An American Editor

October 28, 2015

The Business of Editing: A Second Fundamental Mistake That Editors Make

If you read your mortgage agreement, or the agreement you “accept” when you get a credit card, or the terms and conditions of any other contract you sign or agree to, you will note that all of the important terms are carefully, even if not intelligibly, defined. The bank, for example, wants no dispute over what default means.

Defining terms is a fundamental business practice. If you and the client do not define what is meant by copyediting, you may mean what editors generally define as a “light edit” and the client may mean an in-depth, detailed, developmental edit. You’ll quote your fee based on your definition and the client will expect its definition for the quoted price.

Let “error” rain (reign?): What constitutes “error”?

As part of our standard business practices, we need to include a definition of “error” in our discussion about whether we will accept a particular job. Just as failing to treat editing as a business is a fundamental error that editors make (see The Business of Editing: Fundamental Business Mistakes That Editors Make), so is failing to define “error” a fundamental mistake that editors make.

It is true that using “there” in place of “their” is an error, a “typo” if you will, that needs to be caught and corrected. And it is equally true that it is part of an editor’s (and proofreader’s) job to find and correct such errors. But if homophones formed the beginning and end of the definition of error, there would be little need for professional editors; computers can be “taught” to flag homophones (and homonyms) and, presumably, just about any educated person could correct the erroneous ones.

A fundamental mistake

There are at least four reasons why failing to define “error” is a fundamental mistake. First, in the absence of the definition, the editor sets no boundaries on her work. Second, clients are quick to note that an editor failed to catch an “error,” which does not boost an editor’s reputation, without either client or editor having first agreed on what makes something an error. Third, in the absence of a definition, it is difficult to set an appropriate fee — and get the client to agree to that fee — because the editor thinks oranges while the client thinks apples. Fourth, is the question of responsibility — who is responsible? —  and its companion, compensation — who pays?

An example

Not so long ago I copyedited a poorly written book. The client did not want to pay for the level of editing that the book truly needed, plus saddled the project with a very tight deadline. As a practical matter, I do not do fact checking unless specifically hired and paid to do so; consequently, it is the responsibility of the author to, for example, correctly spell names, with my job limited to checking for consistency in spelling and querying any inconsistencies.

In this project, the author twice, in a 200+-page manuscript, referred to a well-known person in the book’s subject area. Both times the name was spelled the same. From my perspective, there was no error. Alas, the book was published to scathing reviews. One of the errors the reviewers noted was the misspelling of the well-known person’s name. The author blamed the publisher, which blamed my client, which blamed me. I was asked to defend myself for this and a few other specific “errors” that the reviewers noted.

My first step was to point my client to our original correspondence in which I defined what the level of editing the client asked for meant — that is, its parameters — and, addressing the name situation more directly, the definition of “error” that was incorporated into that correspondence. I pointed out that there is a difference between what is commonly known (i.e., broadly known to general populations) and what is specially know within a specific discipline (i.e., known to subject-matter experts). There is also a difference between being hired for subject-matter knowledge and expertise and being hired for language–grammar expertise. I had been hired for language–grammar expertise, not subject-matter expertise. My definition of “error” was limited to well-recognized errors of language and grammar, not to subject-matter errors; in my definition, the author is responsible for the accuracy of all subject-matter “facts,” including the correct spelling of names of recognized-within-the-discipline experts.

I also pointed out to my client that “language–grammar errors” does not mean arguable choices. As an example I usually point to the debate regarding using “since” to mean “because” (for a short discussion of the temporal–causal distinction, see Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 748 “since,” but be sure to also read the discussion of “because” on p. 91, and compare it to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2015, p. 98 “because”). My definition of error does not say that because a dictionary or a usage guide permits substitution of one word for another, the use of an alternate constitutes error. In other words, my replacing “since” (viewing it to be restricted to time-related uses/senses) with “because” (or other appropriate word) in non–time-related uses/senses (e.g., “Since 1975 it has been customary to classify…” but “Because it has been customary to classify…”) is not an error just because a dictionary or usage guide views the words as interchangeable. My change has to either make meaning less clear or be inarguably wrong; in all circumstances, it is not error for me to not have corrected a fact that would not be known as incorrect in the absence of subject-matter–specific knowledge.

(In this particular case, I also noted that the author had several opportunities to correct the misspelled name but had, instead, continued to approve the misspelled version. As a technical book, the author presents herself as the expert and thus has to accept responsibility for technical errors.)

The publisher was demanding that the packager pay the costs for correcting the errors, buying back and destroying the initial print run, and reprinting a corrected version. The packager was looking for me to shoulder those costs. (I also pointed out to my client that it had chosen the proofreader for the project — as well as deciding whether there would be proofreading — and that these “errors” were not deemed errors by its chosen proofreader.)

Without having defined “error” and the parameters of the level of editing the client requested before accepting the job, my client would have been able to assign the responsibility to me. In addition, the fee I had quoted the client would not have considered the value of my accepting such responsibility.

Value and fee

I know that many of you are asking, “What value?” In the usual case, there is little to no value under discussion because it is rare for a client to expect an editor to accept financial responsibility for editorial decisions; this was that rare case in which my client expected me to accept financial and nonfinancial responsibility for its client’s dissatisfaction. In the more usual case, the client asks the editor to reedit at the editor’s expense, to “fix these errors.” Without having defined what constitutes an error and what the requested level of editing includes and excludes beforehand, the editor is at the client’s mercy — and what may have been a profitable project can suddenly become highly unprofitable.

The questions

The questions are really these: In the absence of defining “error” and the parameters of the work to be done, am I implicitly promising the client an error-free job as defined after-the-fact by the client? Do I owe the client any compensation for not providing an error-free — as defined after-the-fact by the client — document? If I do owe the client any compensation, how is that compensation calculated?

The answers to these questions are for another day.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays:

April 22, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Use a Professional Editor

My first commandment for authors is this: Thou shall use a professional editor! I know I’ve said this before — many times — and I know that some of you will respond that you are capable of doing your own editing, or that crowd editing works just fine, or that your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law, who taught fourth graders English, does a fantastic job. Yet, haven’t you bought a book or two whose author you wanted to strangle because it was pretty obvious that a professional editor wasn’t used (or the editor’s advice wasn’t followed)?

We’ve hashed through some of the arguments in previous posts; see, for example, The Making of a Professional Editor, Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 1), Professional Editors: Publishers and Authors Need Them (Part 2), and The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud, but this is a topic that never dies.

Consider this statement: “Lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in group that usually backs them” (New York Times, April 10, 2013, page A12). What is wrong with this statement? (It was an article headline, which accounts for its brusqueness.) Does your neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law know? I would guess that if it passed muster at the New York Times, it would pass her muster and that of the crowd editors, too.

I read this statement several times because I couldn’t quite figure out what was meant. Reading the article clarified the headline, but suppose I hadn’t read the article? Or suppose this was a sentence in your book, albeit written with the missing prepositions as: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs them.” The question that needs to be asked is: “Does ‘them’ mean ‘spending cuts’ or ‘lobbyists’?” Should the sentence be: “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs spending cuts” or “The lobbyists fighting spending cuts find an ally in a group that usually backs the lobbyists”?

Two distinct meanings are possible, yet most readers would not catch that possibility. And this is the problem with having your book “edited” by someone other than a professional editor. Experienced, professional editors are trained to catch these types of errors; they have spent years mastering the art of not reading what they expect but of reading what is actually before them.

As the example illustrates, not catching this error can lead to misunderstanding. It makes a difference whether “them” means “spending cuts” or “lobbyists.” Readers will generally give more credence to the former than to the latter. After all, it has become clear in recent years, particularly with the intransigence of the Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association over the issue of background checks, that lobbyists are not among the favored species.

There is a second aspect to this commandment, which is the professional editor’s fee. Think about how you work. Would you not agree that the less you are paid (or anticipate being paid) the less diligent you are in your work. What I mean is this: If you are currently paid $20 an hour and are satisfied with that sum for your current job, you perform your work diligently. If your employer comes to you and says that although your job will remain the same, your pay henceforth will be $10 an hour, are you likely to be as diligent? Or will you consider cutting corners? Most people would be less diligent and would cut corners.

Editors — professional and amateur alike — are no different. If you have a 50,000 word manuscript (approximately 200 manuscript pages), do you honestly think that the editor who is being paid $300 will be as thorough and professional as the editor who is being paid $1500? How fast will the editor need to go through your manuscript in order to earn a living wage? Do you expect that an editor who has to work faster will be as accurate as the editor who can take more time?

Most editors do multiple passes; this is especially true when the project is fiction and it is important to first grasp the whole story and get a feel for the characters. How many passes do you think that editor who is paid $300 will do? And if the editor is doing the project at their own expense (i.e., as part of a crowd edit or as a friend for free), how thorough an edit and how many passes is it reasonable to expect? How many passes would you do if it meant giving up your pleasure time?

Again, we all know people who would sacrifice their first-born to do a good job because they volunteered to do so, but that is the gamble you take. And the gamble can be devastating if it is lost. How many bad reviews can your book withstand? How many two- and three-star reviews that complain about the grammar would it take to sink your ability to sell your book, even at $2.99?

Professional editors are word doctors for authors. Just as you (or I) would not undertake to self-treat for cancer, we should not self-treat our books, which are a significant part of our life. Just as we would go to the doctor about our cancer, so we should go to the professional editor about our manuscript.

One reason we go to the doctor to have our cancer treated is because the doctor has experience dealing with cancer. We rely on the doctor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us how serious a problem we have and for suggestions about courses of treatment. We know doctors are not perfect, but we expect them to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught health sciences at the high school.

All we need do is substitute professional editor for doctor and the argument is made: One reason we go to the professional editor to have our manuscript edited is because the professional editor has experience dealing with manuscripts. We rely on the professional editor’s accumulated knowledge to tell us about any manuscript problems and for suggestions about how to correct them. We know professional editors are not perfect, but we expect the professional editor to be better than our neighbor’s nephew’s sister-in-law who taught English to fourth graders (or even at the local college).

When an author hires a professional editor, the author is hiring experience with manuscripts and the knowledge that the editor has accumulated about how to structure and tell a story (all manuscripts tell a story) so that the author’s message is communicated and received. You spent months, if not years, of your life putting together a story that you want more than a handful of friends to read and understand. Should you not, then, hire a professional editor and pay an appropriate fee for that editor’s services to ensure that your manuscript is ready and is the best it can be?

Thus the first commandment for authors: Thou shall use a professional editor!

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: