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

14 Comments »

  1. Reblogged this on S F Editing | Blog.

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    Comment by S F Editings Blog — November 14, 2016 @ 4:41 am | Reply

  2. I know what you mean. I’ve noticed some serious mistakes in otherwise well written blogs. They misuse idioms and also often end up using your instead of you’re (or vice versa). I’m glad I’m not the only one concerned by the deterioration of the written word.

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    Comment by atypicalfemme — November 14, 2016 @ 11:52 am | Reply

  3. Wow, loved the article. I remember when I proofread for the Elsevier Science division and when they used a new copyeditor they would want me to proofread the book. Depending on what I found wrong and my comments they knew if they should use that copyeditor again. Yes, there were times, based on my proofreading, they never used a particular copyeditor again.

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    Comment by Jacqueline (Jacqui) Brownstein — November 14, 2016 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  4. I can only speak from my own experience. I’ve lost one major trade publishing client of many years to downsizing by the parent company, which now has me on a roster and occasionally sends me offers with impossible size/schedule/compensation specs. But I have other trade publishing clients (including several recent ones) who highly value my work (and agree to my fees). They count on me for heavy editing (salvage work), tightening word count, tactful liaison with authors, and so on. It’s important to have multiple clients, but I say the good ones are out there. In-house editors who migrate and take you with them (though sometimes years pass in between) are key. Establish those good relationships. Prove your worth; be the one they count on to rescue a troubled book (and they will also give you easier projects) and be a pleasure to work with.

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    Comment by Kristi Hein — November 14, 2016 @ 12:38 pm | Reply

  5. Well-received article. Could the disregard for excellence or best practices be reflective of the general lowering of standards in things that matter? This appears to be a worldwide phenomenon affecting almost every aspect of life. In some public schools students are getting high grades for work riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. The latter-day teachers come out of the same system and the cycle therefore continues. Despite the discouraging trends,every effort should be made by those of us who care to halt the decline.

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    Comment by Hazel — November 14, 2016 @ 7:32 pm | Reply

  6. I couldn’t agree more with your concerns reflected in this piece Richard.

    I provide professional proofing, editing, formatting and related publishing services and thus the majority of my clients to date have been authors. While some author clients are quite adept to correct spelling, grammatical, punctuation and content development skill sets there have been numerous clients whose command of the English language has been alarmingly lacking. In some instances I have sensed the client’s begrudged engagement of my services for varied reasons, some of which you have alluded to here. The generalized or rudimentary level of focus on the English language through elementary and secondary school levels would appear to be contributing to the abilities of the many in this regard.

    When I reflect back on my college days studying journalism in the mid-1970’s I now measure the dramatic shift in focus on the English language and its correct applications. My heavens, I am equally concerned and rather appalled at the level of indifference illustrated today. During my studies in journalism there was absolutely no tolerance for the submission of copy with errors of any kind nor any number; one single error meant admonishing by the instructor in front of the entire class after which he would promptly tear the copy to pieces and dispense with the shredded remnants in the waste basket. After spending a concerted four to six hours on the piece it was more than a little deflating to have one’s paper treated as though vilified yet a lesson well learned. Back in those days we were only permitted to use a manual typewriter and thus the experience all the more frustrating.

    Although I did not follow through with completion of those studies I still held the industry to a higher level of respect for its disciplined focus on the English language and how news copy was presented to the purchasing public. Decades have since passed and the degradation of English language skills, both written and spoken, has been clearly evident to the point where, yes, indifference has had an increasingly negative influence on the issue. There seems to be a general trend in this direction. Take, for example, the way motorists of today whose obvious indifference to the laws governing public roadways has become increasingly frustrating for those drivers who respect the intent and purpose of such regulations. At the root of the issue would seem to be the absence of law enforcement personnel on our city streets and provincial/state freeways, therefore the gradual proliferation of indifferent motorists who drive as though in a scene from Mad Max with total disregard for those who abide by the rules of the road. Aggressive motorist behavior, often threatening with fatal results, has become increasingly the norm.

    The analogy is perhaps not highly relevant on the surface yet the matter of indifference has its consequence. As one who provides professional editing and proofreading services I have indeed reflected on the direction our industry is taking by default, a faltering industry for lack of appreciation for the significant benefits of our content scrutiny and revision. On the other side of the equation is the exuberant client whose fictional novels have been very well-placed in sales rank and a rapidly growing readership since their decision to engage an editor to make sure the final manuscript submission was everything it could possibly be and then some. With a collaborative and informative/coaching style approach to my services my clients have quickly grown to appreciate my apparent concern and focus on not only mere typos but spelling, punctuation, sentence and paragraph structural elements and, yes, grammatical correctness. Book reviews from purchasing readers has reflected appreciation for a clean, fully engaging read absent the endemic errors seen in published works so often today.

    I have kept in touch with my old journalism class and roommate over the years and he has shared the many hardships the news media industry has suffered over the years including severe shortfalls in budget allocation for editorial staff and as a result the reporters of copy origin are charged with their own level of copy review, such as it is, in advance of submission and the piece goes straight to the ‘presses’. The focus has been watered down to getting to the meat of the matter in their stories and English language skills be damned. Given the breakneck pace of humanity in this day there is little regard for the importance of content development; they don’t have time to read too far beyond the headline and opening paragraph let alone absorb the entire story having regard for its finer elements relevant to the English language.

    There is indeed a thin veil between fact and fiction as the focus today would seem more entertainment driven than on a well composed textual product. You and I labor over reader engagement through a vastly different perspective it would seem. I take pride in my work and the benefits my clients derive from my services. I’m not at all sure of what it will take to stem the tide of growing indifference to accuracy and professional presentation in this day. My business, not far off the three year mark young, has been a real challenge just finding new clients on a consistent basis. Numerous clients have become ongoing, long-term relationships which I revere however the gaps in services typical while authors are busy producing their next bestseller leaves this editor with the challenge of comfortable living in a waning market where it would seem even a majority of authors opt to go it alone to self-edit their works in advance of submission.

    I haven’t even touched on how critical polished content used to be in the business world. I spent thirty years writing to and for a broad range of clients and their professional service providers, from government agencies to legal experts, engineering and architectural professionals, medical practitioners, plumbers, funeral directors and everyone in between; they all held me to that strict level of fiduciary responsibility and that always extended to exceptional content writing in my reports and communications on their behalf…always.

    Thank you for sharing your perspective on this important issue Richard. I would truly like to believe that our extensive levels of education and experience do not continue to have lessor meaning and importance in a world that has obviously swung far and away from center as we knew it years ago. What we have witnessed hence would seem a course of lesser purpose and intention.

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    Comment by Don MacIver, RPA, Editor, Writer, Poet, Author — November 14, 2016 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  7. It is depressing and nerve-racking to see the downward slide in valuing editing and using editors or proofreaders, but it’s part of an overall downward trend in the quality of education (which will only accelerate under the new administration, judging by who’s been bruited about as the new Secretary of Education). My skills were better in sixth grade than those of many people in leadership positions, and a goodly number of people calling themselves writers, editors or proofreaders, today.

    I feel very lucky to work with clients who still do care about writing that is clear, concise, accurate and readable, and who still want their projects to be edited or proofread for accuracy and clarity. Few of my clients are publishers. I feel as if my clients and I are carving out a little piece of the world where quality matters, even if it costs time and money.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 15, 2016 @ 10:13 am | Reply

  8. I feel your pain…

    In mentioning class and education, I feel you have hit the nail and driven it flush with the wood. In the 15 years I lived in Kentucky, as a native of Kansas, I was never allowed to forget that I was a “yankee” and was continually chided for using ‘big’ words. The issue of language reached such a flash point that I literally changed how I communicated with locals by shortening sentences, reducing ‘discussions’ to obvious points (“nice day!”), and trading heavily in the local/regional cultural views.

    At the time of my residency, Kentucky was ranked 48th for education, 47th for equal pay for women, and 45th for college graduates.

    The issue of people’s ability to reason, see truth, and hold valuable those abilities is, I believe, a much deeper crisis than most realize. The election result, for me, was an ominous reflection of that crisis.

    To step back to editing and class and American culture circling the drain…

    I do still have wonderful clients, brand new authors, young and passionate, who want to produce the best writing possible — and are willing to pay for it. Unfortunately, the majority live outside the US.

    The idea that teachers are a product of a society that increasingly embraces the latest sound byte instead of facts, makes me queasy. The potential for perpetuation of disrespect for well-crafted, well-spoken communication through parents and teachers is yuge… :o) And, as my time in Kentucky showed, I believe class is distinguished by one’s ability to communicate with clarity, which usually comes from education and exposure to others who use intellect-backed speech, and (due to the cost of education) are most probably in a higher income bracket–but not necessarily wealthy. I don’t believe wealth assumes knowledge or the ability to speak with intelligence, as our president-elect has clearly illustrated.

    I remember my sister giving me Fahrenheit 451 to read when I was in Jr. High. I was astonished that the author could imagine a world where books became the enemy–an extension of the idea that free-think was also the enemy. That book created a new fear for me, one I had never before considered. She gave me Ayn Rand next…

    So then, what about a generation with no big sisters? What about more than one generation?

    We are much farther into the dark wood than simply having poorly written and edited materials everywhere…but that is a very telling and disturbing symptom.

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    Comment by TigerXGlobal (@TigerXGlobal) — November 15, 2016 @ 11:20 am | Reply

  9. I am amazed, and horrified, when I read advertisements from companies that are hiring editors who can edit a doctoral dissertation in nine hours!! And I can imagine the pay scale,

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    Comment by Dr. Mary-Anne Pops — November 15, 2016 @ 7:49 pm | Reply

  10. Mark my words, one day in the not-so-distant future “Your welcome” will become standard.

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    Comment by Sarah — November 16, 2016 @ 3:19 pm | Reply

  11. Fascinating article, Richard. But let us be somewhat heartened, fellow wordsmiths, as there are at least ten who have commented on this blog, and presumably many more who have read it, nodding their collective heads, but deciding not to respond for reasons we have all had at one time or another. As a proofreader for court reporters, authors, bloggers, and the like, I was thrilled to find out the domain name proofreadingmatters.com was available to me. Of course, I really wanted it to say proofreadingmattersdammit.com but didn’t think it would pass muster.

    We should also be heartened by groups such as these, the more the merrier, that take it upon themselves to, in Hazel’s words, “halt the decline.” Maybe it is incumbent upon the few to teach, train, educate, and discipline the many. And when given the chance, I’m sure we all do that in our own ways. The problem is getting that chance. I’m finding potential clients who tell me they do their own proofing (gasp!), or they can’t afford an editor (they can’t not afford an editor!), preferring to go it alone, then wondering why their book isn’t selling as well as projected.

    It’s a simple concept to those of us here, really. Our language is beautiful but difficult to learn. The rules are many and the exceptions to the rules are many! We must keep reminding ourselves, we are here to help, and to educate, even as our language grows and changes and becomes a part of the times.

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    Comment by Marilyn Zelinsky — November 17, 2016 @ 7:13 pm | Reply

  12. I’ve seen, and you probably have, too, self-appointed on-line writing teachers with egregious mistakes in their sales pitches.

    As I’ve said in rants in several other places — the downward spiral, if not begun right then, was greatly accelerated when “writing” was degraded to “content.” Anyone can create it, and if you can get a message across, that other stuff — grammar, structure, vocabulary — doesn’t matter. You just replace all those things with obscenity and you’re an on-line influencer.

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    Comment by contractwriter — November 17, 2016 @ 7:59 pm | Reply

  13. Reblogged this on Musings of a rambling mind.

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    Comment by Sandhya Kannan — November 22, 2016 @ 2:26 am | Reply

  14. I’ve been slowly letting go of my exalted expectations for decent grammar. It is painful, but necessary. For one thing. I realised that a lot of people don’t notice mistakes because they’re not good at grammar or spelling themselves. Everyone has different talents – my husband can play piano beautifully, but four years of lessons for me did not made a dent. Also, I read some of my late father’s writing, and it was appalling, even though he was educated and well-read.

    Social media also allows for gross mistakes, and, again, some people don’t notice. The standard of English is lowered by using text speak, small buttons on phones, non-native English speakers in a globally shrinking world, and people really not caring if it’s correct or not.

    Now that I’m in the UK again, I can barely stand to read the local County Times, or estate agents’ flyers, or pamphlets or advertising. The standard here is even worse than the US! Prozac might help me, but it feels like a curse to hold onto high standards while the language devolves around me. Maybe if I use the word ‘evolve’ instead of ‘devolve’ I will feel better about it.

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    Comment by Valerie Spanswick — November 24, 2016 @ 5:22 am | Reply


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