An American Editor

July 13, 2015

The Keys to High-Quality Editing

The one thing every professional editor strives to produce is a high-quality edit. This is more difficult today than it was 30 years ago; client demands have made production of high-quality editing increasingly difficult.

Yet there are “keys” to producing high-quality editing.

Accept or reject a project

The keys begin with the decision whether to take on a particular project. A few days ago, I turned on my computer to find five job offers waiting for me. I only accepted one. The one I accepted came with much less onerous demands than the others, which means that I will be able to provide a high-quality edit.

The job I accepted asked me to suggest a schedule based on what the client wanted and the manuscript needed; the others gave me a fixed schedule. After reviewing the manuscript for the accepted job, I suggested that a nine-week schedule was reasonable. The other jobs were for much shorter manuscripts but still required at least a two-week and more likely a three-week schedule; the schedule on offer was one week with no flexibility.

However, there were still problems that had to be addressed with what ultimately became the accepted job. For example, the references and how they were to be formatted. The author used what is for me a rarely seen style for the references: American Chemical Society style. If the manuscript had a handful of references, changing them to Harvard style would not be a problem, but the manuscript has a lot of references and there are a lot of stylistic differences between Harvard and ACS. The client wants the manuscript sooner rather than later, and so it was decided that because the author was consistent, we would use ACS style for the references.

In contrast, a couple of the manuscripts that I rejected didn’t have a single reference style, but the predominant style would have required many hours of work to restyle to conform to the client’s style. Yet the client was unwilling to compromise.

The keys to high-quality editing begin with the decision whether to take on a project or not. Many editors are simply thankful to be offered work and accept jobs without vetting them. This approach leads to a low effective hourly rate and questionable editing quality because it can be a struggle to meet short schedules — especially if the manuscript is not well written.

Effective hourly rate

Another key is ensuring that a project leads to a decent effective hourly rate and a profit. I have noted over the years that many colleagues take on a new project expecting it to go smoothly only to find that it does not. And when it does not, they are faced with the dilemma of ensuring a decent effective hourly rate versus the high quality of editing they prefer to provide. This is the eternal struggle — what to do when the compensation is inadequate.

Of course, it is difficult to know in advance, even if you sample a manuscript, how easy or hard a manuscript will be to edit. But there are certain things one can look for as clues. I have found that authors who very inconsistent and sloppy with references are often the same with the main text, which means more editing work. I have also found that if I see a lot of Word’s squiggly red lines, which indicate possible misspellings, that a manuscript may be problematic. In this case, however, because much of what I edit is medical, I recognize that the built-in spellchecker will mischaracterize a word, indicating it is misspelled when it isn’t. This clue requires familiarity with the subject matter.

Subject-matter familiarity

Which brings us to yet another key: knowledge of the subject matter. It is not that the editor needs to be an expert in the subject matter, it is that the editor needs to be comfortable with the subject matter. In my case, for example, I stopped editing fiction after about 6 months of editing — more than 31 years ago. I stopped for several reasons, including to provide a high-quality edit I had to be able to keep a sharp focus on the novel’s text. What I found was that when faced with a poorly written manuscript, my focus would begin drifting and I would have to reread the same paragraphs perhaps multiple times. I also discovered that for me, nonfiction was both more interesting and more profitable.

Fiction editing is difficult because it requires familiarity with a wide range of topics that I am not normally either interested in nor familiar with. I have never been particularly interested, for example, whether Bucharest’s weather is closer to that of London or New York City, but that could bin important in a novel whose action takes place in Bucharest. As a fiction editor, it was my responsibility to know whether or not the author’s description of Bucharest was plausible (actually, accurate). My fiction reading has always been limited; I tend to read vast amounts of nonfiction. Consequently, I was better “educated” about things that the nonfiction I was editing was concerned with than the fiction editing needed.

Pattern recognition

The ability to recognize writing patterns is another key. Every author has a writing pattern and in a group of collaborating authors, one pattern dominates. Identifying early in the editing process this pattern leads to greater consistency and accuracy in editing, which can lead to higher-quality editing. When you can identify these patterns, you can take advantage of tools such as EditTools. These types of tools, if properly used, lead to higher-quality editing.

Resources

The final key to be discussed in this essay is resources. Having the right resources available is important. For example, knowing that Garner’s Modern American Usage is the leading usage guide for American English is not enough; you need to have it available. Similarly, being told to follow a particular style manual by the client is of little use is you are not familiar with it and have it readily available. It does no good for a client to ask you to follow AMA style if the only style guide you can access and are familiar with is Chicago.

It should be clear that many things go into producing a high-quality edit; consequently, a lot of things need to come together. Yet an editor’s skill is not just objective things such as available resources; the skillset an editor needs to meet client limitations and still produce high-quality editing is sharpened over years of education and editing. Knowing one’s current limitations is an important part of providing high-quality editing. The professional editor works diligently to minimize those limitations, and one way to do so is to knowingly evaluate an offered job by the keys to high-quality editing.

What do you think?

Rich Adin, An American Editor

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