A reader of An American Editor asked: “Can you comment on copy editing on paper vs. MS track changes? What do most clients expect and is there a difference in your opinion on the quality of the editing?” I had thought these were matters long resolved, but apparently not.
I began my freelance career in 1984, which was the dawn of the computer age as regards online editing. This was before Microsoft Windows and was in the days when WordPerfect ruled what world there was to rule in word processing. This was still the age of editing on paper.
By 1985, I was refusing to accept freelance editing work that was on paper. In fact, I advertised — including with graphs and charts — that I could save clients money by editing online rather than on paper and that I could improve consistency, reducing EAs (editor alterations), the correction of which the client would be charged by the compositor a handsome sum (each EA and AA [author alteration] bore a charge).
Within a year, I had convinced several clients that online editing was the way to go and I was one of the very few editors who had that capability or — more importantly — who was willing to edit online rather than on paper. And so my business boomed.
It was many years, however, before paper editing was truly abandoned by publishers. In fact, I recall taking an Editorial Freelancer’s Association class on editing with several of the people who worked for me (the hope was that I would learn something I didn’t already know about the editorial process) and being shocked when, in response to a question, the instructor said it wasn’t necessary to learn how to edit online because few authors provided digital files and few publishers were encouraging the move away from paper. The instructor claimed online editing was a fad that would pass. And so no time at all was spent on electronic editing.
Needless to say, the instructor and those who shared the instructor’s thinking were wrong and were rapidly being left behind as the technological revolution hit even staid publishing houses.
I tell you this history because there is a reason why authors and publishers migrated from a paper-based world to a digital world: technology really was everyone’s friend when it came to publishing.
I made the transition early because I quickly recognized that paper-based editing was a way to lose money, not make it. Recall the recent article Editing Tools: MultiFile F&R and Search, Count, Replace. In paper-based editing, how would you find, for example, every instance of the phrase “, and on days” in both the chapter you are working on and in the ten preceding chapters that you have already edited? Or how about ascertaining whether an acronym is repeated in a chapter, how many times it is repeated, and whether the spelled out version also exists, and how many times it exists?
With the computer it is easy, but on paper it is unlikely you will find every instance and to do so would require an excessive amount of time. If you have to do such searches frequently, in paper-based editing, you would rapidly exhaust your client’s budget and thus your prospects of earning a decent return for your efforts.
Of course, searching for items that need correcting is just one facet of editing that a computer can do better than paper-based editing. Let us not forget the “what-you-expect-is-what-you-see” phenomenon. I discussed this some time ago in The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud. It is not unusual for an editor to see the correctly spelled word because it is expected when what is actually written is misspelled. In paper-based editing, too often the error remained and was picked up by the proofreader, which resulted in an EA. Online editing doesn’t cure the problem, but does help minimize it with spell checking.
(Another phenomenon of the EA/AA allocations in paper-based editing was that if there were too many, the publisher reserved the right to charge the editor or the author for the excess, thereby, in the editor’s case, reducing the editor’s earnings. The usual penalty for the editor was, however, simply to not be hired again and not told why.)
No matter how you cut it, paper-based editing is time-consuming, subject to more errors not being caught, and likely a money-losing proposition for the editor unless the client has an unlimited budget and is willing to spend it. Because paper-based editing is slower, schedules have to be longer, but in my experience few clients consider that need.
As between paper-based editing and online editing, I do not think there is much of a contest. I wouldn’t accept a paper-based editing project nor would I recommend someone else accept one. Yet, there is a caveat to this: If the paper-based project is, for example, a five-page journal article, then some of the benefits of online editing are not so overwhelmingly beneficial. Most of the benefits of online editing as compared to paper-based editing are evident with long documents such as books and reports. This is not to imply that there aren’t benefits for short documents as well, just that the benefit-to-nonbenefit ratio comes closer to 1:1 the shorter the document to be edited. In my case, I would not accept a paper-based project regardless of length.
As for what most clients expect, I think today that most expect an editor to edit online, not on paper. Considering that few authors submit a paper manuscript as opposed to a digital manuscript, client expectations would seem to me to follow; that is, digital file equals online editing. Publishers today generally will not accept a paper manuscript, except in very exceptional cases.
Tracking an editor’s changes in Microsoft Word seems to be the standard today. Publishers give authors the option to accept or reject changes, and tracking makes it easier to know what changes have been made. I know that in my business we always edit with tracking on.
The final question was addressed to the quality of the editing. This is a very complex question. No matter whether a project is paper-based or online, in the first instance, the quality of the editing depends on the skill of the editor — the more skilled the editor, the better the quality of the editing.
I think the real question is less addressed to quality than to consistency and accuracy, which are part of quality but also separate. I think that consistency and accuracy are much greater in online editing than in paper-based editing because there are so many tools available to help increase consistency and accuracy, tools that are not available for paper-based editing.
What are your thoughts regarding paper-based versus online editing?