An American Editor

July 6, 2016

Thinking Fiction: The Subjectivity of Editing IV, Part II

by Carolyn Haley

Part I of this essay described the results of my survey of nine independent editors, which asked for their individual definitions of copyediting. First I evaluated the definitions in general terms, then I looked at the first three descriptions from the perspective of a hypothetical indie author, John Q. Novelist. Part II looks at the remaining six descriptions through the eyes of different hypothetical author, Henrietta Nonfiction Writer (HNW).

A view through the nonfiction lens

HNW works in the insurance industry. For decades she has written employee manuals and other in-house materials for a megacorporation, and even wrote the company newsletter for a while, so she knows how to craft clear sentences for different audiences. That pays the bills, but her real passion is American history, in which she took a master’s degree.

She’s not sure there’s a market for her book — a collection of true stories about white women captured by Indians in the Revolutionary War period — or whether she’ll publish it traditionally or on her own, but she does know that it needs to be clean and accurate, if only for her own pride. She’s written a dissertation and read many technical journals, so she understands the complexities of references and bibliographies. Also, she knows there are different kinds of editors, and a copyeditor will best serve the housecleaning needs of her manuscript.

She likes the detailed definition of copyediting that John Q. Novelist passed on to her, and files it for future reference. First she wants to do her own search for editors, which pulls up these:

Editor #4 (25 years, scholarly, U.K.)

Copy-editing is revising… an article, a book, a chapter in a book, etc., to eliminate errors of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage; to ensure consistency in abbreviations, capitalization, spellings, etc.; and, where required, to make the contents conform to the requirements of the intended channel (print, web, electronic, etc). [The text] may also contain illustrations, tables, footnotes, references, etc., in which case the copy-editor is required to check such adjuncts to text as well. Generally, copy-editorial changes are made at the sentence level (that is, copy-editing rarely involves changing the sequence of sentences). Language editing is the next higher level, at which the copy-editor may do some rewriting to make the text more concise and clearer, whereas proofreading is the next lower level.

This suits HNW just fine, and she feels the editor will grasp what she’s after. She’s a little uncertain about working with someone in another country, though, so makes a note to ask about the differences between U.S. and U.K. English when she sends her inquiry to the editor.

The next candidate impresses her with their specificity:

Editor #5 (5 years, business, U.S.)

Copyediting is being the best and first objective reader of a written work and making changes to ensure writing is clear, consistent, and in compliance with a specific writing style or style manual and with accepted usage of the target language.… [S]pecific tasks include:

  • Querying the author when a sentence doesn’t make sense.
  • Checking that the correct formatting codes have been applied.
  • Applying formatting codes to text with missing or incorrect codes.
  • Checking the accuracy of cross-references and citations.
  • Checking the spelling of names and accuracy of easily verifiable facts.
  • Ensuring writing complies with a specific style manual and dictionary.
  • Ensuring writing conforms to the grammar and punctuation of Standard English, except when I can discern a good reason for unconventional sentence structure or punctuation.
  • Asking the author to OK a deletion, rewording, or relocation of more than one consecutive sentence.
  • Ensuring the author consistently formats and spells terms that aren’t in the specified style manual or dictionary and creating a style sheet to document my and the author’s decisions regarding such terms.
  • Ensuring numbers that are supposed add up to a specified sum add up to it and ensuring that numbered lists are written in order without skipping numbers.
  • Suggesting wording changes in headings that don’t reflect their content well.
  • Ensuring correct characters are inserted for dashes, mathematical symbols, names in foreign languages, and so on.
  • Ensuring artwork is clearly visible, referred to in the text beforehand, and reproduced with permission.
  • Ensuring tables are easy to read.
  • Suggesting titles for untitled tables and figures.
  • Communicating changes to the author and others who must work with the [manuscript] with electronic markup.

This covers everything HNW can think of, and she particularly likes the inclusion of production-oriented elements. She hadn’t thought about all the technical steps between writing and publishing. This editor seems to assume that every manuscript they work on will be published, which makes her feel more confident. She wants to work with another professional to bring her project to fruition.

In contrast, the next candidate unsettles her because of their informal tone and imprecision:

Editor #6 (4 years, scholarly, U.S.)

I view [copyediting] as readying a piece for publication.… first, ensuring that the copy meets all the style guidelines, and second, that the copy is as good as it can be. I do subdivide the various tasks somewhat on my website since I work with academic authors… and invite them (for example) to do the reference formatting themselves, but if somebody sent me an article and said “unlimited budget, copyedit this” I’d get it completely ready to go: line edits…, style guide compliance, cross-checking, consistency checking, clarity/coherence fixes, reference formatting, etc.… I don’t think it includes fact-checking… research … rearranging the piece’s organization (although many of them need that, and if I notice it I make a comment to that effect…).

It’s not the tone that puts HNW off as much as the mention of being “invited” to format her own references. That’s something she wants to pay another person to do. Although she was careful in compiling her references, and is pretty sure she has them all listed in correct scholarly style, the labor of double checking and using Word for special formatting is beyond her ability and patience. That’s why she set aside a hefty chunk of money for professional editing, which she can afford because of her solid career. But she knows someone on a tight budget who might like this cost-reducing option, so she forwards the link and moves on.

Editor #7 (50 years, nonfiction/scholarly, U.S.)

Copyediting is whatever the client says it is for a given job. This holds whether the client is a traditional publisher, a packager, an indie publisher, or a private client regardless of whether the definition consists of the client’s detailed specifications or reflects my education of and negotiation with the client.

Golly, thinks HNW, this one is a chameleon! On one hand, she realizes, the door is wide open for a customized experience. For writers like her who know their strengths and weaknesses, the idea of negotiating a personalized edit holds appeal. On the other hand, HNW wants someone with a stronger sense of who they are and what they offer so there’s a standard she can wrap her head around. If she’s going to pay for a professional service, she wants the professional to know something she doesn’t, to justify her expense. Having to lead an editor through an editing job doesn’t inspire confidence.

Editor #8 (35 years, academic/business, U.S.)

Copy editing is performed on a near-final draft of a manuscript that has gone through developmental or line editing. Copy editing entails reviewing spelling, grammar, usage, and punctuation; checking facts, abbreviations, trademarks, and references to figures and tables; ensuring consistency in spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, and numbers; and flagging ambiguous or unclear wording. Copy editing can involve smoothing transitions, changing passive to active voice, and breaking up long sentences or paragraphs (which can cross the border into line editing).

This description is the concise version of what HNW seeks. Her only misgiving comes from the fact that her manuscript, though near-final, has not gone through developmental or line editing. She’s taken care of that herself, having acquired the necessary skills from her own scholastic and business experience. Thus she’s unsure the editor will take her seriously. Still, she adds this editor to her list of people to contact.

The final editor offers something she hasn’t seen before. After noting the elements she’s looking for…

Editor #9 (30 years, legal/textbooks, U.S.)

  1. Preparing a manuscript for publication: cleaning extra tabs and spaces, applying style tags, and the like.
  2. Reviewing and correcting a manuscript for grammar, spelling, punctuation, logic, consistency, and house style.
  3. Styling notes/citations, often including finding missing info.…

HNW finds something very important to her:

What copyediting is not: rewriting to suit my own personal style; imposing “what sounds better to me.”… In my books, maintaining author’s voice is rarely a huge consideration…, but still, you have to have a reason to make a change.

This paragraph relieves an anxiety HNW didn’t know she had. Owing to her experience, she hadn’t considered the possibility that her work might be rewritten. Seeing this editor’s assurance about voice preservation makes her wonder what the other candidates’ policy might be on the matter. She needs to review their presentations in this light and look for others who mention it. For now, she puts this editor at the top of her list, even though the subject of her book might not be within the editor’s purview. It’s close enough to a textbook that they have a basis for conversation.

Embracing subjectivity

I’m certain that every author would perceive each editor’s description from a different viewpoint. For example, I would go for Editor #2 (see Thinking Fiction: Subjectivity in Editing IV, Part I) because their description is detailed enough to tell me what I want to know, succinct enough to not belabor any points, and conveys experience in my target publishing arena. Another author might favor lots of details, as presented by Editors #3 and #5, or something loose and simple, like Editor #1’s one-liner: “correction of errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic facts/continuity.”

The great thing about working in such a subjectivity-oriented industry like publishing is that there’s something for everyone, as much in the author–editor equation as in the books–audience equation. The goal in both is to match the right parties with each other. So the smart strategy for independent editors in a business lacking uniform role and task definitions and performance standards is to cater to subjectivity: define themselves, their services, and their approach for the publishers and authors they best serve. That reduces wasted time and incompatible clients — and the headaches that go with them — leaving energy to enjoy successful projects and build satisfying careers.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, 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.

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