An American Editor

September 8, 2021

On the Basics: Reflecting on editing then and now

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:42 am

© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

In a recent online conversation about responding to an author who said their manuscript just needed a “light edit” because they had run it through Grammarly, a colleague asked whether “before computers, did folks also assume that editing was just rote grammar stuff or is this a new thing now that spellcheck and other computer functions are ubiquitous?”

I was not surprised to see a number of variations on “Yeah, right; that will happen” and “Never use that tool!” Of more discussable interest is that I thought it was a good question. Here’s my response:

“I think authors in the past had more respect for human editing skills, but there were far fewer aspiring independent authors and most had no way to find an editor. Far fewer got published because they didn’t have today’s outlets, with or without editors.

“And editing/proofreading wasn’t (weren’t?) perfect; almost every book I read [that was published] going waaayyy back has typos. Maybe not many, but at least a few. (It’s why I don’t borrow books from the library; I can’t help marking the typos!)

“Today’s tech tools make it easier for us to check or enhance our work, but those tools aren’t perfect, as everyone here knows. Put the tools in the hands of a skilled, careful editor and the combination is golden. It may still not be 100% perfect every time, but is likely to be much closer than when we didn’t have things like spellcheck and PerfectIt.”

And, of course, the post got me thinking further about publishing then and now, so here we are.

I started writing for publication way back in the 1970s, using a manual typewriter and not seeing my work until it appeared in print; if something got edited, I didn’t see the process.

We used correction tape or fluid to cope with typos, and often had to retype entire pages because there was no find-and-replace or typing over an error. Items might have been missed because there was no spellcheck. For what would now be called self-publishing projects, we typed on green stencil sheets and ran them through hand-cranked AB Dick machines. Making corrections on those was an even bigger headache than correcting typewritten pages on regular paper.

I started editing in the late ’70s — my own work and that of college friends, then on my college newspaper, then as a staff reporter for a weekly community newspaper — when self-correcting electric typewriters were cutting-edge new and exciting, and Compugraphic was the new technology for typesetting. Authors would hand in material typed on manual or electric typewriters, editors would mark up the manuscripts by hand, Compugraphic operators would type in the material and print out the text on bright-white coated paper, and we — often just whoever was handy and cared enough, depending on the environment; many of the places where I worked didn’t have formally trained or designated editors — would proof the resulting galleys before layout. Sometimes the galleys would be sent to authors for review, sometimes not. Corrections for the galleys would go to the Compugraphic operators to be retyped a line or even a word at a time, and pasted down manually.

We referred to printed dictionaries and style manuals, and spent a lot of time on the phone to track down and verify information; no Internet access from our desks to those resources, much less Google and other browsers.

The final galleys would be cut apart, backed with hot glue and pasted into place on heavy-duty graph paper. The pages would go to the printing house and turned into plates that were used to create bluelines (called that because they were in blue ink) — the last chance to review and make corrections, which were charged by the item, because every change meant a new printing plate.

It all took more time than most publishing projects today, although editing, proofreading, layout and more proofreading in the current digital world still takes longer than most authors or clients realize. And it involved costs — for making corrections, and for holding up printing because of a last-minute realization that something egregious had snuck through the editing and proofreading process (if there was one).

The digital environment today has created expectations that publishing — editing, design/layout, proofreading — occurs almost immediately. Clients also often assume that they can have multiple passes of all those steps without extra expense. That means that both in-house and freelance editors, proofreaders, designers and layout experts have to educate colleagues and clients about how the process works; how quickly and when changes can be made, if at all; and the impact of changes on deadlines and costs.

Of course, we also have to educate prospective clients about why they might want to work with us rather than, or in addition to, using online editing tools.

How have you dealt with clients who think that having used online editing or proofreading tools means their work needs “only a light edit or proofing”? How have you responded to clients who keep coming back with more changes but don’t want to pay for your additional time or expect (even demand!) that their project be published per the original schedule?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter ( 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 (, now co-hosted with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors ( and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (, which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at or

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