An American Editor

January 29, 2018

Signs that an Editor Might Not Be a Pro

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Today’s aspiring authors have a lot more resources for getting their work into readers’ hands than ever before, but often have little experience in the publishing world. That can make authors vulnerable to people who call themselves editors — whether of books or of other projects — but are not truly skilled or experienced in that realm.

Since I’m a writer as well as an editor and proofreader, I often think about editing matters from the author’s or client’s perspective. For subscribers to An American Editor who are writers, here are signs that an editor might not be a pro, so you know not to use the same person for your next book, or you might not want to hire an editor you are considering working with. You might even want to find someone to redo an already-published book so it does better in future sales.

For subscribers who are editors, these might be areas to consider when wondering why you aren’t getting as much work as you’d like, haven’t gotten repeat assignments from past clients, or are just starting out in the field. They also might serve as talking points when you want to explain to a potential client or employer why you’re the best pick — or at least an appropriate one — for their editing work.

As colleague Katherine Hinkebein Pickett has said, “Due diligence is essential to finding a qualified, reputable editor. When you know what to look for, you can hire your editor with confidence.” Equally, when we know what prospective clients might look for when choosing an editor, editors can power up their responses more effectively.

Authors don’t have to be experts in language and usage to notice some problems that could indicate work by an unprofessional editor, such as:

  • Every word in every title or chapter heading starts with a capital letter, including a/an, and, the, of, etc. (I see this a lot in online material, but that doesn’t make it right.)
  • Commas, periods, and closing parentheses are outside the quote marks (in projects using U.S. English).
  • There are commas before opening parentheses.
  • Basic spelling errors jump out at you or have been noticed by readers.
  • Punctuation is inconsistent or missing.
  • References/citations are all in different sequences or styles.

To head off such problems with your next book, or a new edition of the current one, here are some red flags to keep in mind. These also can function as suggestions for how editors can position their businesses better.

  • A prospective editor has no website, no testimonials at a website, no professional memberships, no LinkedIn profile/account, no formal training, no apparent experience, and/or no references.

A professional editor will probably have a website that outlines his or her training and experience, such as coursework from a respected publications program, in-house work, or a freelance track record. It should include testimonials from employers, colleagues, and/or clients attesting to the editor’s skills and approach, and references that prospective clients can contact (or a link to reach the editor to receive contact info for references).

The editor should belong to an organization such as the American Copy Editors Society, Council of Science Editors, National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, Society for Technical Communication, Editorial Freelancers Association, Society for Editors and Proofreaders (UK), Editors Canada, etc. Since groups like the American Medical Writers Association, Society for Professional Journalists, and National Association of Science Writers all have freelance sections and members who are editors, membership in them is also a good sign that someone is a professional.

Belonging to the Copyediting-L e-mail list and Editors Association of Earth (EAE) Facebook group also would be useful indicators of an editor’s professionalism and commitment to staying on top of trends in language in general and editing in particular.

Training could include having earned certificates from respected editing programs. Experience would, of course, include working in-house for a publisher, publication, or organization, or with individual authors. An editor who writes about the crafting of editing in his or her own blog, has published a book about editing, or is a regular and respected contributor to the editing-related works of others and lists or groups is also likely to be someone with experience and skills.

  • An editor hasn’t asked what style manual/guide you use or the editor should use, or hasn’t told you which one s/he will use for your project. There are several standard guides for using language and formatting documents. The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, American Psychological Association Publication Manual, and Government Printing Office Style Manual are the leading resources, with many more available for specific professions and industries. A professional editor is familiar with at least one of these and lets prospective clients know that’s the case, which should reassure authors who might be concerned about consistency and accuracy in their documents.

Identifying the dictionary that an editor uses is also helpful to clients. Spellcheck, as most of us know, is not sufficient, but even if it were, some clients have to be convinced by an authority other than the editor that a given word has been spelled correctly.

  • The editor’s only credential is a degree in English or a career as an English teacher. While knowing English is a plus (a strong grasp of grammar is essential for an editor), there’s a difference between what’s involved with teaching English and knowing how to edit. Simply having taught English or earned an academic degree in English is not enough to understand the importance and use of style manuals, publishing standards and conventions, and other aspects of editing.
  • An editor’s pricing is very low. That might be great for your budget, but is likely to be terrible for the quality of the editing. Someone whose rates are super-low is probably either new to editing or inexperienced, untrained, minimally skilled, and/or only editing as a hobby, rather than seriously committed to editing as a business and profession, with training and experience to match. From the editor’s perspective, lowballing your rates can make you look as if you’re new to the field, unsure of your skills, or desperate for work. If we don’t value ourselves, our clients won’t value us, either!
  • There are typos — misspellings, grammar and punctuation errors, etc. — in the editor’s e-mail messages, résumé, and/or website. An e-mail or word-processing program will highlight some of these issues for authors who are not sure of what is right or wrong. Some authors might not recognize such issues in communications from an editor, but they often are egregious enough for an amateur author to notice.
  • The editor promises 100% perfection or guarantees agent placement, a publisher, and/or bestseller status for your book. It probably would be easier to pitch an edited manuscript to an agent or sell it to a publisher, but having the manuscript edited is not a guarantee of getting published or selling lots of copies.
  • The editor claims to rely on spellcheck, online programs like Grammarly, and other tools to ensure perfection. Not only is perfection unlikely, as noted above, but it takes more than a mechanical software program to ensure high quality in editing. An editor who uses PerfectIt, the various tools at editorium.com, and EditTools from wordsnsync demonstrates a commitment to knowing about and using appropriate, respected resources to contribute to a better result, but doesn’t say those resources are all it takes to provide excellence in editing. The human brain and eyes are still essential to the process, which means experience and training are still vitally important to professionalism and providing high-quality service.

What have colleagues here encountered as examples of poor-quality editing, and how have you positioned your experience and skills to convince clients to hire you for editing projects?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.

September 29, 2014

On Today’s Bookshelf (XVIII)

Filed under: On Books,On Today's Bookshelf,To Be Read — americaneditor @ 4:00 am
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The past week has been a very busy week. Clients have inundated me with new work that needs to be done on a short schedule, and thus at a higher-than-normal pay rate. More importantly, I have been forced to do something I loathe doing — I’ve had to turn away a fair number of projects.

I thought with the close of the week such “troubles” would end, but that was/is not to be. Two clients have informed me that I should plan on next year being a repeat of this year. Of course, there are no guarantees, but based on their prognosticating efforts, next year will be very busy again for me. (I had to prepare my financial reports for my accountant for the third quarter tax filings and I was pleased to note that business was up a little more than 50% over last year.)

Finally, the weekend came and I thought I could devote some time to preparing an essay for An American Editor. Alas, when I opened my e-mail Saturday morning, I had a request to submit a bid for editing work. The problem was/is that this work would be year-long and would range in size from 20,000 to 200,000 manuscript pages. Accompanying the request to bid were several lengthy documents that detailed the editing requirements. Combine the need to prepare the bids with my desire to enjoy my weekend, and I decided it was time for another On Today’s Bookshelf article.

These are easy substitutes for me because books are added to the list as I acquire them; I do not need to sit with a blank canvas. There will be at least one more On Today’s Bookshelf before the holidays, in case you are looking for ideas of books to buy as gifts — whether for yourself or someone else.

Here are some of the books that I have acquired and added to my to-be-read pile since the last On Today’s Bookshelf post, either in hardcover or in ebook form:

Nonfiction –

  • The Pope’s Daughter by Caroline Murphy
  • Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley
  • “Non-Germans” under the Third Reich: The Nazi Judicial and Administrative System in Germany and Occupied Eastern Europe, with Special Regard to Occupied Poland, 1939-1945 by Diemut Majer
  • The Marcel Network: How One French Couple Saved 527 Children from the Holocaust by Fred Coleman
  • Believe and Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine by Christian Ingrao
  • The Dreyfus Affair: The Scandal That Tore France in Two by Piers Paul Read
  • The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind — and Changed the History of Free Speech in America by Thomas Healy
  • Desperate Sons: Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, and the Secret Bands of Radicals Who Led the Colonies to War by Les Standiford
  • Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II by Nancy Beck Young
  • A Secession Crisis Enigma by Daniel W. Crofts
  • The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era by Douglas R. Egerton
  • A Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert, and the Death That Changed the British Monarchy by Helen Rappaport
  • The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg by Helen Rappaport
  • Daily Life During the French Revolution by James M. Anderson
  • The Psychology of Lust Murder: Paraphilia, Sexual Killing, and Serial Homicide by Catherine Purcell and Bruce A. Arrigo
  • The Mad Sculptor: The Maniac, the Model, and the Murder that Shook the Nation by Harold Schechter
  • The Secret Wife of Louis XIV: Françoise D’Aubigné, Madame de Maintenon by Veronica Buckley
  • Intelligence in War: The Value–and Limitations–of What the Military Can Learn about the Enemy by John Keegan
  • The First World War by John Keegan
  • Divine Fury: A History of Genius by Darrin M. McMahon
  • Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert L. O’Connell
  • Sun Tzu at Gettysburg: Ancient Military Wisdom in the Modern World by Bevin Alexander
  • The Grand Chorus of Complaint: Authors and the Business Ethics of American Publishing by Michael J. Everton
  • Snow-Storm in August: Washington City, Francis Scott Key, and the Forgotten Race Riot of 1835 by Jefferson Morley
  • Hitler’s Spy Chief: The Wilhelm Canaris Betrayal: The Intelligence Campaign Against Adolf Hitler by Richard Bassett

Fiction –

  • End Game by John Gilstrap
  • Frozen Moment by Camilla Ceder
  • Soldier of God by David Hagberg
  • Kingmaker’s Sword by Ann Marston
  • American Coven by Amy Cross
  • The Veiled Assassin by Q.V. Hunter
  • Soul of Fire by Caris McRae
  • Close Call: A Liz Carlyle Novel  by Stella Rimington
  • Property by Valerie Martin
  • Bye Bye Baby by Fiona McIntosh
  • Beautiful Death by Fiona McIntosh
  • My Real Children by Jo Walton
  • Edge of Eternity: Book Three of The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett
  • A Stranger in the Kingdom by Howard Frank Mosher

As usual, most of my acquisitions are nonfiction. What I find is that much of fiction is the same. I do not mean the presentation or the delivery, but the general pattern: boy meets girl (or girl meets boy), love ensues, they live happily ever after (replace this pattern with another appropriate pattern such as scientist stumbles on plot, tells authorities who ignore scientist’s warnings, scientist decides to save world, scientist turns out to be the new James Bond and saves world). Same theme, different characters, but essentially the same storyline. I do not mean to imply that I do not enjoy well-written fiction, because I do. This is just an explanation of why my primary interest runs to nonfiction.

Nonfiction tends to have greater diversity. There is so much of the world, of nature, of science, of history, of language, of philosophy, of many things that I have yet to discover that nonfiction can provide me with both knowledge and entertainment and keep my interest.

I suppose if I had to say what makes nonfiction books unique as a form of entertainment, it is that it always has surprises, it is not formulaic, and it is not predictable except in the sense that we already know the broad outlines (e.g., the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires ceased to exist or that the Great Depression was the bane of the 1930s).

I hope you find that On Today’s Bookshelf essays stimulate your reading interests. Please add your contributions to books by naming books you think colleagues would be interested in reading.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 3, 2014

What Should Editors Read?

I recently wrote about the troubles my daughter is having with copyediting of her forthcoming book, The Brooklyn Thrill-Kill Gang and the Great Comic Book Scare of the 1950s by Mariah Adin, in The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit. (By way of a quick update, those troubles continue. I have advised her that in future contracts, she should ask the publisher to agree to allow her to hire the copyeditor and the publisher be responsible for the amount it would pay for an editor it hired.) Her troubles, and continuing troubles, got me thinking about the education of editors.

In thinking about editor education, I realized that the education that an editor receives is not focused. Sure, there are courses that teach some of the fundamentals of how to be an editor, but, as has been argued on An American Editor, I do not believe any of these courses can teach one to be a good editor. (For my view, see Is Editing Teachable?; for a contrary view, see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting; also worth reading are the comments to these essays.) Ruth Thaler-Carter wrote a while back about the need for continuing education (see On the Basics: Editors and Education — A Lifelong, Ongoing Process) and has often made a point of emphasizing the value of self-education through reading.

None of these essays address the questions of: What should editors read? and How much should editors read? It is these questions that, I think, are part of the root of the problems of poor and adequate editing. It is the answers to these questions that, I think, distinguish the great (better) editor from competing editors. I also think that the answers to these questions help separate struggling editors from very successful editors.

In discussions with colleagues about reading (What types of books do they read? How many books do they read? How do these books relate, if they relate at all, to the type of editing they do? — Note: Although I use the word book[s] to describe the reading material, it is just a shorthand term for the more general. Reading includes books, journals, magazines, newspapers, to name a few reading material sources; it excludes the material we read to edit.), I have discovered a wide range of reading habits.

Some colleagues read three or four books a year; others tend to read a much larger quantity, 100 or more books a year. Some subscribe to daily newspapers; others occasionally read news online. Some subscribe to general-interest magazines; others only to narrow-interest magazines.

What I have found is that those whose work as editors I consider topnotch read a wide variety of books and a large quantity of books. Similarly, some of those whose work I do not consider to be anything more than okay tend not to read outside of work or read very little and often in narrow genres. The same correlation appears to apply to “success” as an editor (defining “success” in financial terms).

What should an editor read?

The answer is really wrapped in the cloak of describing an editor’s function. If an editor is merely a human version of a spell-check system, then I suspect reading only a dictionary will suffice. But if we view the editor’s role as an author’s helpmate, a much more expansive role, then an editor needs to read a wide variety of things — both fiction and nonfiction. Every book that an editor reads teaches something, if the editor is open to receiving that information.

I have written about the books I buy and read in my On Today’s Bookshelf series of essays, the most recent of which was On Today’s Bookshelf (XVII). In addition to buying and reading those books, I subscribe to numerous periodicals and newspapers and even do some reading online. Does this make a difference in my editing? Yes, it does, because I acquire enough knowledge to ask questions about the material I am editing.

One colleague told me that he edits only fiction and thus doesn’t need to read broadly. I view that as a mistaken belief. Even fiction has to be grounded in reality or the reader will be adrift.

It is equally important to remember that the more broadly one reads, the more likely it is that one will pick up information they will use in their daily editing. For example, a new problem in my daughter’s book was the changing of the quote marks from single to double when it was a quote within a quote. To illustrate, as originally written the sentence might have been: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, ‘Do not return ever again!'” It became: “Yes, when I spoke with John, he said, “Do not return ever again!”” Reading books would teach you that the latter is incorrect, simply by its absence from any book.

Reading broadly also gives a sense of timeline. We learn by reading how history unfolds. This may be important in editing when a sequence of events seems to have strayed from the historical timeline we have learned, thus warranting a query. Or we might be able to point out that although two historical figures were contemporaries and knew each other, they subsequently fell apart or that the Napoleon of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was not the Napoleon of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. These may be important to know when editing a Victorian Steampunk novel or a romance novel set in the mid-1800s or a history of the Paris Commune or a biography of Alexander Dumas or Karl Marx.

How much should editors read?

As much as possible. When I speak with clients, I display a broad range of knowledge which gives them confidence in my abilities. When I write to clients, I often recommend books and articles to read because I have learned about their interests or because the information might affect something they have written.

It is important to remember that knowledge can be a marketing tool. By making use of acquired knowledge, an editor instills confidence in the client. It is hard to explain why a change should be made to a manuscript if all you have is a feeling that the change should be made.

Because of our profession, editors need to be widely read and constantly supplementing what they already know with what they have yet to learn. I think one component of the difference between a great (better) editor and the average editor is how broadly and how much the editor reads.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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