An American Editor

July 3, 2013

What Makes an Editor a Professional?

The world is filled with editors and wanna-be editors. I suspect not a day goes by when, on some forum on the Internet, someone declares their passion for books and how much (and how long) they desire to be an editor. They then go on to ask how to become an editor.

Nearly any college graduate can be an editor — or claim to be one. Editing (setting aside the business aspects of the profession) is more of a knack skill than a taught skill. Yet even with that ease of entry into the world of editing, there is a difference between a professional editor and an editor.

Consider this: Would you consider an editor to be professional who did not own a dictionary? I wouldn’t, because I think one of the differences between a professional editor and an editor is that the professional invests in the tools of her trade. How much more fundamental to editing can something be than a dictionary?

Does the editor have to own the hardcopy version of the dictionary? No, but she should then have a subscription to the unabridged online version of the dictionary. There are lots of dictionaries available, but in my experience, there are only a couple that are generally recognized as being authoritative and not one of them is called The Free Dictionary.

Would you consider a person who asks what the differences are between the unabridged and the free versions of a standard dictionary, other than that the unabridged has more words (which one would expect if it is unabridged), to be a professional editor? I wouldn’t, and I would wonder what other necessary things they skip or resources they lack. What shortcuts will they take with my manuscript?

The standard response is that anything can be found on the Internet. That’s true as far as it goes. Anything can be found, but nothing assures that what is found is correct or accurate. Consider the cheap, heavily discounted medicines that you can buy over the Internet. Sometimes you get lucky and the medicine is exactly what it is supposed to be; more often, you have been scammed. The same is true with information resources. Anyone can set up a dictionary on the Internet — it doesn’t mean either the spelling or the definition of a word is correct. Editing has “standardized” on certain resources because, over many years, those resources have earned a reputation for reliability and accuracy.

The professional editor recognizes that a resource’s reputation is important and that using such resources is also a reflection of the type and level of work a client can expect from the editor. How does that fit with the idea of using the free version of an accepted reference?

What does the editor do if what she is looking for doesn’t appear in the free version? After all, we know that it costs money to create and maintain accurate resources; even Wikipedia has to raise millions of dollars annually (have we forgotten so quickly when Wikipedia was on the verge of having to shut down for lack of money?). So we know that the free version of a standard resource is not as complete as the paid-for version. Thus, we know that the editor who relies solely on free versions is not making full use of available resources.

What about someone who won’t use the unabridged version of that dictionary because there is a small fee? If an editor skimps on basic, standard resources, what else do/will that editor skimp on to the client’s detriment?

The professional editor takes pride not only in her skills but in the quality of her work. Quality is affected by the kinds and extent of resources of which the editor makes use. It is one thing to claim to be an editor, which many people can and do claim, but it is quite another thing to be a professional editor with full access to the basic resources needed to give a quality edit.

When I hire an editor, one of the things I ask for is a list of the resources on which they rely and whether they are using the free or premium version. I want to know because it helps me to “rate” the applicant’s professionalism. For example, much of my work is in medical editing. I would expect a medical editor to be a subscriber to medical spell-checking software. I think a medical editor should have, and be using, the two leading medical dictionaries.

I learned to ask these questions the hard way. A client once asked me how it was that the editor of a chapter didn’t correct misspellings of a several important medical terms. When I asked the editor, I discovered that the editor didn’t own a medical dictionary and didn’t use spell-checking — either medical or nonmedical. He thought his background as a medical transcriptionist was sufficient and that spell-checking software was distracting. That was a costly lesson to me.

Ultimately, the point is that the professional editor will invest in her business and will have access to the premium versions — whether in print or online — of the basic, standard tools used in the type of editing she performs. The nonprofessional editor will rely on free versions and alternates-to-the-standard resources that are free. The nonprofessional does not run his business as a business; he does not invest in his business; cost governs everything.

To be a professional editor, one must act as a professional and conduct one’s business in a professional manner. To be compensated as a professional one must be — and behave as — a professional. Cheapskating on basic resources is not professional.

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