An American Editor

November 14, 2016

The Business of Editing: The Decline & Fall of Editing

For quite some time, I have been concerned about the decline of editing. Increasingly, few books are receiving anything more than cursory editing. Increasingly, the focus is more on preparing a document for publication, for example, by applying styles to designate something as the heading for a second-level bulleted list, than on sentence structure, word choice, grammar, and other language (as opposed to structural) needs.

This is particularly evident in ebooks, especially self-published ebooks.

I have pondered this situation for months without coming up with a satisfactory explanation as to why the original, traditional goals of editing have been stealthily replaced and the lack of “uproar” from readers. Then came the 2016 U.S. elections and it dawned on me that authors and publishers are making this transition because the average reader either can’t separate fact from fiction or doesn’t care whether something is fact or fiction.

I have no plans to dwell on or discuss the past election except as the actions of the voters really were actions that could have been predicted had attention been paid to the evolution that has been ongoing in editing.

Consider the Trumpian cry that Hillary Clinton was a liar and Donald Trump told it like it is. The fact checkers — that is, every nonpartisan fact checker — agreed that Trump’s statements were outright lies and falsehoods 75% of the time and Clinton’s were 25% of the time. They also agreed that Clinton’s were closer to the proverbial “white” lie and Trump’s were just outright lies. Yet if you asked Trump voters, they would tell you that Clinton never told the truth and Trump nearly always did tell the truth.

What this tells me is that the average American has little interest in separating fact from fiction; that errors of language in books really do not matter as long as the package is attractive. If there is no concern about fact truth in presidential politics as long as appearances are kept up, then it is logical that there is little worry or concern about fact truths in books, and thus little concern about whether a book is edited at all, let alone whether it is properly edited.

I have noticed in my local newspaper, which is part of the Gannett chain, that copyediting is clearly a very low interest. It is the rare local-origin article that has fewer than five or six errors (the articles that originate elsewhere seem to be better edited), and many of the local opinion pieces, including letters to the editor, are riddled with language errors.

When I was in public school in the 1950s and 1960s, one of the things that we did was get a student subscription to The New York Times for classroom use. The primary reason for the subscription requirement was to learn grammar and language. There was some, but not much, interest in the classroom for the news as news; the newspaper was used to teach English grammar. Sometimes we would also get a copy of the local paper and compare and contrast how each wrote about a particular news event, the words chosen, and the sentence (and paragraph) structure. Using the newspaper as a teaching tool died out as the acrimony over the Vietnam War grew.

Today, there seems to be less concern on the part of readers, publishers, and authors about how a book is viewed from a grammar perspective because what used to be the bastions of quality editing have become haphazard. Consequently, students do not learn by example and absorption quality language skills; they learn indifference.

The learned indifference carries over to all spheres of life. Incorrect language use peppers political debate, resulting in two voters hearing the same words but understanding them differently. Incorrect language use acts as a barrier to progress because there is no agreement on the import of the words.

We struggle with the idea that there are class distinctions. We often attribute the distinctions to financial wealth when, perhaps, the core of the separations are really language and understanding. We perpetuate the class problem by failing to unite around language use, by failing to communicate clearly so that the message we send is understood the same by all.

Quality editing was, in my early years as an editor, a sought-after prize. It was not unusual (although it did not happen often) to learn that an editor had been fired from a project or that a publisher had removed an editor from the approved list of editors because of poor editing. In-house editors would often return manuscript pointing out missed errors or wanting to discuss why a particular editing decision was made. The editing pay scale was a range, with new editors at the bottom rung and very experienced and highly sought after editors at the top.

Contrast that with the editing world of today. Today, the pay is pretty uniform. Today, an editor is chosen more often based on price than on excellence. Today, editing is often outsourced to offshore companies whose primary goal is to keep editorial costs minimal. There is no time or money for fact checking or for second or third language passes. There is an increased belief that “anyone who can spot a spelling error can edit” or that the best (and least-expensive) editor for a manuscript is the author of the manuscript.

As the mistakes appear in print, they begin reinforcing incorrect knowledge about language. Eventually the erroneous becomes the normal and few recognize that the normal is erroneous. Which is how we end up with mislabeling and a disregard for true editing.

If this trend continues, there won’t be much need for skilled editors; the only need will be for low-cost editors who know how to style but who have few to nonexistent language skills. Schools will teach using books edited by these editors and another low-language-skill generation will take over.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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