An American Editor

April 1, 2015

The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor

I like to think that all of my colleagues are professionals. I take pride in my editing career and in my skills as an editor. Thus, when confronted with editorial rigidity, I shudder and think “there goes an unprofessional editor.”

What brings this to mind are posts in another forum in which a “professional” editor declared that using a comma before “and” (as in a serial [Oxford] comma) is always wrong and that the very first thing the editor does is search for those commas to delete them. Another editor stated that she refuses to work with authors who are unwilling to accept as gospel her punctuation decisions, including removal of that pesky comma.

If you ask editors with opinions such as these the basis for their position, it usually boils down to “that’s the rule and rules are rules, made to be adhered to, not broken!” Grammatical rigidity is not, in my book, the sign of a professional editor.

First, think about the rule of no serial commas. If strictly applied, it would be “I thank my parents, John Jones and God,” which is easily interpreted as Jones and God being the parents. Perhaps Jones and God are the parents but what if they are not? What if the thank you was supposed to be “I thank my parents, John Jones, and God,” which is interpretable as “my parents and also Jones and God.” The obvious point is that rigidity in application of editorial rules does not always produce the correct textual meaning.

Second, think about the rules themselves. It is not possible to ascribe them immortality. Language changes, especially English, perhaps French less so thanks to its language academy, and if language changes but the rules do not, we get the awkward constructions that often occur when the “rule” against splitting infinitives or the “rule” prohibiting ending a sentence with a preposition is arbitrarily applied.

Of course, the easy response is that it is today’s rules that are applied today, not yesterday’s rules. But how did yesterday’s rules become yesterday’s rules? Some professional editor had to show flexibility; in the absence of such flexibility no one would have been exposed to the change that is today.

There are many problems with inflexible editors, that is, editors who apply rules so rigidly it is hard to understand what the role of the editor is. Inflexible editors are like computer macros — they see something that fits the pattern and assume that they have the cure. Professional editors use tracking because we know that someone else (usually the author) may well have a different opinion and want to undo the changes we made.

Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited. They are a problem because they tend to cheapen the value of editing.

More importantly, unprofessional editors loudly proclaim what they are doing and thus influence other editors. There is nothing more heartbreaking as an editor to see another editor emulate an unprofessional editor, thinking that is the correct path to take.

There are lots of roads that will lead one down the path of unprofessionalism. Being unethical in one’s dealings with clients and colleagues is certainly such a road. But the more common road is rigidity in thinking and in applying “rules.” I think this road is also the more dangerous for the editorial profession.

How many times has an author posted a comment saying “I used to hire editors until I found that they were all bad” and then listing the reasons why they were bad editors, with a common one being inflexible thinking and rigid application of “rules.”

When I speak with these editors, I often ask if they understand how the “rules” came into being, what they represent, and how evolving language requires flexibility. I find that I am always disappointed in the responses. If I ask which rule book they are following, and then ask why they are not following a different rule book, the response is usually one that asks “Are you crazy? Everyone knows that the book I follow is the book to follow!”

We’ve 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 Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is in its 16th edition. What would be the need for 16 revisions if language, usage, and grammar didn’t change over time?

If the guides we use need to show flexibility, shouldn’t the editor who uses the guides also show some flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a key attribute of professionalism? Isn’t the ultimate test that the reader understands the author’s message?

I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the application of a “rule” either furthers in all instances a reader’s understanding of an author’s message or makes the editor anything more than a robot. To me, the difference between a professional and an unprofessional editor is the editor’s decision making: The unprofessional editor does not need to make editorial decisions because those decisions have already been made for him; the editor only needs to apply them mechanically. The professional editor, however, needs to know the “rule” and needs to make the decision, in each instance, whether to apply or not apply the “rule.” The professional editor needs to make editorial decisions.

I make hundreds of editorial decisions in every project and I am prepared to defend my decisions. I let guides guide me, acting as advisors to inform my decision-making process. I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

24 Comments »

  1. I find that flexibility is paramount when working in fiction. It’s a long-established principle in the arts that you have to know the rules before you can break them to meaningful effect, and darn near every novel breaks something — accidentally or on purpose. So the editor has to be selective in what to impose and what to let go, in a context that differs every time.

    To function consistently as an editor, I adhere to certain standards and relax about others. I use the same style guide and dictionary for all projects (unless client directs otherwise) and am conscientious about building style sheets for each individual project. This can get confusing when working on multiple job simultaneously, but that variability makes the point on just how flexible the language is, and how important it is to match the voice and style of a project to its intended audience. Or else to satisfy multiple masters. Each publisher has different criteria, and every author has a different understanding and level of comfort with the formalities. Clinging rigidly to a particular rule or rule set is a fast way to lose clients and, as AE observes, downgrade the value of editorial services.

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    Comment by Carolyn — April 1, 2015 @ 6:01 am | Reply

  2. Simply applying rules could be done by a computer. It’s knowing when to break the rules that makes a good editor.

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    Comment by Gretchen — April 1, 2015 @ 6:57 am | Reply

  3. […] I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the rigid application of a "rule" either furthers in all instances a reader's understanding of an author's message or ma…  […]

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    Pingback by The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor | Edito... — April 1, 2015 @ 7:33 am | Reply

  4. I follow one rule rigidly: Conveying the author’s intent in the author’s voice to the reader clearly. The guides are merely tools to accomplish that goal.

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    Comment by Leland F. Raymond — April 1, 2015 @ 10:00 am | Reply

    • This. Exactly this. I’m not a copy editor, I am a developmental editor, but this is the one rule I adhere to above all others. “Convey the author’s intent in the author’s voice to the reader clearly.” There is a definite story structure to be followed, but even that doesn’t apply in every circumstance. The thing is, you have to know the “rules” in order to break them effectively, and only as it serves the story. To be inflexible is doing your client a disservice. English is a living language, and like all living things, it moves, breathes, and…well, LIVES.

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      Comment by mznetta — April 2, 2015 @ 3:25 pm | Reply

  5. Sage advice, Richard. Thanks for a thoughtful article. As an editor, context is paramount. Style guidance is great for providing a way to be consistent, but clarity of text is more important. And with fiction, I find that rhythm, flow, and the language itself take precedence over rigid application of rules.

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    Comment by Lea — April 1, 2015 @ 11:31 am | Reply

  6. I think there are unprofessional and unskilled “editors” who don’t even know the rules, and have no business inflicting themselves on authors who don’t know enough about language or publishing to identify an unskilled editor. Many of the people I see in LinkedIn groups and elsewhere who call themselves editors are clearly not versed in the basics.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 1, 2015 @ 11:37 am | Reply

  7. I’m coming to the belief that in many cases editors should adopt a legal principle called stare decis, which is Latin for “to stand by things decided.”

    One illustration are those pesky serial commas. Except when clarity matters, the debate is usually between those who want a comma before the “and” and those who don’t. The result is a lot of squabbling and needless editing.

    Stare decis says that the correct way is the existing way, whatever that is. If one sentence says:

    Bill, Jack and John went to town.

    and the next says:

    Bill, Jack, and John stopped off at MacDonalds.

    That’s fine. No need to add or remove commas. Just let stare decis rule supreme. Both sentences can stand as written. The editors need do nothing.

    One rationale: Readers see both in their reading anyway, so it’s not something they’ve learned to notice. If they adapt from one book to another, they can adapt between one sentence and another.

    What do you think? Should stare decis rule when the proper rule is debated and clarity isn’t an issue?

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    Comment by Michael W. Perry — April 1, 2015 @ 12:32 pm | Reply

    • Many publishers have a house style for serial commas, and the editor’s job is to follow their style.

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      Comment by Gretchen — April 1, 2015 @ 1:32 pm | Reply

    • I say no, absolutely not. If sentence A is in one book and sentence B is in another, sure, fine. Go with the author’s preference (and note it in the style sheet). But allowing such inconsistency to stand is tantamount to malpractice. This is why the author hired you–to catch these things. The whole point of copy editing is ensure consistency throughout the work so that the reader can read smoothly, without having to stop every sentence or two and wonder, “huh, there was a serial comma in the last sentence and there isn’t one in this sentence–does that mean the author is saying something different here?” Readers may not consciously notice consistency, but radical inconsistency is noticed, and it breaks the flow of reading and, more to the point, makes the author look bad. Allowing our clients to look bad is bad business for us.

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      Comment by leslieellenjones — April 1, 2015 @ 2:30 pm | Reply

  8. Consistency is important, especially when there is more than one correct way to do something.

    For example, let’s look at the issue of time. If you leaving at 3 p.m., you can say you are leaving at 3 pm, at 3 p.m., or at 3 PM.

    Opt for one usage of the “p.m.” and stick with it!

    Like

    Comment by Lorraine Marie Reguly — April 2, 2015 @ 3:19 pm | Reply

    • If I am selling my house and get, “Well, I want it and I offer this if you change the carpet and pave the driveway”. Go find another house.
      Someone asking for some submission said, if there are two spaces after a period, she dumps the work immediately.
      I love tons of dialogue, 3rd person omni narration, tons of ellipses, “cuz”, “stuff”, and a comma every time anyone, including
      me, takes a breath. Lots of other books you might like. I suggest The Goldfinch.

      Like

      Comment by virginiallorca — April 3, 2015 @ 2:09 am | Reply

  9. I loved this post, especially the last phrase; “I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.” It perfectly sums up the (professional) editor’s role!

    Like

    Comment by Nicholas C. Rossis — April 3, 2015 @ 7:35 am | Reply

  10. An editor must respect an author’s style or voice. Sometimes this goes against “rules” but it works for the story. I had one author who consistently used a series of short sentences (talking one, two or three words) then a long one (three lines). At first I was going crazy…till I realized this is how she tells a story. So I started over keeping the sentence structures in tact.

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    Comment by sstogner1 — April 3, 2015 @ 9:07 am | Reply

  11. A very much-needed article, thank you! I’ve been a victim of the camp that thinks they are on a dogmatic mission to be the “gatekeepers”, slashing and burning manuscripts in their holy cause. So many promising careers have been killed in embryo by this scorched earth approach. I am fortunate to have escaped that fate and landed an editor that puts my author voice and the reader as #1 priority, just as Leland Raymond said so well. To an author, they are pure gold.

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    Comment by E. J. Godwin — April 3, 2015 @ 10:04 am | Reply

  12. This is not specific to unprofessional editors, more to lack of editors at all. I came across this Amazon review, which said,

    “If I had a dollar for every grammatical error in Noel Kingsbury’s book, Hybrid, I would buy another copy and hit the publishers in the head with it. Every ten pages there was a missing quotation mark, extra conjunction, or in one case a set of dates written as 1967-1958. REALLY? The harvest of 1967-1958 was bad? That makes no sense. Obviously someone needed to make the 5 a 6 and did not do their job. The editor clearly used all his sick days editing this book, or at least SHOULD have done so in order to leave the task to someone more able.

    “With about 100 pages left I lost complete interest in reading Hybrid, decided to write this review to express my discontent (my first review on amazon.com), and half-heartedly got through the rest. This was an otherwise enjoyable summer read for me (I make my living as a horticulturist), but my enjoyment was overshadowed because it felt like I was reading someone’s rough draft. I hope they fix the many mistakes when this book goes to paperback – this is the worst editing I have ever seen.”

    What was shocking was that the book is published by University of Chicago Press. I thought they used editors. But if clients balk at paying good rates for editing, maybe people could show them this review and point out that they can lose readers with poor editing.

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    Comment by Gretchen — April 4, 2015 @ 10:38 am | Reply

    • If clients don’t balk at paying editors and this is the end result, what difference does it make how much or if you pay? How can you ever know if an editor you pay for is smarter or more observant than you? Or, for that matter, on any given day, even cares about his craft. And, yeah, see? That’s a fragment. Big deal.

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      Comment by virginiallorca — April 4, 2015 @ 11:56 am | Reply

  13. I read more reviews (they’re offering the book free), and several others remarked on the editing, so this isn’t just one miffed reader.

    http://www.amazon.com/Hybrid-History-Science-Plant-Breeding/product-reviews/0226437132/ref=cm_cr_dp_see_all_summary

    One cited was: “In a footnote at the bottom of the page, FAO is defined as “FAO Schwartz” which is a famous US toy store!! Not the Food and Agriculture Organization as it should have been. The publisher should be ashamed.”

    This sounds like a computer edited job.

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    Comment by Gretchen — April 4, 2015 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  14. “Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited.”

    You just nailed the cause of “grammar nazism” with that quote. Well done, sir!

    Like

    Comment by stephenajacobi — April 14, 2015 @ 9:43 am | Reply

  15. I also realized in rereading this that there also are so-called editors who don’t know or understand that there are different style manuals – AP vs. Chicago, for instance – that different publications follow. Books usually follow Chicago, which calls for the serial comma. Newspapers and other less-formal (also space-sensitive) materials usually follow AP, which doesn’t, unless there’s a compound unit in a series. Actually, there are people calling themselves editors who don’t even know what style manuals are.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — April 15, 2015 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

  16. […] my essay, “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor,” I discussed inflexibility as a key sign of an unprofessional editor. That essay, combined […]

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    Pingback by So, How Much Am I Worth? | An American Editor — April 29, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply

  17. […] of the more widely disseminated and read essays on An American Editor in recent times was “The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor” in which I stated that one sign of an unprofessional editor is inflexibility. As we all are […]

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    Pingback by It’s Fundamental & Professional, Too | An American Editor — May 13, 2015 @ 4:00 am | Reply


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