An American Editor

June 18, 2014

The Business of Editing: Walking the Line

On another forum, a colleague raised several interesting questions, ones that we need to address. Ultimately, the questions, although paraphrased below, boil down to this:

Did I cross the line?

The questions our colleague asked were these (as distilled by me; I did not receive permission to quote directly from the message our colleague posted):

  • Because I have years of editing experience, cannot I assume that my edits are always reasonable and correct and that the client — whether author or publisher — should both accept and trust my judgement?
  • Because the client should accept and trust my judgement, is there really any need for me to provide an explanation in a comment?
  • Because the client is free to accept or reject any or all of my edits, is there any reason why I should spend the extra time to add the explanations?
  • What are the limits, if any, to my role as a copyeditor?

Our colleague’s message began with an example of a sentence that our colleague edited. Because I do not have permission to quote the original sentence and our colleague’s alteration, I have mimicked the original and the change:

 Original: “The regime collapsed as a result of a decline in population from misguided birth control policies, the reintroduction of previously wiped out diseases from the regime’s refusal to allow vaccination, and famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production.”

Change: “The political hypotheses for the regime’s collapse include a decline in population from birth control policies, the reintroduction of epidemic diseases from the regime’s antivaccination campaign, and famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.”

The client pointed out to our colleague that the changes were made without any explanatory comment and asked, as an example, for justification for the change from “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.” Our colleague’s justification for describing the farm policies as “Stalinist” was that our colleague just knew it — the information came from her acquired knowledge.

Did our colleague cross any lines? How do we answer our colleague’s questions?

Because I Have Years of Editing Experience…

Unfortunately, this is the approach of many editors. Yet, it is not a valid approach to our job. No matter what the author has written — be it novel, biography, scientific treatise — when it comes to subject matter, the author is expert, even if the author is not.

The role of the copyeditor is not to developmental edit. The copyeditor’s focus is on grammar, spelling, word choice, not on rewriting. Rewriting should be incidental, an occasional occurrence. Under no circumstance should the copyeditor interject their own knowledge except in the form of a query. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the author who will ultimately be held responsible for the quality of the book. We have discussed this author–editor relationship before (see, e.g., Relationships & the Unwritten Rules and The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners).

More importantly, “I just know” is not something we would accept from an author. We would require the author of a biography to have a comprehensive bibliography, to be able to cite sources for statements given as fact (opinion, of course, is a different matter). Importantly, even if we construe an author’s statement as opinion, we want it to be the author’s opinion, not the opinion of an anonymous editor whose credentials to draw the conclusion are unknown and may be nonexistent.

In the absence of provable subject matter expertise, the editor’s alterations cannot be given the status of “always reasonable” nor can they, even if reasonable, ever be given the status of blind acceptance: Clients should neither accept nor trust the editor’s judgement on items that fall outside the editor’s known expertise or outside the responsibilities for which the editor has been hired.

Because the Client Should Accept and Trust My Judgment…

This was generally addressed above but the question is really about the need to provide explanations. The need to provide an explanation should be unquestioned. Editors are suggesters not arbiters of fact. If a sentence can be better written without changing meaning or author voice, then making the change and asking the author if the change is OK is acceptable.

But it is never acceptable for the editor to add to or substitute for the author’s facts — except by way of comment. I have edited many hundreds of books in my 30 years of editing, including books in my area of educational expertise. Yet, I have made it a rule to never alter an author’s facts; I always query (e.g., “Do you think that the addition of XYZ would better represent your view?” “According to Professor Smith, ABC was caused by poor logistical planning. Do you think it is worth mentioning or discussing here as further explanation of your perspective? See Smith, xxxxx.”)

If I know something is amiss, I try to let the author know something is amiss by commenting. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that I am not so currently knowledgeable about the topics I am editing that I can infallibly rewrite what the (expert) author has written.

Comments are always justified; uncommented substantive changes are never justified.

Because the Client Is Free to Accept or
Reject Any or All of My Edits…

This is the traditional editor excuse, yet it neglects to address a very important topic: the editor–client relationship.

First, I never think that an author wants to spend hours going over my edits. Deciding whether the change from about to approximately is justified is boring enough but after seeing the change a dozen times, the author soon learns whether such changes can be skipped over (i.e., the author evaluates the editor’s credibility). But that is not true of substantive changes.

Second, I think about the message I send the author when I make a substantive change without explanation. Am I not telling the author that I am the one who should have written the book? And why should the author have to guess at why I made the substantive change? An author will accept that I changed “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies” because three paragraphs earlier the author referred to the “Stalinist farming policies” as the cause of famine and malnutrition, especially if I make the change and include an explanatory note. But the author is likely to be upset by my change in the absence of the explanation and then resistant to other suggestions and changes.

Basically, I see making substantive changes without explanation as an invitation to disaster. With the explanation, I increase my credibility as an editor; without the explanation, I risk angering the author and making the author lose faith in my ability as an editor. I also risk making the author take a “stand-your-ground” attitude toward other editorial suggestions I make.

Regardless of whether the client can accept or reject any changes the editor has made, not providing an explanation for a substantive change jeopardizes the editor’s credibility. Which brings us to the penultimate question:

What Are the Limits, If Any, to My Role as a Copyeditor?

The line between copyeditor and developmental editor is not a bright line. We discussed the roles 4.5 years ago in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, but the demarcation is worth repeating.

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure, as well as with the accuracy of the subject matter content. It is the developmental editor’s role to suggest other causes of an event to an author and even to rewrite sentences and paragraphs to reflect those suggestions. Yet, even the developmental editor needs to query the author about the changes being made, although such querying may be done more broadly, such as “I have rewritten the next five paragraphs to reflect the discussion of the subject found in chapter 3.”

The copyeditor’s role, on the other hand, is to focus on the mechanics of the manuscript — such things as, grammar, spelling, punctuation, conformance to a style, and consistency. Rewrites should be very limited, often to compact a sentence by removing redundancies or to ensure that, for example, material is in the present tense. It is not the copyeditor’s job to rewrite substantively. At most the copyeditor should suggest a substantive change in a comment.

In the case of our colleague, I think our colleague crosses that fine line that an editor needs to walk. Hired as a copyeditor, our colleague should not have crossed over into developmental editing without including an explanatory comment.

It is not unusual to see negative comments about editors generally. I think these comments come about as the result of numerous factors, one of which is the crossing of the line. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor


  1. Excellent post. I totally agree. I think it also comes down to respect – editors shouldn’t have a ‘I know better’ attitude. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance.


    Comment by Sophie Playle — June 18, 2014 @ 5:31 am | Reply

  2. A lot of the editing I do for novels hovers on the fuzzy line between heavy copyediting and substantive editing. I’ve learned three ways to avoid the problems that go with crossing the line. (1) A service agreement that specifies, in a bullet list, exactly what types of changes I expect to make in the manuscript, which the author reads and signs before the job starts; (2) a weekly progress report discussing what types of things I’ve noticed in the story and any patterns I’m responding to (e.g., deleting pet phrases that occur dozens of times, overuse of prepositions), including an example of before/after to illustrate; and (3) a cover letter upon delivery of the manuscript that recaps items 1 and 2. I also query any point of logistical confusion, with as long as explanation as necessary to make the point and suggest a solution.

    I emphasize at the beginning and the end of the job that Track Changes allows the author to see every little thing I’ve done and reject anything they’re not happy with. I also invite them to ask questions and point out problem areas.

    So far, this has been a successful approach — the point where I’m frequently amazed by how happy authors are with the hammering I do to their work!


    Comment by Carolyn — June 18, 2014 @ 5:55 am | Reply

  3. Both example sentences require mental gymnastics on the part of the reader.

    The simple solution is to break down the sentence into smaller parts. This produces and easier to read text and removes the need to severely change the words used.




    Comment by Peter Sanders — June 18, 2014 @ 6:51 am | Reply

  4. […] Regardless of whether the client can accept or reject any changes the editor has made, not providing an explanation for a substantive change jeopardizes the editor’s credibility. Which brings us to…  […]


    Pingback by The Business of Editing: Walking the Line | Edi... — June 18, 2014 @ 7:22 am | Reply

  5. The most objectionable thing, from my point of view, is that (though without broader context I can’t be sure) the editor seems to be imposing her own belief and worldview on the client’s text. That’s a very bad idea, in my book.


    Comment by Miranda Ottewell — June 18, 2014 @ 9:41 am | Reply

  6. The part of the change that bothered me the most was substituting “The political hypotheses for the regime’s collapse include a decline” for the original “The regime collapsed as a result of a decline.” Unless the book or section is about the various political hypotheses of this decline, the original should be kept (and even if the subject were hypotheses, the change should still be queried). Back in the day, when I learned how to write college papers, we were told to not use intro phrases like “I think, ” I feel” (never, ever, unless talking about literal feelings), “it is said,” etc. Anything describing the reasons that caused some event is assumed to be the author’s view, unless citing another work. Changing the strong “The regime collapsed” to the weak “political hypotheses” takes away the author’s strong voice. It’s up to the readers and reviewers of the book or article to decide for themselves if the author has justified his or her views.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 18, 2014 @ 10:41 am | Reply

  7. I do often correct things based on my personal knowledge base, but I provide reasons/sources for doing so. If I see a factual error or ungrounded assumption in a client’s work, I’ll use the comment function to tactfully call attention to it and suggest that the author rework the info. I only make actual changes along such lines if (a) the client has said that’s what s/he wants, (b) I can back it up with a reference to a reputable source for my version or correction, and (c) I’m not actually rewriting to fit my world view (which is kinda item b).
    I saw this original discussion in the same place that Rich did, and had a similar reaction – that the copyeditor overstepped or crossed a line. Not so much that the copyeditor was wrong, but that s/he was inserting her/himself into the material inappropriately.
    There have been times when I’ve made a grammar fix without being able to quote a specific rule or reference to support it, but if that happens, I tell the client. My clients trust me to fix grammar problems and rarely question those, but would be very upset if I made factual changes without explanations or backup references. They’d be even more upset if I changed voice, which I don’t do.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 18, 2014 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  8. I don’t like to pepper my work with queries (and authors won’t know which are important and which are not if there are too many), but I recently queried the change of a single letter: “affect changes” to “effect changes.” I thought the latter was the intent of the author, but because these two words are so often confused, and “effect” as a verb is not often used, I made the change and queried with an explanation.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 18, 2014 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  9. Thank you for your response about the original post (which I saw). I was horrified at the editor’s point of view about the role of the editor. I have more than three decades of experience as an editor and I always explain my edits (in the most respectful and diplomatic way possible). Clients thank me again and again for the things I teach them by way of explanation, and I often learn valuable things when discussing proposed changes with clients. I also question a lot (never assume), offer suggested wordings or rewrites, and let the client determine the words they want to use.


    Comment by Lea — June 18, 2014 @ 12:01 pm | Reply

  10. Yes, I’d say changing the meaning of the sentence is going just a mite too far. I would find another editor if I saw something like that on something of mine.

    As for experience in editing, the TYPE of editing involved should be considered. An author friend of mine is having one of his earlier works re-released by the same publisher, and complains that he’s had to write “stet” more times per chapter than he usually has per novel, thanks to the editor assigned to this version not realizing that colloquialisms, archaicisms and the like made by some of the characters are necessary to establishing their different voices. Something else to remember when setting up a style sheet.


    Comment by anansii — June 18, 2014 @ 7:26 pm | Reply

  11. Very interesting and valuable article on a subject close to my heart. Respect for our authors/clients is paramount. Maybe all copyeditors could read this article and re-read it every few months as a reminder of the role of copyeditor.


    Comment by Etty Payne — June 19, 2014 @ 5:57 am | Reply

  12. Really great post. For simple (more obvious) suggestions, I usually don’t comment. For some that might not be so obvious, I do. And I always sent a letter with every round of edits (by email) explaining the overarching issues I found, but also complimenting what he or she does well. I make it clear that my edits are suggestions and the book or work is his or hers.


    Comment by emmakatetsai — June 20, 2014 @ 9:10 am | Reply

  13. Wow. Excellent post with details that highlight important issues. For me, the editor crossed WAY over the line, especially without any apparent discussion with the author. I found the meaning of the original sentence to be significantly changed.

    The disinterest in a good working relationship with the author is not a good omen for this editor. Based on the attitude you describe, it’s not what I would seek in an editor when I’m wearing my writing that, nor is it what I want when I’m editing.

    I too rely on track changes and comments to show my thought process… it’s the author’s choice whether to go through them, but I do put them in that way (not for simple corrections, but again, those can be seen in track changes).

    Editing is about 10 percent black and white with the rest being pretty gray… on of the reasons I find it endlessly fascinating.


    Comment by ML Hart (@MsMartha_writer) — June 26, 2014 @ 12:55 pm | Reply

  14. […] in a World of Cheap“, “The Business of Editing: Expectations“, and “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line”, to cite a few […]


    Pingback by Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics | An American Editor — July 9, 2014 @ 4:03 am | Reply

  15. […] In the business of editing, do you know when you’ve crossed the line? American Editor blogger Rich Adin provides a nice article on copy editing and what lines not to cross with your clients. (American Editor) […]


    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: July’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace — July 30, 2014 @ 10:05 am | Reply

  16. […] discussed this before (see, e.g., “Dealing with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget […]


    Pingback by The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor | An American Editor — April 1, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply

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