An American Editor

August 20, 2014

The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit

The title may tell you that I am a bit frustrated. But let’s begin this story at the beginning.

My daughter wrote a nonfiction book that was accepted by a major crossover publisher for fall publication. (A crossover publisher is, in this instance, one that publishes academic titles for popular consumption — think Doris Kearns Goodwin-type books, which are well-researched nonfiction and could be written and published for a strictly academic market but instead are written and published to appeal to both academics and consumers.) Everything has been going smoothly with the process and my daughter has been very happy with the publisher.

Except that like far too many publishers these days, this publisher outsources to a packager the editing and production services. When told that the copyediting would be outsourced, my daughter asked about the assigned copyeditor. She was told that the editor had worked with the packager for more than 6 years, and was considered an outstanding editor — in fact, she was considered to be the best of the editors who worked for this packager.

Hearing that made my daughter feel better and gave her high hopes that the editing would be high quality.

Then I started receiving phone calls with questions about Chicago style, capitalization, whether it was OK to change “was” to “had been” in every instance, and on and on. Finally, my daughter asked me point blank: “Should I panic about the quality of the editing?”

I had not seen the edited manuscript but assured my daughter that some of the changes, such as removal of serial commas, were a matter of preference and house style and not (generally) something to panic over unless meaning was changed. I also suggested that she read more of the edited manuscript before coming to any conclusions about the editing.

Then she dropped the bombshell: The editor altered/rewrote direct quotations, making ungrammatical quotes grammatical. “Is this what a copyeditor does?” she asked.

Now I began to panic and asked her to send me a sample chapter to look at.

Within 15 minutes I saw that the editing was unacceptable in multiple ways and that my daughter not only needed to panic but needed to contact the publisher immediately. The editing was a disaster. (I also subsequently learned that no one told my daughter that as the author she could accept or reject any of the editor’s changes; she assumed that she had to accept the editor’s changes on the basis that this was the editor’s area of expertise. I quickly disabused her of that notion.) Once she explained to the publisher the problems she was finding and some of my comments, the publisher agreed that the book needed to be reedited by a different editor.

Which brings me to the commandment: Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue) should not be changed, you should not claim to be an editor. I was taught that basic principle in sixth grade, if not even earlier. If you do not know that editing changes are to be limited to those that do not change the meaning of the sentence or paragraph, then do not claim to be an editor.

More importantly than not claiming to be an editor, you should not edit — period.

An editor is supposed to understand the value and meaning of words and how they fit, or do not fit, within the structure of a sentence and paragraph. When a sentence reads “…when he suddenly awoke…”, an editor needs to think twice about deleting “suddenly”: “…when he awoke…” is not the same as “…when he suddenly awoke…”. And if you think “suddenly” is unneeded and should be deleted, you should explain why you are deleting the word (or suggesting deletion). As an editor, you should know the importance and value of communicating with the author your reasoning for nonobvious changes.

In the case of my daughter’s book, this was a major failing of the editor. Not a single change that the editor made in the entire book was accompanied by an explanatory note, not even something as simple as “changed per Chicago.” Providing an explanation is fundamental to maintaining good author–editor relations. We have discussed this in detail before (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often?).

The question that arises is: How does someone know that they do not know the basics? If you don’t know something, you don’t know that you don’t know it. And in the case of my daughter’s editor, supposedly she had been a professional editor for 6 years and was receiving superior grades.

This is a tough question and it is a question that vexes authors who hire an editor. The only solution I know of is to ask for a sample edit. The problem is that there is an underlying assumption when a sample edit is asked for: That the person who will review the sample edit actually knows enough about editing that the reviewer can separate the wheat from the chaff. As my daughter noted, she has no experience and wouldn’t know whether the editor was correcting her mistakes or creating new mistakes. My daughter can fall back on me to review the sample but most authors and in-house production staff do not have someone to fall back on.

In the end, all an author can really do is rely on “gut” feeling unless, as occurred in my daughter’s case, a blatant, basic error repeatedly occurs (in this instance, it was the altering of direct quotes).

Editors can instill confidence by adding explanations and by knowing the basics of editing, such as direct quotes in nonfiction are left as they are but may be queried; that one doesn’t make a change unless it improves the sentence and doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning; that you don’t change tenses willy-nilly; that an editor’s role mimics that of the doctor — do no harm; that it is better to break a sentence into multiple sentences than to make an incoherent sentence even more incoherent.

Alas, my daughter’s experience convinces me even more of the need for a national editor’s accreditation. Her experience also convinces me that a significant part of the problem is the willingness of publishers to leave the task of finding qualified editors to third-party vendors whose interests are not synchronous with the publisher or author’s interest.

I’m not too worried about my daughter’s book, but I do worry about authors who do not have someone knowledgeable they can call on for help in evaluating the quality of editing. No matter what, ultimately the responsibility lies with the person offering the editing service, and that person should remember the commandment:

Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. Dear Mr. Adin,

    Interesting article. However, you omitted a vital part of the sentence here:

    “If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction _________________________ (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue), you should not claim to be an editor.”

    Best regards,

    Romy de Courtay


    Comment by Romy de Courtay — August 20, 2014 @ 7:44 am | Reply

    • I saw this morning that the wrong draft of the article was posted and sent out. The sentence was fixed and is now correct online. Sorry about the inconvenience. I’m trying to juggle too many things simultaneously. The sentence, as it should have been, now reads: “If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue) should not be changed, you should not claim to be an editor.” The bolded portion is the missing portion.


      Comment by americaneditor — August 20, 2014 @ 9:00 am | Reply

  2. I think that not only new authors but some of these packaging companies don’t know what constitutes good, or even simply appropriate, editing. It’s a huge problem. An author may not know what an editor should do or how to determine if an editor knows what s/he’s doing. A packager may be in it just for the money and not have any real knowledge of the (English, in this case) language, so no way of knowing if its editors are any good.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 20, 2014 @ 11:09 am | Reply

  3. Morning Richard –
    I rode your tide of emotion through the first half of your post, thinking: Wow, he’s really pi– … you know the rest.

    I would like to think your daughter’s experience was unique, but I have had too many clients come to me bearing their mangled manuscript and harboring severe paranoia after having the same type of experience.

    National accreditation is a need that has been shouted from the rooftops. You were personally affected by this need, which seems to be the tipping point for most of us. We know there is a need, but until it breaks a window in our own house we may not bang the drum.

    I also agree that explaining everything you do to a manuscript is essential. Not only is this professional courtesy, but can be a tremendous help to the author. Editing is my humble way of supporting another creative soul – and has always proven to be a tremendous learning opportunity – for the author and for me!

    Thank you for the valuable post – always a pleasure.


    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — August 20, 2014 @ 11:57 am | Reply

  4. From the copyeditor’s perspective, I’ve had varying experiences working for book packagers. I’m working for one now that is great. In the past, some have started out good but then subsequently lowered their prices (on project fees). In general, I’ve found that the best packagers are niche companies; that is, they deal with a narrow range of subject matter or only a few publishers. The generalist ones, in my experience, were also the most penny-pinching ones.

    I feel sorry for the authors who have no control over what packager their publisher is using.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 20, 2014 @ 12:04 pm | Reply

  5. I meant to add that if a book packager is a lousy payer or otherwise hard for copyeditors to work with, that does not bode well for the author. The editor who is working on Rich’s daughter’s book may be the best one that packager has, but that doesn’t really tell us how she rates versus other copyeds in general. If the packager is a low payer, its pool of copyeditors certainly won’t be the best. A good argument for some kind of certification or some way to measure competence.


    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — August 20, 2014 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  6. Of course, one problem with urging the less-than-skilled to back off and not edit is that they aren’t reading blogs like this one.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 22, 2014 @ 12:47 am | Reply

  7. You’ve touched on one of my biggest sources of editing-business-related vexation. I edit primarily self-published fiction, and since fiction authors vary widely in their own levels of fluency with grammar, mechanics and punctuation (never mind the intricacies of Chicago style), some of them aren’t terribly capable of evaluating the quality of editing services they receive. Moreover, several of my “competitors” seem to be suffering from Stage IV Dunning-Kruger syndrome, and since they don’t know that they don’t know what they’re doing, they do things like post hilariously error-riddled work samples on their own websites–one presented a sentence along the lines of “he walked down to the beach, which took him an hour to do that” as being correct and then noted that he had to add the comma for the highly technical reason that (from memory, it was something like this) “otherwise, the word ‘which’ came up on the word ‘beach’ too quickly”!

    However, I find it rather depressing that such unqualified editors not only exist and feel the need to hang out their own shingles but are able to find professional employment with organizations that should be able to weed them out and hire qualified editors. I’d love to see national accreditation for editors.


    Comment by Eliza Dee — August 23, 2014 @ 6:06 pm | Reply

  8. Judging from the examples you gave, I would say that the “copyeditor” wasn’t even attempting anything approaching hands-on/eyes-on editing — those are typical incorrrect autocorrect “corrections”! Don’t know what’s more egregious, incompetence or cynical laziness.


    Comment by edlk — August 25, 2014 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  9. Alas, this experience is not isolated. I was (had been?) dismayed to find that even multi-award-winning authors seem to be given over to inexperienced (unqualified?) editors. Leading one to set out guidelines for his editors that include requirements such as “If suggesting a change to my usage, please query with CMS section number or Words Into Type page reference.” I feel it is a great disrespect to assign such “editors” to such an author, unless they’re taking on a mentorship role.


    Comment by Adrienne Montgomerie (@sciEditor) — August 26, 2014 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  10. I am not accredited anywhere, but am considered by most who know me to be an exceptional proofreader and editor. My mother, a national-award-winning poet, deferred to me for final edits of her work. I have always requested final edit of my own writing when it was sent for publication. Too often, I have seen print-ready copy mangled by hacks with control issues, who thought they would just give it another look. Infuriating. Mother’s posthumous books went to press with handfuls of glaring errors, simply because I was not given last read of the material. She would be rolling in her grave with embarrassment. Every Tom, Dick or Harry seems to consider himself a qualified editor these days. I am 100% in favor of an accreditation exam.


    Comment by Greta Menamin-Roach — August 27, 2014 @ 5:42 pm | Reply

  11. […] book, The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s by Mariah Adin, in The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit. (By way of a quick update, those troubles continue. I have advised her that in future contracts, […]


    Pingback by What Should Editors Read? | An American Editor — September 3, 2014 @ 4:01 am | Reply

  12. I’m a little surprised that no one has pointed out that the heading should read “Thou Shalt”!


    Comment by Irene — October 7, 2017 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

    • Actually, “Thou Shall” is not incorrect.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by americaneditor — October 7, 2017 @ 3:10 pm | Reply

    • Grammatically, “shall” is not wrong. To be fully biblical in form, the statement would not have a contraction, e.g., “Thou Shalt Know the Basics or Do Not Edit.” In this instance, though, “shall” goes with “don’t”; however, since the main title contains the word “Commandments” and the subtitle opens with “Thou,” one can understand the expectation of “shalt.” 😉


      Comment by edlk — October 7, 2017 @ 4:29 pm | Reply

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