As I have noted many times on An American Editor, editing has changed greatly since I began my career nearly 33 years ago. Many of the changes are small and relatively inconsequential; others amount to sea changes. All have added to the burden of the job.
The most problematic changes for me are the triad of increased tasks to be performed in less time but for the same or less pay. This triad denotes a change in emphasis. Thirty-three years ago, budgets weren’t unlimited but priorities were different. The goal then was a better book (manuscript) even if the schedule had to be stretched, the budget increased, or some of the less-important tasks skipped. Today, it is the schedule and budget that reign supreme, especially the schedule.
The sacrifice being made today is that of time to contemplate. I used to have the time to puzzle over sentence construction. Consider, for example, this sentence fragment:
…after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime by Kroll…
There really isn’t a great deal wrong with the fragment, especially in the Twitter age where people are increasingly thinking in 140-character fragments, except that given time to think about what we are reading should raise questions that are at war with an editor’s goals of making the language such that all readers receive exactly the same author message and of answering foreseeable questions before they are asked.
The questions that came to my mind when I read the sentence of which the fragment is a part are these:
- Was the crime report written by Kroll? or
- Was the subject of the report a crime that had been committed by Kroll?
(The complete sentence reads: “It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime by Kroll, a security firm.” [“Moldova’s Economy Gutted,” The Economist, August 1, 2015.])
In context, my assumption would be that the first alternative (the crime report was written by Kroll) is the correct interpretation. After all, the complete sentence identifies Kroll as a security firm. But think about that interpretation. It is premised on the idea that a security firm (or a member of the firm) cannot (or would not) commit such a crime. Legitimately, the complete sentence could be written like one of these alternatives:
It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime committed by Kroll, a security firm.
It was not until April that much information about the bank scandal became public, after the speaker of parliament leaked a report on the crime written by Kroll, a security firm.
Note the words in bold in each revision: committed and written. The addition of just the one word to the sentence enhances and clarifies the meaning. And because either word fits neatly within the confines of the sentence — with no other change to the sentence, just the insertion of the single word — it is clear that the sentence as originally written (i.e., with the omission of either committed or written) could mean either that the report was written by Kroll or the crime was committed by Kroll. All that context does is give some weight to the credibility of an unstated premise that many readers will unconsciously draw.
Thus, the importance of time to contemplate.
I know from my experiences as an editor and as a reader that the minimizing of an editor’s time to contemplate what the editor is reading in a manuscript has become a seismic change in publishing. Increasingly one cannot rely on, for example, a nonfiction book to be accurate, only that it approximates being accurate. Too many sentences appear in books of “fact” that rely on the reader drawing the correct premise from a well of premises.
It nearly goes without saying that the problem of lack of contemplation time, as brought about by the earlier-mentioned triad, is compounded by the increase in self-editing and in the expansion of the editor pool by the inclusion and use of un-/less-/underqualified or nonprofessional editors. Self-editors would not stumble over the sentence because they innately understand what their words mean; it is no different than writing their instead of there and not catching the mistake when you reread what you have written. Similarly, underqualified and nonprofessional editors would pass over the phrasing because of the subtlety involved in recognizing that there are not only two possible opposing meanings (committing a crime is opposite writing about a crime committed by someone else), but that interpretation of the sentence as written requires selecting the correct underlying premise — which itself may be a false premise — from the well of premises.
Consider this example:
Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, heretofore comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.
The sentence has several problems, but the one I want to focus on is the phrasing “heretofore comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made.” Is the sentence intended to mean that previously the comparisons could not be made but they can now be made? Or that neither in the past nor now can such comparisons be made? The problem is the combination of “heretofore” with “cannot” — it should be either “heretofore” with “could not” or “cannot” without “heretofore,” that is:
Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, heretofore comparisons of different conjugates could not readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.
in which the notion that the comparisons can now be made is implied (which means it would be better to explicitly state that comparisons can now be made), or
Because of this, while intrastudy interpretations of serological data from clinical trials with Vi conjugates are possible, comparisons of different conjugates cannot readily be made as two different conjugates have not been used in the same randomized study for direct comparison.
Sentences like the above get passed over because of the pressure of schedule combined with low compensation and the increased number of tasks that a client expects an editor to complete within the allotted time for that low compensation. Something has to give, and what has given is the time needed to contemplate sentence structure and the order of words.
Professional editors do the best they can within the parameters forced on them by clients. But perhaps we — meaning both professional editors and clients — need to step back and rethink the sacrifices that are being made in order to meet the demands. Should we continue to sacrifice clarity upon the altar of schedule? Should we continue to sacrifice the author’s message to the triad?
These are the questions that editors and clients need to address before it becomes acceptable for every manuscript to look like it has been twitterized.
Richard Adin, An American Editor