An American Editor

September 22, 2014

On the Basics: A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

You don’t have to be a Girl or Boy Scout for “Be prepared” to matter. It’s also an excellent rule of business for a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, or other publishing/editorial professional.

For any freelancer (and most in-house editorial professionals as well), “be prepared” means some, if not all, of the following.

  • Create and maintain a stash of cash or a credit-card balance to cover emergencies — a computer crash, printer breakdown, phone foul-up, even e-mail outage (you might have to rent time at a cyber café to stay in touch with or send assignments to clients), not to mention family crises.
  • Have the right tools at hand — equipment (computer, software, printer), reference books, style manuals (both print and online), paper, pens and pencils (some of us do still write in long-hand, or get asked to edit or proofread on paper), fax capability (either a machine and phone line or an e-version) — whatever is essential to get your work done.
  • Put together a backup system so you’re ready to cope in an emergency. Have a laptop if you usually work on a desktop machine, and a second laptop, tablet, or other device if you do all your work on a laptop and it conks out; extra printer cartridges or toner; both disk and download versions of essential software so you can power back up after a crash; places to go — cybercafé, public library, co-working site — in a power outage or equipment breakdown; trusted colleagues in case you (or a spouse, child, or parent) get sick when you’re on deadline. Think about what could go wrong, and try to have mechanism in place ahead of time to respond.
  • Have a website, and keep it updated. It’s an invaluable tool for promoting and building your business. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extensive, but it has to exist these days for a freelancer to succeed.
  • Update your résumé, promotional brochure, website, and online profiles regularly. Every time you have a new client (or job) or publish a new project, add it where appropriate. If you read about new trends in résumés, revamp yours accordingly. Keep current versions as Word documents and PDFs on every computer or device you use, so you can dash it off in response to every new opportunity you might see or receive and update whenever the need arises. Make sure you never have to make excuses for not being ready to respond promptly or simply miss out on the chance to be considered; timing can be everything.
  • Have a good photo of yourself. You probably will want one for your website, and you might need it for a bio to go along with an assignment, or if you’re asked to make a speech somewhere. It doesn’t have to be an expensive studio portrait; an informal, well-composed, flattering snapshot will do.
  • Have a business card; get a lot of ’em printed up and carry them with you always, including to social events, the store, wherever. You never know when it might come in handy and lead to a new client.
  • Be ready to take on assignments with little or no notice. That might mean beating instead of meeting deadlines so you have time available to accept something new with little warning, or organizing your projects so you always have some wiggle room to add something new and appealing when the opportunity shows up.
  • For when you can’t or don’t want to be available for new projects, practice ways of saying “No” (or “Thanks, but not now” if that’s more appropriate). Plan ahead to know what you prefer not to cover or work on — topics, types, or lengths of projects; kinds of clients, etc. If you think about these things ahead of time, saying no will be less intimidating and you’ll be less likely to let someone badger you into saying yes to projects you don’t want to do.
  • Develop a personal script to use with difficult, demanding clients and ones you’d rather not work with, so you don’t have to respond to them off the cuff. You’ll be more likely to protect yourself against such situations if you don’t face every one of them as new and distinct.
  • Have a template for contracts and letters of agreement, so you never forget to include important details or clauses in assignments.
  • Have a template for invoices, so it’s as easy as possible to do the billing that’s part of every independent editorial business.
  • Develop a strong network of colleagues so you have someone to turn to when you’re sick, want to take a vacation, are offered a project that doesn’t interest you or you’re too busy to accept, or want to subcontract.
  • Read, read, read! The more you read, the better prepared you will be to cope with assignments. Read newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else for both business and pleasure — they all inform and expand your skills and ability to handle assignments.
  • Have health insurance, so you and your family are protected against the costs of health emergencies.

In addition, for writers, “be prepared” means:

  • Develop an ongoing, ever-growing network of sources and contacts, so you always have someone or somewhere as a starting point for a new assignment or project. Some editors and clients will tell you whom to contact, or at least a couple of sources to include, but even the ones who give you all the names you’ll need will be impressed if you can add a couple more. If you’re writing fiction, that network might be the starting point for character names or sources of background information and other research.
  • Know the market for your kind of writing. Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace are great starting points, but look for writers’ groups — either in-person or online — to build up your knowledge base and stay tuned to news about publications that are right for your work. Conferences are also a good resource for market knowledge (and expanding your network).
  • Follow trends in publishing so you know what new ones might be best for your work and when to adopt them.

For editors and proofreaders, “be prepared” means:

  • Invest in training every year — either refresher courses or classes with new information — because trends in language, usage, tools, and technology are constantly changing, and we have to keep up with them to do our work at our best.
  • Consider learning new style manuals to be prepared to work with new types of clients or publications, just in case your current niche dries up.

Essentially, being prepared means being ready to cope with work and life emergencies, and up to date on anything that affects the work we do — or might do. Being prepared means being a better businessperson, better employee, and better freelancer.

Therefore, the commandment:

Thou shall be prepared.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

July 28, 2014

The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting

In a comment to an earlier essay on ethics, The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics, Teresa Barensfeld asked several questions. With her permission, I plan to give my view on some of them over the course of several essays. I begin with this question:

“Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?”

I think the formation of an answer begins with how hold yourself out to clients and your relationship with clients. How you hold yourself out to clients helps shape their expectations, and from an ethical perspective, I think it is the combination of your presentation and client expectations that determines the correct answer to this question.

It does not matter, in my view, whether you are a single-person operation or a corporation of many editors. What does matter is how you present yourself: Are you presenting yourself as a single-editor operation or as a company. We discussed the merits of solopreneurship versus company in several essays, including The Business of Editing: Why a Company?, Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III). The beginnings of the answer to the ethical concern lies in those articles.

The presentation as a solo editor is done in many ways. For example, do you use a company name or just your name? Are checks made payable to you instead of to a company name? Are electronic payments made to accounts that bear your name or a company name? Do you use a personal identification number (e.g., Social Security number) or a business tax identification number (e.g., the Employer Identification Number)? Do you answer your phone with your name or a company name? Does your email signature include only your name or does it include a business name? When asked about, for example, availability, do you speak of “my schedule” or do you indicate you will need to check whether you have “an available editor”? Does your website indicate that the only editor is you? And the list goes on.

It is these types of actions that build an expectation in clients. If you present yourself as a solo editor, which is how most freelance editors present themselves, then whether you tell clients if you hire a subcontractor depends on whether the client hired you because of your specific skills or hired you because the client needed an editor and you were available. The issue really is one of client reliance on the unique perspective that each of us has as we do our editorial magic.

Unfortunately, I do not know of a way to discern the level of the client’s reliance on individual uniqueness. Consequently, I think you should assume that you were hired for your uniqueness if you present yourself as a solo editor. If you presented yourself as being a solo editor, then I think it is reasonable for a client to expect to be told (asked?) when you subcontract.

Conversely, if you consistently present yourself as being a company, I think the client’s expectations are different. I think clients expect companies to have access to more than a single editor. Even if they do not, it is my belief that not discussing subcontracting with a client is consistent with the presentation as a company.

From an ethical perspective, in the case where you present as a company, there is no deception in taking the position that the client is hiring a company and that the company decides whom to assign to a project. This is subject to an important exception: If a client specifically asks you to undertake the editing, then, regardless of whether you present as a solo editor or a company, you are obligated to advise the client of any subcontracting and to give the client an opportunity to cancel the contract.

As I have mentioned in any number of previous essays, from the very beginning of my freelance editing career, I presented myself as a company. When approached to take on projects, I have always made it clear that I need to check “editors’ schedules” and I never promise to personally undertake a project — except when a client specifically asks, which has occasionally happened. I never discuss with clients editor assignments and I never ask if subcontracting is acceptable. I assume it is okay because the client knows I am a company. I have never had a client object; more importantly, it has often been the case that a client who hired me for one project would call again for a second or third project because the client expects me to have multiple editors.

Ultimately, as I previously indicated, I think the answer to the question lies in how you have presented your business to clients and what clients expect. I think it is unethical to not advise the client of subcontracting if the client views you as and expects you to be a solo editor because that is how you have actively presented yourself. In such a case, there is strong reason to believe that the client is hiring you personally.

In contrast, I do not think it is unethical to not advise a client of subcontracting if the client’s expectation is that you are a company. When dealing with a company, the client may hold you, as the focus of the company, responsible for problematic editing, but that is different from the issue of being notified about subcontracting.

A subsumed issue in the question, in the case of a company, goes to the arrangement between the editors. Is it an employer–employee or contactor–subcontractor relationship? And does that relationship affect the ethicality of not notifying a client that you intend to subcontract the work?

I think it makes no difference whatsoever. The employer–employee versus contactor–subcontractor relationship is a tax and insurance matter; it has no bearing on the editing. The client is still hiring the company and expects the company to have more than one editor (assuming that is how the company has been presented to the client). The arrangement between the company-owning editor and the employee/subcontractor editor is not a client matter.

So we are back to where we began. The answer to the ethical question is: What are your client’s expectations based on your presentation of yourself and your business?

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 21, 2014

The Business of Editing: Does the Trend Ever Go Up?

Let’s set the stage with the following two music videos. They aren’t really on point, but they do broadly cover the theme. First up is “Money, Money, Money” by Abba.

Next up are Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the classic “Money” from the film Cabaret.

Now that the stage is set, let’s talk money.

I was contacted by a potential new client recently (for ease of writing, I will refer to the company as if it is a client). The client needed a couple of large medical books edited and wondered if I would be available. After saying that I would be available depending on schedule and other terms, we started discussing terms.

The client indicated that a new process would be inaugurated with these books. No longer would the editor do any type coding or deal in any way with references. In addition, the editor would not have to convert any words from British spelling to American spelling (or vice versa); the client would have someone else deal with these “mechanical aspects.” The editor’s sole role would be to provide a “language” edit.

Consequently, the client believed that the following should be agreeable:

  1. The definition of a page could be changed so that more data constituted a page; and
  2. My usual fee could be reduced by more than one-third.

Needless to say, we hit a snag immediately.

Our competing definitions of what constitutes a page were not so divergent that we could not eventually come to an agreement. Truly, we were very close. But the reduction in fee was another matter.

I wish I could say that this was the first client to think this way; unfortunately, it seems to be a trend. There is something amiss when clients think that not requiring the editor to type code (or apply styles) amounts to a significant amount of work savings. I tried to explain to the client that in a 500-page manuscript, the type coding could be done in about an hour and often less, especially with the use of Code Inserter in EditTools (or, in the case of styles, Style Inserter, which is now in beta testing).

It is true that if an editor does not have to format references that could be a significant timesaver, but that depends on many factors, including how many references there are. More importantly, however, as I explained to the client, if the editor does not have to deal with the references, then the references are not included in the page count calculation or, the if fee is hourly, in the number of hours spent editing. In other words, it is no different than if the manuscript has no references.

But this “new” process leaves a lot of things undecided. For example, if the author uses “recognize” five times then uses “recognise” once, who changes the British spelling to American spelling? If it is not the “language” editor, then how does the “someone else” find the incorrect version? Similarly, if the editor is no longer responsible for determining head levels, how does “someone else” determine whether a head should be a primary or a subsidiary head?

As for references, if the editor is no longer responsible for them, who determines whether the reference is called out in the text, is complete, or is appropriate to the material at the callout location?

The list goes on.

There seems to be a misunderstanding, perhaps, a willful one, about what an editor does and what it takes to do certain tasks in the editing process. For example, an editor doesn’t willy-nilly assign head levels. The editor reads the material and determines its rank in the scheme of the manuscript. It is not possible to determine a head level without having read the preceding and following explanatory material. So, unless the author has marked the manuscript, someone has to read it to determine head levels. And what about whether a list should be bulleted, numbered, or unnumbered, or material should be quote indented, or myriad other things that can only be determined by reading the manuscript.

Yet the client thinks that these are “just mechanical” tasks that can be separated from the “language editing” and because the editor is no longer responsible for those tasks, the editing is much easier and thus worth less.

I have always viewed the editor’s role as primarily that of “language” editing. The editor needs to help an author with message delivery. Yes, the editor also does some mechanical things, like type coding, but they are incidental to the editing, not a major (or perhaps even significant) part of the editor’s job.

Thus, I explained to the client, although the editor is relieved of some rote work, the relief doesn’t amount to a great deal in terms of what the editor does. A professional editor is hired not to type code or look up references for missing information, even if the editor does that work. The professional editor is hired to police the language of the manuscript, to help the author deliver his or her message clearly and accurately. Consequently, the editor’s fee is not based on whether a job includes or excludes type coding, but on the editor’s language skills and experience.

Alas, increasingly I am seeing these arguments fall on deaf ears. Publishers and packagers have learned and taken the wrong lesson from the offshoring of editorial work. The lesson learned is that editorial work can be done more cheaply; the lesson not learned is that there has to be a balance between fees paid for editing and the quality of the editing. The lower the fee paid, the lower the quality that should be expected.

A professional editor knows that she must earn a certain amount per hour in order to make ends meet and produce a profit. This is a fundamental rule (equation) of all businesses: it is not enough to have work, the work must be profitable. If you cut my fee by one-third, how many more pages must I churn per hour in order to make up for that cut? Presumably, the uncut fee level represents the amount I must earn to be profitable.

I find this mindset difficult to change, although I keep trying. It is worrisome to me that the trend is to bring more work onshore because of perceived quality problems yet to offer editors the offshore price, with the thought that the client can receive onshore quality for offshore pricing. That is a no-win formula for both the client and the editor.

Just when I thought it was getting better for professional editors, the trend downslope returns.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 19, 2014

The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting

Teaching the Art of Copyediting

by Erin Brenner

A while back, Rich Adin wrote in a blog post, Is Editing Teachable?, that copyediting can’t be taught. He said:

Editing 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.…But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

I agree that editing is a craft, one that editors continue to learn throughout their careers. And while telling an adjective from an adverb is useful, it’s just the beginning of learning copyediting.

Editing courses, Adin says, teach only the mechanics of copyediting because that’s all they can teach. By “mechanics,” he means “the things that are applied by rule [or] rote,” he told me in an email.

But you can’t teach students how to “reconstruct a sentence so that it is clear and accurately portrays the message,” Adin continued.

“It is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor,” Adin had written in his blog post. “If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.”

Let’s look at these two ideas separately.

Teaching More Than Editing Mechanics

My own definitions of editing come from The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. Einsohn breaks down the task of copyediting into several parts, including:

  • Mechanical editing: making a manuscript conform to a house style, including correcting for such items as spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, punctuation, treatment of numbers, and so on.
  • Language editing: correcting or querying the author on errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and diction.
  • Content editing: correcting or querying the author on errors of internal consistency, content discrepancies, and structural and organizational problems.

Adin and I have essentially the same definition of mechanics, then. Editing a weak sentence into something clear and accurate would seem like language editing to me; in some instances, it might be content editing. Both are teachable, though, and deconstructing sentences and paragraphs is an excellent way to do so.

Break that sentence into its parts and see how it works. What happens when you move modifying phrases around? Does a sentence sound stronger with an important phrase at the beginning or end? These are places of power in a sentence, and a copyeditor can learn to use those places wisely.

Maybe word choice is the problem. Has the author chosen a word that’s precise enough to carry the meaning? Copyeditors should be alert to connotation and denotation of words.

Another key to finding clarity in sentences is understanding rhythm and how that’s achieved. An awkward rhythm can distract readers from the message.

All of these things and more can be explained and, more importantly, practiced. A recent lesson for my Copyediting II students included an exercise in coordinating and subordinating ideas in sentences and paragraphs. My job is to judge how well they’ve done that based on the original meaning of the text and to guide them to better decisions when necessary.

A lot of language editing can be taught by teaching writing style. In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing, Thomas S. Kane broadly defines style as “the total of all the choices a writer makes concerning words and their arrangements.” What kind of choices are we talking about? Things such as:

  • Diction
  • Verb choice
  • Passive vs. active voice
  • Coordination and subordination of ideas
  • Use of negatives
  • Variety in words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure
  • Redundancy

In addition, copyeditors can learn how to create transitions between sentences and paragraphs and how to organize words in a sentence to better emphasize the main idea. All of these items can be taught and practiced.

Of course, a writing style is a complex thing and not always easy to identify minutely, but we can identify certain characteristics of style and note when something doesn’t fit. When you can identify the problem, you can fix it.

Why Aren’t There More Great Editors?

If teaching copyediting is possible, then, how come there aren’t more great editors? Many reasons, including:

  • Not all copyediting training is created equal. Some materials, no matter what kind you use, are simply better than others. In part, you’re only as good as your training.
  • Not all copyeditors are created equal. Like any other career, copyediting demands certain abilities, such as attention to detail. Some people are simply better at noticing details. Others are good at seeing the big picture. We all have innate abilities that suit us to certain kinds of work.
  • If more people were great, who would be average? Those at the top of their industry are just that: the top. The exceptions, not the rule. Most folks are average, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, though, we don’t really know how many copyeditors are great. As Adin has pointed out, we lack a national organization in the United States that measures how good a copyeditor is. How can we know how many great copyeditors labor in obscurity? We may bemoan the quality of the published word, but can we lay all the blame on copyeditors and ignore writers’ skills, the time given to edit, or any other variable in the publishing process?

I, too, would like to see a national organization that sets a standard for editing, recognizes those editors that achieve it, and educates the world about the importance of those standards. Doing so would also indicate that we think copyediting can be taught.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 5, 2014

Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor?

Increasingly, I wonder why professional editors are being hired. In reading online discussions, it is pretty evident that (a) everyone thinks they can be an editor, (b) a growing number of authors think that self-editing or peer editing is more than sufficient, (c) professional editors are believed to be overpaid, and (d) people who have edited a romance novel think they can as competently and easily edit a 5,000-page manuscript on the genetics of cancer.

Of course, a lot of discussion online centers around price. Not only are editors offering services at unsustainable prices (see The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It for a discussion of sustainable pricing), but users of the editing services offered are balking at those prices. (How absurd is this “pricing war” becoming? I received a job application from an editor offering to work for 25¢/page!)

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who need a professional editor’s services have no clue as to why they need those services except that everyone tells them that they do and because using an editor is what authors have done for decades. The users of editors do not contemplate the purposes for which they want an editor’s services.

We have discussed professional editors and what their role is in the publishing process numerous times over the life of this blog. The editor’s role hasn’t changed, probably since the time of the very first editor. Yet even with that history, when asked “Why are you hiring a professional editor?”, the answer is rarely inclusive of what the editor does.

Within the past few weeks, I was asked to edit a paper that was going to be submitted as part of a grant proposal. The instructions were clear: check spelling and look for egregious grammar errors but touch nothing else. Why hire me? (I turned down the work for a multitude of reasons, including the project’s schedule was incompatible with my schedule, but largely because I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something.)

I think a significant amount of blame for the state of editing lies in the hiddenness of what editors do. It is hard to point to a paragraph in a book and say that because of the suggestions of the editor, this paragraph altered the author’s destiny, turned the author into a star or into a has been. Editors may have star-making power, but if they do, it is not readily apparent to either the editor or to the person who hires the editor.

The person hiring the editor is really looking for someone who can take away embarrassments before they become embarrassing. That’s because of the limited understanding of the editor’s role. Each person who hires an editor needs to ask, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” If the answer is to verify spell checking software, then the follow-up question should be, “Why am I hiring a professional editor for a job that doesn’t require a professional editor?”

Ultimately, there should be an epiphany. The questioner should realize that what she needs to know is what a professional editor does. It is this appreciation of the skills owned by a professional editor that will enable the answering of the original query, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” Importantly, once the question can be answered, it is likely to move the focus away from pricing and toward skillsets.

Another result of being able to answer the question is that the asker will be able to analyze her needs and guide the editor as to what is needed and wanted: If all you need to do is cross the street, you don’t hire a taxi. It is the lack of understanding on the part of an editor’s clients as to what an editor does and why it is important that is at the heart of the problems professional editors face in terms of unrealistic expectations and downward pressure on pricing. It is hard for an editor to convince a client that she is worth $50 an hour when the client thinks the editor is just a glorified spell checker.

Someone who understands what an editor does, understands the need for a professional editor. It remains true that no one will be able to point to a single paragraph in a book and say that the editor’s transformation of that paragraph instantly altered the author’s status; such singular events remain within the realm of the speechwriter. Unfortunately, because readers never see the before and after of an editor’s work, it is not possible for readers to see how the editor has improved or worsened an author’s work.

In addition, an editor suggests and the author decides, which means that an author can easily reject the advice that would transform his work from a member of the pack to leader of the pack as accept the advice.

The reason a professional editor is hired is that the client wants to ensure that her manuscript is accessible and understandable, that it flows not just in her eyes and mind but in the mind and eyes of others. She wants to know that her word choice conveys the meaning she intends. Professional editors have honed the skills that deliver these results. Professional editors are able to maintain a distance from the manuscript that enables an objective assessment; it is very difficult for a mother to objectively assess her child.

Once it is realized what a professional editor does and what skills he has, it becomes clear that not everyone can be an editor, just as not everyone can be a lawyer or doctor; that peer group editing is not the same as using a professional editor; that professional editors are skilled artisans who are worth more than a bottom-scraping fee; and that the editor who has successfully edited a romance novel is not necessarily the editor who can successfully edit a large manuscript on cancer genetics.

In other words, once one realizes what skills a professional editor possesses, it is easier to see that different skills are needed for different projects. Now one can answer the question, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

February 12, 2014

To Serial or Not to Serial?

One thing I have noticed over the years is that what was once controversial in editing comes back to be controversial again. Like the cycle of life, editorial controversies are never put to permanent rest.

The current resurrected argument is whether or not to use serial commas.

My first thought was “what difference does it make whether serial or nonserial rules the manuscript?” My second thought was “what is the primary task of an editor and how does that task mix with the to-serial-or-not-to-serial question?”

We probably should begin with composition, because that is where this controversy has its origins. The more characters there are in a manuscript, the longer the manuscript. If “unnecessary” characters can be omitted, space will be saved and the cost of production will decline. It might not matter greatly if only one copy is being published, but multiply the savings over thousands of copies and over many manuscripts, and the savings become significant. Welcome to the age of bean counting.

(This attempt to save money is also at the foundation for the notion that there is no space on either side of a dash. But I digress….)

What is the primary reason to have a manuscript edited? I see the primary purpose as clear communication. What is the primary purpose of punctuation? To afford the reader clues as to the message the author intends to convey.

Consider this phrase: pregnant women and children. A professional editor would not let such a phrase stand. Why? Because it is not clear whether both the women and the children are pregnant or just the women. Of course, many arguments can be made as to how pregnant does not modify children, but there only needs to be one argument that it does to make the phrase questionable.

Similarly, as Lynne Truss famously pointed out, a professional editor would not let the phrase “eats shoots and leaves” stand without querying it. Whereas in the “pregnant women and children” instance rewording for clarification is the appropriate path, in the “eats shoots and leaves” conundrum, the correct path is punctuation.

Yet how much punctuation? If the intended meaning is that the actor “eats” some food, then “shoots” another actor and “leaves ” the premises, then serial commas are needed: eats, shoots, and leaves. With the serial commas, there is no mistaking the meaning. But those who oppose serialization would prefer a single comma: eats, shoots and leaves.

How clear is the single comma version? Not at all. There are two vibrant possibilities: the actor “eats” and what the actor is eating is “shoots and leaves”; the actor “eats,” then “shoots” another actor and “leaves” the premises. How is the reader to know which is meant?

Clearly there are a multitude of ways to avoid this situation (e.g., “eats bamboo shoots and leaves”) but the question under consideration is serialization. The premise of the antiserialists is that excessive punctuation interferes with the reading flow, thus minimizing the amount of punctuation enhances the reading experience. Proserialists, on the other hand, see punctuation as necessary to ensure understanding and thus as an enhancer of reading flow because the reader does not have constantly stop and attempt to discern what the author intended.

I admit that I fall in the proserialist camp. I see the role of punctuation as the same as highway signage — I need enough of it so that I do not need to stop in the middle of the highway to think about whether to turn right or left.

Editing is about comprehension, not about saving space. Editing is intended to laser focus on author meaning, not on fulfilling the latest lexical fashion. Serial commas rarely mislead a reader, unlike absence of a serial comma. So what harm comes about by serializing? A professional editor’s goal is to make the reading experience so smooth that the reader absorbs the author’s message without consciously realizing she is doing so.

Sufficient punctuation is one of the tools that brings this about. Insufficient punctuation requires a reader to either stop and attempt to decipher the author’s meaning or to gloss over the author’s point in hopes that either the point was not critical or that it will become clear subsequently. But having a reader battle with insufficient punctuation is not in either the author’s or the reader’s interest.

In the case of “eats, shoots and leaves,” the reader either inadvertently draws the correct conclusion or stops to ponder what is meant. What is the negative to the serial usage, assuming the intended meaning is “eats, shoots, and leaves?” There is none and there rarely is a problem using the serial comma (assuming its use conveys the correct meaning). So why have a rule that insists that the serial comma be avoided whenever possible? Why not make the rule always use the serial comma?

I am convinced that the rationale for the avoidance rule has nothing to do with communication, understanding, readability, or any of the other metrics that a professional editor should be concerned with when editing. I believe that it is an accountant’s rule: Omitting the “excess” punctuation lowers the financial outlay for a manuscript. The accountant’s rule does not address any of the metrics that might cause a manuscript to succeed or fail in the marketplace; instead, it laser focuses on cost.

Yet it strikes me that the cost of misunderstanding, of missing the author’s message is far greater than the financial cost of serializing. If readers have to struggle to understand an author, reviews and recommendations are likely to be negative and thus decrease sales. Ease of reading and understanding cannot be divorced from the decision to serialize or not serialize. The professional editor does not work with absolute rules. For the professional editor, all rules bow to the one rule regarding comprehension, and all rules (except that of comprehension) are flexible.

The difference between a professional editor and a nonprofessional editor lies in the rigidity with which the editor applies the “rules” laid out by style manuals and third parties. The more professional the editor, the more the editor determines for herself what the appropriate rules are that govern a particular project, even if it means explaining to a client why a client’s “rule” is being ignored.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

January 27, 2014

On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process

Today inaugurates a monthly series of essays by Ruth Thaler-Carter, “On the Basics.” In her essays, Ruth will explore the world of freelancing, drawing on her varied background as writer, editor, and conference host. Please welcome Ruth as a new columnist for An American Editor.

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Editors and Education —
A Lifelong, Ongoing Process

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

To succeed as editors, we need to educate ourselves all the time, at all times. Because neither language nor editing is static, we can’t be static. Language evolves and changes (not always in ways some of us like, but such is life), and so must editors.

We have to start our careers by educating ourselves about the essentials of good editing and the types of editing (copy, substantive, developmental, project, and production editing, not to mention editing vs. proofreading) we might do. Then we have to continue to educate ourselves throughout our careers to stay professional and at the top of the editing game. We have to stay up to date and know more than our clients — at least about language, if not about the topics of the materials we edit.

I think of this every time I see a query about a term or usage that I’m not familiar with, or encounter one new to me. I think of myself as skilled and well-educated, but I would never say I couldn’t learn more about language in general and editing in particular. Constant learning creates an editor who is more skilled and more credible than people who think they’ve learned everything they need to know to do good work as an editor.

Our editing education started long before we entered the profession, at least ideally — we learned the ground rules of spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation in grade school. We might have had some refinement of that information through high school and college, but most of us received our actual editing educations on the job, refining that basic knowledge by learning about a specific topic, field, or profession and how publishing worked in that area, or as humble editorial assistants in a more general environment, where the editing function itself was the focus, rather than one particular topic. We learned from colleagues and from whatever style manuals were the order of the day at a given company, publishing house, or publication.

Some of us started editing long enough ago to have used blue pencils as the standard tool of the game. We educated ourselves then to use the appropriate markup “language” on paper copy. As the publishing world changed, we changed, too, and educated ourselves about new tools of the trade — word processors and then personal computers; WordPerfect, MacWrite, Microsoft Word, Acrobat, and other programs. Many of us have educated ourselves about more sophisticated resources as well, such as macros and macro programs like Editorium products, PerfectIt, and EditTools. We might not have called how we picked up these new skills “education” — it might have been labeled training, or professional development, or adaptation, or simple survival — but that adaptation was still an education process.

For freelance editors, education includes learning the ropes of being businesslike and separating editing as our craft from editing as a business. That is not an easy thing to do and something many of us are still struggling to do well, but it is essential to financial success.

There is more to educating ourselves, however, than just adapting to the need to use new tools or techniques as they evolve. To be the best editor you can be, as well as the most successful you can be, you have to continually educate yourself about the world around you — new uses of languages, new ways of using language, new words in the language. We have to pay attention to changes in style manuals, advances in various fields, political changes that affect country names and borders, and more. We can never assume that we’ve learned enough; there’s always more to know.

That means reading, constantly and widely — daily newspapers; a variety of general and news magazines; blogs about editing but also about other topics; professional publications; books in different genres; and more. Even watching TV news and some popular culture programs, as annoying as they may be and as superior as it may feel to eschew them, has educational importance. You can’t be a great editor if you cut yourself off from general information about the world around you. Books, magazines, newspapers, blogs, and other information resources that cover the world outside editing all inform the world of editing, and the mindset, skillset, and overall ability of an editor.

What you read for pleasure is also a factor in self-education, whether it be fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Reading expands the mind and the imagination, as well as increasing your knowledge base. You never know when something you just read, even in a mystery or a novel of historical fiction, will inform and enhance your ability to edit a new project. And the more genres you read, the more types of projects you become eligible to edit.

Ongoing editing education also means being active in social media — on organizational and independent e-mail lists, and in LinkedIn conversations, web forums, and other environments where discussions of language and world trends and news can be found. We learn from each other as well as from more formal sources. Even Facebook can be a platform for learning about trends and events that could help you be a better editor.

We may not like all the changes in language and in the world around us, but we still have to know of them and deal with them on behalf of our clients or projects. The bottom line is that the more educated an editor is about editing in particular and the world in general, the better an editor that person is.

What do you consider essential to your ongoing professional education? How do you educate yourself to stay sharp and up to date about the craft and business of editing and the world in which you operate as an editor?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and desktop publisher who also owns Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for freelancers every fall.

November 25, 2013

Business of Editing: Does an Editor Matter?

It isn’t too often that the worth of a good editor is hinted at by a reviewer, but when it happens, it stands out.

In “The Surprising Empress” (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013, pp. 18-20), Jonathan Mirsky reviewed Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. I have always been fascinated by Chinese history, so the article caught my attention (I subscribe to the print edition of the NYRB and read the articles in print, not online). This looked like a book I would add to my future list of books to buy in hardcover, until…

Yes, the until raises its “ugly head” in this quote from the article (p. 20):

I have one small and two serious criticisms of Chang’s usually impressive biography. She occasionally lapses into slang or uses the wrong word. A woman “sashays” into a room, British merchants “showcase” a railway, a “roller-coaster of events” is said to have disturbed the emperor, and a concubine is described as a former “high-class call-girl.” “Winsome” is only one of the words misused.

Mirsky goes on to write:

More serious is the matter of sources.…Chang has drawn on the “colossal documentary pool” of twelve million documents in the First Historical Archives of China, which have to do with the reign of Cixi.

It would be useful to say something about these documents and how they are organized,…[R]eaders would like to know why she has chosen this or that source. I liked this biography, but have been troubled as a reviewer because the sources are not easy to check.

What Mirsky complains about are editorial failings. The publisher, Knopf, may or may not have hired a professional editor. Based on the first complaint of wrong words and slang, I wonder if Knopf did hire a professional editor familiar with American language usage (the market/target audience, at least for the reviewed version, is Americans) to copyedit the book. The second complaint, about the sources, makes me wonder if the book had undergone any professional developmental editing.

Or did Knopf take the easy path and simply hire the least-expensive editor it could find and let the author do as she pleased?

Basically, the review, which was written by Jonathan Mirsky, a well-known historian of China who was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London, is complimentary because the book corrects 100 years of misinformation about Cixi’s reign. But for me, who is not a well-versed historian of China and who cannot read between the lines to determine that Chang’s book is a respectable addition to the repertoire, Mirsky damns the book by his quoted comments. I see, instead of a great addition to the history of China literature, a book that is questionable.

It is questionable not only because of the use of slang and wrong/inappropriate word choices, but because the sources are not verifiable or accessible. The message I receive is that neither the publisher Knopf nor the author Chang cared enough about either the book or the reader to ensure accuracy and provability. When I edit a book and see sources that cannot be accessed or identified as dominating the references, I tell the author that it reflects badly on the substance of the material. As a reader, how can I be certain that the same indifference was not given to the text?

In Chang’s case, the problem goes a bit deeper. When I am editing a book, I at least know it is being professionally edited. Granted, a consumer wouldn’t know, and if the author doesn’t follow my advice and correct the references or change incorrect word choices, the book would appear to the consumer as Chang’s book appears to me — unedited.

Editors do matter. The choice of editor does matter. The type of editing does matter. A good working relationship between author and editor does matter. And it is vitally important that an author not believe that each word he or she has written is sacrosanct and cannot be changed for the better. I’m sorry to say that in my career I have encountered several authors who wrongly believed that what they had written was already perfect and that my role as editor was simply to make sure there were no typographical errors.

There is a dual failure in Chang’s book. The first failure is that of the publisher. The publisher clearly should have had Chang’s book developmentally edited by a professional editor who has mastery over American language and usage. I would like to think that the sources problem would not have passed by such an editor. The publisher should have followed up the developmental editing with copyediting, again done by a professional editor with mastery of American language and usage. Many of the wrong word choice and slang problems might (would) have been avoided.

The second failure in Chang’s book is that, if the book was professionally developmental edited and copyedited, either the publisher did not insist on Chang following, or at least seriously considering, the suggestions of the editors (again, assuming there were editors involved) and offering justification for not following the suggestions, or Chang failed to seriously consider the suggestions on her own. It is not for the editors to be the experts on China history or the reign of Cixi, but it is for the editors to be the experts on word choice and source accessibility. (Again, all this rests on the assumption that whatever editing there was, was done by professional editors with mastery of American language usage.)

As I have written above, it is questionable whether the book was edited. But assuming it was edited, there is one other matter that could be problematic: What were the instructions to the editor?

Several factors actively impede a high-quality edit. These factors include schedule, author cooperativeness, publisher and author instructions that define the task for the editor to perform, and fee. We have discussed these many times, and the limitations each of these factors imposes do not change. It is difficult to obtain a high-quality edit when you pay a pauper wage and demand an unrealistic turnaround. (I recently was asked to edit a book on a schedule that would have required editing 116 manuscript pages each day. The material was very complex and a realistic schedule would have been 25 to 30 pages a day at most. I declined, but I do know that an editor who agreed to the schedule was hired — and was being paid less than I had been offered, which was not a celebratory amount.)

Which of these factors was present in Chang’s case, I do not know. I suspect, based on the reviewer’s comments, that several were present. Because I know that quality editing by a professional editor is important, perhaps more so in a book like Chang’s than in some other books, the reviewer’s comments are the red flags that tell me “do not buy this book” — and so I won’t.

Editors do matter and the right editor for the right job matters greatly.

November 18, 2013

Tale of 3 Editors, a Manuscript, & the Quest for Perfection

My book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, was recently published. Its making makes for an interesting tale about the quest for perfection.

Most books are subject to three limitations: one editor (chosen from a range of experience), limited editing budget, and short schedule. In contrast, The Business of Editing had three very experienced professional editors, essentially an unlimited editing budget, and no set time by which the editing had to be completed. In other words, from an editorial perspective, it was the dream project.

If I was to present this scenario to forums that were made up of noneditors — and even forums made up of some/certain editors — the comments would be the same: the book should be “error-free,” with various meanings attached to “error.” After all, there are multiple sets of eyes looking at each word, sentence, and paragraph, looking multiple times, and no schedule pressure; consequently, “perfection” — which I assume is synonymous with error-free — should be achieved.

Alas, even with three professional editors, no schedule pressure, and no budget worries, perfection is nearly impossible to achieve.

There are many reasons why perfection is not achievable even under such “perfect” circumstances, yet I think the number one reason is that one editor’s error is not another editor’s error.

In the editing of The Business of Editing, there were numerous exchanges concerning language and punctuation, which are the meat of editing. Spelling is important, but a professional editor isn’t focused on spelling. True spelling cannot be ignored; whether reign is correctly spelled is important. But spelling as spelling is not the key; the key is knowing which is the right word — is it rain, rein, or reign — which is why a professional editor does not rely on spellcheckers; they know that doing so often leads to embarrassment. If the correct word is reign but the word used is rain, rain is correctly spelled — it is just the wrong word.

The “real” editorial issues are word choice, coherence, grammar/punctuation — the things that can make for interesting discussion among professional editors. And such was the case with The Business of Editing. I don’t recall an issue of spelling arising, although it may have; what I do recall was the discussion over punctuation and wording. It is this discussion that demonstrated to me that there can be no perfection in editing.

We were three editors with at least two, and sometimes three, different opinions. (It was nice, for a change, to be the powerhouse. As the author, I got the deciding vote.) It is not that one opinion was clearly wrong and another clearly right; it was, almost always, that each opinion had merit and was correct. On occasion, one opinion was more correct, but on no occasion was an opinion incorrect in the sense that there would be universal agreement among professional editors that implementing the opinion would be tantamount to creating error.

Sometimes consensus could be reached; at other times, each of us stood firm. Yet in no instance was one of us “wrong.” Which brings us back to the matter of perfection.

How can we judge perfection when perfection cannot be pinned down? Given two equally valid opinions, how can we say that one leads to perfection and the other to imperfection? We can’t.

It is true that if all else were equal, using reign when it should be rein can be pointed to as clear error and imperfect editing. Reign, rain, and rein are three distinct things and one is not substitutable for the other. But if the correct one is used and is correctly spelled (i.e., reign and not riegn), then we must look elsewhere for imperfection and that elsewhere takes us down the path of opinion. (Of course, the question also arises if the correct word is rein but it is spelled rain, is it a misspelling or incorrect word choice? I would think that the latter is more problematic than the former.)

Is The Business of Editing perfect? With three highly skilled professional editors perusing it (and let’s not forget the eyes of the many professional editors who read the essays when they were originally posted on An American Editor), the expectation would be, “yes, it is perfect.” Alas, it is not. It is imperfect because there are elements whose grammar and construction are reasonably questionable.

This is the folly of client expectations, which we discussed several months ago in The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection. More importantly, this is the folly of “professional” editors who affirmatively state that they provide “perfect” editing or who declare that x number of errors are acceptable. The flaw is that the editors and clients who make these demands assume that only their opinion has any validity, that contrary opinions are inherently erroneous.

Consider this issue: An author writes, “Since taking aspirin thins blood, at least one aspirin should be taken daily.” The question is this: Is “since” correctly used? In my view, it is not; “since” should be replaced by “because” and “since” should be limited to its passing-of-time sense. However, a very legitimate argument can be made that its use in the sentence is perfectly good usage today. What we really have are two opinions of equal merit, neither being inherently wrong.

But if you are of the camp that believes correct usage demands “because,” how likely are you to declare the sentence (expand to manuscript) perfect or error-free? Clearly, those in the “since” camp would consider it perfect/error-free. Consequently, we either have an imperfect manuscript or an error-free manuscript.

Which is it in the quest for perfection? The truth of the matter is that both can be perfect and both can be imperfect — it just depends on who is doing the grading, which is why the quest for perfection is never-ending.

Consequently, depending on whose camp you are in, The Business of Editing is either perfectly or imperfectly edited.

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