An American Editor

December 4, 2013

Is Editing Teachable?

There are two aspects to an editing career: business and editing itself. The business side of editing is clearly teachable. Its fundamentals are the same as for any business. The business side is not a craft; it is the application of rules and principles that stretch across trades even if modified to meet the needs of a particular trade.

The business side includes such things as record keeping, calculating rates, determining the services to provide, advertising, etc. — in other words, all of the same things that every other business has to do. The twin goals of the business side are to be profitable and to be efficient (see The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable and The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient).

Editing is different. It is a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught. How does one nurture and develop that skill? Are such high-level skills even sought in the market?

Unlike a painter whose contribution to art will last centuries, the contribution that an editor makes lasts until the next edition at best. Artists are not anonymous whereas editors are anonymous by design; it is the author who receives credit for the well-edited manuscript. Rarely does the editor’s name even appear, and when it does appear, it is difficult to ascertain what the editor’s contribution to the work was.

So does it matter (except to editors) whether an editor is highly skilled or average skilled? The market seems to think it doesn’t matter. A free market economy is based on the principle(s) that demand will cause prices to rise and fall and that greater skills will command greater money and greater demand. Perhaps that is true of some professions, but it doesn’t seem to be true in the editing economy.

Within the editing economy there is a narrow range of pricing and a broad range of requirements that accompany that range of pricing. Editors set a price for their services, but if the price is too high, find few takers. If anything, the free market acts as price depressor because the editing market does not value skills, it values price.

If editing skills were teachable, perhaps the market could be taught to value the skills. Because such skills are neither teachable nor transferable, the market views and reacts to what it considers average. It has no way to measure or see the differences in skillsets and apply different metrics to each of the skillsets. It is because these skills are not teachable that we cannot separate ourselves into tiers and demand pay equivalent to our tier. Nor can we rise from tier to tier as we gain experience and skills as no tiers exist.

When someone hires an editor, they have no realistic way of knowing whether they are getting the Michelangelo of editors or the average editor. We can proclaim our skills but each project provides its own challenges and how well an editor does changes with each project. On some projects an editor will demonstrate outstanding skills; on other projects, the same editor will struggle to be average.

It is the nature of editing.

Consequently, when we look for an editor, we ask the editor to pass a test or demonstrate mastery over grammar and spelling and usage. What we cannot and do not test for is that skillset, that spark of mastery or genius, that something that raises one editor above another. We look for and test for those things that are teachable. Perhaps that is a disservice to ourselves, to the editing profession, and to authors.

But the free market does not reward — and is not designed to reward — greater editorial skills, especially intangible, nondemonstrable skills. We need to remember that because of the ease of entry into the editing profession, dilution of the skills required to be an editor occurs. More importantly, ease of entry means that “everyone knows” what constitutes editing and what makes an editor a “good” editor.

How many times have we heard that so-and-so had to be a good editor because they teach English to fifth grade students? In the absence of “knowing” what makes a good editor, there would be no way to correlate teaching English with being a good editor. Similarly, it is also assumed that a degree in English Arts is the necessary educational background for a successful editing career. Yet professional editors know that neither teaching English nor having an English Arts degree assures that the person will be (or is) a good, let alone great, editor.

Editors favor independence and the solopreneur work style. Perhaps if we were less independent in our approach to the profession we could establish minimum “guild-type” requirements for entry into the profession and figure out a way to teach (or at learn) what is currently unteachable. I think that will be the only way to receive acknowledgement that, like with painters, there are levels of skill and mastery and the higher levels of skill and mastery require higher pay. Of course, in the market economy, especially when controlling and minimizing costs is a governing principle and editing remains a hidden benefit, this might be tomfoolery because few will be willing to pay for high-skill editors when average will do.

What do you think?


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