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?

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