style; Scientific Style and Format; AMA Manual of Style; and Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. There are more — lots more. It seems that every professional and academic discipline has its own style. They also own and use language usage guides, which are discussed in Part 2 of this article.

Style guides are important because a good author is a storyteller but not necessarily a good writer. Good writing includes logical organization and making sure that there is a flow and consistency to a story. It does no good, for example, to begin a chapter in the year 1861 and suddenly, three paragraphs later, the year is 1965, unless the between paragraphs transition the reader from 1861 to 1965. 

Think of the chaos there would be if a book’s references were formatted willy-nilly, or capitalization shifted all over the place, or spelling changed page by page, or compound adjectives (the hyphenated kind) were sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not. How would meaning be transferred from author to reader?

English was a language with no rules until a few hundred years ago. Then authors began to realize that they could no longer read and understand writings from 100 years earlier, and wondered whether their work will be readable 100 years later. Thus began the quest to standardize English. English is still an unruly language, thus the need for style guides — style guides bring order to chaos. Style guides help ensure consistency so that authors can write and know that how their book uses language will convey the author’s meaning — today and tomorrow — because everyone is on the same page.

True, the average reader doesn’t sit with the Chicago Manual of Style next to them. Most readers don’t know it exists. It is the publisher and the editor who need to know and need to apply the rules — as arbitrary as they may be — to the author’s manuscript. Why? So that a diverse population with diverse linguistic skills can join together and understand the author’s work. The style guides provide a common meeting ground and act as arbiters of language, broadening the ability of the audience to read and understand the author’s words. More importantly, by bringing order to chaos the rules heighten quality — something publishers need to do in the age of ebooks.

The professional editor is a master of the relevant style guides and knows the rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, and other language conventions. Professional editors continuously invest in the tools of their profession and tend to read widely. Professional editors know that their primary responsibilities are to ensure consistency, accuracy, and universality, by which I mean that the author’s work meets and embraces language conventions that ensure the widest possible audience can read and understand the author’s work: The professional editor is a communication enhancer who firms up the link between the author and the reader.

Alas, publishers and authors often look for the least expensive way to produce a book, which means that professional editors with skills, experience, and knowledge are often not hired. Why? Because the professional editor’s work is not readily discernible. A professional editor’s work is like polishing silver — adding shine and luster, not replacing the silver. 

A smart author will insist on the publisher hiring a professional editor; a smart publisher will insist on hiring a professional editor and pay a professional price, recognizing that poor editorial work tarnishes the author’s — and publisher’s — silver. A professional editor’s sure hand can make the difference between an also-ran and a bestseller.

Both authors and publishers should recognize that there is more to being a professional editor than simply calling oneself an editor.

Tomorrow the discussion continues with a look at language usage resources and why they are important parts of an editor’s library.

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