An American Editor

June 17, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners

We recently edited a new book that was badly written. Not only was it badly written, but we were financially and time-wise constrained. So, as we typically do, we do the best we can within the limitations imposed.

The usual process is for us to receive a manuscript that an author has already gone through a few times and often has had crowd-editing by friends and colleagues. In addition, it has received whatever developmental editing it will receive. We are hired to copyedit the manuscript. (For a discussion of the difference between copyediting and developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) After we have copyedited the manuscript, it goes back to the author to approve or reject any changes we have made, to answer/address any author queries we have inserted, and to give it yet another read in case we missed something.

This last step is important. Like authors, we editors are human and we make mistakes and we do miss things that seem very obvious. In this particular editing job, the editor missed a very obvious error. The author had written “Jack and Jill is a married couple” and the editor failed to change the is to are. Out of more than 100 changes the editor made to this particular chapter, the editor missed this change, but that was enough. The author latched onto this error and wrote: “I suggest you review the edited pages I sent in and develop a list for you to use when speaking with the editor of this project.  As I am not compensated to help you do your job, I will offer the most blatant example and then let you do your due diligence on your end.”

This author ignored the commandment: Thou shall treat the editor as a partner, not as an adversary.

I looked at the “edited” pages the author had returned and found only one change the author had made (added a description), which was clearly not a change because of an editing error. Aside from that one change and a comment that praised a rewording done by the editor, the author noted no other “errors.” So I went through the particular chapter and a couple of others to see if I could figure out what the author’s complaint was, but I couldn’t find anything.

The author failed to treat the editor as a partner; instead, the editor was treated as an adversary. First, by not listing or identifying what the author perceived as errors. It is difficult to address unidentified “errors.” Second, the author made a general, broad-brush complaint. This is not helpful to anyone. The author failed to understand that the editing of his book is a collaborative process between the editor and the author, not an adversarial process. The professional editors I know are willing to correct errors they have made, but they are not willing to keep reediting a manuscript simply because an author proclaims dissatisfaction.

The third error this author (and many authors) make is refusing to understand and accept the parameters of the editing process for which the editor was hired. For example, this author also complained about the layout (not an editor’s job at all) and about the failure of the copyeditor to provide both a copyedit and a developmental edit.

The fourth and most important error the author made is to believe that to point out errors is doing the editor’s job and that the author has no role in doing so because the author is “uncompensated.” The author is the one who has everything at stake, not the editor. The book will be published in the author’s name, not the editor’s name. Any error that remains will be attributable to the author, not to the anonymous editor. As the largest stakeholder in the final manuscript, the author does have a responsibility to identify perceived errors.

I find it troubling that an author would look at 100 errors, find 99 of them corrected, but ignore the 99 and rant about the one that was missed (the author should point out the error, but not go on a rant about the editing). I also find it troubling that an author willingly ignores the sorry state of the delivered manuscript and the time and financial constraints under which the editor is working, and focuses on the one error, which error was introduced by the author.

Authors need to look at the manuscript broadly and not focus on one or two errors that slip past the editor. Authors need to remember that editors are human and suffer from the same problem as do authors: they sometimes see what they expect to see. We are not immune just because we are editors. Authors also need to recognize that the editor could have as easily caught the error about which the author is now complaining, but missed one of the other 99 errors.

Authors need to recognize that the editorial process is a collaborative process. If an author is reviewing an edited manuscript, the author should at least point out the missed error. The author could also correct it.

In the instant case, the author was uninterested in the constraints under which the editor worked. When publishers and authors demand a short editing schedule, they have to expect errors to remain. Something has to give to meet the schedule; the most obvious thing to give is second passes. This is especially true when the client demands that material be submitted in batches.

As many of us have experienced, publishers and authors are also putting pressure on pricing. For many authors and publishers, the paramount consideration is price followed by meeting a short schedule. Quality takes a backseat to those requirements. Low price and fast schedule cannot equate to a perfect edit. A perfect edit takes time.

Authors do have responsibilities when it comes to their manuscript. To think otherwise is to end in the publication of a poorly prepared manuscript. Authors need to think of editors as their partners, not as their adversaries. Authors also need to get away from the false demarcations of who is responsible for what when it comes to their manuscripts.

Thus the commandment for authors: Thou shall treat your editor as a partner, not as an adversary!

May 13, 2013

The Crystal Ball Says . . .

The May 4, 2013 edition of The Economist reported that the British Research Councils will begin requiring taxpayer-funded research to be published in journals that make the research available free within one year of publication, if not sooner (“Academic Publishing: Free-for-all”). This mirrors the White House’s executive order to the same effect and a bill in Congress that would set the time limit at six months. Not to be left behind, the European Union is moving in the same direction

The crystal ball sees these as a positive trend for taxpayers, but a worrisome trend for authors and editors, especially when you realize where this leads: to the extension of self-publishing to research papers.

It doesn’t take much effort to recognize that a journal cannot survive if it is paying all the costs of production and marketing but cannot charge for the content. Publishers, being businesses, would have to shift the economic burdens, and the only place to which they can be shifted is onto author shoulders.

It is true that, now, many researchers hire editors at their own expense to help them prepare research articles for submission to journals. The authors see this as an investment because they are trying to be published in journals whose reputations will boost the authors’ reputation — the honor and prestige of being published in a journal known to reject 90% or more of submissions is calculable in the academic world. Getting published by Nature or Science is an academic plum; the same cannot be said for articles published in PLoS, which accepts 80% or more of the articles submitted to it.

The future seems to be that authors will not only have to bear the burden of the editorial costs, but also the production costs, which will be wrapped into a publication fee: “Want to have your article published in our journal? You need to pay us $x.” In other words, the vanity press model of publishing is the likely model that publishers of journals will adopt. As long as you are willing to pay to be published, you will be published.

Setting aside the ramifications such a system has for the reputation of the open-access journal and, thus, the reputation of the author published in the open-access journal, and setting aside the potential benefits to society of researchers having full access to these research articles, we need to consider the impact it will have on us in the performance of the work we do as editors and authors.

The boom in self-publishing of ebooks has not transferred its momentum to either editors or to authors. Although some editors have seen an uptick in work received from authors, most editors have not; many editors have seen, instead, a decline. More importantly, perhaps, is that editorial standards have declined as authors increasingly decide they can self-edit or that having their nephew’s kindergarten teacher (or the nephew himself!) do the editing for free or minimal cost is sufficient. Of course, it does not help that readers are buying error-riddled ebooks and often are unaware of the errors. (It is hard to convince someone who believes gr8 is an acceptable spelling of great that gr8 is erroneous.)

This momentum toward self- and nonprofessional editing also puts downward pressure on professional editors fees. We are in the race to the bottom!

A bright spot in editing has been academic editing. It hasn’t been financially bright but work-wise it has been shining when compared to the offshoring of “standard” editorial work. But that is because there have been several parties who were interested in achieving excellence, an excellence that is not represented by either most self-editing efforts or editing by nonprofessionals.

Yet I foresee a coming change as a result of the open access requirements. Researchers who are already hard pressed to financially support their research and who now pay for a preliminary submission edit, knowing that if accepted the journal will provide additional editing, will be rethinking whether to self-edit or have a nonprofessional do the editing, and whether to put pressure on professional editors to reduce fees, all because these authors will have to pay publication fees to the journals in addition to those fees they have already been paying.

According to The Economist article, the journal Nature claims it costs $40,000 per published paper to cover all of the production and review costs. I have no reason to doubt the number, but it makes me wonder who will bear — and pay – such cost in the open-access model of publishing? How many authors would willingly pay even 25% of that cost? How many authors could afford to absorb such costs?

If the journal is not absorbing the cost, then the ripple has to move downstream. It has to keep moving until it is finally stopped at the place where the cost is absorbed or until it no longer has momentum because either the costs to be absorbed have greatly diminished or no longer have someone to absorb them. How much of that ripple will editors have to absorb by way of lower prices?

(Something to note: “Lower prices” doesn’t necessarily mean reducing, for example, an hourly rate from $45 to $35. It can also mean leaving the rate as is but increasing the scope and amount of services provided. The effect is the same in both instances: it is a lowering of price.)

I also wonder when we will see this open-access publishing model extend to all of academic publishing, not just to journals. I expect that publishers, once they wrap themselves in open-access publishing and see that charging a fee to be published can be profitable, will apply this model to academic books. University presses are already financially in trouble; the open-access model of having the author pay the costs could reduce their financial stress. However, it would also mean less opportunity (or less money) for professional editors as authors strive to reduce their cost burden.

I think the future for authors is one of more costs and less prestige. More costs because the financial burdens will shift from journals and university presses to the authors. Less prestige because the quality of presentation of the research will decline and because a pay-to-publish scheme will reduce the selectivity of the journals and publishers — as long as you can pay, you will be published.

I think the future for professional editors is one of lower prices and less work. Lower prices because authors will pressure for lower fees, or a broadened scope of work, or both, and editors will not be able to resist that pressure because it will come from all directions. Less work because as the costs to publish rise, authors will try to self-edit or find colleagues or students or friends or relatives or other nonprofessionals to do the editing as a way to reduce their financial burden, with the result that there will be less work for professional editors.

My crystal ball says authors and editors need to begin thinking about how they will adapt to what the future portends.

April 22, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor

My first commandment for authors is this: Thou shall use a professional editor! I know I’ve said this before — many times — and I know that some of you will respond that you are capable of doing your own editing, or that crowd editing works just fine, or that your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law, who taught fourth graders English, does a fantastic job. Yet, haven’t you bought a book or two whose author you wanted to strangle because it was pretty obvious that a professional editor wasn’t used (or the editor’s advice wasn’t followed)?

We’ve 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 and Authors Need Them (Part 2), and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud, but this is a topic that never dies.

Consider this statement: “Lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in group that usually backs them” (New York Times, April 10, 2013, page A12). What is wrong with this statement? (It was an article headline, which accounts for its brusqueness.) Does your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law know? I would guess that if it passed muster at the New York Times, it would pass her muster and that of the crowd editors, too.

I read this statement several times because I couldn’t quite figure out what was meant. Reading the article clarified the headline, but suppose I hadn’t read the article? Or suppose this was a sentence in your book, albeit written with the missing prepositions as: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs them.” The question that needs to be asked is: “Does ‘them’ mean ‘spending cuts’ or ‘lobbyists’?” Should the sentence be: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs spending cuts” or “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs the lobbyists”?

Two distinct meanings are possible, yet most readers would not catch that possibility. And this is the problem with having your book “edited” by someone other than a professional editor. Experienced, professional editors are trained to catch these types of errors; they have spent years mastering the art of not reading what they expect but of reading what is actually before them.

As the example illustrates, not catching this error can lead to misunderstanding. It makes a difference whether “them” means “spending cuts” or “lobbyists.” Readers will generally give more credence to the former than to the latter. After all, it has become clear in recent years, particularly with the intransigence of the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association over the issue of background checks, that lobbyists are not among the favored species.

There is a second aspect to this commandment, which is the professional editor’s fee. Think about how you work. Would you not agree that the less you are paid (or anticipate being paid) the less diligent you are in your work. What I mean is this: If you are currently paid $20 an hour and are satisfied with that sum for your current job, you perform your work diligently. If your employer comes to you and says that although your job will remain the same, your pay henceforth will be $10 an hour, are you likely to be as diligent? Or will you consider cutting corners? Most people would be less diligent and would cut corners.

Editors — professional and amateur alike – are no different. If you have a 50,000 word manuscript (approximately 200 manuscript pages), do you honestly think that the editor who is being paid $300 will be as thorough and professional as the editor who is being paid $1500? How fast will the editor need to go through your manuscript in order to earn a living wage? Do you expect that an editor who has to work faster will be as accurate as the editor who can take more time?

Most editors do multiple passes; this is especially true when the project is fiction and it is important to first grasp the whole story and get a feel for the characters. How many passes do you think that editor who is paid $300 will do? And if the editor is doing the project at their own expense (i.e., as part of a crowd edit or as a friend for free), how thorough an edit and how many passes is it reasonable to expect? How many passes would you do if it meant giving up your pleasure time?

Again, we all know people who would sacrifice their first-born to do a good job because they volunteered to do so, but that is the gamble you take. And the gamble can be devastating if it is lost. How many bad reviews can your book withstand? How many two- and three-star reviews that complain about the grammar would it take to sink your ability to sell your book, even at $2.99?

Professional editors are word doctors for authors. Just as you (or I) would not undertake to self-treat for cancer, we should not self-treat our books, which are a significant part of our life. Just as we would go to the doctor about our cancer, so we should go to the professional editor about our manuscript.

One reason we go to the doctor to have our cancer treated is because the doctor has experience dealing with cancer. We rely on the doctor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us how serious a problem we have and for suggestions about courses of treatment. We know doctors are not perfect, but we expect them to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught health sciences at the high school.

All we need do is substitute professional editor for doctor and the argument is made: One reason we go to the professional editor to have our manuscript edited is because the professional editor has experience dealing with manuscripts. We rely on the professional editor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us about any manuscript problems and for suggestions about how to correct them. We know professional editors are not perfect, but we expect the professional editor to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught English to fourth graders (or even at the local college).

When an author hires a professional editor, the author is hiring experience with manuscripts and the knowledge that the editor has accumulated about how to structure and tell a story (all manuscripts tell a story) so that the author’s message is communicated and received. You spent months, if not years, of your life putting together a story that you want more than a handful of friends to read and understand. Should you not, then, hire a professional editor and pay an appropriate fee for that editor’s services to ensure that your manuscript is ready and is the best it can be?

Thus the first commandment for authors: Thou shall use a professional editor!

March 6, 2013

When Editors and Authors Fail

Filed under: Computers and Software,Editorial Matters — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , ,

There is at least one area of the manuscript process in which authors and editors equally fail: Their lack of mastery of the tools of their trade, especially Microsoft Word.

What brings this to mind are recent queries on several fora by editors and authors asking how to accomplish what I view as basic procedures in Word, as well as queries asking how to do something in Word for which they already own an add-in to Word, such as EditTools or Editor’s ToolKit Plus, that easily accomplishes the task. I would probably have ignored those fora queries were it not for a manuscript I was asked to look at which was a nightmare of formatting.

What is it about text boxes that attracts authors? What is that compels authors and editors to create yet another new style in a futile attempt to make the manuscript look visually like what they think it should look like as a typeset product? What is it about Word that seduces authors and editors into needing to try “features”? What is it about the tools we use that entices us to take the lazy way of learning how to use them?

Word is a great product except when it is the bane of my existence. I used to curse Microsoft every time I received a manuscript that was riddled with poor formatting choices and myriad styles — more styles than there are pickles in the universe, or so it seemed, and certainly more than needed – as part of the basic (Normal) template. Now I don’t curse Microsoft so much because I realize that it is us end users who succumb to the lure of Word’s “exotic” options who are the primary problem.

Have you ever wondered why Word isn’t flagging a word as misspelled when you think it should? Some basic possibilities that every Word user should know and should check before threatening to punch out their monitor are: Is spell check turned off for the document or for text to which a particular style is applied? Is the wrong language governing the manuscript? Yet, much too often neither the editor nor the author has checked these possibilities.

The problems begin with the author of the document. Every author should know how their manuscript is going to be processed. Is it going to be edited and then typeset in a program like InDesign? If yes, then why worry about “formatting” the manuscript to make it look like you want it to look when published? The reality is all that work will be for naught, and 99% of the time will be done wrong anyway.

If you are writing a manuscript that will be published in English, shouldn’t you make sure that English — not French or Spanish — is the language choice for the document? I am always amazed when I receive a manuscript  that is to be published in English and the language preference is French. Of course, the very first thing an editor should do is verify that the correct language module is being applied by Word and fix it if it is wrong — yet, I often receive for review a document that a client has had edited only to find that the wrong language module is applied.

And why text boxes? Of all the things that are wrong about Word, the text (and graphic) boxes are the absolute worst. Text boxes don’t stick in place; text boxes do not break over pages; if the text box is too big for the page or not big enough to display all of the text it holds, it gives no clue that there is hidden in-box text; text boxes obscure text and other text and graphic boxes — basically, text boxes are evil and not easy to get rid of. Need to box some text? Use a table cell. It works just as well and has none of the evil features of a text box.

More importantly for the author: If the author is paying the editor, the author will save money by not using text boxes because you can’t convert a text box to text like you can convert a table. To avoid the evils of text boxes, the editor has to find each text box, select the text, copy it, paste it outside the text box, then delete the text box — and hope that all of the text was copied.

I know it is called a text box by Microsoft; that doesn’t mean it should be used to put text in a box!

Consider the styles that you create. Is it really necessary to have 18 of the same style with the only difference being the amount the text is condensed or expanded (and why expand or condense the text?) or the fraction of an inch of spacing there is between lines (why not have equal spacing between all lines?). Of course, the editor should be cleaning out excess styles, but there are usually so many, we all give up and let it be someone else’s problem.

What is being missed from this picture is that if the manuscript is going to be professionally typeset, all of these efforts by the author and/or editor to “design” the manuscript and make sure that what is wanted on a page actually displays in Word on a single page are wasted. All will be ignored by the designer and the typesetter; they will use programs and tools appropriate to the design and composition function, such as InDesign, not Microsoft Word, which is a strong word processor but a very weak composition and design engine.

There is much more, but you have the idea. The real problem is that neither author nor editor has taken the time to master the basic tool of their trade. I know editors who use Word but do not even have a single dedicated reference book for the version of Word they are using. They prefer to stumble through, thinking that their role is limited and so they need limited features. Perhaps they do only need limited features, but they can never know if there is another feature that would make their job easier if they were aware of it in the absence of stumbling across it. (When I buy a new version of Word, I also buy several different manuals and spend a full day going through them and the new version.)

Authors use text boxes without thinking about the feature because they think to themselves “I want this material boxed” and so they use a text box — after all, why would it be called a text box if it wasn’t intended to be used to box text? Authors want text to be in columns so they use tabs (or worse, spaces) to try to align the material, when a table would be so much better. (Did they not ever notice that the text they have so beautifully aligned using tabs or spaces is no longer aligned when they change computers or fonts? Or that it often wraps and becomes confusing when moved to another computer?) Why not use the table feature? Usually authors tell me it is because they do not want lines (rules) around the material. OK, but tables do not have to have visible rules.

Authors and editors fail to create the best and least-expensive document to process because neither understands Word’s functions. If both took some time to master the basic tool of their trade, the author could save some money, and the editor could focus more on the editing and less on the peripheral matters that take up so much our time (and thus either raises the author’s cost or decreases the editor’s effective hourly rate and profit).

A lost point is that a feature’s name is not always indicative of what the feature is best used for. To know what feature to use, one must be knowledgable about the tool and all of its features. An editor should be asking, “Why do I need to ask in a forum how to change the language preference from French to English? Why don’t I know how to do this already?”

When it comes to formatting a Word document, less is infinitely better than more.

December 3, 2012

On Language: That Is, For Example

A common failing among authors and editors is the incorrect use of i.e. and e.g., that is and for example, respectively.

Consider this example: “When I apply color (i.e., cobalt blue), the sky seems wrong.” I see hundreds of examples of this use in my editing work and wonder what exactly does the author mean. It should be obvious and clear what is meant, but if you think about it, the sentence is as clear as mud.

In fact, I have a standard query to the author that I use when I see misuse of i.e., which query is:

AQ: Do you mean e.g. rather than i.e.? When the items are only examples and the list is not all inclusive, e.g. is used. If the listed items are all the possibilities, then i.e. is used. If i.e., is correct, consider removing material from parens and making it a proper part of the sentence.

(I use EditTools’ Insert Query macro to insert standard queries into a manuscript without having to rewrite them each time. I currently have a number of “standard” author/editor/compositor queries preformulated, one of the ways I increase my efficiency. The Insert Query macro was discussed earlier on American Editor in The Business of Editing: Author Queries.)

Often this query is ignored, because the author doesn’t really understand the implications of the choice between i.e. and e.g., and because authors generally don’t want to rewrite what they consider near perfect, if not perfect.

In the example, does the author mean “When I apply the color cobalt blue, the sky seems wrong,” or does the author mean “When I apply a color such as cobalt blue, the sky seems wrong,”  or does the author mean “When I apply a color, for example, cobalt blue or pale pink, the sky seems wrong”? Is cobalt blue the color under discussion or just an example of several colors under discussion?

That’s right; the difference between i.e. and e.g. is the difference between a limited, definable number and many. Yet many authors and editors fail to distinguish between them or to consider that there may be some difference in meaning. That is (i.e.) is limiting whereas for example (e.g.) is expansive. Although authors use them interchangeably, they are not interchangeable.

Another way to distinguish between the two phrases is to view i.e. as a phrase to introduce a clarification of preceding text whereas e.g. introduces representative, but not exclusive, examples. Yet, again, the matter comes down to the basic thrust of grammar — to make words meaningful and comprehensible.

Of equal importance is the question whether i.e. should ever be used in the main text (as opposed to, e.g., in footnotes and sidebars). For the most part, I encourage authors to rewrite their sentences to eliminate the parenthetical i.e. because doing so can only lead to greater clarity. I confess that many of my colleagues disagree with my view, but I fail to see what is gained by using i.e. in the primary text.

Because i.e. acts as a limit — there are only these and no more — it is easy to rewrite the sentence. I can as easily write “When I apply the color cobalt blue, the sky seems wrong,” or “When I apply the colors cobalt blue and pale pink, the sky seems wrong,” as I can write “When I apply color (i.e., cobalt blue), the sky seems wrong,” or “When I apply color (i.e., cobalt blue and pale pink), the sky seems wrong.” And when I rewrite the sentence there is no doubt about what I mean.

The clarity that is garnered by rewriting is important to reader understanding. Consider a medical text in which the author uses the parenthetical i.e. Some readers will interpret it as meaning only the items listed in the parenthetical, whereas others will construe the items as examples of which there are many yet to be named. If the latter is correct, the readers who apply the former interpretation will have misconstrued the sentence and missed important knowledge. Similarly, if the former is correct, those who made the latter interpretation will also misconstrue the sentence and think that the information applies more broadly than it does.

Just as it is important to note that the parenthetical i.e. is often used incorrectly, it is important to note that there are times when its use is very appropriate. As with everything else, it all depends on context. A professional editor needs to think about every i.e. and query each one that is questionable. An author needs to think about why he or she is using i.e. instead of merging the information into the primary text where it belongs. (As you may recall, this is also my view regarding the misuse of footnotes and endnotes, which was discussed on An American Editor in Footnotes, Endnotes, & References: Uses & Abuses.) Readers need to stop and think about every i.e. and what it really means in the context.

Editors and authors need to apply the basic rules of grammar — is the meaning clear and understandable or does interpretation, especially reader interpretation, play a role — when deciding to use the parenthetical i.e. But above all, editors and authors need to make sure that i.e. and e.g. are being used properly, the former for the limited (that is), the latter for the many (for example).

October 8, 2012

On Language: Ultramontane

I am a subscriber to the New York Review of Books (NYRB), as I have mentioned a number of times in previous posts. Recently, I was reading in the NYRB, an article titled “Can Romney Get a Majority?” (September 27, 2012) in which the author threw me a curveball by using ultramontane to describe Paul Ryan’s social views.

This was the first instance when I wished I had been reading the NYRB on my Nook or Sony reader, which would have given me instant access to a dictionary. Alas, I didn’t have a print dictionary handy when reading the article and I didn’t recall ever having encountered the word previously.

Eventually, I did get to a dictionary (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.) and discovered that ultramontane has two meanings: first, “of or relating to countries or people beyond the mountains,” and second, “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national or diocesan authority in the Roman Catholic Church,” which was the meaning in the article. Or was it?

Actually, the article intended a variation of the second meaning: “favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national (state) authority” without the limitation of “in the Roman Catholic Church.” (It is worth noting that The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 5th ed. includes this “sense” as a usage; it is questionable whether it is a definition. I have multiple dictionaries because of my work; how many readers have or use multiple current dictionaries?)

I understand that the demographics of NYRB subscribers and readers are a cut above the usual in terms of education and literacy (at least that is what their demographics information portrays), but not only did ultramontane cause me to pause, it made me wonder whether its use was good or bad. Unlike many unfamiliar words that I come across, I didn’t come close to deciphering this one via context. I didn’t miss the gist of the sentence, but I also didn’t get the true meaning.

When choosing words to be written in a communication there are at least two major considerations; first, that the word precisely communicate, and second, that it in fact communicate. In this instance, ultramontane was the wrong word choice on both counts: neither dictionary definition was appropriate as is and it is such a rarely used word that I suspect the vast majority of readers would stumble on it and not derive the correct meaning.

With modification of the meaning, ultramontane presents a compact way to get a message across within the context in which it was used in the NYRB. But that is one step too many to meet the singular, ultimate goal of the craft of writing: to communicate. In the absence of this step, the word is clearly the wrong word to use, because the author was not trying to communicate that Paul Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over the Catholic Church; rather, the author was trying to communicate that Ryan believes papal authority is supreme over American government authority and the authority of all religions and moral views, Catholic or other.

We have discussed the question of word choice before (see, e.g., Choosing Words — Carefully), but the context was different even though the result was the same. Here the question is more than choosing that which expresses precisely what you mean; it is choosing that which both expresses what you mean and also is likely to be understood by your readers. This latter means that words also need to be chosen for the broadness of their use among the reading public. Sometimes the precise word needed will require the reader to use a dictionary, but the goal of careful writing should be not to encourage dictionary use but to be understandable as read. It is to that end that correct word choice also means choosing a word whose definition fits the intended meaning as is, without further interpretation.

Ultimately, the question comes down to what should an editor do when faced with a word like ultramontane?

This is a difficult question. If you are of my view, then you would substitute for the word and include an explanation for the author as to why you substituted, giving the author the opportunity to undo the change. The alternative views are (a) to simply leave the word as is or (b) to leave it as is but query the author, explaining why it may be the wrong word choice.

I think a more active approach is best because the one thing that is true about all of us is that we are protective of our creations. In the case of our writing, we are protective because we know what we meant and expect others to know it as well. Who among us is ready to admit that perhaps our writing lacks the clarity it could have? Additionally, a word like ultramontane makes us feel linguistically accomplished and allows us to demonstrate to others our skills. But if we are faced with a change that makes it better and given the opportunity to revert to the original, we are more likely to think about what we have written and what the editor suggests. We are required to react, something that the other two approaches do not require. (As most, if not all, editors have experienced, simply querying doesn’t always get a response from an author. It is not unusual for a query to be ignored. I have yet to find, however, an author who will ignore my query when I have actively changed wording and then queried my change.)

Which approach would you take as an editor? Which approach would you want as an author? Why?

October 1, 2012

On Language: The Professional Editor and the Hyphen

I know it hasn’t been very long since I last discussed the problem of hyphenation (see The Business of Editing: The Hyphenated Compound), yet it needs to be raised again. I recently had a discussion with a couple of younger editors — younger in terms of age and experience — who are members of a wholly different educational generation from me, regarding compound adjectives and the hyphen.

It is increasingly clear to me that our educational system is failing horrendously as regards passing on to new generations basic language skills. And this lack of skills is being transferred to a broader population as editors are drawn from these groups. I have also come to realize that probably the most valuable course that can be taken in school is rarely, if ever, taught in high school and is not a mandatory course in college: logic/philosophy.

I am appalled at how poorly many of our “educated” classes have no grasp of language fundamentals and cannot follow or decipher the logic of a communication. Why, I’m sure you are asking, am I raising these issues now?

Consider these two phrases:

  1. in my small animal practice
  2. bounded by a salmon-spawning creek

What do these phrases mean?

The first phrase is unclear; the second phrase is clear but illogical. Yet both of these phrases were unanimously considered correct by my younger colleagues — without any question.

Consider the first phrase. What does “in my small animal practice” mean? Does it mean that I have a small business that deals with animals or does it mean I have a business that deals with small animals as opposed to large animals? This unhyphenated phrase leaves the reader guessing, causes the careful reader to pause and ponder, and permits the reader to draw a wrong conclusion; in other words, it fails the primary test of language and grammar: crystal-clear communication.

If the phrase means I have a business that deals with small animals, then the correct construction is “in my small-animal practice.” Why? Because small and animal are really intended to be a single “word” and the hyphen indicates that they belong together. The hyphen says that “animal” neither stands alone nor belongs with practice. It makes the meaning crystal clear.

In contrast, if the phrase means that I have a small business that deals with animals, it is not easy to clarify the construction by using or omitting the hyphen; instead, the phrase should be rephrased. The point is that clear communication is of utmost importance and hyphenation is intended to bring clarity to what would otherwise be unclear or questionable. The last thing an author or an editor should want is for a reader to involuntarily pause in an attempt to try to glean what the author intends, especially if the pause occurs on a minor or insignificant point.

The second phrase, “bounded by a salmon-spawning creek,” is on its face illogical, yet many readers and editors and authors think it is properly constructed. As written, the creek is spawning the salmon, yet we all know that it is salmon that spawn salmon (unless, of course, we do not know what spawn means, in which case it is worth having a good dictionary handy), not creeks. Creeks are where salmon go to spawn. The correct phrasing is “bounded by a salmon spawning creek” but in this construct, a reader may well pause to try to interpret what is meant because the phraseology seems a bit awkward even if grammatically correct. Thus, rephrasing is better.

The problem is, however, that my younger colleagues with whom I was discussing hyphenation of compound phrases didn’t grasp the illogic of the phrase and thus did not see it as erroneous. I think it is because students after my educational generation were not and are not required to take courses in logic/philosophy and thus lose the opportunity to learn to dissect language constructs based on logic (as opposed to based on rigid rules of grammar). Essentially, that is what a good basic, introductory course on logic/philosophy does: It teaches one to construct and destruct language based on logic, which is what a professional editor does.

(It is worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect when “rules” of grammar are applied yet illogical. It is also worth noting that something may be grammatically perfect rule-wise yet fail the fundamental test of good grammar, which is crystal-clear communication. A professional editor keeps these limitations in mind while editing.)

A professional editor’s primary function is to ensure that clear, consistent communication occurs between author and reader. It is like a syllogism in that B must follow A or the argument falters. It is not enough for an editor to know that compound adjectives are hyphenated; the editor must also know that by hyphenating the compound phrase, the phrase is now crystal clear and not as muddy (or muddier) as before. Yet for many editors, simply following the rule to hyphenate the compound is sufficient; there is little thought being given to the subtleties of meaning and communication-miscommunication.

This is why an author needs a professional editor. The author already knows the intended meaning and thus reads a phrase as crystal clear. Few authors can distance themselves far enough from their work so as to question the subtleties of language and grammar choices. And this is why an author should expect to pay more than a few dollars for a professional editor.

The professional editor doesn’t simply ramble through a manuscript and add a hyphen here, delete a hyphen there. The professional editor considers what that addition or deletion does to the clarity of the message, and what subtle meaning changes occur as a result of that addition or deletion.

Some real constraints on editors, however, must be noted. Whereas in the ideal world, an editor has all the time that is needed to properly edit and is working for a client with an unlimited budget, the real world imposes both time and budgetary constraints, which affect the depth of editorial analysis. Even so, some phrases should stand out as potential obstacles to reader understanding, and those phrases are the compound phrases that beg for the addition or removal of a hyphen and the application of a test of logicality.

September 19, 2012

The Business of Editing: Macros for Editors and Authors

Times are getting tougher for the editing community. As has been discussed in earlier articles, pressure is being exerted by the publishing community to lower fees and what should be a natural market for editors — the indie author market in this age of ebooks — has not really developed as expected. Too many indie authors are unable or unwilling to spend the money for a professional editor, and too many of those who are willing to spend the money, don’t know enough about finding and evaluating an editor, and so are dissatisfied with multiple aspects of the author-editor relationship and help fuel the do-it-yourself school.

In light of these tougher times, the professional editor has to look at what investments he or she can make that will ultimately generate profitability, even if fees are lowered or remain stagnant. As I have mentioned in past articles, a major contributor to profitability is the purchase and use of software like EditTools, Editor’s Toolkit Plus, and PerfectIt. (For general overviews of these programs and their respective roles in the editing process, see The 3 Stages of Copyediting: I — The Processing Stage, The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage, and The 3 Stages of Copyediting: III — The Proofing Stage. In The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online II — The Macros, I discussed macros more specifically.) Yet in recent months, I have received inquiries from fellow editors asking about increasing productivity using macros in a more detailed manner. So, perhaps the time is ripe to address some of the EditTools macros in detail.

When I edit, always in the forefront of my thinking is this question: What can I do to further automate and streamline the editing process? What I want to do is spend less time addressing routine editing issues and more time addressing those issues that require the exercise of editorial judgement and discretion. I want to undertake the routine endeavors as efficiently and profitably as I can; I do not, however, want to sacrifice editorial quality for editorial speed. (Because I often work on a per-page basis, speed is a key factor in determining profitability. However, even when working on an hourly basis, speed is important; because few clients have unlimited budgets for editing, it is important to maintain a steady rate of pages per hour.)

The editing process is additionally hampered by the growth of the style guides. With each new edition, the manuals get larger, not more compact, and there are numerous additional variations that have to be learned and considered. (How helpful and/or useful these guides are is a discussion for a later day.) I have discovered that no matter how well I have mastered a particular style guide, the inhouse editor knows the one rule that has slipped by me and wants to question why I am not following it, no matter how arcane, nonsensical, or irrelevant the rule is.

It is because of the increasing difficulty in adhering to all the rules of a particular style guide — especially when the style guide is supplemented with a lengthy house style manual that has hundreds of exceptions to the style guide’s rules, as well as hundreds of errata released by the style guide publisher, which are not readily accessible – that I increasingly rely on macros to apply preferred choices.

A key to using macros, however, is that they are used with tracking on, but only when appropriate (an example of inappropriate is changing a page range such as 767-69 to 767-769 in a reference cite or changing two spaces to one space between words; an example of appropriate is changing 130 cc to 130 mL or changing which to that). Tracking acts as a signal to me that I have made a change and lets me rethink and undo a change. Consequently, most macros in EditTools, by default, work with tracking on.

(One caution when using tracking and macros: Some macros do not work correctly when tracking is on. That is because the “deleted” or original is not really deleted as far as the computer is concerned in many page views. Basic Find & Replace works well with tracking on, but the more sophisticated the Find & Replace algorithm and the more that a macro is asked to do, the less well tracking works. Consequently, I make it a habit, particularly when using wildcard find and replace macros, to run the macros with tracking off.)

I know that I am focusing on increasing an editor’s profitability, but many of the macros in EditTools are usable by authors who are reviewing their manuscript before sending it to a professional editor for editing. What helps make a good editing job also can help make a good writing job! The two processes, although different, are not so distinct that they diverge like a fork in the road. Being sure that “Gwun” is always “Gwun” and not sometimes “Gwin” is important to both the author and the editor.

Unfortunately, both authors and editors tend to think in a singular way; that is, if they are uncomfortable writing and creating macros, they simply forget about them. Authors and editors seek their comfort zone when it comes to production methods because they do not see the production methods as enhancing their ultimate output. This is wrong thinking.

Let’s assume that an author has decided to name a character Gwynthum. The way I work is to enter the name Gwynthum in my Never Spell Word macro’s database for this book (along with other entries such as [perhaps] changing towards to toward, foreword to forward, fourth to forth, other character names, place names, and the like) and I then run the macro before I begin editing. An author would make these entries before doing the first review of the manuscript. Running the macro before I begin alerts me to some problems and fixes others.

Every time the macro comes across Gwynthum in the manuscript, it highlights it in green. Should I then, as I am editing, come across Gwythum or Gwynthim or some other variation, it would stand out because it is not highlighted in green. Similarly, the macro would change every instance of fourth to forth, but do so with tracking on and by highlighting the change with a different highlight color. This would bring the change to my attention and let me undo the change if appropriate.

(In the case of homonyms like fourth and forth, foreword and forward, and their and there, I make use of EditTools’ Homonym macro and database and do not include the words in the Never Spell Word macro. Rather than changing fourth to forth, the macro highlights the word in red, which tells me that I need to check that the word is correct in context. The homonym macro is a separate macro and has its own database, one that you create. So if you know that you have problems with where and were but not with their and there, you can put the former in your database and omit the latter.)

As noted earlier, the same tools that benefit editors can benefit authors who are preparing their manuscripts for submission to an editor, or even thinking about self-editing their manuscript. Thinking a little outside one’s comfort zone and making the best use of editing and writing tools can improve a manuscript tremendously, and for authors, can help reduce the cost of professional editing.

In later articles in this series, I will go into detail about how to use some of the macros that make up the EditTools collection. However, it must be remembered that macros are mechanical, unthinking tools. No editor or writer should think of macros as a substitute for using independent judgement; rather, macros should be looked on as being an aid to creating a more perfect manuscript.

September 10, 2012

Are Free eBooks Killing the Market?

Every day I find another traditional publisher is offering free ebooks. Amazon has made a business out of offering free ebooks. And let’s not forget the many indie authors who are offering their ebooks for free.

What is this doing to the market for ebooks?

I admit that I may be atypical in my buying and reading habits, but I do not think so. I have watched my to-be-read (TBR) pile grow dramatically in the past couple of months from fewer than 300 ebooks to more than 1,100 ebooks. If I obtained not another ebook until I read everything in my TBR pile, at my current average rate of reading two to three ebooks per week, I have enough reading material for between 367 and 550 weeks or 7 and 10.5 years.

How has this impacted my buying of ebooks? Greatly! In past years, I bought ebooks regularly. Granted, I was buying mainly indie and low-priced, on-sale traditionally published ebooks, rarely spending more than $6 for an ebook, but I was spending money.

That has all changed. Now I rarely spend any money on an ebook. In the past three months, the only ebook I paid for was Emma Jameson’s Blue Murder, which is her sequel to Ice Blue (which I reviewed in On Books: Ice Blue), at $4.99. Otherwise, all I have done is download free ebooks.

I understand the reason for giving ebooks away for free. How else are authors to attract new readers? This is particularly true when one considers how many ebooks are published each year in the United States alone — more than one million. Some how one has to stand out from the crowd. But with the ever-increasing number of free ebooks, giving away ebooks is less of a way to stand out.

The problem is that too often all of the ebooks in a series (or at least many of the ebooks in a series) or older, standalone titles by an author are given away. All an ebooker need do is wait. Giving away the first book in a series makes a lot of sense to me. If I like the first book, I’ll buy the subsequent books. But when I see that if I have patience I’ll be able to get the subsequent books free, too, then I don’t rush to buy.

The giving away of the free ebooks has brought about another problem: the decline of the must-read author list. I’ve noted before that my must-read author list has signficantly changed over the past few years. In past years, I had a list of more than 20 authors whose books I bought in hardcover as soon as published; today that list is effectively two authors. My must-read ebook author list has grown, but that is a list of indie authors, not traditionally published authors.

Again, the problem is free ebooks. As a consumer, I like free. However, free has so radically altered my book-buying habits — and I suspect the book-buying habits of many readers — that I find it difficult to see a rosy future for publishers, whether traditional or self-publishers. It is because of this that I wonder what lies behind the thinking of publishers who give their ebooks away, especially those who do so in one of Amazon’s programs.

Publishers who participate in Amazon giveaways double hex themselves. First, they undermine their own argument that ebooks are valuable. Second, they antagonize ebookers like me who do not own Kindles or are not Amazon Prime members and thus unable to get those ebooks for free. I have seen so many ebooks available for free on Amazon that are not available to me for free as a Nook or Sony or Kobo owner, that I have simply resolved, with some limited exceptions, not to buy ebooks. Either I’ll get them for free or not at all.

The Amazon giveaways also tempt me to join the “darkside,” that is, if there is a book in which I am interested, to search for it on pirate sites. The publishers, by their action of giving away the ebook on Amazon, are enticing people to pirate by not making their ebooks free at all ebookstores. When publishers degrade the value of ebooks, their message is received by all readers and is acted on by many readers.

This is a no-win situation for everyone. Ultimately, even readers lose because the incentive to write disappears when there is little to no hope of earning any money for the effort. And even if authors continue to write, the quality of the writing will suffer because no one will see the sense in investing their own money in a product they are going to give away.

It is still early in ebook revolution, so no one really knows what eBook World will look like in a decade or two. But it is pretty clear to me that freebie programs like Amazon’s are detrimental to the overall health of the book market. Authors and publishers should rethink the giving away of their ebooks, other than, perhaps, the first book in a series, before they establish in concrete the reader expectation that “if I just wait, I’ll get it for free, so why pay for it now.” If nothing else, the giving away of ebooks is helping to depress the pricing of ebooks and perhaps driving some ebookers to the pirate sites. My own experience as a buyer of ebooks demonstrates this.

I know that ebooksellers like Amazon are reporting rising ebook sales, but the data I want to see are sales numbers without the one-shot blockbusters and the price levels. The current problem with sales data is that we are seeing only the macro information and so do not know what the real effect free ebooks are having on the market. We are also still in the era of growth in the number of ebookers. When that growth stops, we may get a clearer picture. In the meantime, I know that my spending on ebooks has declined from the thousands of dollars to the tens of dollars and is getting close to zero. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this decline in spending.

September 3, 2012

Choosing Words — Carefully

Filed under: Books & eBooks,Business of Editing — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
Tags: , , ,

The advantage writing has over speech is that writing gives the author time to rethink what he or she has written. With speech, there is just that fleeting moment before the words form to think about what is about to pass the lips.

A recent gaffe by Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri, was a stark reminder of the importance of word choice. Although I will repeat his gaffe in a moment, I do not want to discuss the rightness or wrongness of what he said; rather, I want to focus on choosing words carefully and why it is important for authors to think carefully about their writing, something which too few seem to do.

Todd Akin was questioned about his views on abortion, a very hot topic in American politics, and he said: “If it is a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” so the woman cannot become pregnant (emphasis supplied). Politicians seem to be adept at providing editorial fodder.

This is a classic example of the importance of word choice and applying the test of correctness. The test is the anti clause, that is: What is an illegitimate rape? This faux pas by Akin also demonstrates why it is important to consider the appropriateness of a particular word choice. And I’m not referring to the political consequences; instead, I mean the communication-miscommunication conundrum.

Many of us have read at least one of the great Sherlock Holmes mysteries as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was one of the great masters of language. Virtually every word was chosen with extreme care because each word could direct one to a clue or misdirect one away from a clue. Sherlock Holmes was a master detective who could see what everyone else missed, but Conan Doyle had to convey what Holmes saw in a manner that would allow the reader to solve the mystery along with Holmes or be confounded and then praise Holmes’ superior acuity when he lays out for the reader all the “obvious” clues. The point is that Conan Doyle had to consider a word and what I call its anti version (i.e., the antiword) to be sure that the word conveyed only the meaning (or obfuscation) that Conan Doyle intended.

I suspect that for Conan Doyle the word and antiword conflict resolution came quickly and easily. Poets, too, seem to have an innate grasp of this concept as they try to convey much by little. But for many of us, it requires some effort. It is clear when reading many novels that for many authors, a conscious effort is needed to resolve the conflict. It is clear because so many do not seem to ever come to grasp with the problem and even fewer seem to resolve it.

(In essence, antiword is a substitute for opposite [as in legitimate vs. illegitimate] but neither opposite nor antonym is, I think, a broad enough term or concept for this problem. I think, perhaps wrongly, that anti, which does imply opposite and antonym but also implies other characteristics, is a better descriptor. Thus my use of antiword.)

Consider whether something is legitimate or illegitimate, as in the Akin quote. In the quote, the question is less whether something is legitimate than whether it is illegitimate. It is the antiword that throws into question the accuracy of the word chosen. For legitimate to be correct, illegitimate must also be correct. Yet illegitimate in the context of the quote is incorrect.

Which brings us to the next step in the analysis: Why is the antiword impossible? Or illogical? Or implausible? Or simply incorrect? In the case of the Akin quote, it is because by definition rape is always illegitimate and therefore the antiword to illegitimate – legitimate – must be incorrect in the sense that there can be no such thing as legitimate rape. (Understand that it is the use of legitimate with rape that presents the problem. Akin could have said “uncoerced sex,” in which case, the antiword coerced is as accurate as its antiword uncoerced and renders a different meaning to the quote.)

I know the argument appears to be circular, but it really isn’t. What it boils down to is that both the word and the antiword must be capable of being correct in the exact same sentence. The Akin quote would more accurately reflect his “claimed” views had he used coerced sex rather than legitimate rape. More importantly, there would have been no miscommunication (which, I know, assumes that there was miscommunication in his original statement).

This is the dilemma that a good writer faces: How does one choose to describe something so as to lead the reader to the conclusion that the author wants? The good writer creates believability when both the word and the antiword can be correct, because the message sent, albeit stealthily, is that “I considered the antiword, but it fails to bring you to where I want you to go, even though it, too, is possible.”

The best storytellers are those who weigh the word and the antiword, even if they do so subconsciously. In fact, I suspect that the better a writer is the more this process takes place subconsciously. But it does take place, which is what matters. That it takes place is what separates the craftsperson-writer from the amateur writer.

The value of the word-antiword process is that it enhances the likelihood that the correct word is chosen and that communication, rather than miscommunication, between author and reader occurs. Anyone can sit at a computer today, pound out a 100,000-word novel, and self-publish it. Very few people can rise to the level of a craft-author, that is, one whose words convey clear, precise meanings and messages. It seems to me that we can see this difference in many forms of writing, including less formal writing such as blogs.

The greater the care that is taken with word choice, the more accurate the communication and the better the writing — a goal to which every author should strive.

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