An American Editor

February 24, 2014

The Practical Editor: Working the Real World

Today’s column by Erin Brenner marks the first essay in a new monthly series, “The Practical Editor.” In this series, Erin will address real-world editorial issues and the balance needed between real-world demands and what could (would) be if all the stars were aligned in the editor’s favor. Please welcome Erin as a new columnist for An American Editor.

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Working the Real World

by Erin Brenner

There’s nothing like honing a well-written manuscript until it would make the angels weep for its beauty, grace, and clarity. Helping create a work of art thrills and satisfies me. Having a hand in producing something like this from George Eliot’s Middlemarch would be an honor:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!”

Too bad that I and most of my colleagues work in the real world.

Few manuscripts are the next Middlemarch, few authors a modern George Eliot. Certainly, we copyeditors could weave an author’s words until they became something glorious, but we run up against real limits: in raw materials to work with, in time to do the work, in money to be paid for the work.

Of course we want to do it all. Of course we want to turn that doggie daycare website into Literature! Why else would we have become copyeditors? Literary geniuses are rare, though. Much of the editing we do is the down-and-dirty variety on manuscripts that will be read tomorrow and wrapped around fish the day after.

True, there’s more text being published than ever before, even discounting all the casual emails, Facebook postings, and so on. That’s more opportunities for copyeditors. But because of that increase, readers are absorbing material more quickly, too. They don’t always notice the niceties. It’s get the message and move on.

Most of the time.

Then there are our dream projects: projects where the client wants the Cadillac service. They want you to bleed over every word, to make the manuscript sing—and they’re willing to pay for it and give you the time to do it.

Copyeditors need to know what the manuscript at hand calls for. What are the author’s and publisher’s goals? However beautiful Eliot’s prose is, it doesn’t sell soap.

What is the audience’s expectations of the manuscript? However much Eliot makes you feel, she doesn’t teach you how to perform open-heart surgery.

The practical copyeditor keeps the author, publisher, and audience in mind while editing, flexing well-trained editing muscles to find that unique balance between good writing and getting the job done for the manuscript at hand.

In this column, I’ll explore practical editing. It’s not enough to know the rules. You need to know how to apply them and why you would apply them differently in various situations. When would allowing vogue words be acceptable? When would you follow an author’s awkward dictate, such as “don’t split infinitives”?

Copyediting is a muscle. Having the power to do the heaviest lifting is useful, but being able to control how much power you use at any time is better. And knowing when to apply that power, and when not to, is invaluable. It’s the difference between failing and succeeding in our business.

Part of that control comes from understanding the difference between usage rules and style guidelines, so I’ll examine some common misunderstandings, such as the idea that all redundancies are bad and that certain phrases, like “don’t use reason why,” shouldn’t be used. I’ll also look at why it’s OK to use notional agreement, singular they, and hopefully as a sentence adverb.

I’ll provide lessons on structuring your editing for the real world — the one with doggie daycares and deadlines. The Copyeditor’s Typographic Oath will be a great map to guide us, as will the ideas of zombie rules and dog-whistle edits. I’ll offer triage lists, a method for judging the acceptability of neologisms, and online resources to inform your editing.

We’ll also talk about practical approaches to running an editing business and marketing yourself, such as structuring your business to meet your needs, balancing work and play, and learning to say no. We’ll discuss using social media as part of your marketing plan and why it’s important to do more than social media.

I’ll even debate some of Rich Adin’s ideas and expand on others. Can you really not teach copyediting? Is there really no such thing as light, medium, and heavy copyedits? Perhaps I’m biased on these points because I teach in a copyediting program. But I know how I struggled in my early days and how the training helped me. I believe you can teach copyediting, though not everyone can learn it.

I invite you to send me your topic requests as well. What would you like me to write about? Email me!

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

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