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.”

11 Comments »

  1. I agree 100%. Now would you write an article on how to extend one’s home/storage space effectively and economically to house the many, many, many reference books, style guides and dictionaries, please? Pretty please?

    Comment by Jayne Southern — February 20, 2012 @ 4:29 am | Reply

    • I wish, Jayne, that I had an answer. I have a similar problem — not only where to house my editing reference books, but also my permanent library of hardcover books. I have bookshelves all over the house — on every floor and in most rooms, and I am continuing to stack books. I have thought about, and probably will do in the not too distant future, double-rowing the bookshelves; that is, adding another set of bookshelves in front of current bookshelves in my library. I can’t do that in my office or there would be no room for me, but lack of shelving space doesn’t stop me from buying more books. Alas, if I could, I would take my books with me upon my demise, but no baggage is allowed on that trip.

      Although a lack of space is a problem for many of us, I do not, in all seriousness, consider that a sufficient excuse to not have the resources we should have for our chosen profession. We wouldn’t accept an excuse from our physician that he/she didn’t have time to keep up with happenings in his/her field because he/she lacked shelf space, so I see no reason to accept such an excuse from professional editors.

      Comment by americaneditor — February 20, 2012 @ 8:32 am | Reply

    • Lifehacker recently had an article on how to handle the issue regarding frequently used books. I’ll have to go find it, but it was brilliant. Sometimes the most common solutions elude us. They suggested (and provided a simple way for us to create our own) that we use a mobile library cart. How wonderful is that idea?
      I don’t know if that would work in a tiny NYC apartment, but it might. In my office, I have botched together a number of solutions, and it is quite funny to look at. I have one of those rolling computer tables that one would use at the couch that I use aside my desk as a pseduo-credenza to hold my postits, pencils, pens, and current editing materials. I have two TV tables that hold my books and various other things that sit astride my desk on the other side. The other thing that I used to do when I had the room is use a long conference table instead of a desk. The kind I purchased were the inexpensive folding kind–not an actual conference table. If your office accommodate the same, I wholly recommend this. Better yet, move your office to the dining room. Few people use their dining rooms anymore anyway. Please excuse any horrible grammar and punctuation. I wrote this quickly, and have to run off to work!

      Comment by Michelle Dear — February 22, 2012 @ 11:34 am | Reply

      • I, too, use a rolling computer table in my office. I use it to hold (on a book rack) the key book I need for the current editing project — perhaps a dictionary or a style manual or The Merck Index or some other reference book. Works quite well.

        Comment by americaneditor — February 22, 2012 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  2. I have at least 11 different book style guides, including specialized science style guides like “Mathematics Into Type” and guides from specific publishers like Wiley and McGraw-Hill, as well as newspaper style guides and usage guides. The problem is, everyone keeps changing preferred style, and updating them and then going through each new one to see what had changed would be both expensive and time-consuming, which is one reason I don’t edit books anymore.

    I began after spending 8 years editing at a newspaper and thought I knew how to edit. None of my clients complained about what I did, but I gradually realized how little I really knew about book editing. So I am somewhat empathetic toward the editing newbie who doesn’t have 11 different style guides, even more usage guides, and a lot of experience, although I agree it’s rather shocking that an “editor” has never heard of CMS.

    Comment by Gretchen — February 20, 2012 @ 11:09 am | Reply

  3. I have no problem with someone who doesn’t have a lot of style manuals at hand, but – as the person who started this discussion by “outing” the so-called editor who didn’t know what Chicago is – I do with someone that ignorant of a basic tool of the trade. There probably are people who can improve writers’ work without having a lot of experience or a bookcase full of style manuals, dictionaries and other useful resources, but I wouldn’t trust my work to them!

    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — February 20, 2012 @ 11:44 am | Reply

  4. What an interesting and useful article, and one to which I will direct people when they ask what on earth an editor is (does anyone else get asked: “how many books have you written?” or is that just me?) I got so tired of answering questions on the difference between an proof-reader and a copy-editor and, especially, the question, “I fancy being a proof-reader, how do I do that?” that I ended up writing my own articles on those topics.

    I also have a groaning shelf, particularly as I work with UK and US clients so have to have reference books for both. I wouldn’t trust myself if I didn’t have a CMOS, an AP Stylebook and the Oxford reference books at very least. I only actually have one client who uses AP Stylebook, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get the new version when it comes out!

    Thank you for bringing this issue to people’s attention. I call myself an editor, not a professional editor, but maybe I will add in the p-word now!

    Comment by Liz at Libro — February 20, 2012 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

  5. You do not mention which book(s) you rely on for grammar. You mentioned usage, but not grammar. Could you tell me which book(s) on grammar you use?

    Thank you
    Mary-Anne Pops
    One-on-One Editing

    Comment by Dr. Mary-Anne Pops — February 20, 2012 @ 11:27 pm | Reply

    • My two favorite books for grammar are Who’s (…oops) Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway? by C. Edward Good (ISBN 1567315763) and The Gregg Reference Manual by William Sabin (ISBN 0072936533). Believe it or not, Good’s book is published by Barnes & Noble and generally sold on their remainders shelves. It’s available online for as little as $1.75 in hardcover. Years ago, I bought copies for every editor who worked with me.

      Although I have Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, I’ve never found it to be either very authoritative or useful.

      Although not a true grammar reference, Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (ISBN 9780061840548) is excellent and probably should be required reading by every professional editor.

      Also worth reading is Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (ISBN 9781592404889), although much of what she “advocates” should not be taken as gospel. I think her title really says it all.

      What is a “grammar” book? Isn’t, for example, Chicago Manual of Style also a grammar book? Aren’t all of the style manuals also grammar books? Is “style” really something separate from “grammar”? So perhaps the best thing to do is to say that in addition to other books, I also make use of supplemental resources, such as The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations by Benson, Benson, and Ilson (ISBN 1556195206), Word Parts Dictionary by Michael Sheehan (ISBN 0786408197), and an oldie but particularly excellent book that I found in a used bookstore, Composition of Scientific Words by Roland Wilbur Brown (rev ed 1956).

      When I consider grammar, I consider more than nouns, adverbs, adjectives, commas, periods, and so on. Consequently, although I do make use of strictly grammar books, I more often make use of usage guides, etymological resources, and construction guides like the Composition of Scientific Words. Ultimately, the key to goo writing, I think, is the conveying of the message clearly, not adhering to a strict grammar rule. A signifcant part of conveying the message clearly is choosing the correct words; to choose the correct word, one needs to understand a word’s construction and origin.

      Comment by americaneditor — February 21, 2012 @ 6:36 am | Reply

  6. You’ve spent hundreds of hours writing, perhaps hundreds more reading and re-reading and fine-tuning. Your friends and family can’t say enough great things about your writing, and they eagerly ask you about it whenever they see you. Frankly, you’ve written something that is unlike anything else, and people will be knocking down your door. But now and then, you wonder if it’s really that good, you suspect your friends and family can’t offer critical feedback, and you start to think about hiring a professional editor.

    Comment by Garden Bay Gardening Supplies — February 23, 2012 @ 3:25 am | Reply

  7. [...] hashed through some of the arguments in previous posts; see, for example, The Making of a Professional Editor, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), Professional Editors: Publishers [...]

    Pingback by The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor | An American Editor — April 22, 2013 @ 4:02 am | Reply


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