An American Editor

May 28, 2021

On the Basics — What is editing? What is it supposed to do?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

A lot of sites and groups purport to offer expert advice about writing and editing. Some of it is good, some of it is bad and some of it inspires additional conversation. A recent online conversation discussed whether editing is supposed to make a piece of writing shorter vs. longer after a colleague saw a statement in a writing group that editing means making things shorter; when he responded that editing can also make things longer, he was told that’s revising, not editing. Other participants responded with the classics: Shakespeare’s “Brevity is the soul of wit” and Mark Twain’s “I’d have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have time.”

Yes, making a work more concise is often part of editing, and usually a good thing, but that isn’t all there is to editing. I’m with the colleague who sees editing as sometimes making something longer. Authors can be so familiar with their topics that they don’t realize their readers might need more detail, untrained in writing and apt to over-write or write without organization and structure, or in such a hurry to meet a deadline that they leave out important aspects of a topic. A skilled editor can help make the document meet its goal of completing incomplete material, and that usually requires adding to it.

There are also writers who just open the mental floodgates and write without planning, expecting their editors to make sense of the material or battle it down to meet a required length for them. Sometimes I do that to myself: I’ll write out everything I have for an article, then go back and cut it down if I have to meet a specific word count. (I save the longer version in case I find a use for the material I’ve cut to fulfill the assignment.)

When I’m wearing my editor hat, I cut a bit or add a bit, whichever is appropriate (with the caveat that I provide copyediting; I’m not interested in the much-harder work of developmental or substantive editing these days). Every document is different, and likely to require a different approach. To me, editing simply makes a written work better, which can mean cutting it down if needed; making it longer if needed; or simply making it clear, consistent, accurate and readable without changing the word count — perhaps by changing some words for ones that are a better fit but keep the manuscript at the same overall count — all while respecting the author’s voice. And even “better” can be a subjective matter, just to add to the complexity of the process.

What colleagues say

A recent issue of the ACES: The Society for Copyediting newsletter offered these perspectives about the meaning of editing, all of which ring true, at least for me:

Charita Ray-Blakely in “Editors should understand the possible pitfalls of anthropomorphism”: “One fundamental task of editing is to promote clarity in content”

Christine Steele, quoting or paraphrasing John Russial’s Strategic Copy Editing (Guildford Press, 2004) in “Critical-thinking copyediting”:

“Editing is not about nitpicking and finding mistakes — it is about making choices”

“Editing is about critical thinking”

“Editing is about working together and respecting others”

“Editing is about balancing perfection and pragmatism”

“Editing is about ethics”

The owners of the Editorial Arts Academy, judging from a recent Facebook post, lean toward the brevity perspective: “‘Less is More’ is the guiding principle when it comes to line editing. Authors don’t pay editors to rewrite their words but rather to improve on what is already there.”

And finally, Ally Machate of the Writer’s Ally posted that “Debut books often have shorter word counts than those from successful authors” and provided some comparisons between genres, career stages and more at: http://wordcounters.com/?fbclid=IwAR0rxdeLOjhI93UHdT4dcYaavtWNtxe4-OyJAMxODebu4q5dX6i3uUD4TMs.

Managing challenges

One of the challenges for many of us is not just defining substantive, developmental, line and copyediting to make it easier to establish what we’ll do with (or to) a manuscript, but to educate clients about the difference between editing and proofreading. How many of us have been asked to “just proofread” a document, only to see that it desperately needs editing? I’m sure that’s happened to many, if not all, of us, because a client either honestly doesn’t understand the difference or is less honestly trying to get editing work done for the price (perceived as lower) of proofreading. Establishing and hewing to these boundaries is not just a matter of defining levels of editing or what editing means, but a huge factor in figuring out how much time, effort and money will go into any given editing project, whether you’re working freelance or in-house.

Cutting extraneous, redundant or unclear material is part of editing. Fleshing out incomplete ideas can be part of editing, although it’s often more appropriate to suggest to the author that they should expand or complete something, especially if you’re copyediting. There’s more room to do that kind of revision with substantive or developmental editing, although too much actual added wording by the editor can become co-authorship or ghostwriting. 

One area where cutting vs. adding words can make the editing life more complicated is (for freelancers) on the financial side: If you charge by the word, you have to decide which word count to use for your fee. Most of the people I’ve seen discuss this pricing model use the original word count, but if you’ve done a lot adding to the manuscript, you might feel cheated of your rightful fee if you can’t charge for doing so. You might need language in your contract to cover that eventuality.

There’s also one occasional headache in the area of word count: how to account for the actual number of words. As I found out this past week, Word can’t always be relied upon to provide the correct count. My version suddenly showed what I knew was a 700-word document I was writing as having only 187 words; apparently the program got stuck at some point in the manuscript and didn’t “see” the rest of it. Copy-and-pasting into a new document cured the problem (and it helped that I save frequently as I work, whether writing, editing or proofreading), but it was a heart-stopping moment to think that I had somehow deleted most of my hard-written words! To an editor addicted to cutting out words, that might have been a good thing to see, but it certainly wasn’t a good moment here. When I asked colleagues what might have caused that glitch, nobody knew but everybody said something similar had happened to them at least once, if not often.

Experiences among us

How do you define editing, and your role as an editor, in terms of when/whether to cut and when/whether to add? What challenges have you had in establishing a definition and communicating it to clients or colleagues? How often has cutting vs. adding words been a factor?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com or Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

1 Comment »

  1. Great post! Thanks! I don’t often think about the many purposes of editing, besides making text more concise (often) and easier to read (usually), but you are right.

    Like

    Comment by Fancy Comma, LLC — May 30, 2021 @ 11:54 pm | Reply


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