I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Engineer’s Lament” (The New Yorker, May 4, 2015), an article I highly recommend, when I came across this quote (p. 48 of the print version):
No one tells you to build a perfect car. People tell you to build a car in eighteen months that will sell for twenty-five thousand dollars.…[I]mperfections and compromise are inevitable.
If I were to write that quote for my editing business (and I suspect your editing business, too), it would read something like this:
Clients tell you to build a perfect manuscript. Clients tell you to edit a manuscript of one thousand pages in seven days that will be error-free and cost less than one thousand dollars.…[I]mperfections and compromise are unacceptable.
I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I am not. I am finding that client demands are increasingly impossible. I try to be politic when responding to clients, but sometimes I just want to scream in frustration.
Recently, I worked on a book that had I known was going to be as much trouble as it became, I would have refused the project at any price. Not only was the schedule difficult, which I knew upfront, but the client became increasingly difficult as the project progressed.
I would turn in a chapter and two weeks later I would receive the chapter back with the in-house “editor’s” comments. I put editor in quotes because if the person is a qualified editor, he hides those qualifications very well.
Did the editor catch some errors? Yes, he did. In one 120+-page chapter he found a serial comma I missed. And he also found a few other minor errors. But when berating me for missing those errors, he ignored (or refused to recognize) that to meet the schedule, I had to edit 400 to 450 pages per week, that the authors of the chapter were not native English speakers/writers, and that the editing of the chapter was very extensive with significant rewriting. For the client, the key was that the editing wasn’t perfect.
Compounding my exasperation was all the time I had to spend explaining why, for example, a phrase was sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not hyphenated. I ultimately learned that it was decided by the client’s in-house editorial team that either a phrase was always hyphenated or never hyphenated and thus they changed the editing and assigned this as to editor’s error.
Which made me think of “The Engineer’s Lament” — editors are expected to be perfect but engineers are not.
I’ve decided not to accept work from this client again because the client is a very-high maintenance client. I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought the client’s in-house editorial staff had a good grasp of editing, language, and grammar — but my discussions with them indicated they do not.
The problems begin, I think, with the expectation of perfection. For there to be perfection in editing, there must be inflexibility. There must be a rule that is always applicable, in all circumstances, that is never deviated from, such as the client’s rule that a phrase is either always hyphenated or never hyphenated, not sometimes hyphenated depending on how it is used. There may be languages in which such a rule exists, but that language is certainly not U.S. English.
Once a client starts thinking in terms of perfection, the editor is bound to fail. Too much of editing is opinion for perfection to be achievable. What we can achieve can come close, but how close depends on many factors that are independent of but greatly influence editing. One example is schedule.
Schedule is interesting because clients set an editing schedule based on another schedule of which editing is but a part. It is best described as a schedule within a schedule within a schedule. Editing must be done by a certain date in order to meet a typesetting schedule that has to be completed by a certain date so as to meet a printing schedule, which has to be completed by a certain date to meet a marketing schedule. The concern is not for the difficulty of the editing but for how the editing schedule helps meet the other schedules. How quickly and accurately a manuscript can be edited depends on the quality of the writing, the subject matter, what the editor is expected to do in addition to spelling and grammar, whether the authors are native writers of the language involved, and myriad other things. But clients rarely consider any (or, at best, no more than one or two) of these dependencies when setting a schedule.
When an engineer is given a schedule, it is recognized that to meet the schedule means compromises have to be made. When editors are given a schedule, compromise on quality is not a consideration. That there has to be compromises means there will be a clash between editor and client. Usually the compromise is satisfactory to both parties. It is when the parties clash that there needs to be a reevaluation of the relationship — and when the editor should decide whether to continue with the client.
I try to get clients understand that perfection in editing is a goal that is nearly impossible to meet because so much in editing is opinion based and controlled by schedule. Usually clients understand and accept this; when a client does not, trouble is brewing. Much of the trouble can be averted with an appropriate schedule.
What do you think?
Richard Adin, An American Editor