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.


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.

November 4, 2013

Business of Editing: One Pass, Two Pass(es)

It was said in a post on LinkedIn, that “real editing” requires two passes. I have to admit, I was confused by this affirmative statement. Why does “real editing” require two passes and not three passes? Or five passes? Or some other arbitrary number? Or even more than one pass?

Every professional editor knows that the more times you go over a manuscript, the more errors you will find, so what makes two the magic number? The truth is that there is no magic number. One pass can be as effective as two passes; everything depends on what the editor does in each pass over a manuscript; that is, the purpose of each pass.

There is one other consideration, which was not discussed in the LinkedIn post: compensation. For how many passes are you being compensated?

Most publishers and packagers recognize that they are paying for a single pass and do not expect more than that single pass. When they want more than one pass, the price rises.

Authors are often unaware of the issue. However, much of the complaint about poor editing is attributable to an insufficient number of passes by the particular editor. Some editors are more highly skilled than other editors and can accomplish more in a single pass than other editors can accomplish in multiple passes. Of course, editors who make use of editing tools (primarily macros) can resolve many of the issues that would normally be addressed in the first pass by use of these tools.

In the end, the number of passes comes down to the money. Each pass costs money and the more passes there are, the higher the price. One formula for charging for multiple passes used by those who charge by the page or the project is to charge 50% more for a second pass and 25% more for a third pass than the charge for the first pass. For example, if the first pass costs $1,000, a second pass would cost another $500, and a third pass another $250. With each pass it should go more quickly, thus the lower price for each subsequent pass, although that is not always true.

The issue is who bears the cost of additional passes? Some editors lack confidence in their ability to do a good job in the absence of multiple passes and thus are willing to absorb the cost of doing multiple passes. Other editors have learned how to meet or exceed the quality that would result from two or three passes in a single pass and are unwilling to absorb the cost of additional passes.

The unaddressed question is whether there is a true need for additional passes? This really depends on the skill and experience of the editor, as well as what tools the editor uses and how the editor uses those tools. Advocates of multiple passes take the position that additional errors are found on the subsequent passes and that alone demonstrates the need. But that is true even after a fourth or fifth pass, so if the rationale is that subsequent passes result in catching more errors, an editor who takes that position should continue doing passes until there are no more errors — whether that means three passes or 20 passes.

How many times have we read a book that has been reviewed by editors, authors, and proofreaders and still found errors? What can’t be pinpointed is how many passes are needed on a particular project in order to make the project 100% error-free. (This assumes that 100% error-free editing is possible, which, in my experience, it is not.) Are two passes or 12 passes needed? How many passes are also needed by the proofreader?

At some point there must be a reality check. Every time a pass occurs, it is either costing the editor or the client money. The editor who does multiple passes and does not charge for each pass quickly reaches the point of earning less than minimum wage. If the cost is being passed on to the client, the client may be unwilling to absorb the additional cost in the absence of a showing of significant return.

And significant return is the albatross.

The question that has to be asked is this: How likely is it that the proofreader will find the errors that the editor will find doing a subsequent pass? If the likelihood is high, then the client is overpaying by paying for a subsequent pass or the editor is losing money in the absence of a significant return. If the likelihood is low, then I would question the value of the editor’s original edit and/or of the proofreader.

One thing we haven’t done is defined what constitutes a pass over a manuscript. For some editors, the first pass is mechanical: coding, correcting dashes, eliminating extra spaces, and the like. For other editors, passes only refer to actual editing, not the mechanical stuff that can as readily be accomplished by macros or while editing.

If we agree that a pass means editing and not the mechanical aspects of the project, then one-pass editing is practical and doable, especially if a professional proofreader will be reviewing the material. If the mechanical constitutes a pass, then a two-pass edit is needed — the first pass to do the general mechanical aspects followed by a second pass of editing. In this case, the first pass should not, I think, incur a separate charge.

This illustrates another point: the need for clarity when using terms. Here we’ve gone through most of the essay and each of us has understood “pass” to mean something specific, but not necessarily what I intended it to mean within the context of this discussion. Where we may have disagreed before, now that “pass” has been defined, we may agree or continue to disagree, but we are doing so using the same base.

Ultimately, as this essay is about the number of editing passes required, there is no specific number required. How many editing passes a project requires or should receive depends on the editor’s skill and experience, whether the material will be professionally proofread, and the client’s willingness to pay for additional passes. I am of the firm conviction that no professional editor should routinely pay for subsequent passes herself. If a client is only willing to pay for a one-pass edit, then the editor is obligated to do the best the editor can in one pass.

Having said all that, some editors plan on multiple passes and have that already built into their fee. In such instance, multiple passes are justifiable because the client has agreed to pay for them by accepting the editor’s fee that includes one or more subsequent passes. Ultimately, professional editors need to provide the client with the best the editor can do within the parameters set by the client and without the editor absorbing costs that should be borne by the client.

Do you agree? How many editing passes do you do? Do you absorb the cost of subsequent passes or are they built into your base fee?

October 14, 2013

What is Editing Worth?

As with all such speculative questions, the answer to “What is editing worth?” depends on who is answering. To me, it is worth many times what I am paid because my efforts help bring focus and understanding to those with whom an author wishes to communicate.

Ask an author, and the answer may well be different. It certainly is different if you ask a publisher, especially a very large publisher. But the answer that surprises me most is that of some academics.

In the past month, I have been asked by three academics to edit their manuscripts. Once the discussion veered toward the money, the jobs were lost.

In each case, the manuscripts were very important to the authors. In one case, it was to be reviewed by the retention committee to determine whether the professor’s contract would be renewed. In a second instance, it was to be reviewed by the tenure committee as part of the process of deciding whether to recommend tenure for this professor. In the third case, the professor was anxious to have the book published by an academic press because the publication would enhance the professor’s career.

In all three instances, it seems to me, quality should be the number one concern. Yet, it wasn’t. The number one concern was cost.

After I made my bids, I was told that my price was higher than that of already-contacted editors who were not hired because of price. As we discussed in “Business of Editing: ‘I Can Get It Cheaper!‘,” I suggested that they keep on searching but lower their expectations.

I also said that it is clear that they think editing has some value, so why, I asked, do they place the value so low? None had a true answer; they had never thought about it in terms of value.

I tried to get across to them the value of reaching the prize each was aiming for– retention, tenure, career enhancement. For each, the prize was very valuable, yet they saw no real value in professional editing help. There was no equilibrium in their calculations. What they saw was that their goals were worthy and valuable and editing was of middling importance compared to those goals. They did not equate quality of editing with achievement of goal.

It is that disconnect that editors fight daily. Novelists often think that self-editing or group editing that costs nothing is sufficient. Few ever think about the books that end up being better sellers and about why they are better sellers. True, a lot more goes into the mix than the editing, but little or bad editing can negatively impact sales, especially with ebooks where a potential buyer can read a sample.

As the professors said goodbye, I asked them to think about the relationship between their manuscript and their future. Although it is true that no editor can guarantee that as a result of the editor’s efforts the author’s goals will definitely be achieved, it is almost certain that in the absence of professional editing the goals will not be achieved. In terms of career and money over the course of the expected career, how valuable is it to achieve tenure? Would you spend the money for an attractive new suit for such an interview or would you wear the jeans and sweatshirt in which you painted your bedroom? Why is editing any different?

Few people argue with the auto mechanic over the cost of installing new brakes when new brakes are needed because the value of having new brakes installed by a knowledgeable mechanic is perceived to exceed the savings that would occur if one were to do the installation one’s self. Most of us view the price for brakes as both worthwhile and nonnegotiable. But having one’s career-forming document edited is viewed differently.

I suspect that much of the problem is the failure of editors to communicate the value of editing well. Certainly, it is a problem that there is no concerted effort to educate people about the value, much like Coca-Cola educates consumers about Coke.

Editors walk the marketing world with their eyes shut. Few editors have ever deeply thought about the Amazon approach to consumerism, yet Amazon has valuable lessons to teach those willing to learn. Amazon spends a lot of money “educating” consumers about its eco system. Ask someone where they plan to buy a book and the answer often comes back as “Amazon.” Even though the same book can be bought elsewhere for a similar price, Amazon is the draw. Why? Because Amazon has, over the years, hammered home that it has the best shopping experience, even if the same item can be found elsewhere for the same or slightly less.

Editors, on the other hand, have not taken the lead and created a “campaign” that has our audience asking first about what matters most: quality. Instead, we have been led by our audience so that cost is the dominating factor in the decision to hire or not hire us. We are not asked to compete on quality but on price, and through our own inaction, we have let others direct the discussion.

As a group, editors have failed to make the case that if a manuscript is important to an author’s career, quality should be the primary, if not the sole, criterion whether or not to hire a particular editor. If we knew we had to take a 3,000-mile drive and that to do it we needed to buy a new car, we would not buy a car because it was the cheapest; we would look for a car that gave us the confidence that it could make such a trip comfortably, safely, and reliably. That is how an editor should be hired; cost should not be ignored but it should be secondary or tertiary to quality.

How do you convince a potential client that quality should be the number one factor in the decision to hire an editor, especially when the material to be edited will impact the author’s career?

August 21, 2013

Implied Promises & the Professional Editor

Previously, we discussed the demand for perfection (see The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection) and the disconnect between expectation and reality. Not discussed then, but of equal importance, is the question of an editor’s implied promises.

An implied promise is just that: a promise or warranty that the buyer — in our case, an author or publisher — can reasonably infer from statements or actions made by the editor. It is not something that the editor expressly says to the client. For example, if the editor said to the client, “Your manuscript will be error-free when I am done editing it,” the editor would be making an express promise (or warranty) to the client that, in fact, the manuscript will be error-free.

I suspect most of us are shaking our heads and saying to ourselves that no editor would be foolish enough to make express promises like that, but, alas, I see comments all the time from editors who make such statements. Sometimes I think I should hire them and, if they do not deliver, hold their feet to the proverbial fire.

But what worries me more are the implied promises. These are the promises that we do not expressly say to a client but which a client can reasonably infer. Perhaps we use a slogan, such as “Making manuscripts perfect!” or “Nothing slips by my eagle eyes.” Maybe it isn’t a slogan but a company name that there is an implied promise, as in “Roseanne’s Perfect Editing Service” or “The Perfectionist.”

As editors, we know that words have meaning and that, if we use a word, it is reasonable to expect the reader to draw a conclusion or inference. This is the ultimate purpose of advertising: the use of words and images to steer an observer down a certain path.

Words carry implied promises. When we hold ourselves out to be professional editors, we are not defining exactly what makes us professional, but we are implying that whatever professional means in the context of editors, that meaning includes us. And it is reasonable for a client to do what we have not done – define professional in the context of editing and apply it as the standard against which the client will judge us and our editing efforts.

It is this vagary that concerns me. I do not wish to imply that I am not guilty of exactly the same vagueness, because I am. But because we all do it does not mean it is not worrisome.

Clients have certain expectations about what an editor does. That, in fact, we may or may not do those things doesn’t matter. Because we rarely define the parameters of our work and because we have no universal working definition of what exactly is a professional editor, we subject ourselves to clients drawing implied promises from our calling ourselves editors.

In prior posts, I have discussed contract terms and how some clients try to take advantage of us with terms that are onerous, such as subjecting us to laws that govern a country in which we do not live and most likely have never even visited. The terms of such contracts are both express and implied standards. It is express in that (assuming we agree to the proffered terms) we subject ourselves to the laws of the foreign country; it is implied that we understand our responsibilities under those laws, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t agree to the terms.

And so it is with clients who hire professional editors. We express that we are professional and imply all that professional encompasses; we imply that both we and the client understand the limits of what professional editor means. That we and our client understand the term differently is both our fault and dangerous for us, because, in the marketplace of opinion, it ultimately will be the client’s interpretation that will prevail.

We work with words, so we need to step back and look at the words we use to promote ourselves and to obtain business. What implied promises are we making? Are we implying that we will deliver an error-free manuscript? Or that our rates are the lowest? Or that we are equally skilled at editing science fiction as we are at editing engineering texts? Or that we are masters of the “standard” style guides and usage books applicable to the area of the manuscript?

We need to deal with author/client expectations just as we would have our expectations dealt with; that is, we need to eliminate as many areas of disharmony as possible by being upfront about what the client can expect when we are hired. We need to explain to the client exactly what role we will play and what the client can expect us to accomplish with the client’s manuscript. We must avoid leaving it to the client to imply.

When we choose our business names and slogans, we need to carefully tread the fine line between puffery (“I am the best”) and the implied promise (because I say I am expert in the Chicago style, you can expect your manuscript will conform 100% to the Chicago style). A failure to live up to the implied promises as the client sees those promises could be disastrous for our business reputations and our pocketbooks.

The point is that we need to look more carefully at our interaction with clients to be sure that we are defining terms carefully and minimizing the potential effect of any implied promise. We need to define professional, just as we need to define what constitutes a page and what constitutes an error. We need to prevent the client from developing unwarranted and unreasonable expectations as for the measures against which our work will be judged.

Consequently, we need to stop rushing forth with offers that a potential client can accept to our chagrin. For example, when a client tells us that a manuscript is 450 pages, before we rush to quote a price for the project, we need to verify that it is in fact 450 pages and not 900 pages. Because when we make our quote based on the client-provided information without verifying it, we are impliedly accepting that the manuscript is that long — even if the client used quarter-inch margins with 7-point type to get that length – and that we can, and will, do the work in the time and at the price we think is appropriate for a 450-page manuscript.

It doesn’t matter if you define a page as 250 words and I define it as 1800 characters; it matters that you have a definition and base your response to the opportunity on that definition, which might well be very different from the reality of the manuscript. That is, it matters if you define a page as 250 words and the client’s manuscript shows a page as 600 words.

July 22, 2013

Relationships & the Unwritten Rules

Every relationship is governed by rules. It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is between spouses, parent and child, government and citizen, rock and a hard place, or authors and editors. If there is a relationship, there are rules that govern it.

Some of the rules are written. The relationship between spouses is partially governed by the rules (laws) enacted by their place of domicile or even by a prenuptial agreement. Similarly, sometimes some of the rules that govern the relationship between author and editor are written, such as when there is a contract between them.

But the majority of the rules that govern relationships are unwritten. They come about as a result of the values we have absorbed each day that we live. We begin as a blank slate and with each day that passes we gain a little bit more of our moral compass. It is these unwritten rules that are the more important rules.

In the author-editor relationship, it is the unwritten rules that are most important. I do not disagree with the notion that a written agreement that says author shall pay editor $x on y date is not important; rather, I believe that the moral compulsion for the author to actually make the payment is the more important part of the relationship. As I used to tell clients when I practiced law, an honest handshake was much more valuable than a dishonest signature on a contract.

One unwritten rule (really, a group of rules) in the author-editor relationship addresses responsibilities. Who is responsible for what. Left unsaid, just like the rule is left unsaid, are the reasons why the author has certain responsibilities and the editor has others. But these unwritten rules, which are often the basis for controversy between the author and editor, are the rules that form the foundation of the relationship. In their absence, chaos reigns; in their presence, a foundation for dispute resolution is available.

What brings this to mind is a recent experience I had with an author. Let me be clear about several things. First, I did not have a direct relationship with the author; my direct client was a third-party who hired and paid me. Second, the parameters of the work I was to perform were negotiated between my client and the author. My client relayed the decisions made between the author and them to me.

Even though there was no direct relationship between the author and me, the unwritten rules of responsibility are still applicable.

The parameters of the job were to copyedit the author’s 400-page manuscript on specialized financing within 8 workdays. The edit was specified as “light,” a term that really has no meaning but which indicates that neither the author nor the client thought there were major problems with the manuscript. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy as descriptors of the level of editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?)

It is important to note that my company was hired to perform a copyedit, not a developmental edit (for a discussion of copyediting versus developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) and that there was a rush schedule. The normal process, and the one I expected to be followed, was copyediting, return to author to accept or reject copyediting, proofreading, publication.

After the book was printed, reviewers began panning it. Complaints about content, editing, and proofreading arose, with some complaints about comprehensibility. The author was incensed and decided that all the fault was with the third-party and the author demanded that my client, the third-party, insert author corrections into the manuscript and reprint the book. The author provided a PDF of the book with author corrections added. Needless to say, my client was not happy.

I was asked to review the author’s complaints and the editing and advise my client. My client provided me with the reviewer’s comments, the printer file, and the author-corrected files; I had my own copies of the edited manuscript that I had submitted to my client. (I make it a point to keep copies of what I submit to clients for years.) Let me say upfront that I have an excellent relationship with my client and have edited numerous books for them. This kerfuffle has no effect on our relationship; the question is how to respond to the author.

I spent some time going through the author’s complaints. Two of the author’s complaints regarding mistakes in spelling that we missed were justified. We probably shouldn’t have missed them. On the other hand, there were more than a dozen errors surrounding those missed spellings that we did catch, including one that resulted in an AQ (author query) regarding the word immediately adjacent to one of the missed spelling errors.

The reviewer specifically quoted a sentence that the reviewer found incomprehensible. The reviewer was certainly correct, but the evolution of that sentence is what intrigues me. It turns out that the copyedited version that we submitted differs from the version that was printed. The author rejected one of the editor’s suggested changes to the sentence and made a couple of additional changes that we knew nothing about.

Another complaint was that a theory name was misspelled (the name began Sho when it should have been Scho) and the editor didn’t catch the misspelling. I searched the entire book and discovered that the name appeared twice in the book, both times spelled the same way by the author (i.e., spelled incorrectly), with more than 200 pages separating the two appearances.

I think you are getting the idea.

I then looked at the author’s corrected files to see what corrections were being proposed as necessary because of editing errors. This was revelatory. Some of the corrections were rewrites that added additional information that could not be gleaned from any of the surrounding material. There was nothing particularly wrong with the sentences before the additions, but the additions did add clarification. The question is, “How would the editor know to add the clarifying material?”

Other corrections made incomprehensible what began as poor writing; that is, the corrections would do more harm than good. Importantly, a large number of them were simply wrong, such as adding commas where no comma belongs, deleting a word or two so that a sentence went from poorly written to incomprehensible, adding a misspelled word or the wrong word to an otherwise difficult sentence, and so on.

Bottom line is that most of the author’s proposed corrections would make things worse, not better.

One other thing I noted is that some of the errors the author complained of should have been caught by a proofreader. Whether the manuscript was proofread or not, I do not know, but I do know that if it was proofread, the proofreader was not a professional, or at least not one I would consider professional. More importantly, the author should have caught these errors during the author review.

The author also refuses to accept that there is a difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit, that separate fees are charged for each service, and that the author paid only for a copyedit.

The question is the unwritten relationship rules. Who has responsibility for what. It is not that there weren’t some editor errors; there were. However, all of the editor errors could have been and should have been caught by the proofreader and the author during their review. It is one reason why there are proofreading and author reviews.

More important, however, is that the responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility. This author insists that the responsibility lies solely with the editor. The author refuses to accept the idea that the author-editor relationship is a partnership and that the editor’s responsibilities are limited by the parameters imposed, ultimately, by the author; the author denies the commandment we discussed in The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners.

Ultimately, my client has to make a political decision: Should they appease the author or stand their ground? I think they have a solid basis for standing their ground. The book desperately needed a developmental edit, but no one wanted to spend the money to have it done. The author did not determine in advance what was needed and expected by way of a copyedit. For example, the author assumed that fact checking was automatically included, yet did not specify that as one of the tasks, did not pay for it, and did not allot sufficient time for it to be done (remember that the editing schedule was 8 workdays).

Realistic — and knowledgeable – division of responsibility is important in the author-editor relationship. As an unwritten rule, however, division of responsibility is so fluid that it is easy for one party to attempt to shift what should be their responsibility to the other party. Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project.

More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services.

June 26, 2013

On Language: Infer or State?

In a recent opinion column, the columnist wrote: The “annual rate fell 58 percent, from 5 [sexual assault] victimizations per 1,000 females age 12 or older to 2.1….” The editorial question is this: Should “age 12 or older” be edited to read “age 12 years or older”?

We, meaning readers as well as editors, “understand” that the writer means “age 12 years or older” — or at least we infer the years — but should we infer or should the author state clearly that years is the measure?

This is not as nit-picky as it appears. Sixty years ago, I do not think there was ever any mention of a sexual assault made on an infant; today, such crimes are reported regularly by the media. Consequently, how do we know that “age 12 or older” means years and not months or weeks? In fact, how do we know that a reader will infer years rather than days, weeks, or months? If I had just read a story about the assault of a 12-week-old baby, I might well decide that “age 12 or older” means “age 12 weeks or older.”

This is the fundamental problem with inferred or assumed matters. What the author intends to be inferred or assumed may not be what the reader infers or assumes, which can change the message entirely. (Not only was the article not clear about the measure, it similarly referred to incidents of “sexual assault” but never defined what that meant.)

What was an otherwise well-written op-ed piece, became a not-so-well-written-message-lost op-ed piece because both the author and the editor forgot the basic requirement of written communication: clarity. The acceptance of inferred/assumed terms in written material is too commonplace. Granted at times it has little consequence in a novel, because fiction often wants readers to draw their own conclusions – sometimes as in a good mystery to let the reader lead herself astray, sometimes because it doesn’t matter to the story — yet there are many times in fiction writing when the failure to be precise makes a story difficult to follow.

In contrast, however, allowing the reader to infer or assume in nonfiction is always problematic. This is one indication of poor authorship, and it is poor editing that allows it to stand unchallenged. Nonfiction is intended to be fact-based and to relate facts about the topic to the reader. When a reader has to supply some of those facts himself, the reader may choose erroneous facts — suddenly what was a demonstration of the existence of humankind’s impact on global warming becomes proof that humankind has no impact at all. To try to go back afterward and supply the missing information that had to be assumed/inferred by the reader subjects the author to charges of manipulation of the data after the fact and, more importantly, greatly weakens the author’s argument.

The difficulty that authors face is that they already know what they mean and so read “age 12 or older” correctly. The omission is not obvious; it does not stand out like a sword waiting to prick the bubble of the author’s argument.

The difficulty that editors face is that they are like authors in that they, too, see what they expect (see The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud). Yet, this is one hallmark of the professional editor (in contrast to the nonprofessional editor) — the ability to set aside expectations and to see what assumptions readers are being asked to make and the implications of making those assumptions. It is not that the editor can decide whether “age 12 or older” should be, for example, “age 12 years or older” or “age 12 months or older,” although that may be possible from the context of the surrounding material, but rather that the editor can see the problem of letting the reader draw her own conclusion and can note the problem to the author who should provide the fix.

Ultimately the question becomes this: Is there a time when, in nonfiction, the editor should allow the reader to infer or assume or does the professional editor always query instances that require the reader to supply missing facts? Here opinions vary among editors. I am of the opinion that there is never a time when the reader should be allowed to infer or assume facts in nonfiction. I am also of the opinion that the times when it is permissible in fiction are very limited.

I think it is important to not permit a reader to infer or assume facts because to do so means that the author hasn’t provided the complete message that she is trying to communicate to the reader. If there is no complete message, what is the purpose of the writing? Why has the author invested time and effort in writing if the author does not intend to say something? Alongside the intent to send a message to the reader is the need to do so precisely and concisely and in a manner that does not leave the reader wondering whether the author means a or b or even anything at all.

I have repeatedly said that the one cardinal rule of editing, the one rule that supersedes all other rules, including those of grammar and spelling, is that the author’s writing must communicate the author’s message to the reader without any confusion on the part of the reader as to what the message is. The failure to meet that rule is an authorial and an editorial failure. The sole purpose of writing is communication. (Yes, writing is also intended to, for example, entertain, but this and purposes other than communication are secondary to the primary purpose of communication.)

In the example of “age 12 or older,” it is the editor’s responsibility to, at minimum, query the author to supply the measure. Because an author’s response is likely to be, “You’ve got to be kidding me. It is obviously years,” the editor needs to explain, at least the first time such a query is made, why precision is important and illustrate how easy it would be for a reader to make the wrong inference.

Do you query in these instances or let the author’s wording stand?

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme Blog at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,135 other followers

%d bloggers like this: