An American Editor

February 20, 2012

The Making of a Professional Editor

On a list for professional editors in which I participate, a colleague posted about a post she recently read in an online forum from someone calling herself an editor. This “editor” related that she had been asked by a prospective client if she used the Chicago Manual of Style — and she had never heard of it! Her approach to editing and proofreading is not to “touch the style of the manuscript or document (but) simply proofread and correct any mistakes in grammar, spelling etc.” The “editor” wondered whether her approach to editing was “odd.” I think the real questions are not is her approach odd, but is her approach professional and is her approach the mark of an editor?

The issue is not one of using the Chicago Manual of Style — after all, the majority of the work I do does not use the Chicago Manual of Style; my work relies on other style manuals – but familiarity with the tools of professional editing and an understanding of the role that style manuals (What is style?) and other tools play in editing.

The quote raises multiple issues from a professional editor’s perspective, not least of which is this: Does “simply proofread[ing] and correct[ing] any mistakes in grammar, spelling, etc.” make someone not a professional editor? (And foundational to these questions are: What is proofreading? and What is copyediting?)

To answer the question, one must delve into what separates the professional editor from all those people who claim to be professional editors but really are, at best, amateurs. Most of us would accept that the idea that reading a novel and catching a few typographical errors doesn’t change us from reader to professional editor, nor does it signal that “I should be an editor!”

On the surface, not knowing what are the dominant style manuals used by professional editors in your country is a sure sign that you are not a professional editor. (By the way, I do not know the country of the person being quoted, which could make a difference, but when read in context, I think it safe to assume that either the person or the prospective client or both are from the United States where the Chicago Manual of Style is prevalent.) Why? Because how can you know the correctness of a “grammar or spelling” decision in the absence of two things: an appropriate dictionary and an appropriate style manual?

Style manuals give you guidance on whether, for example, certain prefixes should be closed up rather than hyphenated; they give you guidance on whether it is proper to spell out ten or leave it as a numeral; they give you rules to follow to ensure that the grammar decision made on page one is followed on page twenty-three. Perhaps most importantly, they act as verification for the decision being made. Style manuals promote consistency not only within a single document but across multiple documents. It is that consistency that prevents readers from getting bogged down in the wrong things when reading a book.

To say one does not correct style is the same as saying that one has chosen to accept a hodgepodge style. There is nothing wrong with deciding not to apply a particular style to a manuscript, regardless of how pedestrian or undisciplined such a decision makes a manuscript. What is wrong is not knowing that you are making such a decision because you have no idea what style, as applied to a manuscript, means.

Over my 28 years of editing, I like to think I have progressed from a novice with little knowledge to a professional with lots of knowledge, even though there are many professional editors with even greater knowledge about our profession. One of the paths to that growth is familiarizing oneself with the tools of our trade, namely, dictionaries, style manuals, usage manuals, and the like.

Also over those years, I have become savvier about discerning who is and is not a professional editor. I emphasize professional because I think that is the keystone. Our world does not lack for people whose shingles proclaim “Editor Inside.” Our world does lack, however, for standards by which to judge just how professional that “Editor Inside” is. Thus, I have developed my own criteria against which I judge, in the absence of actually having the claimant edit manuscript for me, whether the claimant is a professional.

The first criterion is dictionaries. When I speak with an editor, one of the things I am interested in is the number and types of dictionaries the editor uses and has at his or her fingertips. Not all dictionaries are created equally; some have international reputations for quality, others have reputations for simply being. I do not put much stock in the skills of an editor who relies on The Free Dictionary and Wikipedia alone, or a medical editor who doesn’t subscribe to Stedman’s Electronic Spell Checker Pro.

The second criterion is style manuals. I expect a person who is an editor to have a broad interest in the things editors do and so I want to know what style manuals an editor uses and has at his or her fingertips. I know many editors who own one style manual, and that manual is often not even the latest edition. (One editor told me that the last good version of the Chicago Manual of Style, which is now in its 16th edition, was the 11th edition and that the 11th edition is the only manual the editor uses.) I have never had a project that uses the Council of Science Editor’s Scientific Style and Format manual, but I own a copy of the current edition because sometimes I need to learn more about a subject area than I can find in the manual of style the client wants me to use.

The third criterion is usage guides. Language usage changes, sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly, but the English we use today is not the English we used 50 years ago, let alone even 10 years ago. I think a professional editor is attuned to this changing and one way of keeping attuned is through the use of usage manuals. When an editor tells me that they rely on Fowler’s Modern English Usage, I pause — American English has changed significantly since the release of the Burchfield edition. It is not that Fowler’s shouldn’t be on the editor’s shelf and consulted, it is that an absence of Garner’s Modern American Usage makes me question the editor’s professionalism.

The fourth criterion is ancillary texts. Depending on the editor’s areas of expertise, I expect a professional editor to make use of subject-matter-specific ancillary texts. For example, I would expect a medical editor to have resources about drugs available, or a resource like The Merck Index to verify chemical composition. An editor who works on contemporary novels may need to have access to resources on slang or quotations.

The fifth, and final, criterion is a basic one. I expect an editor to have resources devoted to grammar.

I think the difference between the amateur editor and the professional editor is witnessed by the above criteria, although not wholly determined by that criteria. To me, the criteria afford clues as to whether this editor is an editor I am willing to trust to do a professional editing job. Of course, a person could score perfect on the foregoing criteria and still be a poor editor – it is almost impossible to know in the absence of the actual editing of manuscript (be it project or test) – but an editor whose professional library is barren is an editor who edits by the seat of his or her pants. An editor who is unfamiliar with the leading texts in the profession and their field of editing is unlikely to produce a professional edit.

In the end, editing is a profession of decisions and many decisions to be made have more than a single answer. A professional editor is one who is aware of the alternative answers to a question and then makes a decision that is justifiable and supportable by more than “because I say so.”

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