An American Editor

October 1, 2014

What a Tale We Tell

Editing is intended to provide the polish to a story. Cicero gave three reasons for telling a story: “to teach, to please, to move.” Although these are not all of the reasons to tell a story, they do form a sound foundation for telling of all types of tales. Editors take the rough tale and polish it so that the tale does teach, please, and move a reader.

As has been noted many times on An American Editor, editing is a craft. One cannot simply hang out a shingle and magically have the skills to change carbon to diamond. Editors sharpen their skills with each manuscript they work on. How well we polish a manuscript tells a lot about how good an editor we are.

We all are familiar with those books that blatantly boast of poor editing. Yet some of those badly written and even more badly edited (assuming they were edited at all) manuscripts sell well. Why is that? It is because the consumer/reader has been poorly educated and doesn’t recognize dreck when she reads it. (It is also because them author has connected with readers regardless of whether the book is editorially perfect.)

And it seems that things are getting worse, not better. Increasingly, I find editors lack the fundamental skills needed to be editors and business people — they lack both the editing skills and the business skills, a very deadly combination — but they do have one very important attribute: They can be hired cheaply.

And therein lies the tale of editing.

Editing probably began with contracts and disputes over contractual terms. Two people without advanced authorial skills probably wrote and signed a contract and discovered when brought before a third person that what they thought they had written, they hadn’t. As the need for clear expression grew, so grew the editorial profession. We may have been called other things, such as scribe or lawyer or priest, but whatever we were called, our role was to bring clarity to chaos.

Over the years, greater skillsets were needed and editors rose to the occasion. We were among the educated classes, and in those eras, class stratification ensured that editors had distinct skills. Not anyone could be an editor.

Then came the shift in philosophy. No longer were classes based on education. Education became free and universal. Everyone who wanted to be an editor had the opportunity to learn the necessary basic skills. The original editors had to learn every task and skill intimately and had to have mastery over language; there were no electronic aids to provide a crutch as a foundation.

The twentieth century became the great leveler; education became universal. What counted was how much education an editor received and the editor’s grasp of language and vocabulary. The editorial eye had to be sharp because there wasn’t a tool available that could point out misspellings or wrong usage except the editor’s eyes and brain.

The late twentieth century brought a revolution to the special status of editors. First came grade inflation — everyone got an A for effort. Then came personal computers with squiggly lines beneath alleged misspellings. The combination of these two at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries finally leveled the ground to a perfectly flat line. Editing became a profession of whoever wanted to be called an editor; elitism was destroyed.

Amidst that destruction one hoped that editing would suffer a rebirth, have a phoenix moment, but that is not what happened. Instead, the bane of civilization occurred — a worldwide recession. With it came job losses, yet people still had bills to pay and food to buy. Combine the Great Recession with the greatest equalizer of all time, the Internet, and a deadly cocktail for professional editors was born — the door swung wide for the exponential growth of the numbers of editors.

With that growth in numbers of editors came competition for editing assignments. Competition was done on the only known basis for competition: price. Every publisher, regardless of size and including the self-publishing indie author, wanted lower costs, which meant that hidden services, like editing, suffered greatly. Yet, surprisingly, the number of editors didn’t decrease — it increased. So, editors began competing on price.

The more editors competing, the lower the price. Ultimately, the price became a drag on the profession. Increasingly, professional editors struggled. Increasingly, there was author dissatisfaction with the quality of the editing received. Interestingly, an increasing number of book reviewers noted poor editing.

Editors are on the brink of becoming commodities. The link between professional editors and quality editing is being stretched thin — so thin that eventually it will break.

I know that many AAE readers will read this and say this is not true, this isn’t happening to them. They are still both important and relevant to their clients. But if you look at the broader picture and try to see down Future Road, you will see that the walls within which lies the editor’s craft are being assaulted and weakened by the ease with which one can hang out an editor’s shingle that says “open for business.”

We need to write a different ending to this tale while the ending is still in flux. Professional editors need to support more stringent educational standards so that upcoming workers have the intellectual skills and exposure to be good editors. As noted in earlier essays, we need to support and advance certification and education for editors. We need to sell ourselves to the publishing industry as necessary and needed participants in the production process. We must make the case for the differences between professional and amateur editing. Above all, we must believe we are relevant and proclaim it.

We need to absorb some lessons from accomplished authors. The diligence that goes into an author’s telling of a tale is waiting to be learned by editors for application to the editorial process. We need to make sure that the story we tell about professional editing teaches the value of editing and professional editors; that the tale is told in such a way as to capture the imagination of publishers and authors; and that there is a pathway to move from amateur to recognized professional.

In the continued absence of telling our story, our profession will continue to decline. Our standards will become ever more lax and our income ever lower. As that occurs, our skills will decline. Ultimately, future clients will see no need for professional editors; future clients will do as nonprofessional editors do — run spell check and call it editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 28, 2010

I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors

I received a telephone call the other day from a self-published author who was concerned about her book. She had already published her book and sold some copies, when numerous errors were found by her and by readers. She was concerned that the errors were causing readers to focus on them rather than on her message.

She was surprised to discover such a quantity of errors as she had followed the “recommended” process of having friends and colleagues read the manuscript several times before publication. However, having found numerous errors after publication, she conceded it may have been a mistake not to hire a professional editor before publication.

What she wanted to know was how inexpensively her book could be professionally edited in that she and her friends and colleagues have probably now identified most, if not all, of the remaining errors and this would be a quick job as kind of insurance.

Her question was good but her understanding of the editorial process was flawed. Think about it this way: I already have a bag of flour in my pantry so I probably don’t need another bag, but maybe I’ll buy another bag just to be sure. Surely this just-in-case bag of flour should cost significantly less because I don’t really need it; the bag I already have is enough. Try that line of reasoning on your grocer and tell me how you fare.

When an author hires a professional editor, they are hiring the editor’s expertise and experience, something that is valuable and needs to be paid for. More importantly, to edit a manuscript, the editor needs to read every word. Think about how unhappy you would be if you paid an editor for a “quick” and “light” edit as insurance against embarrassment only to discover that the quick and light edit didn’t catch that suddenly, out of the blue, on page 122 the hero is missing an arm but that arm miraculously reappears 3 pages later.

As I explained to this author, without carefully reading the manuscript how would an editor know whether, for example, brake or break, seam or seem, scene or seen is correct? (See, e.g., On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake!) The author’s question then was, “but if the editor finds no errors or only a few very minor errors, haven’t I wasted my money?”

No, because you have received the reassurance that you sought; your manuscript is as good as it gets. On the other hand, suppose the editor finds several truly egregious errors. Does the editor then deserve a significant increase in the fee? A bonus?

I suppose one solution is to find an editor who will charge by the found error. I don’t know any professional editor who works that way, but anything is possible today. But how much would you be willing to pay per error found? And who would decide whether an error was to be paid for? Should a minor error cost as much as a major error? What is the difference between a minor and major error? Who will decide an error’s classification?

The per-error-found payment scheme strikes me as unworkable; I certainly wouldn’t be willing to work on such a basis, and I doubt any professional editor would either. In fact, I’d suspect an editor’s qualifications and skills should that be the basis of payment.

There really is no getting around the fact that an experienced professional editor brings a lot to the table and needs to be fairly compensated. Few of us would want to use a neighbor whose primary job was running a daycare center to completely rewire our house; instead, we would want to hire a qualified electrician. So why, after spending many hours writing a book that we want to sell to others, would we rely on that same neighbor to “edit” our manuscript? We do it because we have little respect for the editing profession; we believe that because we caught errors in a book we bought we are capable of doing the same in our own work or in a friend’s work. To me, it is similar to thinking that because I can replace a faulty light switch, I can wire my house. The required experience and skill levels aren’t the same.

The bottom line really is that it is hard to spend money on something that isn’t making money or is unlikely to make money. In other words, as an author, you don’t really believe in the quality or value of your own product (which makes me wonder why readers should; see Question of the Day: Investing in eBooks by Authors & Readers) or you would hesitate to accept the “good-enough” standard for your book.

Just because you published your book and are now discovering the errors is no reason to expect a professional editor to do any less work on your book than had you given the manuscript to the editor before publication. Isn’t it an advantage of ebooks that they can be updated and corrected? (See eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite.) It is never too late, with an ebook, to get it right. It certainly is better to get it right than to suffer the embarrassment of being noted for poor editing (see Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important).

If you think you have something worth saying, which is why you wrote your book originally, isn’t it important to make sure that readers actually get to what you have to say rather than focus on side issues such as poor grammar and spelling? Perhaps hiring a professional editor should be high on the to-do list. Remember that your book is your face to the world!

(For additional information about professional editors, what they do and what to expect, as well the difference between an amateur and a professional, see the following articles: The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; For the Lack of an Editor, the Debate Changed; Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1); Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2); and Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.)

April 1, 2010

The Professional Editor’s Bookshelf

I have been a professional editor for more than 25 years and during those years I have purchased, read, and used numerous references. Even now I look for additional language reference books to buy (I have on order, for example, An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction by Anatoly Liberman).

There is no list of must-have reference books that every professional editor must own or have immediate access to, with the possible exception of standard dictionaries; which books should be part of an editor’s reference library depends a great deal on the types of manuscripts the editor works on and the type of editing performed (by which I mean whether one does developmental editing, copyediting, or both).

One book every editor should have (in addition to dictionaries) is the appropriate style manual. There are many style manuals available, even news organizations like the New York Times and Associated Press have style manuals. Sometimes the required style manual is nothing more than the grammar and style rules created by the client, but usually it is one of the standard manuals, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, The Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA (Modern Language Association) Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, the AMA (American Medical Association) Manual of Style, and the Council of Science Editor’s Scientific Style and Format, to name but a few. It is the style manual that is the arbiter of the rules to be applied to a manuscript, for example, how a reference is to be styled, how a quotation is to be delineated, whether or not serial commas should be used, whether or not prefixes should be hyphenated or closed up, whether or not a phrase should be hyphenated, etc.

In addition to the appropriate style manual, an editor’s bookshelf must contain at least one dictionary, although many editors will have several. Two of my favorite dictionaries are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Although one would think that all dictionaries are the same, they are not, and clients often have a preference. Along with a standard language dictionary, specialized dictionaries are needed. For example, medical editors often own several medical specialty dictionaries, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, and the APA Dictionary of Psychology, in addition to the standard English language dictionaries.

My bookshelf also includes “word” books, that is, books that are lists of accepted words and their spelling for a particular specialty subject area. Because I do a lot of medical editing, I have numerous medical word books. Specialty areas, like medicine, also require specialty reference books. My medical library, for example, includes several drug reference manuals, drug interaction guides, and medical test guides. And because a lot of my specialty work also includes chemical compounds, my library also includes chemical reference books like The Merck Index.

But my bookshelf also includes books devoted to language usage, such as Garner’s Modern American Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, and Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. These are the books that go into detailed explanation of when, for example, which is correct and the difference between farther and further in usage.

Usage books only tell part of the story. Another part is told in a word or phrase’s history (etymology). Some of this information is available in the standard dictionary, especially the Oxford English Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, as well as from specialty books like A Dictionary of Americanisms, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, and The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. These resources are valuable in determining whether a word or phrase are being used appropriately.

Also useful are texts that help an editor analyze the roots and origins of a word, especially when an author uses a wholly unfamiliar word, including one not found in the standard language references, or creates a new word. Composition of Scientific Words is particularly helpful with science words and the Word Parts Dictionary is useful with standard English words.

In addition to books about words, a professional editor’s bookshelf includes books about grammar. Grammar books also address the correct word issue, but the focus is more on correct sentence structure, for example the restrictive versus the nonrestrictive clause, use of commas, passive versus active voice, and the like. I suspect many editors make use of The Gregg Reference Manual when grammar questions arise.

Some editors rely on online resources in this Internet Age. I find that troublesome to the extent that there is no assurance of reliability or accuracy. I know the source of my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but have no idea of the source for or accuracy of a Wikipedia article. Having grown up in the print age, I am not comfortable relying on the Internet as the source of my information. But making use of online resources is also an important part of an editor’s job; the key is knowing which resources to accept and which to reject. A professional editor can knowledgeably make that decision.

Why is the editor’s bookshelf important? Because it helps separate the professional editor from the amateur. The professional editor has a deep interest in language and how language is used. The professional editor wants to improve communication between the author and the reader. The professional editor devotes significant time and resources to mastering language so that when a manuscript leaves the editor’s hands, it is better communicates the author’s message. Nonprofessional editors do not make the investment nor work to master the language skills that are needed.

The difference between a professional and a nonprofessional editor can be the difference between clear communication and miscommunication of an author’s message. The comprehensiveness of the editor’s bookshelf, the editor’s resources, is a clue to the editor’s professionalism, and something that every author should be interested in.

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