An American Editor

January 26, 2010

Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2)

As noted in Part 1, one way to distinguish between a professional editor and your neighbor who poses as one, is by their style guide library. The professional knows that to do a good job one needs to have good resources and to be familiar with them. The Internet is not a substitute for a professional editor’s library.

In addition to style manuals, a professional editor’s library includes usage books, that is, books that discuss and provide guidance on correct usage of language. For example, my library includes Garner’s Modern American Usage; Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage; Mathews’ Dictionary of Americanisms; The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style; Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words; The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage; H.L. Mencken’s multivolume work The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States; and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary, among other language resources.

We haven’t even gotten to the dictionaries and grammar guides, or the books about language cognition and origins, all of which form a part of a professional editor’s library. The editor’s resource library is an important facet of what distinguishes the professional from the casual editor. Another facet is the professional editor’s skill with and knowledge of these resources.

Authors and publishers who care about the quality of their books care about the professionalism of their editors. They recognize that a professional editor is skilled and knowledgeable and brings something important to the book: the firming of the communication link between the author and the reader.

It is this communication link to which the usage guides are inextricably connected. Usage guides help an editor choose the right word. Is it Arkansan, Arkansawyer, or Arkie? How about aren’t I vs. amn’t I vs. an’t I? Given the choice, which of the following is the superior phrase: catch fire or catch on fire? Or cater-corner vs. catter-corner vs. kitty-corner?

A professional editor considers who is the intended audience for the book. If a book is being written for a local audience, then localisms may be excellent word choices, although not so fine for a national audience. But what about a term that has been broadly heard but little understood?

Recently, I read a news article that used the term mugwump. How many readers understood the term or its origins? A professional editor would look at the context and apply the correct definition. Before the 1880s, mugwump meant an important person, the high-muck-a-muck. In the 1880s, it became transformed to refer to Republicans who supported the Democrats’ presidential candidate. Today it means an independent. Is this important? If you are writing a book whose events take place in 1884, don’t you want your readers to understand what the term meant in 1884, not what it means today or meant in 1801?

So we return to the question of book quality. It is these skills and knowledge that professional editors bring to a manuscript. But publishers are increasingly less interested in those skills and knowledge because their accountants see no financial gain in emphasizing editorial quality. And authors too often believe that their manuscript as given to the publisher is “perfect”; they see no gain in paying for a professional editor, much less any editing at all.

A book’s quality is amalgam of multiple endeavors, not least of which is the author’s original creativity. Equally important, however, is editing by a professional who respects his or her profession enough to invest time and money to continuously acquire the skills, knowledge, and resources that distinguish the professional editor from all other claimants to the editorial mantle. Publishers and authors who fail to recognize that distinction — between professional and nonprofessional editing — embark on the road to mediocre quality at best.

This mediocrity brings with it a backlash from consumers who are unwilling to pay the wanted price, who do not buy future books written by the author, and who give negative reviews. This backlash is increasingly evident in the ebookers’ revolt over pricing and quality in ebooks.

Publishers need to recognize that they cannot continue to pay slave wages and expect professional editing — the two simply do not go hand-in-hand. Professional editing and quality do, however, go hand-in-hand.

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