An American Editor

January 22, 2014

If You Don’t Believe. . .

When I speak at conferences, I often start my session by saying:

“Three things I alone am —
• I am the greatest!
• I am the smartest!
• I am the best!”

As those who attend my sessions can attest, I repeat that throughout my presentation.

It doesn’t matter whether I truly am the greatest, the smartest, or the best. What matters is that I believe I am — that I have confidence in my abilities and skills and that I communicate my confidence to clients and prospective clients.

At the last conference at which I spoke, I also handed out, at the end of my presentation, a card for each participant to place by their workspace, which read:

If you don’t believe you are the greatest, who will?

A key to success in business is self-confidence. In the absence of self-confidence, we become plagued with doubts about how well we did our work. Those doubts get transmitted to clients on a subconscious level. Clients do not want to believe that they have to review everything you did to make sure you did the job correctly. Instead, clients want to feel confident that they have hired the right person and can have faith that they will receive the quality work that they are paying for.

Consequently, my mantra — I am the greatest! I am the smartest! I am the best! — is intended to maintain my self-confidence and ensure that when I communicate with clients, I communicate that by hiring me (and impliedly, unlike by hiring some other editor) they have nothing to worry about. By hiring me, they have hired the best possible editor, and I will treat their work as if I had birthed it.

Most editors lack self-confidence. They never declare to the world that they are the best. They speak of themselves as being good editors or excellent editors — they compare themselves to themselves, not to their competition. This, I believe, is a mistake.

Each of us must have the strength and confidence to be equal with our clients. When we lack that strength and confidence, we give our clients the upper hand in any negotiations; basically, we accept whatever the client dictates because we fear the consequences of disagreeing with the client.

And if a client expresses dissatisfaction with our work when we are done, we often do not defend our actions vigorously, largely because we lack self-confidence and the strength self-confidence gives us.

If I am the greatest editor, then to whom will a client or potential client turn if the client turns away from me? The only choice is to turn to a second-best editor. Turning to a second-best editor says that the client does not think much of its manuscript. That is the message that we want to communicate: Is your manuscript not worth the attention of the best of the best?

In my early years as an editor, it was not unusual for clients to “argue” with me over editorial decisions. In those days, I lacked the self-confidence to stand by my decisions, unless I could point to a specific passage in a recognized style manual that expressly supported it. Today, it is different. Today, I have the self-confidence to determine for myself what is right and wrong. I point to style manuals and usage guides as supporting authority, if such support is needed.

A successful editor has confidence in the work they produce and in their skills. The successful editor believes that she belongs among the editing elite, and she conveys her belief and her stature to clients. As with most things in life, attitude is important. Believing you have the skills to be the greatest of editors puts you one step closer to being the best (and greatest) available editor on the planet.

We all know shy editors. Many of these shy editors are very highly skilled. They became editors because, among other reasons, they could limit their interaction with other people — their world revolves around the words on a page. But many of these editors also struggle to find work. The reason is that they lack the self-confidence to say to a client, “You need me because I am the best editor on the planet.”

As we have discussed in earlier essays, the Internet has changed our profession. Clients now have the world to search for an editor and often focus their search based on the economics. If you do not stand out from the crowd, what will draw attention to you? If clients have the choice among equal editors, your chances of being asked to undertake a project are no different from your competitors’ chances.

When we lack self-confidence, we become part of the crowd. We do not communicate to clients that we are different and that we are different because we are the best. We are just another editor in the sea of editors. Thus, my mantra. First, you need to convince yourself that you are the best editor in the sea of editors. Once you have convinced yourself, you must exude that confidence so that clients perceive you in the same way. The way to begin is to keep thinking

“Three things I alone am —
• I am the greatest!
• I am the smartest!
• I am the best!”

and to place this reminder in your workplace:

If I don’t believe I am the greatest, who will?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 15, 2014

American Education and the Future of American Editors

Public education and its cost are on the agenda of nearly every state government in the United States. Americans spend a lot of money on education and the return is not as good as it should be. There are myriad reasons for this, not least of which has been the politicization of the teaching profession and the war on government by Republicans.

Every state constitution includes a public education clause. These clauses were included to ensure that America could grow and compete. It was also a recognition that an educated populace could keep America from falling into a dictatorship.

In today’s global economy, the most successful competitors are those who have emphasized educating their populations. Companies also are looking for better-educated new hires, especially as increases in profit are so strongly connected to a better-educated workforce.

In the United States, individual states compete to lure new or existing businesses to their state. This is done, among other ways, by offering tax incentives and by reducing the tax burden. The problem is that a significant portion of a state’s budget is tied up in funding education and other social welfare programs, and because state budgets must be balanced, funding of these programs has to decline to offset the tax “relief” being given to companies.

Kansas is leading the way. It has slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the level it was at in 2008 in order to pay for a $1.1 billion tax break that primarily benefited the wealthy. California slashed school aid because of budget imbalance. New York slashed aid and increased mandates.

The companies and wealthy individuals who benefit from the tax incentives and breaks fail to see beyond the short-term. What happens to these companies in 5 years when they can no longer hire new high school and college graduates who have the basic skills needed by the companies to grow and expand? For years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its members have complained about how poorly prepared high school graduates are to work. They want the education system to do better. Yet they never come forward and insist that a government increase education funding; instead, they want taxes reduced without looking at what benefits they would also be reducing.

When I went to college many decades ago, there was no such thing as a “remedial” course. To get admitted, you had to already be at a certain skill and knowledge level and have the necessary skills to succeed. Then college began to morph into a competitive business, which meant increasing the number of attendees. Consequently, the need for “remedial” courses grew. Today, remedial instruction is considered part of the “college experience.”

This all bodes ill for the future of American editors. Editing requires mastery of certain language-related and business-related skills. Most editors in the past were taught the language-related skills and were expected to be well-enough educated to learn the business-related skills on their own. But that began to change in the late 1990s and continues today.

Increasingly, I see editors who have not been taught the basic language-related skills that are fundamental to a successful editing career. And when I see the tests and resumes submitted by recent college graduates who are looking to be hired as editors, I see people without those basic skills. Neither the language-related nor the business-related skills are taught today. It is hard to focus on those skills when remedial education is the starting point.

The war on education funding creates its own never-ending circle of degradation. As people move from the education system into the editing profession without mastery of basic language-related skills, they apply their limited skills to the material that will become the teaching material of the next group of students. That next group of students will receive an education that is no better than, and likely worse than, that of the author and editor who has already come to the task with a decreased skill level.

The never-ending circle ensures that with each new class entry into the world of authors and editors, the skills that are passed on are less than the skills of the previous group.

Much of it boils down to funding. In Kansas, class sizes have increased greatly, which means that students cannot be given individual attention. To make oversized classrooms work, there comes a push toward the least rather than a pull toward the most. The slowest learners cannot be left behind so the fastest learners have to be throttled. It does not take long before the skills of the fastest learners begin to match those of the slowest learners, rather than vice versa.

Of course, there is also the problem of the teachers who have graduated from such a system and thus perpetuate the problem. A teacher who hasn’t been taught the difference between a noun and a verb cannot be expected to teach children the difference.

The education of future editors is important because of the role that editors play in the dissemination of knowledge. Editors are an integral and very important part of maintaining language standards. As an editor’s education diminishes, so does the editor’s ability to help facilitate communication — it is hard to facilitate the understanding of something you yourself do not understand.

At some point, if education funding keeps declining and with it learning continues to decline, there will be no need for editors as no one will know what contributions an editor can make to communication because editors won’t be able to make that contribution. It is difficult to edit a book at a high language level when your language skills revolve around twit feeds.

The saddest part of the education funding fiasco is that the Republicans who are pushing it see it as a way to lure businesses to their low-tax state. What they lose sight of is that at best such moves are temporary because even more important than tax savings to a business is finding workers with the education and skills to do the jobs that are required for the business to continue in existence and to grow.

When education and skills were fairly uniform across the United States, low taxes were alluring. But as those manufacturers who offshored in the 1990s and who now are onshoring learned, low wages and taxes can only carry a company just so far — the prime mover for company profitability and growth is a properly educated and trained work force.

Editing as a skilled profession and viable career path is reliant on a good education system. The demise of a good education system as a deliberate policy decision is not only a threat to the future of editing, but also to the future of the country. I’m not sure what can be done to halt the tide, but I’ve made it a point to let the politicians who claim to represent me know that defunding education is not the answer to a bright future; instead, it is the path to a very bleak future.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 1, 2014

A Video Interlude: A Must-Watch Video

Filed under: A Video Interlude,Miscellaneous Opinion — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , ,

Rarely do I see a video that moves me or that I think is a must-watch video. I have seen a lot of very good videos, and have even been touched by some, but the video that follows is truly a must-watch video, even though it was originally created as a commercial. In addition, its message fits well with the holiday season.

The video’s message is one I agree with. I think it is a universal message that many of us too often forget and need to be reminded of. I was so touched by the video, that I made another donation to a local charity that I support that feeds the hungry and provides shelter to those in need. Perhaps you will be moved to do the same as a good way to start the new year.


Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 4, 2013

Is Editing Teachable?

There are two aspects to an editing career: business and editing itself. The business side of editing is clearly teachable. Its fundamentals are the same as for any business. The business side is not a craft; it is the application of rules and principles that stretch across trades even if modified to meet the needs of a particular trade.

The business side includes such things as record keeping, calculating rates, determining the services to provide, advertising, etc. — in other words, all of the same things that every other business has to do. The twin goals of the business side are to be profitable and to be efficient (see The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable and The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient).

Editing is different. It is a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught. How does one nurture and develop that skill? Are such high-level skills even sought in the market?

Unlike a painter whose contribution to art will last centuries, the contribution that an editor makes lasts until the next edition at best. Artists are not anonymous whereas editors are anonymous by design; it is the author who receives credit for the well-edited manuscript. Rarely does the editor’s name even appear, and when it does appear, it is difficult to ascertain what the editor’s contribution to the work was.

So does it matter (except to editors) whether an editor is highly skilled or average skilled? The market seems to think it doesn’t matter. A free market economy is based on the principle(s) that demand will cause prices to rise and fall and that greater skills will command greater money and greater demand. Perhaps that is true of some professions, but it doesn’t seem to be true in the editing economy.

Within the editing economy there is a narrow range of pricing and a broad range of requirements that accompany that range of pricing. Editors set a price for their services, but if the price is too high, find few takers. If anything, the free market acts as price depressor because the editing market does not value skills, it values price.

If editing skills were teachable, perhaps the market could be taught to value the skills. Because such skills are neither teachable nor transferable, the market views and reacts to what it considers average. It has no way to measure or see the differences in skillsets and apply different metrics to each of the skillsets. It is because these skills are not teachable that we cannot separate ourselves into tiers and demand pay equivalent to our tier. Nor can we rise from tier to tier as we gain experience and skills as no tiers exist.

When someone hires an editor, they have no realistic way of knowing whether they are getting the Michelangelo of editors or the average editor. We can proclaim our skills but each project provides its own challenges and how well an editor does changes with each project. On some projects an editor will demonstrate outstanding skills; on other projects, the same editor will struggle to be average.

It is the nature of editing.

Consequently, when we look for an editor, we ask the editor to pass a test or demonstrate mastery over grammar and spelling and usage. What we cannot and do not test for is that skillset, that spark of mastery or genius, that something that raises one editor above another. We look for and test for those things that are teachable. Perhaps that is a disservice to ourselves, to the editing profession, and to authors.

But the free market does not reward — and is not designed to reward — greater editorial skills, especially intangible, nondemonstrable skills. We need to remember that because of the ease of entry into the editing profession, dilution of the skills required to be an editor occurs. More importantly, ease of entry means that “everyone knows” what constitutes editing and what makes an editor a “good” editor.

How many times have we heard that so-and-so had to be a good editor because they teach English to fifth grade students? In the absence of “knowing” what makes a good editor, there would be no way to correlate teaching English with being a good editor. Similarly, it is also assumed that a degree in English Arts is the necessary educational background for a successful editing career. Yet professional editors know that neither teaching English nor having an English Arts degree assures that the person will be (or is) a good, let alone great, editor.

Editors favor independence and the solopreneur work style. Perhaps if we were less independent in our approach to the profession we could establish minimum “guild-type” requirements for entry into the profession and figure out a way to teach (or at learn) what is currently unteachable. I think that will be the only way to receive acknowledgement that, like with painters, there are levels of skill and mastery and the higher levels of skill and mastery require higher pay. Of course, in the market economy, especially when controlling and minimizing costs is a governing principle and editing remains a hidden benefit, this might be tomfoolery because few will be willing to pay for high-skill editors when average will do.

What do you think?

September 30, 2013

The Illogical Republican

Filed under: Miscellaneous Opinion,Politics — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I know this blog is an editorially focused one, but sometimes there is a need to stray a bit, especially into the world of politics. If there ever was a subject or profession (aside from religion) that was designed to be the slaughterhouse of language, it is politics — especially current American politics.

Sometimes I wonder if there is a difference between irrational and illogical behavior and speech. Unfortunately for America, GOP (Republican) politics smacks a lot of both when it comes to healthcare, especially Obamacare. It is clear to me that none of the pundits are having their pronouncements vetted by a professional editor; they seem to be the ultimate self-editors who are so blinded by their love for their own words that they are unable to see the problems with their word choices.

The GOP and its conservative allies are now running ads asking Americans if they really want their healthcare decisions made by “faceless Washington bureaucrats.” It’s a good question that is made a terrible question by the inclusion of “Washington”. I have asked several GOP politicians what the difference is between a faceless bureaucrat who sits in Washington and works for the U.S. government and a faceless bureaucrat who sits in an office in a large insurance company or in a state capitol? I have gotten no response other than “one cannot trust Washington bureaucrats,” which strikes me as clear avoidance.

Most Americans who have health insurance have health insurance provided by an insurance company or a state government. Very few individuals who actually pay for health care are self-insured. The insurance company tells us what it will pay for and won’t pay for and how much it will pay; no one is simply given an insurance card and told to “buy” whatever healthcare and drugs you think you need and don’t worry, someone else will pay for it.

No, the real difference between Obamacare and the current system of health insurance is that Obamacare will provide insurance to more people at a lower cost, which does not fit well with the GOP’s preferred plan of health insurance only for the well-to-do.

Yet the irrationality and illogicality of the “faceless bureaucrat” argument doesn’t halt the GOP tirade. If it can’t convince you by the bureaucrat argument, it is ready to hit below the belt and scream “socialism”. What could be more frightening to an American than socialism?

When I talk with senior citizens about healthcare, they are unanimous that they do not want the government interfering with their Medicare. Being a Medicare recipient myself, I fully understand that thinking. But when I point out to those who oppose Obamacare that the Medicare (and Medicaid) they praise and do not want touched by government is in fact run by a “faceless” government bureaucracy in Washington, they often seem stunned.

And when I point out that Medicare (and Medicaid) are socialist programs similar to Canada and Britain’s national healthcare plans, with the only difference being that in Canada and Britain the healthcare is for all, whereas Medicare is only for older Americans and disabled Americans, I see surprised expressions. But I also am told, “I don’t care. I don’t want Obamacare because it is creeping socialism.”

Some of the most strident anti-Obamacare Americans are military veterans. A local congressman is a retired veteran and an ardent opponent of Obamacare because it is socialized medicine. I have asked his office to explain how he justifies opposing Obamacare, which makes health insurance affordable and available to more Americans, while supporting expanded Veteran’s Administration healthcare, which is socialized medicine for veterans and which he enjoys at taxpayer expense. I await the answer and suspect I will celebrate my 100th birthday long before I get a rational, logical response (or perhaps any response) from him or his similar-thinking colleagues.

The problem with the message is the lack of understanding of the terms used. To Obamacare opponents, socialism is bad except when they benefit (“Don’t you dare touch my Medicare!”), and faceless bureaucrats are okay except if they can be found in Washington, DC (I wonder where congresspersons can be found?).

The GOP is winning the word battle because those who support Obamacare and national health insurance seem to be incapable of defining and framing the argument. They certainly are incapable of showing the fallacies in the arguments the GOP presents. I am almost (but not quite) convinced that the problem lies in word usage, not in meanness; that is, proponents find it difficult to distort word meanings and thus cannot fight back, whereas the opponents, like the GOP, have no problem assigning alternate meanings to common words in the expectation that people will hear the alternate meaning, not the standard meaning.

The GOP claims (falsely, but that doesn’t seem to matter) that Obamacare includes “death panels.” What the GOP doesn’t point out is that its “plan” is just death itself — no panel whose decision can be challenged and no health insurance to stave off disease, illness, and death.

The irrationality and Illogicality of GOP thinking and advertising strikes me as proof of why editors are needed — no one else seems willing to challenge the misuse of language. The sad part is that America has become a land of me rather than we.

September 4, 2013

Going Wireless

When I first began my career as a freelance editor, I realized that I needed a business telephone line. In those days, email and the Internet were still barely taking their first steps in publishing. Most of my client contact was done via postal service mail and telephone.

In addition, I had two young children who wanted to remain in contact with their friends and who had little concept of “no, you can’t use the telephone during business hours.” Thus, the need for a dedicated business line.

So, I had a second line installed at my home, a line dedicated to business.

Not long after I had that business line installed, I recognized that clients wanted to fax material to me. Sometimes the faxes would run dozens of pages. So I decided to install a second business line. This line was for both voice and faxing. I also arranged for “rollover”; if someone called one of the two business numbers and I was on the telephone, the call would rollover to the other number. It was something like an early call waiting system.

Over the years, I found that rollover to be indispensable because by ringing the alternative number, my wife could answer the phone, giving the business greeting. I began to look like a real company — multiple telephone lines and a “receptionist” to answer with “Good morning. Freelance Editorial Services. How may I help you?”

Also in those days a key to a successful business was having toll-free telephone numbers. So I indulged and got a toll-free telephone number for each of the business lines. That actually was one of the least expensive investments I had made in my quest for “perfect” telephony services. The numbers cost me $5 a month plus 3¢ a minute. A typical bill, surprisingly, was less than $10.

This served me well for a long time. Ultimately, the kids moved out and there really wasn’t a need for a “personal” telephone line. So that line got converted to a third business line, but this time dedicated to my wife’s business. A third toll-free number was added.

The combination of multiple telephone numbers and the toll-free numbers emphasized to clients that I was truly a business, a company. The image I was projecting was reinforced with every business card I handed out that displayed four of the six numbers plus a business e-mail address and website.

Right up to the early 2000s, a client could reach me by telephone using any one of six available numbers. I didn’t make any changes because the monthly cost was relatively low and although the balance had tipped — work proposals came more frequently via e-mail than by telephone — the telephone was still producing a goodly amount of business.

A change I did notice, however, was that no one was using the toll-free numbers. If they called, they used a standard phone number. I think this came about because the telephone companies had moved away from charging separately for long distance calls. Plus, increasing numbers of people were using their cell phones to make calls. So I began the first pruning and eliminated the toll-free numbers. If they weren’t being used, I saw no sense in paying for them.

So life continued on with three landline business numbers. To that two cell phone numbers were added. We didn’t give out the cell phone numbers because we rarely had the cell phones on, except when we were traveling and wanted certain clients to be able to reach us.

The next change came with the arrival of FiOS (fiber optic digital service from Verizon). When it first became available in my neighborhood, I switched my Internet service from Time Warner Cable to Verizon FiOS, hoping that FiOS would be more reliable than cable had been (and that the customer service folk would be less surly and more caring). It turned out that FiOS was a major improvement in virtually every way. I’ve had FiOS Internet service for at least 5 years now and it has nearly always been on and available, unlike the experience I had with cable.

The Internet service plus the chance to lower my monthly costs convinced me to switch our landline telephones from the copper-line service we had to FiOS digital telephone service. We made the switch and the experience was mixed. On the one hand, the telephone service was fine; on the other hand, we lost our rollover capability because it couldn’t be done with the digital service, at least not without great expense. Our monthly telephone bill decreased significantly, which was a plus, but increasingly any business inquiries were coming via e-mail, not telephone.

Unfortunately, my wife’s cell phone was dying. We were still using the cell phones we had bought nearly 10 years ago, so we had gotten our money’s worth out of them. The impetus to do something about the cell phones came with my wife’s participation in a plein air paint show in Pennsylvania. She would be gone for a week and during that week would be required to paint outdoors in an area that we had only visited once before. The thought of her traveling with a dying cell phone made me think about our telephone system yet again.

The decision was made to cancel our landline service and port two of our landline telephone numbers to new cell phones. We would take the plunge and go wireless.

It has only been a month since we went wireless, but for the most part we like our current situation. The biggest negative is that we are always tethered to business and to the Internet. The phones travel everywhere with us, which means we are accessible to clients (and to family and friends) wherever we are. A positive is that unlike the landlines, we can turn off the phones and not be bothered. (I’ve noted that we are getting fewer unwanted solicitations, which is a bonus.)

My daughter was delighted when I went wireless because I got my first smartphone. She thought she could text me to keep in touch. I put a stop to that thought immediately. My wife is happy to communicate with our children via texting — better than no communication, she says — but not me. I’m still living in the 1960s when voice-to-voice and face-to-face were the preferred communication methods. I told my daughter to call, not to text. So far, she is listening, but I know that won’t last forever.

My business has changed over the past 30 years and just as it has had to move, through fits and starts, into the 21st century, so has my telephony needs. At least for now, I’m wireless. Tomorrow may make other demands on me.

Have you gone wireless? What has been your experience?

September 2, 2013

What Is Linguistics? A Rebuttal

Last week I posted an article called What is Editing? in which I advocated for a philosophy/law education, claiming it to be the best educational preparation for an editing career. As you know, other educational paths were espoused and my view of linguistics was the subject of several comments stating that I was wrong.

I invited Ben Lukoff to write a rebuttal. After all, I am not so wedded to my views that I cannot be taught a new lesson. (Isn’t that much of the allure of editing? Being exposed to differing viewpoints?) What follows is Ben’s response to my article.

(Benjamin Lukoff is a Seattle writer and editor. His first book, Seattle Then and Now, was published in 2010. He has a BA in English, with minors in linguistics and Russian, from the University of Washington, and an MA in English linguistics from University College London.)


What Is Linguistics? A Rebuttal

by Benjamin Lukoff

A week or so ago, a woman posted this question to the Freelance Editing Network group on LinkedIn, to which both Rich Adin and I belong: “If I’d like to have a career in editing, copyediting, proofreading, etc., what would be the best master’s degree for me?” She will be getting her English BA soon, and knows that a master’s isn’t necessary, but would like to pursue one anyway.

Which discipline, though? She mentioned communications, writing, and publishing, and was leaning toward communications. My advice was that, of the three, she’d be most likely to further her craft knowledge in a publishing program. However, I thought linguistics would be far more interesting, and would give her a much more well-rounded perspective on language issues. (I also noted that the reason people have told her a master’s isn’t necessary is because having done the work is far more important than credentials. I’d rather hire someone with four years of experience than someone with two years of experience and a two-year masters.)

A few days later, Rich joined the thread. He agreed with me on the vocational issue, but suggested as a course of study philosophy or law, which “teach you to think,” as opposed to linguistics, which “focuses on structure…[which] is mechanical.” He expanded his thoughts in a recent post to An American Editor, What Is Editing?

I am a regular reader and a great fan of An American Editor, so I was pleasantly surprised to be mentioned in his post, if not by name. I did, however, feel it necessary to leave a comment countering his characterization of linguistics, just as I had done in the LinkedIn thread. Rich has kindly given me the opportunity to expand on those here.

The canonical definition of linguistics is “the scientific study of human language.” That can be a bit misleading, and so I am not entirely surprised that some people’s perception is that it is mostly about structural issues: primarily those of syntax, but also of phonology and morphology. Structuralism was indeed the dominant paradigm in the field from Ferdinand de Saussure in the first decade of the 20th century until the advent of generative grammar in the sixth.

Even the latter, most often associated with Noam Chomsky, remains fundamentally concerned with rule-based manipulation of linguistic objects. Chomsky has called anything else — including the study of actual usage — a form of butterfly collecting. But there is far more to linguistics than it seems Chomsky would prefer. William Labov, a sociolinguist speaking at the same conference at which Chomsky made that comment, is in that sense a pioneering lepidopterist, having made his mark with The Social Stratification of English in New York City in 1966 and producing important and insightful research on language in the wild for nearly half a century since.

Labov and his ilk are, of course, not alone. The second part of Rich’s characterization of linguistics involves the “lineage” of language, and linguistics does indeed cover that too, in the form of historical linguistics and etymology. But it also includes, in addition to sociolinguistics (as noted above, the effects of society on language and vice versa), psycholinguistics (the cognitive processes involved in language), semantics (meaning), pragmatics (meaning in context), and phonetics (the actual sounds of speech). Ideally it touches almost every other discipline, as hardly any human endeavor is possible without language. (Leonard Bernstein famously based the premise of his Norton Lectures on the parallels between music and language, discussing pieces in terms of their syntax, phonology, and semantics.) The collective authors of Wikipedia do not exaggerate when they write that “Linguistics…draws on and informs work from such diverse fields as acoustics, anthropology, biology, computer science, human anatomy, informatics, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and speech-language pathology”; if anything, this list is too short.

Of course, that is the ideal state, and that is something I realized when reading the note in which Rich asked me to write this post. He took his linguistics courses in the mid 1960s, when the modern discipline was still fairly new. In addition, his school was too small to have a separate department, and so linguistics was part of English. I have long felt that departments of modern languages are doing their students a disservice if they teach literature without teaching language, but I also think that linguistics can never be more than philology if it is treated as a mere appendage. Given that, I realized that our disagreement wasn’t so much about linguistics, but about our definitions of the term “linguistics.” (I was lucky enough to receive my schooling at large institutions in the 1990s, by which time it was a well-established field).

This particular misunderstanding is ultimately a minor one, but I mention it because one of the most important things I think editors need to realize (everyone does, really, but this blog is about editing) is that not everyone means the same things by the same words. More broadly, there is variation in language, both in usage and understanding, and regardless of how one feels about that, one must take it into account. I still think no course of study hammers that home quite the way linguistics does, especially when one wishes to work with language professionally. I am sure I am a better editor because of my linguistics background, just as I’d like to think I brought a broader perspective to my linguistics work because of my editorial background. I’m also a believer in the possibility of bridging the unbridgeable gap that seems to exist between descriptivists, prescriptivists, and laypeople, who often seem to be caught in the middle. This isn’t an editor’s primary function, of course, but I think it’s a worthy sideline that can only improve the lot of everyone who truly loves language.

Again, I’d recommend simply getting experience over any further course of study to a college graduate who wants to break into the editorial industry. But if she insists on further schooling, I cannot recommend linguistics highly enough.


Do you agree with Ben? Does it really matter, in the end, what education courses one pursues? Or is experience what matters? If experience is what matters, how does one go about getting that experience?

July 10, 2013

The Ethics of Editing

Most professions have a code of ethics that governs what members can and cannot (or should and should not) do. Editing, unlike many professions, lacks a standard code of conduct or ethics. Whatever code governs editing, it is unwritten and unique to the individual.

Consider this issue regarding billing. The editor and the client agree that the editor will be paid on an hourly basis but that the client has a budget. In the course of the negotiations, the editor asks the client what the budget is, and the client tells her. Let us assume that the budget is 100 hours at the agreed upon hourly rate.

The project goes much more smoothly than either the editor or the client expected, taking the editor 50 hours to complete. The question is: Should the editor bill for 50 hours or 100 hours?

I would have thought the answer was obvious, but in discussions with colleagues, I find that opinion is split. Some editors believe that the agreement was for an hourly fee and thus only 50 hours should be billed; others believe that although the fee was based on an hourly rate, the client expects to pay for 100 hours and the project was completed in less than the budget number because of the skill of the editor, consequently, the editor should bill for 100 hours — the client should not be rewarded for the editor’s extraordinary skill.

My follow-up to the latter argument is to ask what would happen if under these circumstances the editing took 125 hours: Should the editor bill for and the client pay for those additional 25 hours? In this case, there is yet a further split among the editors, this time among those who would charge for the 100 hours. Some say no, the client is not responsible because the editor knew there was an outside limit; others say yes, the client is responsible because the agreement was for an hourly rate, not a project rate.

Setting aside for the moment whether I agree or disagree with any of my colleagues, the bottom-line issue is one of ethics, and editors have no ethical code, outside of their own moral code, to guide them as to which decision is the correct decision. This is a failure of the editing profession and does harm to our clients.

A client really has no recourse against an editor except to not pay the invoice, not hire the editor again, not recommend the editor, and to sue the editor. The last option, to sue, is really a weak remedy except in the case of billing disputes. A number either adds up or it doesn’t, but word choice and quality of editing are matters of opinion.

In the example at hand, I think the only ethical editor is the one who bills for the 50 hours. When the editor bid her price, she did so knowing her skill level. The editor was in the best position to determine the likelihood of finishing within budget. That the client is getting an unexpected “bargain” as a result of the editor’s skills doesn’t really play into the equation. After all, doesn’t the editor include her skill level in determining her fee rate? Isn’t that one of the arguments editors make to justify why they charge more than another editor?

I think the other editors are wrong because the client doesn’t expect to pay the budgeted amount; the client expects to pay only for the actual hours the editing took with the budget amount acting as a maximum. In the instance where the editor went over the budgeted time, the editor’s underestimating the amount of work involved is not the client’s fault or problem; the editor is supposed to be the expert when it comes to editing and have the experience to estimate the time more accurately. Neither charging the client the budget amount nor for additional hours strikes me as justifiable.

That is the problem: They do not strike me as justifiable, but I cannot point to an ethical rule that governs the situation.

The scope of the problem is readily seen when it is understood that there are no guidelines for what constitutes a proper edit; no uniform rule that governs how a page is calculated; no clear outline of what copyediting, for example, includes or excludes; no universally accepted guidelines that have to be met to call oneself a professional editor. In terms of professions, editing is a Wild West.

What it means is that each editor should make these things clear to clients, preferably in writing. Doing so serves both the editor and the client because it clarifies the duties and responsibilities of each party and the remedies in case of violation. What is really needed is a code of ethics and conduct to which editors can subscribe and to which they can point clients. With such a code, a body of guiding principles, explanations, and opinions can be created. Essentially I am talking of the creation of a “style guide” for editor ethics.

Until that happens, however, we are stuck with personal ethics. It is not that personal ethics are necessarily or inherently bad, it is just that no one has an idea what action will be taken until the problem arises and the editor has to apply her personal code of ethics to the problem at hand. By that time, it may be too late; the problem may have gotten out of hand.

I do not know how one finds an editor whose personal code of ethics matches a client’s expectations. There are so many possible ethical disagreements that it is impossible to ask about them in advance. In the end, it comes down to trust. Trust can be a very shaky foundation for a business relationship in which the end product is but a collection of opinions, especially as loss of trust can be the result of misunderstanding.

What suggestions do you have?

June 12, 2013

The Struggle to Make a Living

It doesn’t matter the forum. Wherever editors gather, there are two groups of editors: those making a living from their editing work and those struggling to do so. By making a living, I mean earning enough to give the editor the life the editor wants.

I couch it vaguely because earning a living means different things to different people. Some people are very happy earning $35,000 a year; others aren’t happy unless they are earning $70,000 or more a year. Some are happy if they earn enough to pay the monthly bills and still have a little bit left over when their income is combined with that of a significant other; others aren’t happy unless they can easily pay the monthly bills solely from their own income and have quite a bit left over.

The key isn’t how much you are earning but whether what you are earning meets your needs and expectations.

If you are struggling to meet your financial needs and have been doing so for a number of years, you are doing something wrong. What you are doing wrong can be almost anything, from whether this is the right profession for you, to failing to promote your business in the right market segments, to being inefficient, to insisting on being a solopreneur, to myriad other possibilities.

Usually there are competing desires: to edit a particular type of manuscript (e.g., mystery, biography, fantasy, erotica, medical, science, educational, doctoral dissertations, etc.); to work with a particular audience (e.g., companies, authors, publishers, advertising agencies, etc.); to living location (e.g., rural, urban, north, south); and so on, all of which require compromise.

No matter what competing desires there are, if you are struggling to meet your financial needs and have been doing so for a number of years, you are doing something wrong. The question you should be asking is: “What am I doing wrong?” This is a very difficult question to answer because we are blinded by our self-perceptions and by our limited knowledge, especially of business. Editors tend to be high on creativity and low on business skills. Perhaps that is why we are often much better editors than we are businesspeople.

Yet strugglers cannot avoid in-depth self-analysis if they ever want to move from the struggling ranks to the nonstruggling ranks. The analysis has to begin with the business aspects, not the editing aspects, because it is often the business aspects that are our downfall. The business aspects include everything but the actual editing process. For example, whether to buy and use a software program like EditTools is an aspect of editing; whether to change focus from women’s fiction to American history is an aspect of business.

If you are struggling, you are not competing well in your chosen market. Why is that? What steps should you take to overcome that problem? Every aspect of your business needs to be scrutinized, including: how quickly you respond to e-mail queries; how much time you spend socializing online; how much time and money you spend on marketing; what kind of marketing you are doing that isn’t working; and so on.

But the most important thing that a struggler needs to do is change his thinking. We recently discussed the solopreneur versus the company. No one, except me, came forward in favor of the company approach; what discussion there was tended toward praising and defending the solopreneurship or saying “different strokes for different folks.” I understand the thinking, because when I started as a freelance editor, my thinking was precisely the same: solopreneurship forever! But I struggled and I rethought.

My point is not that solopreneurs should become companies. Rather, it is that, if you are struggling — be it as a company or a solopreneur — you need to be open to considering what you are currently not doing. You need to analyze objectively, setting aside the emotional aspects and focusing on the cold facts aspects (and later let the emotional aspects have a whack). If your marketing efforts are largely confined to social media and participating on LinkedIn, perhaps you need to think spending less time and effort on the social media and about running a classified ad in the New York Review of Books or Writer’s Digest. Maybe you need to
raise your rates – and come up with ways to support those higher rates when clients push back (see Business of Editing: “I Can Get It Cheaper!”). Expanding your thinking is the first step down the road to ending struggling to make a living.

After tackling the business aspects, the struggler needs to analyze the editorial aspects. This includes the fundamental question of whether you should be a freelance editor. Assuming you should, you need to objectively analyze your editing process. Are there things you can do to streamline the process? Can you make an editing job that normally takes 25 hours take 20 hours and still give a high-quality edit? Is it really necessary to include three passes for the fee you are charging? Should you change the way you charge?

One thing the struggler needs to do is to talk with nonstrugglers to try to learn what they do. For example, if you talk to nonstrugglers and find that most of them charge a project fee and you are charging an hourly fee, perhaps you need to rethink your hourly fee. Or if you find that nonstrugglers spend time macroizing routine tasks, perhaps you should take a few days and learn to write macros. Or maybe the nonstrugglers discovered that editing children’s literature could never pay well because of the uncompensated demands put on editors by the publishers and so changed from children’s literature to academic publishers.

A professional editor should not be struggling. I grant that the world has changed greatly through the globalization of publishing and the rise of book packagers and self-publishers. But there are still opportunities; we just need to position ourselves to grab them by making ourselves flexible. The model that worked yesterday may not work today and we need to adapt yesterday’s model to today’s needs.

It is difficult to do, but what we need to do – what strugglers need to do – is what every business and profession has to do: Change as the world changes around us or fade away.

March 25, 2013

The Elusive Editorial Higgs Boson

Physicists believe that they have discovered the subatomic particle, Higgs boson or “God particle,” that will help explain what gives all matter in the universe size and shape. For us editors, that “God particle” of editing remains elusive.

As we have discussed many times, editing is much more than looking at Chicago section 8.18 and applying the “rule” that president is lowercase unless the president is named, as in “The president boasted…” versus “Boasting about his tenure, President Smith….” So, just as physicists search for the Higgs boson of life, I search for the Higgs boson of editing. What is the essence of editing that gives it life? That gives a well-edited manuscript style? That makes editing a great and learned profession? That sets editors apart from other users of the same language?

It is true that, these days, a goodly portion of an editor’s time is spent on mechanical work. There is little genius in play when we manipulate a reference to make it conform to a set style. The genius is not in fixing those references, but in helping authors communicate their intent and meaning to readers, which is done by word choice and sentence structure.

It is true that today, for example, the meanings of since and because have so blurred and merged that they are nearly synonymous. Consequently, authors and editors often don’t choose between them — each is viewed as a 100% substitute for the other. (And I also admit that there are only a handful of us editors, like me, who still insist on the difference and who are reluctant to embrace the “new” English. The dinosaurs, perhaps, of editing.)

Yet isn’t there a subtle, oh so slight, yet meaningful difference between the two words? Doesn’t since still cast off an aura of time passing? Doesn’t because still conjure up its root in causation?

I raise the since/because issue because I see it as a good representation of the subtleties of the editorial “God particle” and the difficult search for that element. Just as we have a whisper of difference in today’s meanings of since and because, so we have just a whisper of the existence of the editorial Higgs boson.

I asked a colleague whether she ever thought about the philosophical underpinnings of editing. She looked at me as if I was from another planet and said: “No, and I don’t know of any editor who has done so.” To be truthful, neither do I know any editor who has spent even a fleeting moment thinking about the philosophy of editing. Instead, we tend to focus on the job at hand; after all, thinking about philosophy (or philosophically) pays no bills.

But as the years have passed, I have been increasingly thinking about the philosophy of editing. I know what good editing does (and perhaps why I am a good editor), which is this: Good editing enhances the communication between an author and a reader, making sure that the author says precisely what the author intends to say and that the reader understands what the author says as what the author intends it to say. Diagrammatically, the editor sits between the author and reader as the “translator,” ensuring that communication flows unerringly. But that is only what makes for good editing; it doesn’t address the loftier philosophy of editing.

The philosophy of editing seeks to answer the why questions, rather than the what or how questions — the philosophy, rather than the mechanics. Why do we choose particular structures? Why do we resist the singular their? Why does English lack…? Why is “to go boldly” not the same, or as understandable, as “to boldly go”? Why is the editor’s role more like that of a librettist than a composer (and why is it that the composer gets all the credit)? Why is it that, in editing, there are only guides and not written-in-stone rules as in other learned professions?

And on and on go the questions — the questions for which there are no style guides to provide answers or to point the searcher in a search direction. But perhaps the overarching question — the question that truly embraces the philosophy of editing concept — is this: Why does editing lack a universally accepted and applied moral and ethical code of conduct, that is, one that is universally understood and accepted by all parties to the editorial transaction and to which all parties subject themselves?

Sure, there are rogue scientists and rogue soldiers and rogue priests and rogue politicians and rogue whatevers — but there are no rogue editors, because there are no ethical and moral expectations, outside the standard, run-of-the-mill, societal expectations, that are applicable to and bind the parties of an editorial transaction. And that is because there are no editors hunting for the editorial Higgs boson.

Editing should be a serious profession. Yes, I know that we editors claim we are a serious profession, but then we act otherwise. We do little to no deep thinking about our profession. (Consider this: Nearly all professions have a “think tank” – except editing. Nearly all professions have a lobbying group to promote the their ideas and goals among policy makers and the public — except editing.) Individual writers may do little deep thinking about the philosophy of writing, but that gauntlet is picked up by those whose focus is on “literary criticism” — the H.L. Menckens and George Bernard Shaws and Michel Foucaults and Harold Blooms and Noam Chomskys who are both writers and literary critics.

Literary criticism is based on the philosophical discussion of literature’s methods and goals. The editorial Higgs boson could be defined as being “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals.” Where are the editors who focus on the philosophy of editing? Where are “the philosophical discussion of editing’s methods and goals?”

As I wrote earlier, increasingly I am thinking about the philosophy of editing and I am searching for that editorial “God particle” — that wisp of truth that will change the profession of editing at its core, that will ultimately lead to the “laws” of editing. Just as physics and chemistry and language and business have their immutable laws (Murphy’s being the most commonly invoked one that crosses all professional boundaries), so does editing – they just wait to be discovered.

Think about how a pursuit of the editorial Higgs boson could reshape the conversations that editors have amongst themselves. Instead of “What does Chicago say about xyz?” the question would become, “Why does Chicago say this about xyz?” and the discussion would be less about a supposed “this is the way it must be” to more like “should this be the way it is done?”

Such discussions might eventually lead to the creation — or perhaps more accurately, the recognition – of the Ten Editorial Commandments, which might govern all parties to the editorial transaction. At that moment in time, editing will be able to take its place in the pantheon of the great professions; the editorial Higgs boson will have been found.

What do you think? More importantly, if you were asked to contribute to the creation of the Ten Editorial Commandments, what would your contribution be?

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