An American Editor

January 14, 2015

Dealing with Editor’s Bias

The one thing, aside from my being a professional editor and not just an editor, that I like to think I am is bias-free. Of course, that is more wishful thinking than reality.

Reality runs more like this: Every editor is biased. The important question is: Do I recognize my biases? If I do not recognize my biases, I fail to provide the quality and level of service my client pays me for.

Which raises another question: Is there a relationship between bias control and fee being earned? That is, is a high-paying client entitled to greater effort on my part to control my biases than is a low-paying client?

From the beginning — every editor is biased. We have subject-matter biases, client biases, and editorial biases, among a world of other biases. Client and subject-matter biases are easily dealt with: we simply do not (hopefully) undertake projects in areas we abhor or from clients we cannot stand. For most of us, the problematic area is editorial biases.

One of my editorial biases is “due to.” How I hate that phrase. Yes, it does have a proper place and use, and then it should be crowned king. But authors use “due to” to mean so many different things that it has come to represent the sign of a lazy author. The author may be brilliant — a genius in the field — but the author who uses due to as a substitute is lazy. And to my way of thinking, the editor who (speaking nonfiction, not fiction) doesn’t try to replace the vagueness of “due to” with the more precise and accurate term it is substituting for is even lazier than the author.

There are at least 20 alternatives for “due to” and each alternative carries important connotations and levels of precision. The point is that I know I have a bias against the use of “due to” and instead want more precise language used so that the reader does not have to guess at which alternative is meant.

I also prefer precision in time; I have a time bias. For example, I dislike when an author writes “in recent years” or “in the past 20 years.” Using this type of time reference allows the time to shift. The shift occurs because the reference was made when the author was writing the sentence, which could have been 5 years ago or 2 days ago, but doesn’t allow for the passage of time since the writing of those words, or for the editing and production time until publication, or for the book’s expected several-year shelf-life.

There are other words I have a bias against, such as “since” as a substitute for “because” and “about” as a substitute for “approximately.” Many of us also have biases when it comes to hyphenation (is it “co-author” or “coauthor”? “copy-edit” or “copyedit”?). I am aware of my biases and try to be judicious in my application of the biases. Where it doesn’t affect understanding or meaning, I weigh whether or not to act on my bias. Quite often that decision is made based on the subject matter and complexity of the book I am editing.

Yet, there is one more constraint on the exercise of my biases: Can I justify my decision to act/not act? Justification does not include “I like it better” or “It looks better to me.” Clearly, “due to” is liked better and looks better to the author. My justification for changing “due to” is grounded in clarity/precision versus vagueness/imprecision.

Yet, in discussions with colleagues, I find that the answer depends on whether what I view as editorial biases are viewed as a bias or as basic grammar/editing matters. That is, if the colleague believes that word choice is not a matter of bias but purely a matter of usage or grammar, the colleague sees no reason to either think about the issue or to exercise control. Thus, in the case of “due to,” the colleague would rarely, if ever, change or query its use. For such colleague, “since” is always properly used to convey the passing of time and as meaning “because.”

I asked earlier if there is a relationship between my control of my biases and the fee paid by the client. The answer is “no.” Regardless of how much I am being paid, I should always control my biases because my role is to help the author, not substitute for the author. From an ethical perspective, “no” is the only correct answer.

For colleagues who do not view these things as editorial biases, the question does not arise. It only arises for those of us who take the time to consider whether “since” is being used to convey a sense of time or as a substitute for “because.” It becomes an issue for us because the longer we take in deciding what “due to” is substituting for, the less money we will earn if we are on a per-page or project fee rather than an hourly basis.

A final thought: To do a proper editing job, we need to create and maintain a project stylesheet. It is appropriate to include in the stylesheet the “rules” we are following when it comes to our biases. Alternatively, we could insert a note, in the form of a query, at the first instance in which we explain the rule we are following. For example, the following could be used either as a note to the author or as a stylesheet explanation:

Although in today’s English “since” and “because” are considered synonymous, I adhere to the rule that “since” is used to express the passage of time, as in “since 2000,” and the terms are not synonymous. I adhere to this rule because I believe it makes your meaning both clearer and more precise, and considering the subject matter, clarity and precision are important tools for ensuring there is no miscommunication between you and your reader.

Do you recognize your editorial biases? How do you deal with them?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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