I am constantly perplexed at how people who want to be acclaimed as editors or writers can pass on material to readers that is less than clear. In the editors’ case, I hope it is because the author ignored queries or left queries unresolved — but I cannot be certain of that except in my own work.
I suspect that the problem is that the self-editing author, as well as the “professional” editor, is “editing” in isolation. What I mean is that the author is looking at each sentence in isolation rather than looking at each sentence as part of the global mix.
What brought this to mind was a sentence I recently read: “I prefer epics.”
By itself, the sentence is complete and clearly understandable by me, the reader. But placed in context, I wondered whether the author meant “epics” or “e-pics.” The problem was that the article was talking about both books and pictures, thus both or either could have been meant. This was a case of the editor and/or the author not looking beyond the sentence — any editing that was done was done in isolation.
Isolation editing is a clear sign of nonprofessional editing. Professional editors know that no sentence stands alone; every sentence must be considered in context and as part of the more global text, as well as being complete in and of itself. Increasingly, however, I read books that suffer from the narrow view. In its most blatant form, a character is 5-foot tall on page 10 and 6-foot tall on page 25; has brown eyes on page 11 and blue eyes on page 27; spells her name Marya on page 3 but Maria on page 50. We’ve all come across these types of gaffes, but they seem to be occurring with increasing frequency as traditional publishers and authors make price, rather than quality, the number one consideration.
There are many answers to the problem of changes in character descriptions, not the least of which is a comprehensive stylesheet. Yet that is another red flag as regards the quality of the editing: the skimpy, incomplete stylesheet.
I have been working on second and subsequent editions of books in the past few months. With two exceptions, none of the manuscripts were accompanied by a stylesheet that was created by the editor of the prior edition. One exception was the book that was a second edition of a book whose first edition I had edited. In this instance, the client didn’t send the stylesheet from the first edition, but I had a copy because I have stored online every stylesheet for every book my company has edited since at least 2006 and often earlier.
But it is the second exception that signaled a poor editing job was likely done by the original editor. In this instance, the client sent a copy of the stylesheet for the prior edition. However, the stylesheet was one page. I knew immediately that it was incomplete as the manuscript for the book ran more than 3,000 pages and was medical, with each chapter written by a different author or group of authors. It is not possible to do a comprehensive stylesheet of such a manuscript in one page.
As I edited the manuscript, my initial reaction was correct — the prior (existing) edition clearly had not been professionally edited (or proofread). There were numerous sentences that should have been flagged and/or corrected, sentences that were like “I prefer epics” and thus potentially misleading, in the manuscript. The more I progressed into the manuscript, the clearer it became that the editor edited in isolation: If a sentence was grammatically correct, it was accepted as is, even if a more global view would have raised queries or caused the editor to modify it.
I am sure that some of you are thinking, “but are we talking about developmental editing or copyediting?” I am talking about both. True, the primary function of the developmental editor, but not the copyeditor, is to think globally, but even the copyeditor has to think globally. We are not talking about reorganizing a manuscript, which is the realm of the developmental editor; we are talking about ensuring that the author’s message is clearly conveyed, without confusion or uncertainty, to the reader, which is the realm of both editors.
Professional copyeditors will not rewrite paragraphs, will not move paragraphs or sections of text (i.e., will not reorganize) except on rare occasion. Yet professional copyeditors do have a responsibility to at least query the author and ask whether “epics” or “e-pics” is meant, which cannot be done in the absence of a more global perspective. A sentence-centric perspective views sentences in isolation: the previous sentence could talk about women, while the current sentence talks about men. Whether that change in gender is correct depends on what was said in the prior sentence, what is said in the current sentence, and, perhaps, what will be said in the following sentence.
Isolated editing is a sign of the nonprofessional. Isolated editing is on the rise because of the rise of the nonprofessional editor, which is driven by making cost concerns and limitations, rather than quality, the primary decider of whether and whom to hire as an editor (see What is Editing Worth?). We have discussed this several times, and you know that I believe that quality should be the initial driver when hiring an editor, with cost taking a secondary role. I recognize, however, that because of publisher and author misperceptions about the value of editing, those roles are reversed and cost is the primary driver.
At one time I thought the way to combat this was to send the publisher or author a few corrected pages as examples, but I quickly learned that publishers ignore the corrected pages and authors too often reply with a “how dare you question my writing!” I also quickly learned that the problem rests mostly with professional editors who fail to educate publishers and authors on the value of editing. (The value of editing was discussed in greater depth in What is Editing Worth?)
Yet even those authors who do understand and appreciate the value of quality editing are often stymied by their budget. Authors are being asked to gamble money on a service that will have some, but not a compelling, impact on sales. Self-publishing is making it clear that even poorly edited books can sell a lot of copies and that well-edited books can sell few copies — there are just too many other variables in play, such as how the author markets the book, the quality of the story and the writing.
In the end, editors are between a rock and a hard place. Do they lower their fee to meet author budgets and to compete with nonprofessional editors? If they lower their fee, do they move closer to isolated editing? Or do they stick to their more reasonable fee schedule and the more global form of editing knowing that they will lose a significant number of clients by doing so? This is the dilemma of the professional editor. It is a dilemma that is not easily resolved because of market pressures and the ease of entry into the profession of editing.