An American Editor

October 23, 2013

Business of Editing: Editing in Isolation

I am constantly perplexed at how people who want to be acclaimed as editors or writers can pass on material to readers that is less than clear. In the editors’ case, I hope it is because the author ignored queries or left queries unresolved — but I cannot be certain of that except in my own work.

I suspect that the problem is that the self-editing author, as well as the “professional” editor, is “editing” in isolation. What I mean is that the author is looking at each sentence in isolation rather than looking at each sentence as part of the global mix.

What brought this to mind was a sentence I recently read: “I prefer epics.”

By itself, the sentence is complete and clearly understandable by me, the reader. But placed in context, I wondered whether the author meant “epics” or “e-pics.” The problem was that the article was talking about both books and pictures, thus both or either could have been meant. This was a case of the editor and/or the author not looking beyond the sentence — any editing that was done was done in isolation.

Isolation editing is a clear sign of nonprofessional editing. Professional editors know that no sentence stands alone; every sentence must be considered in context and as part of the more global text, as well as being complete in and of itself. Increasingly, however, I read books that suffer from the narrow view. In its most blatant form, a character is 5-foot tall on page 10 and 6-foot tall on page 25; has brown eyes on page 11 and blue eyes on page 27; spells her name Marya on page 3 but Maria on page 50. We’ve all come across these types of gaffes, but they seem to be occurring with increasing frequency as traditional publishers and authors make price, rather than quality, the number one consideration.

There are many answers to the problem of changes in character descriptions, not the least of which is a comprehensive stylesheet. Yet that is another red flag as regards the quality of the editing: the skimpy, incomplete stylesheet.

I have been working on second and subsequent editions of books in the past few months. With two exceptions, none of the manuscripts were accompanied by a stylesheet that was created by the editor of the prior edition. One exception was the book that was a second edition of a book whose first edition I had edited. In this instance, the client didn’t send the stylesheet from the first edition, but I had a copy because I have stored online every stylesheet for every book my company has edited since at least 2006 and often earlier.

But it is the second exception that signaled a poor editing job was likely done by the original editor. In this instance, the client sent a copy of the stylesheet for the prior edition. However, the stylesheet was one page. I knew immediately that it was incomplete as the manuscript for the book ran more than 3,000 pages and was medical, with each chapter written by a different author or group of authors. It is not possible to do a comprehensive stylesheet of such a manuscript in one page.

As I edited the manuscript, my initial reaction was correct — the prior (existing) edition clearly had not been professionally edited (or proofread). There were numerous sentences that should have been flagged and/or corrected, sentences that were like “I prefer epics” and thus potentially misleading, in the manuscript. The more I progressed into the manuscript, the clearer it became that the editor edited in isolation: If a sentence was grammatically correct, it was accepted as is, even if a more global view would have raised queries or caused the editor to modify it.

I am sure that some of you are thinking, “but are we talking about developmental editing or copyediting?” I am talking about both. True, the primary function of the developmental editor, but not the copyeditor, is to think globally, but even the copyeditor has to think globally. We are not talking about reorganizing a manuscript, which is the realm of the developmental editor; we are talking about ensuring that the author’s message is clearly conveyed, without confusion or uncertainty, to the reader, which is the realm of both editors.

Professional copyeditors will not rewrite paragraphs, will not move paragraphs or sections of text (i.e., will not reorganize) except on rare occasion. Yet professional copyeditors do have a responsibility to at least query the author and ask whether “epics” or “e-pics” is meant, which cannot be done in the absence of a more global perspective. A sentence-centric perspective views sentences in isolation: the previous sentence could talk about women, while the current sentence talks about men. Whether that change in gender is correct depends on what was said in the prior sentence, what is said in the current sentence, and, perhaps, what will be said in the following sentence.

Isolated editing is a sign of the nonprofessional. Isolated editing is on the rise because of the rise of the nonprofessional editor, which is driven by making cost concerns and limitations, rather than quality, the primary decider of whether and whom to hire as an editor (see What is Editing Worth?). We have discussed this several times, and you know that I believe that quality should be the initial driver when hiring an editor, with cost taking a secondary role. I recognize, however, that because of publisher and author misperceptions about the value of editing, those roles are reversed and cost is the primary driver.

At one time I thought the way to combat this was to send the publisher or author a few corrected pages as examples, but I quickly learned that publishers ignore the corrected pages and authors too often reply with a “how dare you question my writing!” I also quickly learned that the problem rests mostly with professional editors who fail to educate publishers and authors on the value of editing. (The value of editing was discussed in greater depth in What is Editing Worth?)

Yet even those authors who do understand and appreciate the value of quality editing are often stymied by their budget. Authors are being asked to gamble money on a service that will have some, but not a compelling, impact on sales. Self-publishing is making it clear that even poorly edited books can sell a lot of copies and that well-edited books can sell few copies — there are just too many other variables in play, such as how the author markets the book, the quality of the story and the writing.

In the end, editors are between a rock and a hard place. Do they lower their fee to meet author budgets and to compete with nonprofessional editors? If they lower their fee, do they move closer to isolated editing? Or do they stick to their more reasonable fee schedule and the more global form of editing knowing that they will lose a significant number of clients by doing so? This is the dilemma of the professional editor. It is a dilemma that is not easily resolved because of market pressures and the ease of entry into the profession of editing.



  1. I came to book editing with a background of newspaper editing. At the newspaper, the copy desk did a combination of developmental editing and copy editing (copyediting). If a reporter had the lead in the last paragraph, we moved it to the top. We deleted editorializing. If something wasn’t clear, we yelled across the room to ask the reporter. And so forth. We were told to put ourselves in the position of “a milkman in Kansas” and make sure everything would be understandable to such a person (a somewhat patronizing view of milkmen, of course).

    So I approached book editing the same way. I put myself in the position of the reader, and if something wasn’t clear, I rewrote it or queried the author (as yelling didn’t seem to work). For that reason, I tended to be slow. One time I was pulled from a job as I couldn’t promise a certain speed. That author then told me he’d never seen such a thorough job of editing. Another thanked me in the introduction for catching some embarrassing errors. It was only after some years that I realized many copy editors see the job as simply catching errors of spelling and grammar. Thus they could go a lot faster than I went, and that’s what a lot of publishers want.

    In my opinion, the solution would be to have technical editors (I worked mostly on medical books) read the ms first to check for meaning so the copy editor could do what you call “isolated editing.” Most publishers wouldn’t want to pay for that extra step, but when a ms required a lot of extra work, I think the authors should pay for the extra work. However, in today’s world of reduced research budgets, most would be unwilling.

    One journal, “The American Journal of Public Health,” has a system somewhat like that. Each ms is first put through “triage” and given a grade. Papers judged to be E or F are sent to a developmental editor, who does what can be done to improve the sense. After that, the paper goes to a copy editor, who focuses on style.

    In science, especially in research journals, I think clarity is more essential than enforcing consistent style. I’m constantly coming across science papers that include dozens of obscure acronyms that are never defined, making comprehension a chore. I can cope with “deciliter” abbreviated as “dl” in one place and “dL” in another, or quotation marks coming on the wrong side of a comma, but if I don’t know what some critical factor that is referred to only as an acronym is, it’s difficult to understand what’s going on.

    I knew a woman who used to head the copy editing department at Little, Brown. She said if she read a mystery story in which a stiff raincoat rustled in a certain way when someone fell, she’d try to buy the same raincoat, fall down, and make sure it made a similar sound. I think the days of that type of editing are over.

    I don’t really know how we can fix these problems without making books and journals so expensive that no one can afford to buy them. Does anyone else?


    Comment by Gretchen — October 23, 2013 @ 7:26 am | Reply

  2. You have put the dilemma clearly: that readers do not demand good writing and adherence to grammatical, style, spelling etc. convention (and indeed they may not have ever seen it) and so publishers and authors have no impetus to provide those things. As a professional editor (professional both in the original sense and in the sense of working at a high standard) I am dismayed, but I am also well aware that what we love and do for a living is going the way of a great many trades and professions that simply became irrelevant with the passage of time. I’m reminded that before Samuel Johnson (if a single point in time can be settled upon), English spelling and grammar were not standardized. We may well return to those days, and if we do, and if those who write and those who read can adequately understand each other, why should anyone be concerned? Yes, there is a rock bottom to this encroaching ooze: the way we speak (or write) reflects and shapes the way we think, and as precision and grace in speaking and writing are abandoned, so precision and grace in thinking are abandoned. I don’t see a way to stop this trend, and I don’t know how it will all play out, but I don’t think it will be to the good. Scott Bogue


    Comment by Scott Bogue — October 23, 2013 @ 8:42 am | Reply

  3. I think writers and maybe even some publishers have come to believe that a lack of typos in a book or article means it’s well-edited. And that’s probably because editors and others frequently point out such errors as proof that a book is not well-edited. If a book is not organized well or has fuzzy logic or confusing sentences, we say it’s not well-written. So much of the work an editor does on the “global” scale is basically invisible — and should be, frankly. But that’s one of the factors causing the dilemma for editors who want to go beyond the sentence level. If our best work is “written in invisible ink” (a description I recently read from a well-known editor), then how can we prove its value?


    Comment by Tammy Ditmore — October 23, 2013 @ 11:19 am | Reply

    • Tammy, Right on!

      Of course, it’s also true that someone will say a book is well written (although the original might have been bordering on illiterate) but “the editor should have caught that typo on page 876.”


      Comment by Gretchen — October 23, 2013 @ 11:42 am | Reply

      • Absolutely! I recently finished a rush job on a controversial current topic where I reorganized and rewrote large chunks of the copy and then spent hours fact-checking the material. The author then apparently pushed it directly into an e-book without using a proofreader. Yesterday I got an email from the author who said my work had made the book much better but there were concerns about so many typos that had made it into the e-book. Sigh.


        Comment by Tammy Ditmore — October 23, 2013 @ 11:56 am | Reply

        • Maybe we should refused to copy edit a book unless the author promised to have it proofread. I had a similar episode, but with an amateur author/publisher who thought her niece could proofread, so I excused her. She also didn’t make many of the corrections I’d marked.


          Comment by Gretchen — October 23, 2013 @ 12:40 pm | Reply

  4. Gretchen:
    I don’t want the days of that type of editing to be over. I want us to bring those days back from the brink.

    I am still stubbornly clinging to my careful way of editing. I want authors who want their books or articles to be the best they can be. I can’t afford to turn away work, but if the author is clearly only concerned with how much the job will cost, I do tend to walk away. The authors I have helped were willing to pay a reasonable fee and answer my questions about why their characters decided to behave a certain way or how they got from Point A to Point B so quickly. One of my authors wrote about a giant, and I went outside to find something in my yard that was as big as the giant he described to be sure that his description was plausibl; I also went online and found pictures of “giants” standing near people who were much smaller, so I could have a good perspective of the giant’s size in relation to other people in the story. I don’t want to imagine myself banging through work, focusing only on getting done as fast as possible because I cannot afford to take my time anymore.

    As for your last question, I also cling stubbornly to the idea that the profit margin does not have to be huge. It only has to be enough to reinvest in the business. They don’t have to pay for the editing with the first sale. They pay for the editing over months of sales. The cost of editing should be included in the cost of doing business. I am shocked and appalled every time I am confronted with the fact that it is not.

    I am told that I live in a fantasy land because I refuse to believe that my imagination is the only world that has people always striving to produce the best work they can while getting paid fairly for it.

    If it is a fantasy land, at least it’s nice here.

    I have heard readers complain about the quality of writing in books. I have heard readers complain about simple errors in books. I have heard readers, older ones especially, complain that stories are not as complex as they used to be. Books that were written for children a hundred years ago are more complex than the ones we are churning out for adults nowadays.

    I don’t believe that the problem is with the readers. I think the problem is with authors who do not want to, do not plan for, or otherwise refuse to pay well for an editor and publishing houses who think they can just farm the work out to any random person for a hundredth of a penny per word. The problem may also be with the self-styled “editors” who are willing to work for a hundredth of a penny per word because they automate all their work and never actually read anything on their own.

    I believe that our readers are hungry for good writing. I believe that our readers are looking for the story that will make them think and grow.

    I believe that the more we feed those readers, the more of them we will find.

    You are spot on. I think that you are doing what needs to be done to improve our industry. You are writing about it and causing people to think about it. You are giving me hope that we, as a society, will find our way back to intellectual honesty. You are part of the wave that will turn the tide.


    Comment by Veronica — October 23, 2013 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

    • Veronica, Your clients are lucky to get you.


      Comment by Gretchen — October 23, 2013 @ 2:43 pm | Reply

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