An American Editor

November 25, 2013

Business of Editing: Does an Editor Matter?

It isn’t too often that the worth of a good editor is hinted at by a reviewer, but when it happens, it stands out.

In “The Surprising Empress” (The New York Review of Books, December 5, 2013, pp. 18-20), Jonathan Mirsky reviewed Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. I have always been fascinated by Chinese history, so the article caught my attention (I subscribe to the print edition of the NYRB and read the articles in print, not online). This looked like a book I would add to my future list of books to buy in hardcover, until…

Yes, the until raises its “ugly head” in this quote from the article (p. 20):

I have one small and two serious criticisms of Chang’s usually impressive biography. She occasionally lapses into slang or uses the wrong word. A woman “sashays” into a room, British merchants “showcase” a railway, a “roller-coaster of events” is said to have disturbed the emperor, and a concubine is described as a former “high-class call-girl.” “Winsome” is only one of the words misused.

Mirsky goes on to write:

More serious is the matter of sources.…Chang has drawn on the “colossal documentary pool” of twelve million documents in the First Historical Archives of China, which have to do with the reign of Cixi.

It would be useful to say something about these documents and how they are organized,…[R]eaders would like to know why she has chosen this or that source. I liked this biography, but have been troubled as a reviewer because the sources are not easy to check.

What Mirsky complains about are editorial failings. The publisher, Knopf, may or may not have hired a professional editor. Based on the first complaint of wrong words and slang, I wonder if Knopf did hire a professional editor familiar with American language usage (the market/target audience, at least for the reviewed version, is Americans) to copyedit the book. The second complaint, about the sources, makes me wonder if the book had undergone any professional developmental editing.

Or did Knopf take the easy path and simply hire the least-expensive editor it could find and let the author do as she pleased?

Basically, the review, which was written by Jonathan Mirsky, a well-known historian of China who was formerly the East Asia Editor of The Times of London, is complimentary because the book corrects 100 years of misinformation about Cixi’s reign. But for me, who is not a well-versed historian of China and who cannot read between the lines to determine that Chang’s book is a respectable addition to the repertoire, Mirsky damns the book by his quoted comments. I see, instead of a great addition to the history of China literature, a book that is questionable.

It is questionable not only because of the use of slang and wrong/inappropriate word choices, but because the sources are not verifiable or accessible. The message I receive is that neither the publisher Knopf nor the author Chang cared enough about either the book or the reader to ensure accuracy and provability. When I edit a book and see sources that cannot be accessed or identified as dominating the references, I tell the author that it reflects badly on the substance of the material. As a reader, how can I be certain that the same indifference was not given to the text?

In Chang’s case, the problem goes a bit deeper. When I am editing a book, I at least know it is being professionally edited. Granted, a consumer wouldn’t know, and if the author doesn’t follow my advice and correct the references or change incorrect word choices, the book would appear to the consumer as Chang’s book appears to me — unedited.

Editors do matter. The choice of editor does matter. The type of editing does matter. A good working relationship between author and editor does matter. And it is vitally important that an author not believe that each word he or she has written is sacrosanct and cannot be changed for the better. I’m sorry to say that in my career I have encountered several authors who wrongly believed that what they had written was already perfect and that my role as editor was simply to make sure there were no typographical errors.

There is a dual failure in Chang’s book. The first failure is that of the publisher. The publisher clearly should have had Chang’s book developmentally edited by a professional editor who has mastery over American language and usage. I would like to think that the sources problem would not have passed by such an editor. The publisher should have followed up the developmental editing with copyediting, again done by a professional editor with mastery of American language and usage. Many of the wrong word choice and slang problems might (would) have been avoided.

The second failure in Chang’s book is that, if the book was professionally developmental edited and copyedited, either the publisher did not insist on Chang following, or at least seriously considering, the suggestions of the editors (again, assuming there were editors involved) and offering justification for not following the suggestions, or Chang failed to seriously consider the suggestions on her own. It is not for the editors to be the experts on China history or the reign of Cixi, but it is for the editors to be the experts on word choice and source accessibility. (Again, all this rests on the assumption that whatever editing there was, was done by professional editors with mastery of American language usage.)

As I have written above, it is questionable whether the book was edited. But assuming it was edited, there is one other matter that could be problematic: What were the instructions to the editor?

Several factors actively impede a high-quality edit. These factors include schedule, author cooperativeness, publisher and author instructions that define the task for the editor to perform, and fee. We have discussed these many times, and the limitations each of these factors imposes do not change. It is difficult to obtain a high-quality edit when you pay a pauper wage and demand an unrealistic turnaround. (I recently was asked to edit a book on a schedule that would have required editing 116 manuscript pages each day. The material was very complex and a realistic schedule would have been 25 to 30 pages a day at most. I declined, but I do know that an editor who agreed to the schedule was hired — and was being paid less than I had been offered, which was not a celebratory amount.)

Which of these factors was present in Chang’s case, I do not know. I suspect, based on the reviewer’s comments, that several were present. Because I know that quality editing by a professional editor is important, perhaps more so in a book like Chang’s than in some other books, the reviewer’s comments are the red flags that tell me “do not buy this book” — and so I won’t.

Editors do matter and the right editor for the right job matters greatly.


  1. […] reposted with permission from An American Editor […]


    Pingback by When an Editor Matters - The Digital Reader — November 25, 2013 @ 6:30 am

  2. I’m missing something here. The reviewer complains: “She occasionally lapses into slang or uses the wrong word. A woman “sashays” into a room, British merchants “showcase” a railway, a “roller-coaster of events” is said to have disturbed the emperor, and a concubine is described as a former “high-class call-girl.””

    Aside from some hyphen use that differs from MW11, what’s the problem here? I see legitimate American English usage and I wouldn’t pause over any of the first three unless instructed by the PE to make sure all language in the book is formal, academic, or purely British terminology. And while the dictionary definition of “concubine” differs from “high-class call girl,” it’s unclear in the sentence whether the author was talking about all concubines or a particular one in the narrative, whose background may indeed have been that of a high-class call-girl. I might have queried that one, and checked the one word / two word / hyphenated status of all of them.

    Am I blinded to a problem because I edit primarily fiction, where such terms are common and understood?


    Comment by Carolyn — November 25, 2013 @ 6:43 am

    • Unfortunately, we do not have the full context, but I do think that while these terms would not be given a second glance in fiction, they are cause to pause in nonfiction biography/history. Many Americans would view a “sashaying” woman as one who was extending an invitation to be picked up. I suspect that what was meant was that the woman’s presence dominated the room, but I do not know. Additionally, concubines in Imperial China were not call girls, high or low class. Concubines were not prostitutes; being an imperial concubine was considered a privileged position and the label was often “worn” with pride. No call girl or prostitute would have been accepted as an imperial concubine.

      I would stumble over “showcase” of a railway. How does one do that? And what is a “roller-coaster of events”? Events may take one on a roller-coaster-like ride, but that is not equivalent to a “roller-coaster of events”.

      For the type of book it is, that is nonfiction biography/history, I would find the similes troublesome, as Mirsky did, and the word choice very problematic.


      Comment by americaneditor — November 25, 2013 @ 8:00 am

      • I guess I’d better steer away from this class of nonfiction. Aside from a query or two and a bit of punctuation tweaking, I would have sailed by all these “problems”!


        Comment by Carolyn — November 25, 2013 @ 8:04 am

    • That makes two of us, Carolyn. The only difference is that I’m a writer and not an editor.


      Comment by Vicki — November 27, 2013 @ 4:28 am

  3. >> Yes, the until raises its “ugly head” in this quote …

    The word “until” is one that you’re quoting from the previous sentence, rather than using in its straightforward sense. And “raises its ugly head” is a common idiom, so there’s no reason to put quotes around the “ugly head” piece of it. So this should have been:

    Yes, the “until” raises its ugly head in this quote …


    >> But for me, who is not a well-versed historian …

    This sounds really awkward. Much better would be

    For myself, not being a well-versed historian …


    >> … who cannot read between the lines to determine that Chang’s book is a respectable addition to the repertoire …

    You’re misusing the expression “read between the lines,” which means to find a disguised or subtle subtext in a piece of writing. What you mean is simply having enough prior knowledge to decide if the book is valid and accurate. Also “to its field” would be better than “to the repertoire.”


    >> if the book was professionally developmental edited and copyedited …

    “developmental edited” doesn’t make any sense until you realized that the words are linked, with “developmental” modifying “edited.” Since “professionally developmentally edited” would sound awkward, the better way to do this would be with a hyphen:

    if the book was professionally developmental-edited and copyedited …


    So yeah; I think you’ve proved your point. Editing is important.


    Comment by KarlB — November 25, 2013 @ 7:57 am

  4. One thing that snarky reviewers don’t take into consideration is that an excellent editor might find tons of errors (and the cited ones are less errors than judgment calls) and miss one or two. We have no idea how terrible the ms was before editing, and when the editor is making a lot of changes it’s easy for some things to slip by. We don’t know if the editor suggested changes and the author didn’t accept them. We don’t know how much time the editor was given.

    It’s very difficult to judge editorial expertise on the basis of the final product alone.

    Re editors writing less than perfect prose in blogpost comments, I think we all make “errors” when speaking or writing quickly. That’s why even editors need editors when they’re writing for publication.


    Comment by Gretchen — November 25, 2013 @ 8:41 am

  5. I have worked on a few books for what the publisher described as “high-profile” authors; I was working for the publisher. In almost every case, the production editor told me to do a light edit and essentially just correct misspellings, grammar, punctuation, etc. The publisher doesn’t care what the darn book has in it if the author is well-known enough to generate big sales!

    Maybe this is why I don’t do much work for megapublishers anymore.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — November 25, 2013 @ 10:53 am

  6. What might help is for prospective readers to notify publishers that they aren’t going to buy a book that appears not to have been edited enough, or well enough. One problem for those of us who care about and notice problems with editing and proofreading (or the lack thereof) is that we don’t find those problems until we’ve bought and paid for the book, and we usually can’t return it on the basis of poor-quality editing or proofreading.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 25, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

  7. There are sometimes Amazon reviews that mention poor editing. And that might affect online sales, albeit probably not much. Example:

    “As far as editing – it’s pretty bad….When Dr. K writes in his blog, I can forgive the sloppy editing and less-than-wonderful writing style, but with a book, I expect much better. Honestly, I wonder if he even had anyone edit his manuscript….

    “Having such a poor presentation takes away from the credibility of the material, in my opinion.”

    I feel the same way. Someone who is careless with words might be careless with facts.


    Comment by Gretchen — November 25, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

    • “Someone who is careless with words might be careless with facts.”

      Although I agree with this, I also feel obliged to point out another aspect that. Often, authors are zealous about their area of interest and research it deeply and accurately. But they may be lousy spellers and sloppy writers — i.e., careless with words.

      I see this all the time in fiction. It’s why people hire me to edit their material.


      Comment by Carolyn — November 25, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

      • Hah! Careless with my own words, too. The sentence should have read, “… to point out another aspect.” Delete the dangling “that.”

        : )


        Comment by Carolyn — November 25, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

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