An American Editor

May 19, 2014

The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting

Teaching the Art of Copyediting

by Erin Brenner

A while back, Rich Adin wrote in a blog post, Is Editing Teachable?, that copyediting can’t be taught. He said:

Editing is…a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught.…But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

I agree that editing is a craft, one that editors continue to learn throughout their careers. And while telling an adjective from an adverb is useful, it’s just the beginning of learning copyediting.

Editing courses, Adin says, teach only the mechanics of copyediting because that’s all they can teach. By “mechanics,” he means “the things that are applied by rule [or] rote,” he told me in an email.

But you can’t teach students how to “reconstruct a sentence so that it is clear and accurately portrays the message,” Adin continued.

“It is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor,” Adin had written in his blog post. “If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.”

Let’s look at these two ideas separately.

Teaching More Than Editing Mechanics

My own definitions of editing come from The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. Einsohn breaks down the task of copyediting into several parts, including:

  • Mechanical editing: making a manuscript conform to a house style, including correcting for such items as spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, punctuation, treatment of numbers, and so on.
  • Language editing: correcting or querying the author on errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and diction.
  • Content editing: correcting or querying the author on errors of internal consistency, content discrepancies, and structural and organizational problems.

Adin and I have essentially the same definition of mechanics, then. Editing a weak sentence into something clear and accurate would seem like language editing to me; in some instances, it might be content editing. Both are teachable, though, and deconstructing sentences and paragraphs is an excellent way to do so.

Break that sentence into its parts and see how it works. What happens when you move modifying phrases around? Does a sentence sound stronger with an important phrase at the beginning or end? These are places of power in a sentence, and a copyeditor can learn to use those places wisely.

Maybe word choice is the problem. Has the author chosen a word that’s precise enough to carry the meaning? Copyeditors should be alert to connotation and denotation of words.

Another key to finding clarity in sentences is understanding rhythm and how that’s achieved. An awkward rhythm can distract readers from the message.

All of these things and more can be explained and, more importantly, practiced. A recent lesson for my Copyediting II students included an exercise in coordinating and subordinating ideas in sentences and paragraphs. My job is to judge how well they’ve done that based on the original meaning of the text and to guide them to better decisions when necessary.

A lot of language editing can be taught by teaching writing style. In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing, Thomas S. Kane broadly defines style as “the total of all the choices a writer makes concerning words and their arrangements.” What kind of choices are we talking about? Things such as:

  • Diction
  • Verb choice
  • Passive vs. active voice
  • Coordination and subordination of ideas
  • Use of negatives
  • Variety in words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure
  • Redundancy

In addition, copyeditors can learn how to create transitions between sentences and paragraphs and how to organize words in a sentence to better emphasize the main idea. All of these items can be taught and practiced.

Of course, a writing style is a complex thing and not always easy to identify minutely, but we can identify certain characteristics of style and note when something doesn’t fit. When you can identify the problem, you can fix it.

Why Aren’t There More Great Editors?

If teaching copyediting is possible, then, how come there aren’t more great editors? Many reasons, including:

  • Not all copyediting training is created equal. Some materials, no matter what kind you use, are simply better than others. In part, you’re only as good as your training.
  • Not all copyeditors are created equal. Like any other career, copyediting demands certain abilities, such as attention to detail. Some people are simply better at noticing details. Others are good at seeing the big picture. We all have innate abilities that suit us to certain kinds of work.
  • If more people were great, who would be average? Those at the top of their industry are just that: the top. The exceptions, not the rule. Most folks are average, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, though, we don’t really know how many copyeditors are great. As Adin has pointed out, we lack a national organization in the United States that measures how good a copyeditor is. How can we know how many great copyeditors labor in obscurity? We may bemoan the quality of the published word, but can we lay all the blame on copyeditors and ignore writers’ skills, the time given to edit, or any other variable in the publishing process?

I, too, would like to see a national organization that sets a standard for editing, recognizes those editors that achieve it, and educates the world about the importance of those standards. Doing so would also indicate that we think copyediting can be taught.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

April 28, 2014

The Practical Editor: Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate

The Practical Editor:
Define Your Terms, Then Negotiate

by Erin Brenner

Recently, I saw a job ad that advertised for a copyeditor for a 5,500-word academic article. The article had already been accepted for publication, according to the ad, and the author was looking for a light copyedit, most likely to make a good impression on the assigning editor.

Even if the article will be edited in-house, this is a good call. The cleaner the copy, the more likely the assigning editor will hire this writer again.

I have an occasional client for whom I do such work, and she is thrilled with the results. The copyediting not only produces cleaner copy, it helps her to be more confident. The editing has led to her receiving more assignments. And why not? Assigning editors are busy folks, too, and the easier you make it to publish your article, the more likely they’ll call you again for another.

What’s a Page?

Back to the ad. The author is willing to pay $9 a page for the project. Does this sound good to you? Before you say yes, ask yourself this very important question:

What does the author mean by page?

Many folks in the publishing industry define a manuscript page as 250 words, and the Editorial Freelancers Association encourages that definition.

However, you can define a page in whatever way makes the most sense to you. As Ruth Thaler-Carter notes in a previous blog post (see The Commandments: Thou Shall Establish the Rules of Engagement Before Beginning a Project), Rich Adin uses a character count.

The key is to ensure you and your client are using the same definition of a page.

Let’s say the author from the ad is using the 250-word definition. That’s a 22-page document, resulting in a $198 payday:

5,500 words/250 words per page = 22 pages
22 pages × $9 per page = $198

If you can edit seven pages an hour, you’ll complete the project in 3.14 hours. Even if you round up your total to 4 hours to account for administration work on the project, you’ll earn $49.50 an hour. That’s a good rate in my book.

Even if the editing take longer, say four pages an hour, you’ll spend 5.5 hours on it. Round it up to 6.25 hours, and you’ll earn $31.68 an hour. Depending on your circumstances, this could still be a good rate. (However, it’s always a good idea to calculate your required effective hourly rate [see Thinking About Money: What Freelancers Need to Understand] ahead of time.)

But let’s say the author means one page is equal to a page in the Word file, not an uncommon occurrence. How many pages is this according to our 250-word definition? The total will vary greatly depending on several variables, including font, font size, leading, length of paragraphs, and margins. If you haven’t seen the document or been given a page count, you’re taking a risk on being able to make a decent hourly rate on the project.

How much of a risk?

In Ariel 12-point type, with a couple of boldfaced headers per page and a 1-inch margin all around, 5,500 equals about 10 pages. At $9 a page, I’d earn $90 on this job. If I edit at seven pages an hour, I’m earning just $22.50 an hour. If I edit at four pages an hour, $14.40 an hour. Ouch!

And let’s not forget that this is an academic article; it’s very likely the article includes citations. Are these footnotes or endnotes, which aren’t automatically included in Word’s word count? If you’ll be responsible for editing those citations, your editing pace and subsequent hourly rate dropped again.

Define and Negotiate

It’s crucial, then, that you’re using the same definitions as your client. This could be a good, quick job or a miserable money loser. Ask your author the following:

  • How do you define a page? Offer your own definition and see if they’ll accept it.
  • What do you mean by “light copyedit”? Try to discover what the author specifically wants done to the article.
  • What are my responsibilities regarding citations? Are they included in the word count?
  • Can I see the entire manuscript first? Determine for yourself whether you can edit it to the client’s satisfaction in a timeframe that earns you a decent paycheck.

At this point, you should have enough information to determine whether that $9 per page is acceptable. If the answer is no, it’s time to negotiate:

  • Tell the author how much you would charge to do what’s needed or wanted. Emphasize what the eventual outcome of such an edit would be. Sure the manuscript will be cleaner, but so what? Your job is to explain the “so what”: higher quality leads to better reception by the assigning editor, a greater chance for more work, a more positive reception by readers, and a rise in the author’s reputation.
  • Tell the author what you would do for the offered rate. If the author is truly cash-strapped but wants your services—and you want to work with this author—you could do less editing for less money.

Define your terms with the client. Negotiate for what you want. And if you and the author can’t agree, gracefully let them go on their way.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

March 24, 2014

The Practical Editor: Balancing Competing Interests

Balancing Competing Interests

by Erin Brenner

“Redoing a lot of work today because another editor can’t follow their own style guide. Gr… #amediting”

I tweeted that statement a couple weeks ago. For the client in question, I edit the thought leadership (a.k.a. content marketing) copy. It’s part of a newish program at an international company, and there are politics a-plenty. Just about everyone gets to put a finger in someone else’s pie and stir it up until it no longer resembles pie. Which is why all the copy I edit is reviewed by in-house copyeditors who can’t distinguish marketing from thought leadership.

Playing Politics

One reason I freelance is because I dislike politics. Yet I understand that we all have to play politics sometimes. It’s just the way the world works.

I accept that there will be editorial changes related to company politics. The key is knowing what the politics are.

If the changes come from someone high up in the food chain, I’m going to follow them. I report to the editorial director, and it’s in my best interest to keep his bosses happy.

If changes come from an in-house editor, I have my director’s blessing to reject them if they don’t make sense for the manuscript. Good editors know not to make changes just because that’s not how they would do it.

Understand what the politics are in your office. Who wields the power to cancel your paycheck or to make your life miserable? Know what kind of clout you have (or don’t have). Freelancers often have little, if any, direct clout, though supervisors can be called upon to use theirs to resolve a situation.

How important is the change? Important enough to risk losing the contract or job? There are situations when it could be, but give careful thought to whether this is one of them.

For this client, I have no problem overturning the “introduce any acronym before you use it” rule in certain cases. The audience expects the client to know what it’s talking about, and one way to demonstrate that is to use the jargon correctly.

However, as much as it frustrated me, I backed off when an in-house editor said we couldn’t quote a line from book without written permission. At the time, the editor appeared to have the backing of the legal department. It’s understandable that the company wants to protect itself, and it’s not worth losing the client over its risk-adverse nature.

Since then, however, my director has been able to sort the situation out to more realistic expectations.

Make your case to your supervisor, and let them resolve the situation. If you’ve given your best advice and the client rejects it, you’ve done what you can.

Balancing Style Guides

The corrections that drive me nuts, though, result from an editor not being familiar with their own style guide. But maybe it’s understandable. When I say “style guide” what I really mean is three in-house style guides and The Chicago Manual of Style.

Most editors are comfortable with balancing a style sheet or in-house style guide with a published style manual like Chicago. Follow the house style guide first. If the answer isn’t there, go to the published manual for the answer.

Balancing several in-house style documents is no different. The trick is to look for the pyramid. Then start at the top and work your way down.

For my client, the base style is the company’s branding style guide. It’s the broadest document, covering specifics about how the products and services should be described, how to refer to the company, what voice the writing should have, and so forth.

Yet the document is meant to be used by a variety of departments, which write very different things. What works in a tech manual is not going to work in the marketing copy. And what works for marketing won’t be successful in the company’s annual report.

My client’s marketing department created a stylebook to help communicate in the company’s voice while addressing the department’s specific needs. The focus is narrower than the brand style guide, so it sits above it on the pyramid. It encompasses lots of rules that would apply specifically to marketing the company’s products and services. Some of the rules are quirky, such as not using Latin abbreviations, not using passive voice, and always using present tense.

Understanding the reasoning behind the rules can help you decide when they apply. The company’s products and services can be difficult to explain, and writers often get caught in a web of abstractions that only confuse readers. Using active voice forces a writer to think about who does what, keeping the document in the realm of specifics.

The program’s style sheet sits at the top of the pyramid, having a still narrower focus. It highlights important rules from the other two guides for convenience, but it mostly covers exceptions to those rules and rules that apply only to this program. For example, thought leadership is as much about abstract ideas as practical advice. As a result, the writing contains more passive voice and future tenses than would otherwise be allowed. Different purpose, different writing style.

When it’s not clear which style guide outranks another, don’t just apply rules arbitrarily. Ask. Your supervisor should be able to tell you the chain of command. Be sure to record such determinations for reference.

It’s frustrating to work with someone who doesn’t know how to balance seemingly competing style guides. It wastes time and money. Take the time to understand the purpose of each style guide and the politics at work, and you’ll find your job is much easier in the long run.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

February 24, 2014

The Practical Editor: Working the Real World

Today’s column by Erin Brenner marks the first essay in a new monthly series, “The Practical Editor.” In this series, Erin will address real-world editorial issues and the balance needed between real-world demands and what could (would) be if all the stars were aligned in the editor’s favor. Please welcome Erin as a new columnist for An American Editor.

________________

Working the Real World

by Erin Brenner

There’s nothing like honing a well-written manuscript until it would make the angels weep for its beauty, grace, and clarity. Helping create a work of art thrills and satisfies me. Having a hand in producing something like this from George Eliot’s Middlemarch would be an honor:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, “Oh, nothing!”

Too bad that I and most of my colleagues work in the real world.

Few manuscripts are the next Middlemarch, few authors a modern George Eliot. Certainly, we copyeditors could weave an author’s words until they became something glorious, but we run up against real limits: in raw materials to work with, in time to do the work, in money to be paid for the work.

Of course we want to do it all. Of course we want to turn that doggie daycare website into Literature! Why else would we have become copyeditors? Literary geniuses are rare, though. Much of the editing we do is the down-and-dirty variety on manuscripts that will be read tomorrow and wrapped around fish the day after.

True, there’s more text being published than ever before, even discounting all the casual emails, Facebook postings, and so on. That’s more opportunities for copyeditors. But because of that increase, readers are absorbing material more quickly, too. They don’t always notice the niceties. It’s get the message and move on.

Most of the time.

Then there are our dream projects: projects where the client wants the Cadillac service. They want you to bleed over every word, to make the manuscript sing—and they’re willing to pay for it and give you the time to do it.

Copyeditors need to know what the manuscript at hand calls for. What are the author’s and publisher’s goals? However beautiful Eliot’s prose is, it doesn’t sell soap.

What is the audience’s expectations of the manuscript? However much Eliot makes you feel, she doesn’t teach you how to perform open-heart surgery.

The practical copyeditor keeps the author, publisher, and audience in mind while editing, flexing well-trained editing muscles to find that unique balance between good writing and getting the job done for the manuscript at hand.

In this column, I’ll explore practical editing. It’s not enough to know the rules. You need to know how to apply them and why you would apply them differently in various situations. When would allowing vogue words be acceptable? When would you follow an author’s awkward dictate, such as “don’t split infinitives”?

Copyediting is a muscle. Having the power to do the heaviest lifting is useful, but being able to control how much power you use at any time is better. And knowing when to apply that power, and when not to, is invaluable. It’s the difference between failing and succeeding in our business.

Part of that control comes from understanding the difference between usage rules and style guidelines, so I’ll examine some common misunderstandings, such as the idea that all redundancies are bad and that certain phrases, like “don’t use reason why,” shouldn’t be used. I’ll also look at why it’s OK to use notional agreement, singular they, and hopefully as a sentence adverb.

I’ll provide lessons on structuring your editing for the real world — the one with doggie daycares and deadlines. The Copyeditor’s Typographic Oath will be a great map to guide us, as will the ideas of zombie rules and dog-whistle edits. I’ll offer triage lists, a method for judging the acceptability of neologisms, and online resources to inform your editing.

We’ll also talk about practical approaches to running an editing business and marketing yourself, such as structuring your business to meet your needs, balancing work and play, and learning to say no. We’ll discuss using social media as part of your marketing plan and why it’s important to do more than social media.

I’ll even debate some of Rich Adin’s ideas and expand on others. Can you really not teach copyediting? Is there really no such thing as light, medium, and heavy copyedits? Perhaps I’m biased on these points because I teach in a copyediting program. But I know how I struggled in my early days and how the training helped me. I believe you can teach copyediting, though not everyone can learn it.

I invite you to send me your topic requests as well. What would you like me to write about? Email me!

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

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