An American Editor

April 29, 2013

Business of Editing: Taking On Too Much

This past week, I was hired to help on a massive project that had been started by other editors who were now behind schedule. I was given a copy of the stylesheet the other editors had created in hopes that I could adopt it for the material I was asked to edit.

The project, as I said, is massive. The portion I received is nearly 5,000 manuscript pages and the client would like that material edited within 6 weeks in hopes of partially salvaging the schedule.

The first problem I faced was what to do about the stylesheet. As provided, it had numerous problems. First, there is no clear pattern to some of the decisions. For example, sometimes the suffix like is hyphenated and sometimes not. This is not a problem where the suffix is attached to, for example, an acronym (APA-like), but it is a problem when it is attached to a standard word that doesn’t end in the letter l (e.g., boatlike vs. tomb-like; why hyphenate the latter but not the former?).

The hyphenation issue didn’t stop with suffixes; it extended to prefixes as well. Sometimes a particular prefix is hyphenated and sometimes it isn’t.

To complicate matters, some of the decisions are contrary to the dictionary that governs the project and certainly contrary to the appropriate style manuals.

A second problem with the stylesheet is that it contains spelling errors. Not just one or two, but a significant number. These are errors that should have been flagged if the editors are using specialty spell-checking software. I do not mean to imply that an editor can rely on spell-checking software; rather, spell-checking software serves a purpose and an editor should use specialty spell-check software to flag possible errors at so they can be checked and a determination made whether they are in fact errors.

The first problem was readily solved by a discussion with the client. It was determined that the most important things for this project are chapters being internally consistent (which makes sense because some chapters are longer than many books) rather than consistent across chapters, and that the schedule be met if at all possible. Consequently, I need to have my team of editors do what they have always done and strive for chapter consistency first and cross-chapter consistency second (ignoring, of course, chapters we are not editing).

The second problem was also easily solved because my team uses appropriate software, including specialty software and EditTools, to help us with these projects. We are ignoring the stylesheet from the other editors for the most part.

However, this scenario does raise a few questions. First, am I ethically obligated to advise the client of the errors in the other editors’ stylesheet? If I do, I am questioning the competency of the editors previously hired and I am creating more work for the client who now has to either correct edited manuscript in-house or ask proofreaders to do it (or possibly just ignore them). I believe an editor’s obligation is to the editor’s client and thus in this instance believe that the correct course is to notify the client of the errors. I think, too, this holds true with my own stylesheets should I subsequently discover I have made an error. In the case of my stylesheets, I make it a practice to both update the stylesheet and to alert the client that I discovered an error (or more) made by me or another team editor, that I have corrected the stylesheet and the corrected version is now available for download, and I list the errors made and their corrections.

The second question that is raised is whether an editor has an ethical obligation to advise a client when a project is too large for the editor early enough in the project’s schedule for the client to attempt to salvage its schedule? A companion question is whether an editor has an ethical obligation to tell a client when the editor lacks the skill to properly edit the subject matter at hand of that lack of skill so that the client can hire an editor with the necessary skill?

Again, I think it is an editor’s obligation to let a client know when a project is too big for the editor to edit in a timely fashion. I also think an editor should decline projects for which the editor does not have the requisite skillset.

There is yet another issue involved in projects such as this one: having and using the correct tools to do the proper editing job. It is here that I think many editors fail.

The project in question is a medical tome, as I suspect you have guessed. Should not an editor have current medical spell-checking software and not rely on either one that is years out of date or on the general spell-checking software that comes with Microsoft Word? Should not an editor have current drug manuals or software? How about specialty word software (or books) and dictionaries? More importantly, shouldn’t the editor both have these resources at her fingertips and actually use them?

I also think that editors should have and use all of the tools that are available (and appropriate) to make the editor’s work more accurate and more consistent. Yet, I have been told by some editors that, for example, they do not use spell-checking software because they have a “sharp eye for misspellings and we all know that that spell-checking software is not always accurate.” I have also heard laments about how the software costs money. (I view such costs as investments in my business and profession, and as part of the requirements to do business.)

When an editor overreaches, both the editor and the client suffer. The editor becomes stressed and jeopardizes his relationship with the client, who is also stressed. In the end, the editor may well lose both the project and the client. I recognize that it is difficult to give up projects that will bring in money, especially a lot of money, but there are times when saying “No” or “I can’t” is the better strategy.

In the case at hand, the original editors and the project were a mismatch. Whether the mismatch was one of size or skill or both, I do not know. I wonder whether the client’s confidence in the original editors is shaken. I’d like to think that a professional editor would not have been swept up in this scene, that a professional editor would place the client’s interests before her own interests.

What would you do in a situation like this? What do you think an editor’s ethical obligations are?

April 24, 2013

On Words: Thinking About About

I have been editing book and journal manuscripts for nearly 30 years and over the course of those years, I have noticed that certain word uses were and remain popular among authors. For example, authors usually write “over 30 years of age” rather than “older than 30 years of age.”

But the use (misuse) of about bothers me more than the use (misuse) of any other word.

It isn’t so bad in fiction. Fiction doesn’t require the precision that nonfiction requires. We expect as readers flights of fancy from fiction writers, but with nonfiction, we expect a precise, clearly communicated, and accurate message. Which is why about in nonfiction bothers me.

Consider this example: “About 50 years ago, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” First, why approximate when it is just as easy to write, “John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963”? If a reader reads the original sentence in 2017, 50 years ago would place the assassination in 1967, clearly wrong.

Second, what does about really mean? Nearly? Around? Approximately? On the verge of? Regardless of how you define about, it lacks precision because it leaves a reader to define what is meant, which is just the opposite of what should be true of writing with the intent to communicate. If the sentence is “About the sides of the square,” then the meaning of about is precise if around all sides is meant. But what if that is not what is meant? If the sentence is, “I am about to go for a walk,” again, about is precise if what is meant is that I am on the verge of going for a walk.

Clearly, context can often provide an accurate meaning, but generally there is no accurate, laser-like precise meaning that can be supplied by a reader when about is associated with a number. Which also raises the question: If you know enough to write “about 50 years ago” or “about 100 miles,” why do you not know enough to write “51 years ago” or “103 miles”?

The imprecision of about cannot be sloughed off as acceptable colloquial English because when precision should be provided, there is no acceptable alternative to being precise. There are lots of reasons for being precise. Few writings expire after 30 days; an author who has taken the time and made the effort to write a book expects it to be read for years to come. Consequently, the author should expect that what about means today it will not mean next year, which means that today’s semicorrect information will be next year’s incorrect information.

And when it comes to measures, there is no excuse for not being precise, except, perhaps, in the case of pi, when 3.14 is acceptable imprecision. If we say a study had “about 314 participants,” why can’t we say the study had “314 participants” or whatever number of participants actually participated? Would we want our doctor to tell us to “take about 2 tablets” or would we want to know precisely how many tablets of the medicine we should take?

I find it interesting that the leading word maven, Bryan Garner, ignores the imprecision of about. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994) has a different view than Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009). MW notes that about can be redundant when used with numbers (e.g., the estimate is about $150). More importantly, MW notes that “the use of about with round numbers is extremely common, and is for the obvious purpose of indicating that the number is not exact.” (p. 4) Which is precisely the problem.

To write in a novel, “he walked about 50 feet before coming to a halt,” cannot cause harm; to write in a how-to book, “cut each board about 25 inches,” could cause a significant problem when it is important that each board be 24.5 inches. On the other hand, if the length that the character walked is an important clue in a mystery, then about could be the difference between solving and not solving the mystery.

Because I generally consider the use of about as “lazy” writing, I usually query an author’s use of about. I ask if a precise number is available and suggest that if one is available, that it be used in place of the approximation that about implies. I point out to the author how meaning can change with the passage of time (in the instance when about is paired with time measures), and that it should be the author’s expectation that his book will be referenced years from now. If about is paired with a quantity measure, such as number of pills to take or the length of an object, I try to give an example of how a reader could draw the wrong conclusion or, using the author’s words, cause some harm.

In the end, the question comes down to why the author chose imprecision over precision. There are times when imprecision is a necessary element of the story being told, but I think an author has to be able to justify that imprecision. The balance should always be tilting toward precision of communication until there is justification for tilting that balance toward imprecision.

The matter, as always, boils down to communication of message. If the role of the editor is to help the author communicate a clear and precise message to the reader, a message that cannot be misunderstood by the reader, then the editor is obligated to query the use of about when the context clearly indicates that about is being used to indicate an approximation.

I know that it may appear as if this is just an editor being nit-picky, but the choice of words has implications. It is the editor’s job to help the author understand what the implications are of the word choices made and provide an opportunity for the author to make alternative choices that may better express the message that the author wants the reader to receive. It is diplomacy on the local level. I want my authors to avoid the mishaps that seem to befall politicians regularly.

As an editor, do you query about when used as an approximation? Is this an instance of nit-picking? As an author, do you think about the message being sent when you write about? Do you want your editor to ask about your word choices?

April 22, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor

My first commandment for authors is this: Thou shall use a professional editor! I know I’ve said this before — many times — and I know that some of you will respond that you are capable of doing your own editing, or that crowd editing works just fine, or that your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law, who taught fourth graders English, does a fantastic job. Yet, haven’t you bought a book or two whose author you wanted to strangle because it was pretty obvious that a professional editor wasn’t used (or the editor’s advice wasn’t followed)?

We’ve hashed through some of the arguments in previous posts; see, for example, The Making of a Professional Editor, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2), and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud, but this is a topic that never dies.

Consider this statement: “Lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in group that usually backs them” (New York Times, April 10, 2013, page A12). What is wrong with this statement? (It was an article headline, which accounts for its brusqueness.) Does your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law know? I would guess that if it passed muster at the New York Times, it would pass her muster and that of the crowd editors, too.

I read this statement several times because I couldn’t quite figure out what was meant. Reading the article clarified the headline, but suppose I hadn’t read the article? Or suppose this was a sentence in your book, albeit written with the missing prepositions as: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs them.” The question that needs to be asked is: “Does ‘them’ mean ‘spending cuts’ or ‘lobbyists’?” Should the sentence be: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs spending cuts” or “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs the lobbyists”?

Two distinct meanings are possible, yet most readers would not catch that possibility. And this is the problem with having your book “edited” by someone other than a professional editor. Experienced, professional editors are trained to catch these types of errors; they have spent years mastering the art of not reading what they expect but of reading what is actually before them.

As the example illustrates, not catching this error can lead to misunderstanding. It makes a difference whether “them” means “spending cuts” or “lobbyists.” Readers will generally give more credence to the former than to the latter. After all, it has become clear in recent years, particularly with the intransigence of the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association over the issue of background checks, that lobbyists are not among the favored species.

There is a second aspect to this commandment, which is the professional editor’s fee. Think about how you work. Would you not agree that the less you are paid (or anticipate being paid) the less diligent you are in your work. What I mean is this: If you are currently paid $20 an hour and are satisfied with that sum for your current job, you perform your work diligently. If your employer comes to you and says that although your job will remain the same, your pay henceforth will be $10 an hour, are you likely to be as diligent? Or will you consider cutting corners? Most people would be less diligent and would cut corners.

Editors — professional and amateur alike — are no different. If you have a 50,000 word manuscript (approximately 200 manuscript pages), do you honestly think that the editor who is being paid $300 will be as thorough and professional as the editor who is being paid $1500? How fast will the editor need to go through your manuscript in order to earn a living wage? Do you expect that an editor who has to work faster will be as accurate as the editor who can take more time?

Most editors do multiple passes; this is especially true when the project is fiction and it is important to first grasp the whole story and get a feel for the characters. How many passes do you think that editor who is paid $300 will do? And if the editor is doing the project at their own expense (i.e., as part of a crowd edit or as a friend for free), how thorough an edit and how many passes is it reasonable to expect? How many passes would you do if it meant giving up your pleasure time?

Again, we all know people who would sacrifice their first-born to do a good job because they volunteered to do so, but that is the gamble you take. And the gamble can be devastating if it is lost. How many bad reviews can your book withstand? How many two- and three-star reviews that complain about the grammar would it take to sink your ability to sell your book, even at $2.99?

Professional editors are word doctors for authors. Just as you (or I) would not undertake to self-treat for cancer, we should not self-treat our books, which are a significant part of our life. Just as we would go to the doctor about our cancer, so we should go to the professional editor about our manuscript.

One reason we go to the doctor to have our cancer treated is because the doctor has experience dealing with cancer. We rely on the doctor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us how serious a problem we have and for suggestions about courses of treatment. We know doctors are not perfect, but we expect them to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught health sciences at the high school.

All we need do is substitute professional editor for doctor and the argument is made: One reason we go to the professional editor to have our manuscript edited is because the professional editor has experience dealing with manuscripts. We rely on the professional editor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us about any manuscript problems and for suggestions about how to correct them. We know professional editors are not perfect, but we expect the professional editor to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught English to fourth graders (or even at the local college).

When an author hires a professional editor, the author is hiring experience with manuscripts and the knowledge that the editor has accumulated about how to structure and tell a story (all manuscripts tell a story) so that the author’s message is communicated and received. You spent months, if not years, of your life putting together a story that you want more than a handful of friends to read and understand. Should you not, then, hire a professional editor and pay an appropriate fee for that editor’s services to ensure that your manuscript is ready and is the best it can be?

Thus the first commandment for authors: Thou shall use a professional editor!

April 20, 2013

A Video Interlude: The Last Bookshop

Filed under: A Video Interlude — Rich Adin @ 5:45 am
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One of the blogs that I read every day is Nate Hoffelder’s The Digital Reader. Today’s visit to his blog led me to the below video: The Last Bookshop. (Thanks, Nate.)

Although a long video at 20+ minutes, it is well worth watching, especially for us editors and authors. It shows a dystopian future, and, unfortunately, in a quick — very fleeting —  mention, it makes Amazon the villain, which is unfair to Amazon. The villain could have as easily been Google or any number of megacorporations involved in the world of books. Regardless, the video should be watched because although unlikely, this is a possible future.

April 17, 2013

On Language: Is It a Study or a Story?

I was reading a history book, Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech by Victoria Saker Woeste (ISBN 9780804772341), a few months ago (I highly recommend the book as an insight into Henry Ford, America in the 1920s, and how much our legal landscape has changed) when I wondered whether the book was a study, or a story, or perhaps both.

Readers rarely consciously distinguish between a study and a story, and those of us who edit science-oriented material often read of studies and, I suspect, do not give much thought as to what calling something a study really means. I suppose the place to begin is with definitions.

A study answers a carefully framed and defined, specific question; for example, How did Lincoln’s delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation at Gettysburg affect the Union soldier’s prosecution of the Civil War? Everything about the study is focused on answering the question. Consequently, events preceding the delivery of the Proclamation, such as the firing on Fort Sumter that was the starting action of the Civil War, are interesting facts, but of little consequence to answering the question.

In contrast, a story is like a river — it provides a narrative flow that takes us from point A to point B, or even to points B, C, and D. It may include information that is relevant to a study, but it is not intended to answer a single, specific question. Instead, the story gives us an overview and perhaps answers cursorily a multitude of questions. For example, a book titled The History of the American Civil War, 1861-1865 should be a story, a survey, but not a study. It has no single focus question it intends to answer; instead, it intends to give us a panoramic view of an era. Thus, a story is a river of knowledge that is constantly on the move.

I’m sure some of you are scratching your heads and wondering why this distinction is important. The answer really lies in how we validate an author’s work. If we expect or are given a study to read, knowing what a study is supposed to do enables us to determine whether the author has accomplished the task. As an editor, if a manuscript begins, “This book answers the question of how life began,” then I expect a study focused on answering that question, and not a story that takes me through history and repeats to me what philosophers from Socrates to Bertrand Russell have said about the origins of life.

The “conflict” between study and story forms a frame for the content. As an author, it acts to focus my thinking — do I paint with narrow, well-defined strokes or broadly — and as an editor it helps me determine whether the author has fulfilled her quest or needs assistance focusing or repurposing the text.

More importantly, the conflict acts as a guide for the reader’s expectations. As a reader, if I pick up a biography that by its title or by the goals divulged in the front matter tells me that its focus is to answer the question of whether Ronald Reagan knew about the Iran-Contra Affair, then I can reasonably expect to find a study of Regan’s knowledge and not a broad survey (story) of the Reagan presidency. If the author fails to deliver the study and, instead, delivers the survey (story), it makes suspect the value of the book and the quality of the research. I would expect an author to understand her goals and strive to achieve them.

Consciously distinguishing between study and story also helps me as editor when I read, “The results of the XYZ Study demonstrated that….” Based on the surrounding content, knowing that a study is intended to answer a specific, narrow, and carefully defined question, I may query the author as to what was the study question. This distinction is not often made in the political arena, and too often voters are simply told that some government study drew certain conclusions, but are never told what the question was and thus cannot know if what are being put forward as the study’s conclusions drawn are, in fact, the study’s conclusions.

A story is painted in broad strokes. A story surveys acres of ground; it does not focus on any two square inches. The story also has a function, as we all know, but we do not expect it to answer well-defined questions. We expect the panoramic view: “Tell me what was happening in American culture in the 1960s.”

The professional editor approaches every manuscript, consciously or unconsciously, thinking about whether the author achieves the author’s stated objective in a clear, concise manner. By asking whether the author is providing a study or a story, the editor is able to focus with greater precision on the resolution of that thought. This is important to authors because it is a defining feature of developmental editing. Copyediting doesn’t worry very much about whether the author is providing a study or a story because the overall structure and focus are not of prime importance to the copyediting process. But the converse is true for the developmental editor who is worried about overall structure and whether the author has stated her objective and attains it.

Although I have been directing the conversation toward nonfiction writing, the truth is that the difference between a study and a story is also important in fiction. For example, those who have read George Simenon’s books will recognize that many of his books are studies of the psychology of a principal character. True, they are also stories in that as fiction they tell us more than is needed were they only studies, but the point is that they are studies, and if I were to edit them today, knowing that they were studies would greatly influence how I would edit.

Similarly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are often studies. Holmes invariably frames and addresses the how, what, why, and who questions with precision.

Having said that fiction, too, benefits from the distinction between story and study, it is important to note that the terms do have less rigid meanings and parameters when applied to fiction than to nonfiction. But the process remains the same and is equally valuable from an editor’s, an author’s, and a reader’s perspective, but especially from the author’s perspective. Knowing that you intend to write a study helps focus the fictional events you create and the characters’ reactions to those events. (It is probably accurate to say that, for example, mysteries tend to be more study and less story and romance novels tend to be more story and less study.)

Next time you pick up a book to read, try to ascertain before you start the main text whether the book, if nonfiction, is a study or a story, and if fiction, whether it tends more toward story than study, and see if that determination affects how you read and understand the book.

Finally, the idea that a book can be a blend of both story and study is particularly apt for fiction. Much fiction is a blend but an unequal blend. Even so, the fiction book can be successful in achieving the author’s goals. In the case of nonfiction, however, I think the distinction is significantly more important and that a book that blends is unlikely to be successful (in terms of meeting the author’s goals and the reader’s expectations); I think such a book will leave the reader unsatisfied.

What do you think?

April 15, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable

Along with my recurring column called “The Business of Editing,” I’ve decided to start another series titled “The Commandments,” in which I, and perhaps some guests, will discuss commandments I (we) believe editors and authors should follow.

The series begins with this commandment for editors and writers, although I will couch most of it in terms of editing: Thou shall be profitable! It is primarily aimed, of course, at editors who have their own businesses, but is worth keeping in mind even for in-house staffers.

What good is it to be in business and not be profitable? Being profitable is more than just having a steady income. It means earning more than it costs you to run your business, and it means earning at least what you would earn if you were working for someone else — that is, more than the minimum wage!

The question of profitability is difficult, but the reality is that, if you cannot earn enough to cover business and living costs, including such costs as health insurance and retirement, then you are not profitable — and being profitable is probably the one inviolable commandment for any business.

I understand that there are other rewards of being self-employed, not the least of which is not being employed by someone else and being able to set your own schedule. But these are really illusory benefits if you do not earn enough to afford what are considered today the basics of life. If you are not profitable, the answer is not to give up, but to adjust your approach to the business of editing.

I remember my very first months as a freelance editor. In those days, I had no clients on day one. My first year as a freelance editor was a lean year — I didn’t earn enough to pay my mortgage, let alone feed my family. My turnaround year was my second year, when I doubled the gross of my first year, which was followed by my third year, when I doubled the gross of my second year.

In that first year, I had to make a decision: Pay the mortgage or use the money to promote my business. I went back and forth about what to do. In the end, I decided to skip the mortgage payment and use the money to promote my business. My thinking went along these lines: If I paid the mortgage, I put off for one month the loss of home for just one month; if I promoted my business, I gave myself an opportunity to put off the loss of home permanently, because the cure for my problem was more (profitable) work. As it turned out, I made the right choice.

This is the kind of choice that every business faces: Do you pay a current bill and hope enough business comes in to pay future bills, or do you invest in something that might encourage more business to come your way (or make the business you do have more profitable)? It needs to be noted that part of the problem for editors is that editing is a hands-on profession. It requires, like all crafts, that person-time be spent on the material. After all, if someone doesn’t actually read the manuscript, it will never be edited.

Spending person-time, however, also acts as a limiter on precisely how much work an editor can handle. Unlike manufacturing widgets, it isn’t possible to simultaneously read two pages from two different manuscripts and edit both — at least not do so and provide a professional edit. Consequently, editors need to find ways to speed up the work they do, do the work more efficiently and productively, and thus make room in the schedule for more manuscripts to edit.

In other words, profitability is the result of a combination of factors: a constant flow of manuscripts, to be edited at a price that will give the editor the potential to be profitable, and which will be edited efficiently and speedily.

Few editors I know have taken the time to analyze exactly what is the point of profitability for their business. One telltale sign is that the editor charges by the hour rather than by the page or the project or the word. Consider this: A person who works for a large company may earn $20 an hour, but, if you analyze the company’s books, you will discover that the employee costs the company another $15 to $20 an hour — or more — which means the company has to earn the equivalent of $35 to $40 an hour just to break even on the employee.

Self-employed editors do not think in those terms. They think that they have earned $25 an hour for 30 hours of work this week and so they have made $750 this week. But they haven’t really made $750. Approximately one-third has to be set aside for federal, state, and local taxes. That reduces the amount earned to $500. Because we all rely on the Internet these days to send and receive manuscript files and to find the resources we need, for example, to verify that a word is correctly spelled or used, there is the cost of the Internet connection. I grant that cost can range all over the place, but for minimal service, I suspect it runs at least $25 a month, so for this week, let’s allocate $6.25. Similarly with telephone service. Most editors I know have a cell phone. Again, plans and costs can vary widely, but I suspect that, on average, the cost runs $80 a month. For this example, let’s allocate $20.

I don’t want to go into each and every detail; you get the idea. But even with just these three allocations, that $750 has become $473.75 — and we know that there are more costs of doing business that need to come out of that sum, such as an allocation for rent/mortgage, for electric/gas, and for insurance, not even counting health insurance.

And there is one other problem with looking at this week’s earnings and projecting: It is not safe to assume that, if you earned a gross of $750 this week, you will earn at least that same gross each and every week. Experience indicates that some weeks will match, some will be less, and some will be more (which is why we pay an estimated tax).

Instead, editors need to determine what their hourly costs are and what their profit above that cost should be. That, then, becomes the amount you need to earn as an effective hourly rate (Remember our discussion of effective hourly rates? See Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand and In Editing, It’s the Little Things That Count), which is a truer indicator of your profitability than the hourly rate you charge.

If you are not going to run a profitable business, why run a business? If your editing is not profitable and you do not take the steps to make it profitable, should you not rethink your career plan? I know, as I said before, that there are other reasons for being self-employed and for being an editor. And these are important. For example, there is no sense being an editor if you hate reading and dealing with author foibles. On the other hand, as much as you may love what you are doing, do you not also need to eat?

Consequently, this commandment: Thou shall be profitable! And if you are not, you will think about how to change your business plan so that you do become profitable.

April 10, 2013

On Language: Whether or Whether or Not

I was reading a political opinion piece by Kathleen Parker (“Time is Right for Hillary Clinton to Run for President”, March 31, 2013) in which she wrote: “Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind.” This sentence got me thinking: Does whether require or not?

The roots of whether are as a substitute for which of two, which is likely what led to the construction whether or not. The ultimate question is can the bare whether stand on its own.

It is pretty clear that current authorities generally agree that or not is superfluous because it is implied but that there are instances when or not is required. In other words, as is true of so much else with English, the answer to the question, “Does whether require or not?”, is maybe, perhaps, depends, sometimes, or any other similar response that makes it clear there is no firm, immutable answer.

Consider this example from the “After Deadline” column Whether (or Not) by Philip B. Corbett (March 1, 2010, New York Times):

Whether [or not] they are professional writers, many people are confused about whether [or not] they should use the phrase “or not” after “whether.”

As the example suggests the answer differs within the same sentence. In the first instance, the or not is required, whereas it is not required in the second instance. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009, pp. 857-858) makes the same “usually” argument.

The answer to when or not is necessary seems to depend on the meaning of whether. Garner asserts it is necessary when whether or not means regardless of whether, as in “the wedding will occur whether or not the best man is present.” But with the sentence, “Whether to allow Eastwood to speak makes little difference,” the or not is sufficiently implied that it need not be stated. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., p. 299) adheres to Garner’s view.

The rationale that or not is implied seems to me to beg the unasked question: Is it wrong to include or not whenever whether is used? The rationale for omitting or not is economy of phrase; implication is sufficient. But which is more certain? The implied or the stated? And is economy of phrase the ultimate goal?

Great craftsmanship is often accomplished by an economy of effort. We often say that minimal editing is better than overediting, but that begs the question of just how much editing is really required. The real answer is not economy of effort but making the effort required to produce the masterpiece.

Similarly, because whether may be able to live without or not does not mean that it should or that it is wrong to let the couple live happily together. This is a conundrum that an editor faces: When is implication sufficient? When should explicitness dominate? Should an author leave it to a reader to imply (i.e., supply the reader’s conclusion) or should the author spell it out (i.e., supply the author’s conclusion)?

In the end, in the case of whether and or not, the coupling of the words may be more dependent on whether (or not) the reader could go astray in the absence of or not. Is there really an alternative that the reader can draw that leads away from the ultimate conclusion that the author wants drawn?

In Kathleen Parker’s sentence, “Whether to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind,” I do not see where the addition of or not would avert a reader going astray. What alternative path could a reader go down? In this instance, or not is superfluous, yet had the sentence been written “Whether or not to run again for the highest office is surely on Clinton’s mind,” I would not have pounced and edited out the or not. The addition is superfluous and harmless. It could even be argued that it provides clarity.

Consider this sentence: “Whether I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” The careful reader will read the sentence as “Whether or not I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” The commentators who follow Garner’s arguments would say that the or not is required here because the sentence is really a regardless construct; that is, “Regardless of whether I agree with the political agenda, some decisions need to be made.” Yet if the conclusion to be drawn does not alter regardless of the explicit presence of or not, why doesn’t the economy of phrase argument continue to hold sway?

In the end, I find that I am reluctant to change an author’s choice to use whether or not even if omitting the or not would be proper under the Garner-Chicago view. It is true that verbosity is not usually a virtue, but the difference between more verbose and less verbose in the case of whether versus whether or not is an insignificant difference. I am more inclined toward the view of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “It [whether or not] is, in short, perfectly good, idiomatic English” (1994, p. 956). If whether or not is “perfectly good, idiomatic English” and the author has chosen to use it, why should I change it?

What do you think?

April 8, 2013

The Business of Editing: Expectations

The clash between client and editor often is caused by unmet expectations — the client’s expectations as to what services the editor will provide within what time frame and for what price.

In the negotiations between client and editor, the client wants more for less and the editor wants more for less: The client wants more work for less money, the editor wants more money for less work. This is just like every other business negotiation, except for one thing: client and editor expectations are rarely expressed; the parties act as if the other side already knows what the other expects.

The clash arises because clients expect an editor to do whatever it takes to make the client’s manuscript near-perfect regardless of the balance between the expectation and the rate of pay/time given to do the work, and editors feel pressure to do whatever is need to make a manuscript near-perfect, even if the pay, the time given to do the work, or both are inadequate. Both parties are wrong.

The most difficult thing to impress upon colleagues, something I have repeated over the years, is that compensation (which includes the time allotted to do the work) and work must correlate. If you are being paid a copyedit wage, then you copyedit, not developmental edit. If the manuscript needs a developmental edit, alert the client, explain why it is needed, and explain for what should be at least the second time why you are not doing it. And, clearly, if you are expected to do a developmental edit within a copyedit timeframe, explain — multiple times, if necessary — why you cannot.

Recently, an editor lamented that a client had an unrealistic expectation as regards how many pages an hour the editor should churn on a particular project. (I use churn to mean move through, to edit. Although technically this is not a correct use of the word, I find that the number of pages to edit in an hour has much in common with the idea of the frequent buying and selling of securities, which is a meaning of churn. Churn out, the transitive verb form, is perhaps closer in meaning to my use as editorial churn, in that it refers to producing mechanically or copiously, to which I would add nearly robotically.) The manuscript needed a developmental edit and the client expected not only the developmental edit but a churn rate of 10 to 12 pages an hour. The editor, however, was not being paid for such an edit.

The editor’s obligation is to provide the best editing the editor can within the parameters set by the client. If the client’s parameters include churn of 10 to 12 pages an hour, then the editor should strive to meet that churn goal and do the best editing job that the editor can at that rate on that manuscript. If the editing level decreases because of the churn and the complexity of the manuscript, the editor also has an obligation to alert the client to the editing limitations that result because of the churn rate required. It is then the client’s obligation to determine what balance is desirable.

But the immutable law, as far as I am concerned, is this: An editor does not owe a client a near-perfect edit of a manuscript; the editor owes the client the best edit that balances against the fiscal and time constraints imposed by the client — nothing more, nothing less. It is unreasonable to give a Mercedes performance when you are given a Yugo to drive. It is unreasonable to provide a Yugo when you want a Mercedes performance. Give a Yugo, receive a Yugo; give a Mercedes receive a Mercedes.

I make it very clear to clients the difference between a copyedit and a developmental edit (I usually refer them to my article, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) I also make it clear that the faster the churn rate, the less careful the editing will be. Some clients not only expect a high churn rate but a multipass edit. Perhaps if the churn expectation is 5 pages an hour, it is reasonable to expect at least a two-pass edit, which makes the effective churn rate 10 pages an hour, but that is certainly not true when the churn expectation is 10 pages an hour, which would make the effective rate 20 pages an hour with a second pass.

However, there are two problems that must be addressed. Both stem from how the editor is paid. If an editor is on an hourly rate, the client often sets a budget based on the expected churn rate (i.e., manuscript size ÷ churn rate = number of hours; number of hours × hourly rate = budget). However, an editor may not be aware of the budget and thus expect that every hour spent editing will be compensated. If there is an upper limit, a budget amount, the editor needs to determine the maximum number of hours for which the client will pay and scale the editorial services accordingly. If the client is not forthcoming about the compensation limitations, then the editor needs to make it clear upfront that the editor expects to be paid for the time spent regardless of whether or not it exceeds the client’s budget (subject, of course, to the ethical constraints discussed in The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing).

If the editor is paid on a per-page or project basis, the total fee does not change regardless of the number of hours. Consequently, if the editor spends 20 hours or 100 hours editing, the fee remains the same. As in the hourly situation, the editor needs to balance the fee the editor will receive against the client’s editorial expectations — before beginning editing or by the time the first pages are edited. Exactly what services the editor will provide for the fee to be earned needs to be spelled out so that there is no confusion on the part of either party. However, should the editor not take this step and discuss any editing limitations, then, in the circumstance of the per-page or project basis for compensation, the client is entitled to Mercedes performance even if the editor is paid a Yugo fee — as long as the client has made the Mercedes expectation clear before the compensation was agreed to.

Sometimes there can be no meeting of the minds: the client is unwilling to lower expectations or raise the fee or do both. In this instance, the editor should bail from the project, assuming that this discussion is taking place at the beginning of the project and not in the middle. If in the middle of the project, the editor should offer the client the option to either pay for work done and find another editor to complete the project or to accept a defined level of editing that meets the client’s churn expectations, even if it doesn’t meet the client’s editorial expectations, and which balances against the fee being paid.

The more clarity the editor brings to the project, by which I mean the more the editor explains the balance, the more likely it is that the editor and the client will work together amicably. It is important to remember that it is the editor who is initially dissatisfied with the lack of balance between expectations and pay; thus, it is the editor’s obligation to educate the client as to the need for the balance and as to what will meet that need. The client’s obligation is to listen, understand, and correct the misbalance in a way that is satisfactory to both the client and the editor.

But under no circumstance should the editor voluntarily (especially not while grumbling about it) accept the misbalance between expectation and compensation. Ultimately, the editor must say, “This is what I will do for this compensation — nothing more, nothing less — and I will do it expertly and professionally, but I will not provide [fill-in the blank, e.g., developmental edit] for the price of [e.g., a copyedit].” Editors must educate their clients about editing, and not assume that clients are already educated about it.

Most importantly, editors must realize that this is a business relationship and must be treated as one. I understand the need of editors to do the near-perfect edit on every job. Unfortunately, our creditors are unwilling to accept a near-perfect edit as payment. An editor who feels she cannot compromise on the edit to be delivered, such as doing a one-pass edit when she would normally do a two-pass edit, should then decline jobs that require compromised editing; happiness in what we do should be our number one motivation.

April 5, 2013

An Art Interlude: A Painting Contest

Filed under: An Art Interlude — Rich Adin @ 4:00 am
Tags: ,

As many of you know, my wife, Carolyn Edlund, is a master painter.  Occasionally, she enters art competitions. She has entered one called You Be the Judge, where viewers of the contest website get to vote on the entries. Carolyn’s entry is entry #7 (third row, right side). You can click on the image to enlarge it and get more information.

If you like her painting, we would appreciate your voting for her entry by scrolling to the bottom of the page and selecting her entry. Regardless, we hope you visit the site and enjoy all the fine art that has been submitted.

April 3, 2013

On Words: Why Sense Matters

We have had discussions before about word choice. In general, we agree that making the proper word choice is important and is a key role played by a professional editor. Yet, we have disagreements about the finer distinctions between words. For example, many editors accept the use of since to mean because or overlook the use of due to.

Consider the following:

    1     the molestation of     2     by the priest, the church established a fund.

Insert into 1, one of the following: Since, Because of, Due to. Insert into 2, one or more of the following: male, female, children, adults. Depending on your choice, the meaning of the sentence changes.

Here are three options:

  1. Since the molestation of the children by the priest, the church established a fund.
  2. Because of the molestation of the females by the priest, the church established a fund.
  3. Due to the molestation of the female children by the priest, the church established a fund.

The sense — and thus the meaning — of each differs from the others.

In option 1, the use of Since gives the sense that time has passed; the molestation occurred some length of time ago and with the passage of that time, the fund was established but that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the time that has passed and the establishment of the fund. In fact, by using Since, it is possible for a reader to miss the key relationship, which is the relationship between the molestations and the establishment of the fund. It is true, however, that if Since is interpreted here as being synonymous with because of, a cause-and-effect relationship is established (as discussed in the next paragraph). The problem is that there are two possible interpretations, one causal and one noncausal; which is intended is a matter of conjecture.

In contrast, option 2’s use of Because of gives the sense that the fund was established as an effect of the causal molestations; that is, there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the molestations and the fund establishment. With this option, the question of time passage does not surface; it is not the thrust of the sentence and it is not implied by word choice. In contemporary use, because is not fully synonymous with since, whereas since can be fully synonymous with because. With because of, the reader is not left to wonder what the author means.

Option 3 is the most problematic. What does due to mean in this context? Due to is a chameleon phrase. It has multiple possible meanings. For example, an author may mean, among other possibilities, a consequence of, as a consequence of, a result of, as a result of, because of, caused by, or from. Granted a result of and as a result of are, meaning-wise, fully synonymous, and it can be argued that each of the possible meanings I listed are really just another way of saying the same thing, but sense matters and the sense conveyed by each — at least to my ear — differs.

My problem with these types of choices is that too often sense is ignored because the meaning fits. Yet sense is equally as important. It is like having only a right shoe and expecting both your right foot and left foot to be able to wear it comfortably.

I think this matter of sense is emphasized when we look at the possibilities for filling blank 2: male, female, children, adults. If we fill-in 2 with children, for example, we are including both males and females and excluding adults regardless of gender. Similarly, if we choose males, we are excluding females, but including both children and adults. Our sense is that a certain type of molestation occurred based on the gender and age of the person molested. The words include certain implications, including implications regarding credulity — credulity of the victims and credulity regarding the types of molestation acts performed and whether the victim really was a victim.

Some editors point to the dictionary in support of their emphasizing the correctness of their word choice while discounting sense. The problem with relying on dictionary definitions is that most dictionaries today, certainly the ones we consider authoritative, are descriptive rather than prescriptive. As David Skinner noted in The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published (2012), until the publication of Webster’s Third under the direction of Phillip Gove in the 1960s, dictionaries tended to be prescriptive and thus distinguished between word usage based not only on definition but on sense. The era ushered in by Webster’s Third was, for Americans, the era of the descriptive — how people actually used words, not whether they were used correctly. In fact, The American Heritage Dictionary was born as a counterweight to that shift and the first edition, which came out after Webster’s Third, was a hybrid — occasionally prescriptive and occasionally descriptive, which is how it remains today.

The result is that dictionary support is insufficient support. Editors still need to consider the combination of meaning and sense when determining whether a particular word conveys to the reader, clearly and unequivocally, the precise message that the author intends to convey. Suppose the dictionary included the entry h8. Your author writes, “The h8 was tremendous.” Should the reader understand it to mean hate or height? Not only are the words different, but the sense each conveys differs, and the sense that h8 conveys differs even more.

I try to express to the authors with whom I work that words are living things; they expand and contract in both meaning and sense, depending on what surrounds them. Like a puppy in desperate need of training and taming, so words need to be trained and tamed to convey with precision. They cannot be allowed to flounder and cause the reader to either wonder what the message is or to draw the wrong message. That words have been used for centuries without precision matters not to the task of the editor. Much of the looseness of words over the course of time has been because for much of that time words were conveyed by speech, not writing, and speech provides numerous clues to meaning and sense that are absent from writing (do we need a better example than e-mail?). Let us not forget the continuing interpretive problems as regards statements made in the Bible. Because of the lack of precision in word choice, fundamental philosophical disputes have arisen and continue to demand attention. Need we go any further than to ask what was a “day” at the time of creation?

Perhaps over the course of time there was little difference between words like because, since, and due to; perhaps any distinctions are modern-day inventions. But I think there is a distinction of sense that should not be ignored.

What do you think? Is sense as important as definition? Does sense play a larger or smaller role than definition in meaning and word choice?

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