An American Editor

January 13, 2014

Evaluating Editors

Last week our dishwasher died. It had served us well for 14 years but finally gave a last gasp, which meant it was time to buy a new one. But what do I know about dishwashers? Not much. I know what features I want and what I expect it to do, but among brands and models, I don’t know good from bad and really have no way to test them in advance of buying one and subsequently learning whether or not I made a good decision.

In the very olden days, filling this knowledge gap was difficult. The primary resource was anecdotal evidence from family, friends, neighbors, and advertising. If my cousin was ecstatic about her new dishwasher, then I would have likely looked at one from the same brand — even though her dishwasher was already 7 years old and the model was no longer available.

Today things are a bit different. The Internet has made it so. But even today much of the consumer’s decision making relies on anecdotal opinion, with the difference being the number of opinions that one can access. The opinion universe is nearly infinite.

Although I did look at comments about dishwashers, I rapidly found that they were not all that helpful. Some were much too general and broad, some were gripes about “defects” that I wouldn’t call defects, many were about models no longer available. In the end, I relied on my primary standby, Consumer Reports, which tested, reported on, and rated 228 models of dishwashers. We looked at the top 10 models and bought one of the top 4 models.

This shopping experience made me think of editing. I can find information from reliable organizations that test and evaluate both expensive and inexpensive appliances, but if I want to hire an editor, it is a crapshoot. In some countries and in some specialty areas, it is slightly better than a crapshoot because there are certifying organizations. However, the value of the certification lies in how well recognized that certification is among the consuming populace. I suspect that in many instances, the organizations are not well known outside the profession.

All of this brings me back to the complaint that I have made before about the lack of licensing standards for editors. Many, if not most, editors are generally opposed to any kind of national governing body that would test and license editors. They do not see the value of making the editorial profession akin to lawyering, accounting, therapy, doctoring, and even hairdressing; that is, minimum education standards followed by testing and licensing and, perhaps, even continuing education requirements. Such a scheme is viewed as just one more financial roadblock designed to curb individual freedom and prevent the marketplace from deciding (the idea being that cream will always rise).

Twenty-five years ago I thought similarly; today I think differently. The world has changed for editors. Thirty years ago, when I started in this profession, an American book publisher didn’t consider offshoring editorial work. Consequently, the pool of competitors was limited. It was further limited because there was a close working relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor; poor work didn’t slip by. The Internet and the internationalization of publishing has changed that relationship. The pool of editors is now global, not local, and in-house editors handle so many more projects than they did 30 years ago that they do not have the time to work closely with the freelance editor.

The close relationship between the in-house editor and the freelance editor allowed for an evaluation of the freelance editor’s work that no longer occurs. It even allowed for informal mentoring. Although the ease of entry to the editing profession hasn’t really changed (it was easy then and it is easy now), the rigorous evaluation of an editor that occurred then has, for the most part, gone by the wayside today.

The result is that the profession of editing now faces more challenges than it is capable of handling. First is the challenge of ensuring basic competency. Although the topic of another essay, it is worth noting that education in America is in great decline, with Kansas being at the forefront of that decline and the other states watching Kansas and itching to mimic it. The trouble in Kansas is that the Republican-led government is defunding education, having slashed public education funding to 16.5% below the 2008 funding level, and working to slash even more. The consequence will be that future editors will be drawn from a pool of inadequately educated people. If the slashing were limited to Kansas, it would only be Kansas-educated editors who would be disadvantaged. But with other states looking to mimic the Kansas approach, the inadequacy will be much wider spread. Licensing and education requirements to be an editor would not solve the problem but would help to minimize it by assuring a minimum competency.

The second challenge is ensuring the ability of competent editors to earn a living, or at least having the opportunity to do so. If our profession remains as libertarian as it currently is, and if the ease of entry — just hang out a shingle and call one’s self an editor — remains, the consequences will be that better qualified and more competent editors will leave the profession because it will be too difficult to compete economically, which will lead to a further degradation in quality of the editorial product.

The third challenge is changing the decision-to-hire-an-editor driver from price to quality. As long as the decision driver remains or is dominated by price, the highly skilled editor will be unable to compete. We see this now with authors who talk about not having the money to hire an editor or who are willing to pay no more than $200 to edit a 500-page manuscript — and then expect, if not outright demand, the “perfect” edit. Editing is like most crafts in that it is a hands-on skill. Although some aspects can be automated, the reading of a manuscript word by word cannot be. Paying $200 for editing a 500-page manuscript amounts to $8 an hour, assuming the manuscript can be read and edited at a pace of 20 pages an hour; at a pace of 10 pages an hour, the pay is $4 an hour. How long do you think it would be before price drove highly skilled editors into other professions?

The fourth challenge is objectively evaluating editors in a fashion that is universally understood by the consumers of editing. Of all the challenges — those identified above and those left unidentified — this is the most difficult to overcome. Why? Reasons include resistance on the part of editors who are semi-successful today; a lack of editors willing to step forward and accept the mantle of leadership in this task; the number of part-time editors for whom editing is a way to earn vacation money; and editors (freelance and in-house) who have yet to enter the profession who are not being taught the basic skills they need to identify good from poor editing.

If editors could be more objectively evaluated, editing might well return to the state of being a respected, skilled profession that attracts highly skilled and educated people and allows them to earn a middle class living. I think raising the profession in this manner could turn the decision driver from price to quality, which would benefit both editors and the consumers of editing. I also think one way to accomplish these goals is to have standards, education requirements, and licensing. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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