An American Editor

June 18, 2014

The Business of Editing: Walking the Line

On another forum, a colleague raised several interesting questions, ones that we need to address. Ultimately, the questions, although paraphrased below, boil down to this:

Did I cross the line?

The questions our colleague asked were these (as distilled by me; I did not receive permission to quote directly from the message our colleague posted):

  • Because I have years of editing experience, cannot I assume that my edits are always reasonable and correct and that the client — whether author or publisher — should both accept and trust my judgement?
  • Because the client should accept and trust my judgement, is there really any need for me to provide an explanation in a comment?
  • Because the client is free to accept or reject any or all of my edits, is there any reason why I should spend the extra time to add the explanations?
  • What are the limits, if any, to my role as a copyeditor?

Our colleague’s message began with an example of a sentence that our colleague edited. Because I do not have permission to quote the original sentence and our colleague’s alteration, I have mimicked the original and the change:

 Original: “The regime collapsed as a result of a decline in population from misguided birth control policies, the reintroduction of previously wiped out diseases from the regime’s refusal to allow vaccination, and famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production.”

Change: “The political hypotheses for the regime’s collapse include a decline in population from birth control policies, the reintroduction of epidemic diseases from the regime’s antivaccination campaign, and famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.”

The client pointed out to our colleague that the changes were made without any explanatory comment and asked, as an example, for justification for the change from “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.” Our colleague’s justification for describing the farm policies as “Stalinist” was that our colleague just knew it — the information came from her acquired knowledge.

Did our colleague cross any lines? How do we answer our colleague’s questions?

Because I Have Years of Editing Experience…

Unfortunately, this is the approach of many editors. Yet, it is not a valid approach to our job. No matter what the author has written — be it novel, biography, scientific treatise — when it comes to subject matter, the author is expert, even if the author is not.

The role of the copyeditor is not to developmental edit. The copyeditor’s focus is on grammar, spelling, word choice, not on rewriting. Rewriting should be incidental, an occasional occurrence. Under no circumstance should the copyeditor interject their own knowledge except in the form of a query. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the author who will ultimately be held responsible for the quality of the book. We have discussed this author–editor relationship before (see, e.g., Relationships & the Unwritten Rules and The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners).

More importantly, “I just know” is not something we would accept from an author. We would require the author of a biography to have a comprehensive bibliography, to be able to cite sources for statements given as fact (opinion, of course, is a different matter). Importantly, even if we construe an author’s statement as opinion, we want it to be the author’s opinion, not the opinion of an anonymous editor whose credentials to draw the conclusion are unknown and may be nonexistent.

In the absence of provable subject matter expertise, the editor’s alterations cannot be given the status of “always reasonable” nor can they, even if reasonable, ever be given the status of blind acceptance: Clients should neither accept nor trust the editor’s judgement on items that fall outside the editor’s known expertise or outside the responsibilities for which the editor has been hired.

Because the Client Should Accept and Trust My Judgment…

This was generally addressed above but the question is really about the need to provide explanations. The need to provide an explanation should be unquestioned. Editors are suggesters not arbiters of fact. If a sentence can be better written without changing meaning or author voice, then making the change and asking the author if the change is OK is acceptable.

But it is never acceptable for the editor to add to or substitute for the author’s facts — except by way of comment. I have edited many hundreds of books in my 30 years of editing, including books in my area of educational expertise. Yet, I have made it a rule to never alter an author’s facts; I always query (e.g., “Do you think that the addition of XYZ would better represent your view?” “According to Professor Smith, ABC was caused by poor logistical planning. Do you think it is worth mentioning or discussing here as further explanation of your perspective? See Smith, xxxxx.”)

If I know something is amiss, I try to let the author know something is amiss by commenting. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that I am not so currently knowledgeable about the topics I am editing that I can infallibly rewrite what the (expert) author has written.

Comments are always justified; uncommented substantive changes are never justified.

Because the Client Is Free to Accept or
Reject Any or All of My Edits…

This is the traditional editor excuse, yet it neglects to address a very important topic: the editor–client relationship.

First, I never think that an author wants to spend hours going over my edits. Deciding whether the change from about to approximately is justified is boring enough but after seeing the change a dozen times, the author soon learns whether such changes can be skipped over (i.e., the author evaluates the editor’s credibility). But that is not true of substantive changes.

Second, I think about the message I send the author when I make a substantive change without explanation. Am I not telling the author that I am the one who should have written the book? And why should the author have to guess at why I made the substantive change? An author will accept that I changed “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies” because three paragraphs earlier the author referred to the “Stalinist farming policies” as the cause of famine and malnutrition, especially if I make the change and include an explanatory note. But the author is likely to be upset by my change in the absence of the explanation and then resistant to other suggestions and changes.

Basically, I see making substantive changes without explanation as an invitation to disaster. With the explanation, I increase my credibility as an editor; without the explanation, I risk angering the author and making the author lose faith in my ability as an editor. I also risk making the author take a “stand-your-ground” attitude toward other editorial suggestions I make.

Regardless of whether the client can accept or reject any changes the editor has made, not providing an explanation for a substantive change jeopardizes the editor’s credibility. Which brings us to the penultimate question:

What Are the Limits, If Any, to My Role as a Copyeditor?

The line between copyeditor and developmental editor is not a bright line. We discussed the roles 4.5 years ago in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, but the demarcation is worth repeating.

A developmental editor’s role is multifaceted, but it is less concerned with grammar and syntax and more concerned with the manuscript’s overall structure, as well as with the accuracy of the subject matter content. It is the developmental editor’s role to suggest other causes of an event to an author and even to rewrite sentences and paragraphs to reflect those suggestions. Yet, even the developmental editor needs to query the author about the changes being made, although such querying may be done more broadly, such as “I have rewritten the next five paragraphs to reflect the discussion of the subject found in chapter 3.”

The copyeditor’s role, on the other hand, is to focus on the mechanics of the manuscript — such things as, grammar, spelling, punctuation, conformance to a style, and consistency. Rewrites should be very limited, often to compact a sentence by removing redundancies or to ensure that, for example, material is in the present tense. It is not the copyeditor’s job to rewrite substantively. At most the copyeditor should suggest a substantive change in a comment.

In the case of our colleague, I think our colleague crosses that fine line that an editor needs to walk. Hired as a copyeditor, our colleague should not have crossed over into developmental editing without including an explanatory comment.

It is not unusual to see negative comments about editors generally. I think these comments come about as the result of numerous factors, one of which is the crossing of the line. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 4, 2014

Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing

I am currently reading David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong (2013). The book focuses on what has become known as the trolley problem, which goes like this (the following is a summary of Phillippa Foot’s original thought experiment from the 1960s, which subsequently morphed into the “Fat Man” variation, as well as other variations):

The trolley is coming down the track and you are standing by a switch. If the trolley remains on the current track, it will kill five people who are tied to the track and cannot escape. If you throw the switch, the trolley will veer onto a spur on which one person is tied and will kill that one person, but the five people will be saved. Do you/should you throw the switch?

This is the conundrum of right and wrong, which underlies most religious and moral beliefs.

Reading this book made me think of editing ethics. I grant that the decisions we have to make are not of life and death, but still, they can be weighty and certainly raise the specter of morally and ethically right and wrong behavior.

Is the absence of the conundrum equivalent to saying that there is no ethical or unethical behavior, there is just behavior? Is this a conundrum for philosophers to quarrel over but that has no particular value outside the philosophical debates? As with most philosophical questions, there are only philosophical answers, any of which can be correct at a given moment in time.

I think few of us would say that editing (of all stripes, including proofreading) raises such philosophical conundrums that we grind to a halt as we consider them and discuss them with colleagues. Over the past 30 years, I have had editing-related “philosophical” discussions with colleagues only on a handful of occasions, and those discussions were rarely earth moving.

I suppose our initial foray into the conundrum is whether we are competent to handle the project being offered. This is not about our competency in general as an editor, but our competency specifically for the project in question. For example, we work alone, there are 3,000 manuscript pages to be edited; they require a “heavy” edit; the subject matter is a sub-sub-subspecialty area of nuclear physics, an area with which we have no familiarity; the manuscript is heavy in math, which we know is a weakness; the schedule is six weeks and cannot be extended, which means we would have to edit 500 manuscript pages a week, yet the best we have ever done is 300. The project is for a long-time client who pays very well (more than any other client we have) and will pay double our usual rate. Finally, if we do not accept this project, we currently have nothing else to fill the time, although it is always possible for something to come along. Also, the project still will have to be done by someone — and that someone might be even less qualified.

What do we do? Some of us will immediately decline, outlining our reasons for the client. Some of us will accept and hope that we can convince the client to extend the deadline. Some of us will simply accept and hope that we do a satisfactory job. Some of us will accept and try to find colleagues to work on the manuscript with us. Regardless of which path we take, I suspect that most of us would think more about the practical problems than the philosophical problems associated with the project offer.

But should we be so focused on the practical problems, or should we have already had a philosophical discussion about such a situation and have our moral and ethical compass already set to give an answer to the offer? My thinking tends toward the latter.

The job offer raises many of ethical questions. Should an editor accept work in unfamiliar subject areas? What makes up an unfamiliar subject area? How much depth of knowledge in a subject area does an editor need to accept an offer? (For example, do we need to have studied Jewish writings regarding the Talmud for years to be able to edit a book on Jewish philosophy that arises from the Talmud? Do we need to be able to cite the German order of battle before we agree to edit a book on the German offensive in World War I? Should we have at least a nursing degree before we edit a medical text intended for nursing students?)

Should our decision be based on schedule and our past history with regard to schedule? That is, if the schedule requires 500 edited pages per week but the most we have ever done is 300, are we morally obligated to turn down the project because we have never accomplished that speed before? Or is this one of those ethical considerations that need to be given some weight, but not much weight because we can find techniques that will speed up our editing? Which raises the question of whether we would be substituting technique for skill.

Let us not forget the money part. The offer comes with more money than usual — a doubling of our normal fee. Why? Is it not the client’s recognition of the difficulty of the project and the client’s method of incentivizing us to undertake what appears to be a difficult project? How much should the fee offered govern our decision-making process? If we were to prioritize elements of the offer, where would we place fee?

I know that some of us would say that before approaching these or any other question about the offer, they would insist on seeing a few chapters to make their own decision about the project’s difficulty. Even if chapters are chosen at random, how much can we learn from them? The two or three chapters randomly chosen could be the most difficult to edit, the longest, the shortest, the easiest to edit, or something else that would unduly influence a positive or negative reaction. Such a review could (and likely would) divert us from addressing the more important underlying ethical and moral questions.

In a sense, that is exactly the problem: We editors do not have a universal code of morality or ethics that serves as a guide to any of the editorial decisions we make, which range from whether to accept an offer to whether to bill the client for hours we didn’t actually spend on the project because we were more efficient than the client calculated we would be (in other words, the project took us 50 hours but the client expected it to take and budgeted for 75 hours. Do we bill for 50 hours or 75 hours?).

In the absence of such ethical codes, editors tend to approach the job-offer problem from the practical side rather than the philosophical side. Granted, in our instance, unlike in the trolley problem, there is no balancing of life versus death(s). And I also grant that in the trolley problem the dilemma has a cultural/religious element (substitute for the trolley problem the abortion problem and its variations) that editing will rarely face (an exception being, perhaps, the offer to edit a virulently anti-Semitic book that calls for a new genocide). Yet I think we — and our clients and profession — would gain greatly were we to have this discussion and come to a consensus on what constitutes ethical and moral behavior for an editor and what doesn’t.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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