An American Editor

November 17, 2010

The Future of Editing: Group Sourcing?

Recently, several authors have commented that they have turned to group sourcing for their editing needs. I have also read of a couple small publishers who are trying crowd-source editing in lieu of hiring professional editors. For the past week or so, I have been pondering whether this is the future of editing.

The immediate problem I see with this approach is that you have no idea of what skill level the participants bring to the editing. A professional editor might offer to edit a friend’s manuscript for free, but I can’t see someone at the professional level offering to provide free editing to all comers.

The second problem is that how does one determine which edits to keep and which to discard when the editing is group sourced? One person changes which to that and a second changes that to which. Which change does the author see? How does the author decide which to keep and which to reject?

The third problem that rushes to the forefront is that involving improvement of the manuscript’s structure and text, not just the basic grammar and spelling; that is, the developmental edit. Does the crowd scour the manuscript with the idea of offering suggestions for improvement or of outlining gaps? From what I have seen of group-sourced editing, this is a real weakness of the system, almost like the blind leading the blind.

A fourth problem is how well the author has prepared the materials for the crowd-source edit. For example, a professional editor will take the time to create a character list and description so that each time the editor comes across the character Betsy, the editor can make certain that Betsy is described the same. Preparing such stylesheets is time-consuming and not something that can be expected to be performed by someone working for free. So if not prepared by the crowd, it needs to be prepared by the author and distributed. From conversations I have had with authors who have tried crowd-sourced editing, they do not distribute stylesheets, often not having prepared detailed ones for their own use.

There are other problems with crowd sourcing of editorial function but there are also good things that can come of it IF crowd sourcing occurs after a traditional professional edit and proofread but before final publication. For example, it never hurts to have feedback from the target audience. Has the author successfully communicated with his or her target audience? Are there errors that still remain that can be fixed before release?

What attracts authors to crowd-source editing are the cost savings and the belief that nearly anyone can edit — the “I can read therefore I can edit” syndrome. Admittedly, it is hard for professional editors to combat the cost issue as there is a wide gap between whatever the professional would charge and the “free” of crowd sourcing. The strongest argument in favor of professionals is the debunking of the myth that anyone who can read can be an editor.

As those of us who are professional editors (in the sense that we earn our livelihood from freelance editing) know there is a lot more to editing than just reading a manuscript and fixing spelling and grammatical errors. We have developed techniques and skills over years of doing such work, and have a collection of resources that we consult when questions arise. Yet the idea that all we do is correct spelling and grammar is what most people believe when they think editing.

Group-source editing can have a place at the editorial table if properly used to supplement the work of a professional editor, but not if it is a substitute for professional editing. The challenge professional editors face in the coming years is educating authors and publishers that crowd-source editing is not a substitute for professional editing. Whether we are up to the challenge remains to be seen.


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