An American Editor

May 20, 2015

Editing for Clarity

The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning. Consider this example from “The Birth of a Nation” by Dick Lehr (2014, p. 29):

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

(The book is an excellent look at D.W. Griffith’s movie “Birth of a Nation” and its effect on race relations at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Are you confused by the quote? I know I was when I read it. I eventually figured out what the author intended, but this quote is ripe for editorial intervention.

What causes the problem is the em-dash bracketed phrase “perhaps only one in six, according to one account.” When I first read the sentence, I thought “one in six is not a majority. Does the author mean one in six families did not own slaves or that one in six families did own slaves? The context made it clear that the author meant that only one in six families owned slaves, but the sentence permits other interpretations.

If I were the book’s editor, I would have flagged this sentence for review. I would have queried the author and suggested several alternatives. For example:

Only a small minority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — owned slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps five in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six owned slaves, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

Each alternative is, I think, clearer (with the first two alternatives better than the third) and better puts across the author’s meaning without interrupting the reading flow. And this is what an editor does — help the author hone her prose.

The question is this: Is this the job of a copyeditor?

The answer is difficult. I think clients do not distinguish between types of editors very well and see editorial roles as blurred, ill-defined. Editors, themselves, similarly blur those lines of separation, making client expectations as to what an editor will do different from what the editor expects to do.

Fundamentally, the role of every editor is to help an author reach the author’s readers. Clarity of expression is the understood key to a successful author–reader relationship; copyeditors address questions of grammar and spelling, which are essential to clarity, so addressing sentence construction does not seem outside the bounds of the copyeditor’s responsibilities. I know that I include sentence construction in my editing.

What I do not include as part of copyediting is reorganization; that is a developmental editor’s job. Organization is a time-consuming job and requires multiple readings of a manuscript. Copyediting is very time-sensitive, with the schedule being too short to permit developmental editing. Sentence construction is, however, another matter.

Copyeditors are responsible for ensuring clarity. It is not that we need to rewrite every sentence to make every sentence the best it can be; rather, it is that we need to rewrite or suggest rewriting of sentences that are not clear, that interrupt the flow of reading and require a reader to momentarily halt and devote time to determining what the author intends.

The appropriate role for a copyeditor is to query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. There are times when all we can do is query because the fix is elusive; over my years of editing I have encountered many sentences that I could not guess what the author meant and thus could not suggest a fix. Much more often, I could suggest a simple fix.

Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex. Whatever the fix, we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible). That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

9 Comments »

  1. […] The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning.  […]

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    Pingback by Editing for Clarity | Editorial tips and tools ... — May 20, 2015 @ 7:37 am | Reply

  2. I agree, because that’s exactly how I approach a manuscript: “… query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. … Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex.”

    I read until I stumble. When that happens, I tweak if the fix is simple, and query with suggestions and explanations if not. Rough manuscripts get a lot of both. Beyond that, I groom for consistency, trim out redundancy, and flag items of dubious credibility. Addressing just that group of things improves a manuscript enormously without interfering with author voice.

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    Comment by Carolyn — May 20, 2015 @ 7:49 am | Reply

  3. This is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make to my Copyediting III students this term. A few folks are really struggling with the distinction.

    I can think of situations in which I’d only query the quote you give, offering a possible rewrite, but most times my marching orders allow that rewrite. Reorganizing paragraphs? Eliminating or adding ideas to “fix” the argument? Not copyediting. A copyeditor can be hired to do more than copyediting, of course, but that needs to be discussed before editing starts.

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    Comment by erinbrenner — May 20, 2015 @ 8:40 am | Reply

    • Follow-up: I shared this post with my CE III students, and they report that it has really clarified things for them (no pun intended). I’m going to add this article to the regular reading list for this course. Thanks, Rich!

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      Comment by erinbrenner — May 28, 2015 @ 1:38 pm | Reply

  4. I approach each project in much the same was as you, Mr. Adin. While I edit primarily fiction (and mostly YA within that), the need for clarity of communication is no less than with nonfiction. I edit for everything up to the developmental level. Only once have I reorganized a chapter, and the entire time I was working on it I was in contact with the author via emails and social media posts, ensuring I was improving the flow. (He was ultimately delighted with the result.)

    If the change is grammatical or mechanical, often I simply make it without a query. My clients have come to trust me to that extent. If I see an opportunity for teaching, I take it by commenting about why I made the change. If nothing is actually wrong, but I feel I have a better way to say it, I’ll highlight and leave a comment or query. Finally, as you show in your example about slavery, if there’s a problem with multiple solutions I highlight and comment and explain. (Yes, i was a language arts teacher. I can’t help myself.)

    “First, do no harm” is always at the forefront no matter what the project. Maintaining author voice while ensuring clarity is the ultimate goal.

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    Comment by grammargeddonangel — May 20, 2015 @ 8:41 am | Reply

  5. “we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible)” – yes! “That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.” – also yes!

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — May 21, 2015 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  6. I’m agree. But in my country there is a poor line between be a professional copyeditor, who do that, and the mediocre editor, who wants to find an excellent text when his work is needed.

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    Comment by Ella Suárez — May 25, 2015 @ 6:11 pm | Reply

  7. […] Most interesting was what the editor — in my opinion — failed to rewrite. There were several instances where she should have said “I can say it better” and done so, but didn’t. Yet we fall back to the big bugaboo: Why is my opinion any more valuable or accurate than her opinion? I do not know if my alternatives were truly better than the author’s — I certainly think they were — but I do know it was problematic to leaving the author’s writing as it was because of the difficulty in determining what he meant. (For a discussion of clarity, see Editing for Clarity.) […]

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    Pingback by I Can Say It Better | An American Editor — June 17, 2015 @ 4:04 am | Reply


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