An American Editor

October 26, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Editors, What Hat Do You Wear?

by Carolyn Haley

This essay springs from a recent evaluation I did of my marketing and proposal materials. I noticed that my website, public profiles, and bio blurbs had become stale and mismatching, and my pitch letters varied widely. Going forward I want to make my presence and approach more consistent across all business channels — especially since I claim consistency as an editorial asset.

The tricky part is, I wear multiple hats and serve fiction, nonfiction, and corporate clients. I need to pin the right words on the right hats to best communicate with my clientele.

This led to careful examination of words I take for granted, such as editor. I’d never looked up the definition before, so I turned to my trusty Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online edition) and found this entry: “a person whose job is to edit something.” As I scrolled down, it expanded to “someone who edits, especially as an occupation.”

Hmmm. That’s so unhelpful, I almost laughed. Then I checked American Heritage Dictionary, whose online version offers the equivalent: “one who edits, especially as an occupation.”

Double-hmmm. I sensed a trend, and confirmed it by checking the online versions of three other esteemed dictionaries:

Cambridge [American English]: “a person who corrects and make [sic] changes to texts or films before they are printed or shown, or a person who is in charge of a newspaper, magazine, etc., and is responsible for all of its reports”

Oxford [U.S. English]: “1. A person who is in charge of and determines the final content of a text, particularly a newspaper or magazine; 2. a person who works for a publishing company, commissioning or preparing material for publication”

Macmillan: “1. someone whose job is to be in charge of a newspaper or magazine…[or] a particular section of a newspaper, magazine, or news organization…2. someone whose job is to edit books, documents, or movies…2.a. someone who produces a book by choosing, arranging, and explaining things that other people have written…2.b. someone whose job is to produce books for a publisher by finding writers and working with them”

From this sampling I deduced that most people don’t share the same definition of editor. That’s quite the paradox, given that an editor’s job is to improve the clarity and consistency of other people’s work!

Isn’t it?

Well, that depends on what kind of editor you are.

An editor is an editor is an editor…

Some editorial jobs are mainly business positions, such as editor-in-chief of a newspaper or managing editor of a publishing imprint. Other editorial jobs involve handling the content of manuscripts prior to publication. I belong to that cadre; specifically, the self-employed subset, with fiction my primary realm.

So I looked up specific titles that fiction editors use to describe themselves: copy editor, line editor, developmental editor. None of these were listed in the dictionaries and general publishing-vocabulary websites I checked. Of the few editing titles that did appear, most were associated with periodicals (e.g., night editor, sports editor, fashion editor).

When I focused on book-publishing websites, however, familiar titles emerged: acquisitions editor, production editor, project editor, content editor, developmental editor, substantive editor, line editor, and copy editor. Still, none shared the same definition; and in the real world, some titles are used interchangeably, such as copy/line editor, line/substantive editor, substantive/developmental editor, developmental/content editor.

Compounding the confusion, editor is used in multiple industries: publishing, journalism, film, computer technology. On top of that, professional editorial organizations in publishing name themselves ambiguously. For example, the American Copy Editors Society’s website claims membership is open to “editors from all backgrounds and skill levels,” but what in their name would move a developmental editor to consider joining?

The Editorial Freelancers Association is named clearly — “any full- or part-time freelancer may join” — but it excludes the staff editors freelancers often work with, even though when filling out the form to join, they must choose from check boxes covering their experience, which may include salaried positions. Does their membership expire if they go back to an in-house job?

The Editors’ Association of Canada, meanwhile, welcomes all (“salaried and freelance, work with individuals and organizations in the corporate, technical, government, not-for-profit, academic and publishing sectors across the country and around the world in English and French”), though their name invites the assumption it’s for Canadians only.

Based on the above, I no longer wonder why people don’t understand our profession, or why editorial pay rates differ wildly, or why writers seeking editorial help struggle to connect with us.

Labeling one’s hats

In the absence of universal editorial definitions and job titles, it’s up to editors and publishers to communicate who we are and what we do. For me, as an independent contractor, the first step is simple and obvious: When contacted by publishers to edit manuscripts, I must ask exactly what they mean so our expectations are mutually understood. The second step takes more initiative: When presenting my services to the world in general (via website, public profiles, bio blurbs) and potential clients (via proposals to independent authors), I must provide precise definitions of each task.

I’ve been working on that for a while, and have settled on boilerplate service definitions to submit to prospective clients and post on my websites. The definitions show editing as a three-stage process — macro, middle, micro — with my preferred labels for each task. But because these tasks build on each other in complexity and cost, and my indie clients are often concerned with simplicity and inexpensiveness, I stack them in micro-to-macro order in my presentations:

Copyediting (Polishing)

A nuts-and-bolts exercise done when the work is complete and ready for submission or production. Copyediting involves minimal touching of text by the editor, and focuses on clarity, consistency, and comprehension while preserving author voice. It includes checking spelling, grammar, syntax, and punctuation, also light fact checking and sometimes formatting. Queries may flag the author’s pet words or patterns, or phrasing that creates unintentional effects or reader distraction. The editor generally performs the edit in one round then returns the manuscript to the author, who accepts/rejects the changes and moves on.

Substantive/line editing (Refining)

Line-by-line attention to language and flow of a manuscript that is essentially complete but still in process. Substantive editing includes the basic t-crossing and i-dotting of copyediting but expands to embrace content, analyzing and revising text at the sentence and paragraph levels while still preserving author voice. Queries may address narrative arc, viewpoint, pacing, theme, genre conventions, scene logistics, and character development. No editorial rewriting is done beyond minor cutting or consolidating, transition smoothing, or paragraph resequencing for clarity. The editor generally performs the edit in one round and returns the manuscript to the author, who either accepts/rejects the changes and moves on, or further revises based on the editorial feedback. Follow-up revision checking or copyediting are separate transactions.

Developmental editing (Building)

The roll-up-your-sleeves-and-dig-in process that embraces a work’s overall concept, flow, and structure early in the writing (or midway if it’s stuck). Developmental editing is the most hands-on work by the editor, and the most interactive collaboration between editor and author; it takes the most time, costs the most money, and has the most profound impact on an author’s work. Developmental editing generally requires at least two rounds of backing and forthing, with the author expected to rewrite sections, sometimes even recast the whole work. Subsequent refinement and polish editing are separate transactions, usually done by different people.

For very-low-budget folks, I also offer a nonediting manuscript evaluation in lieu of developmental editing. This gives authors some professional guidance in revising their work without a heavy outlay, and gives me a nice analytical project without heavy labor. Usually I get the improved manuscript back months later for a substantive or copy edit. Clients who skip the evaluation usually choose substantive editing.

Moving forward

Once these definitions were sorted out, several good things happened. I not only improved the balance between my fees and services (formerly charging too much for copyediting, not enough for substantive editing, and all over the map for developmental editing), which makes me more competitive, but also gave prospects better information to work with. The combination eliminated time-wasting inquiries for them and fruitless pitches for me; thus, my landing rate for new projects doubled for half the investment of time. And these new projects have been free of the mismatched expectations that can befoul a job. So far, all have come to happy conclusions.

It’s funny how the most basic editorial resource — the dictionary — with its inconsistency of editorial definitions helped resolve my personal business inconsistencies. Can that simple exercise work on a broader scale? In this new era of publishing, editors come toward authors from a bewildering variety of directions, using different vocabularies and offering different expectations. Would standardizing our job titles and services change the perception of editing as a profession? Could this lay the groundwork for the much-discussed idea of creating a U.S. certification program? Is it possible to label our hats uniformly, or is the profession too broad to ever share a common definition in the public eye?

For now, we’re all mavericks. Leading me to wonder: What editorial hat(s) do you wear?

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

1 Comment »

  1. Carolyn, I love your presentation of the 3 types of editing, and have copied them with attribution to you and this blog post for my own future tweaking of how I present my areas of work. Brava on the update to your website.

    Like

    Comment by Mary Tod — October 26, 2015 @ 8:33 am | Reply


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