An American Editor

September 19, 2016

On Language: The Art and the Science

by Daniel Sosnoski

The science of editing is mainly concerned with technical rules and procedures, things you can apply with recourse to established rules and style dictates, the rules of formal grammar, and orderly checks that bring documents into consistency with themselves. The art comes into play when you need to apply judgment or opt to break the rules when doing so results in a better read.

The theme of this essay comes from a class I took in teaching English as a second language, in which the instructor asked, “Do you think teaching English is an art or a science?” The answer of course was, “A bit of both.” I’ve found this to be true in the craft of editing as well.

How much of each quality one brings to the task is an individual matter, but there are instances where you see each play out. For example, if you are concerned about which preposition to use with “different” (from, than, to), that is a widely commented subject addressed by virtually every style guide — you can look it up. Any question about style and usage that can be addressed this way lies on the “science” side of the equation.

About That Science

Editing by pure instinct is conceivable, but the job ultimately requires both talent and study. You might work with a mentor, research grammar and style problems online, and read books about editing. If you want formal training, there are certificate programs like the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, and Copyediting.com offers courses and webinars on editing. If you’re an editor or want to become one, it’s a given that you have more curiosity about English and writing than most. It’s virtually guaranteed that when you encounter a word you don’t know, you look it up and add it to your vocabulary.

Other parts of the science are the specific skills and habits you acquire through experience. You probably have a long list of words that you know you should always spot check because they give you trouble (for me, hemorrhage, Mediterranean, and ophthalmology are cases in point). You make style sheets as you go along. You develop checklists. These are all learnable skills.

Art Class

If you spend time on social media and watch the conversations writers, editors, and language learners have among one another, you’ll see cases where questions arise that do not have clear-cut answers. These can be matters of comma placement, position of the word “only,” epicene “they,” informal intensifiers, and types of redundancies. Here’s where matters of taste and judgment come to the fore.

Is this fragment allowable? Is a semicolon in this position too fussy for the text? Does this “whom” sound pedantic? No text will solve these problems — your feel for the language and the context will be your guide.

Some people opine that you don’t have to be a good writer to be an editor. Enough respectable editors say this that I can’t dismiss it out of hand, but it is surely an “art” question. In polling some of my colleagues the consensus is that for straight copyediting and proofreading, it may be possible to do the work without strong writing skills. But for developmental, structural, and line editing, the editor will need to know what good writing looks like, be able to spot clunky wording, and smooth over rough passages. Reading widely and often is the ticket.

Meaningful Things

To be sure, some of your best catches come from editorial intuition — something has jumped out at you and you don’t know why. And that is a signal to look closer. As a case in point, I recently had one of those moments. The sentence in question was: “Average HDL was 50–59 mg/dL in men, 40–49 mg/dL in women.” What was wrong here? I knew that “mg/dL” was correct — the usual error you see is “mg/dl.” I looked it up; the figures for men and women had been reversed.

This falls under the practice of asking yourself “what does this mean?” When I supervise junior editors, I often see them correcting mechanical problems in text but they are missing errors in meaning. As a case in point, consider this discussion from a Facebook group about the following:

“On 9 September 2001, two planes full of passengers…”

The commenters who focused on the styling of the date checked the publisher, determined that it was indeed a UK-produced text and were pleased to report back that in British English, this ordering of the date was preferred style and there was thus no error as presented. Focusing too tightly on the mechanics can lead to misses like that.

Because there are so many things to check in a typical manuscript, relying on memory alone is likely to fail you at some point, so style sheets and checklists are helpful tools. With the kind of material I handle, after the general read and line editing, I’ll run through a document several times more looking for specific problems, such as errors in names and publication titles (which are common). Your style or working environment may not allow for this technique, but I’ve found it useful if time and resources allow.

Method, Not Madness

The science of editing requires that you understand grammar at a deep level and can explain clearly and persuasively why you’ve made your edits. If challenged, you should be able to defend your actions with something better than, “It just looked better to me this way.”

One of my colleagues has a visceral dislike of the word “that” and dutifully excises it from sentences like

  1. Be aware of the specific skill-sets that each duty will require.
  2. Recognize that it is very common that these two positions may be filled by one person at a time.

In A, it’s possible to remove the bolded “that.” But the bolded “that” in B follows a verb and seems to have a stronger hold on life. Bryan Garner in Garner’s Modern American Usage calls this problem “wrongly suppressed that” (3rd ed., pg. 808). He notes that when clauses follow certain verbs or nouns, “that” can be an effective signal to the reader preventing a miscue or ambiguity.

For example: “The belief you are unable to recognize your own voice is common,” is a miscue because a conjunctive “that” before “you” would clarify that a relative clause is following, as opposed to “a belief you are following…” And “The officer acknowledges being too fast on the draw is a common mistake” is ambiguous because without a “that” before “being” we can’t be certain if he is referring to himself or others.

But Know the Routine

The use of style sheets and checklists is one way editors obtain consistency and maintain quality in publications. You might have a house style sheet, which applies to all documents, and a project style sheet, developed during the edit of a specific work. Checklists are similar, and they encourage the practice of making multiple passes through a text, each time focusing on one or two particular issues.

Practice and experience will inform your style, which raises the question of how long, exactly, this might take. In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims that 10,000 hours of study is the baseline metric for achieving mastery in most advanced skills (although later he clarified that his meaning is that extensive practice is needed, but not necessarily sufficient, to master a skill). But because the editor is attempting to master English to the greatest extent possible, I would argue that one never “masters” this particular craft. You can only improve your ability over time.

Most editors I know possess a range of reference books, style guides, and books about grammar and usage. If you encounter a problem or find yourself wanting to make a change and you don’t know why, it’s good to have tools on hand that explain the matter. Know where the battle lines are in debates that remain unsettled (such as the epicene “they”). And it’s good to have a mentor or belong to a mastermind group where you can exchange ideas with colleagues in the field.

Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.

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