An American Editor

March 4, 2013

What Do Editors Forget Most Often?

In a way, this is a trick question. After all, editors forget lots of things, just like everyone else. But what I have discovered through very unscientific surveying is that editors forget three very specific things with astonishing frequency.

Who’s Who in the Relationship

The first thing editors tend to forget is their role in the editor-client relationship. Now, I grant that even more egregious forgetting occurs on the client side, having suffered that many times myself, but editors too often set themselves up to “fail” by forgetting their role in the relationship. An editor’s role in the relationship is to either do what the client wants or not undertake the job.

It’s pretty simple but one of the hardest things for an editor to do. Why? Because we are knowledgable about our business, have many years of experience dealing with issues of language and grammar, and as between the client and the editor, we are the “experts” on matters of language. Alas, all that is meaningless

Were we in a corporate setting and sitting in the chair of the vice president for communication discussing with a secretary whether the phrase is simply myriad or is a myriad of or whether it even matters, we know that our decision in favor of one would be binding: the relationship between us and our secretary is such that the secretary has to take the lumping. And so it is in our relationship with our clients: we are in the secretary’s position, yet we too often think that is our client’s position.

Perhaps we know better than our client, but it is the client who is the decider and we need to either learn to live with it or drop the project and the client.

Is it More Than Opinion?

As much as the editor-client relationship power struggle reigns high on the list of things editors tend to forget, the matter of opinion is the sticking point with me.

There is nothing I dislike more than being told by either a colleague or a client than “Chicago says…” or “AMA says…” or “Garner says…” in a manner that conveys that nothing more needs to be said. Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t that I don’t value their opinions, because I do; rather, it is that I am told what they say as if what they say is gospel from the Mount, a universal truth that can neither be questioned nor ignored nor deviated from.

In a way, this ties in to the editor-client relationship. If a client tells me that I am to follow the dictates of Chicago 16, then I either agree to do so or I decline the project. I do not dispute the client’s right to dictate whether compound adjectives should be hyphenated or not.

So my gripe is not with the application of the rules as disclosed by these authorities; instead, my gripe is with clients and colleagues who believe that these are truly rules by which we must live and edit rather than opinions by which we should be guided.

I am of the firm conviction that treatises like Chicago are merely suggestions, guides, if you will, to a method that enhances clarity and consistency. It is nice to be able to point to the hyphenation table on page 375 of Chicago 16 and say to a client that what I did is correct according to Chicago. It relieves me of the burden of justifying my “decision.”

Yet, that is precisely the problem. Reading and understanding the chart is not difficult. It requires little to no discretion on my part. I become just a pencil-pusher, because all that matters is that whatever “decision” I make I can justify by Chicago chapter and verse. So why should a client pay me more for my expertise when there really is no “my” in the “expertise”; the expertise, if any, lies with the team of contributors to the chosen style guide.

Consider, for example, how much discretion an editor has when styling references. None, really. I understand this when applied to references because references are really a more mechanical task than most editorial tasks. But should this mechanical approach also apply to the explanatory text, the main body of the book?

I think an editor has an obligation to remind a client that the style guides are just that — guides, not the holy gospel of editing. A professional editor brings to a project much more than the ability to read and understand a table of hyphenation or the mechanics of styling a reference. A professional editor brings to the project — or should bring to the project — the ability to understand language and make editorial decisions that enhance the author’s communication with the reader. And, most importantly, the professional editor should bring the ability to justify those decisions without saying “Chicago says…” or “AMA says…” or “Garner says….” The professional editor should be able to say “I say…” and then build the case for the decision based on multiple sources and reasons, even if contrary to what a style guide declares. And if the editor’s decision conforms to that of the style guide, the editor should be able to justify that decision by saying “I followed Chicago‘s suggestion because….” In other words, the editor should be the decision maker and should be able to justify the decision made using the style guides as one leg of support but not the whole support.

Isn’t the knowledge to make and ability to justify editorial decisions that fall outside the purview of a guide’s opinion the hallmark of the professional editor? This is what editors too often forget. We need to remind ourselves and our clients that although we often agree with a style guide, we sometimes disagree, and when we disagree, we do so knowledgeably and because we have the client’s interest in communicating clearly with readers uppermost in our mind.

Editing is a Business

The third, and final (for this article), most often forgotten thing is that editing is a business, not a hobby. Long-time readers of An American Editor recognize this statement: I make it often, and do so because the mantra too often falls on deaf ears or goes in one ear and out the other.

Here the focus is on the editor. Editors too often forget that they are a business and that they must view everything from that perspective. It is wonderful that you want to undertake the local SPCA’s newsletter as a freebie to give it the professional polish that organization deserves. But that doesn’t mean abandoning business principles. No matter how much you love the SPCA, you need to demand that it approach its dealings with you on a business-to-business basis. Payment or lack of payment is not the determinant.

Your time is valuable. You must respect it and the demands made on it; you must also insist that others do the same. A client is a client; a project is a project. Decisions you make should be made exactly the same way whether the client is a charity you love or a corporation you are indifferent about. And charity clients should be subject to firing on the same terms as a noncharity client. Being a business means acting like a business.

Thus we have three things that are important to editors that editors too often forget: (a) the client is the ultimate editorial decider in the editor-client relationship; (b) that editorial “authorities” such as style guides are simply one opinion in a spectrum of opinions and that the knowledge to make and ability to justify editorial decisions that fall outside the purview of a guide’s opinion is the hallmark of the professional editor; and (c) that no matter what project we do, whether a freebie for a local charity or a highly paid corporate document, we do so as a business and all decisions relating to any project need to be made as business decisions.

6 Comments »

  1. Your article validated (for me) a decision I made a few days ago. A client’s only negative remark to my editing of a project concerned a word he wanted hyphenated. CMS (and the MW dictionary) do not hyphenate the word, so I thought at first that I should try to chage the client’s mind. Then, I asked myself how much that word meant in the grand scheme of the project and had to admit that it made little difference. So, I did as the client requested. I felt like perhaps I had “caved” to the client, but now I think I did the right thing in this instance.

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    Comment by Susan G. — March 4, 2013 @ 11:15 am | Reply

  2. Wow, Rich. That’s a top-notch article. I agree with everything you’ve said here. Editors do not exist to enforce the “rules”; editors exist to help writers communicate clearly to readers. The “rules” can help editors do that because they’re usually based on sound experience and reason. But when the “rules” get in the way of clear communication–or the client’s purposes–they should be abandoned. The ability to do this is what makes the difference between the novice and the professional.

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    Comment by EditorJack — March 4, 2013 @ 11:22 am | Reply

  3. Your cogently argued exposition is further evidence that you are the professional editor of which EditorJack writes above. Thanks for sharing your insights with your colleagues.

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    Comment by Earl — March 5, 2013 @ 7:18 am | Reply

  4. […] If you have an opinion, give it. But accept that, even if you’re “right”, you may be overruled as a consequence of other factors. Don’t continue to argue your case – all you’ll do is irritate the PM. As An American Editor recently reminded us, what the client says always goes. […]

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    Pingback by How to make your publishing client love you | Editing Mechanics | Wordstitch — April 2, 2013 @ 7:49 am | Reply

  5. […] In the case of my daughter’s book, this was a major failing of the editor. Not a single change that the editor made in the entire book was accompanied by an explanatory note, not even something as simple as “changed per Chicago.” Providing an explanation is fundamental to maintaining good author–editor relations. We have discussed this in detail before (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often?). […]

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    Pingback by The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit | An American Editor — August 20, 2014 @ 4:02 am | Reply

  6. […] of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, […]

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    Pingback by The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor | An American Editor — April 1, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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