An American Editor

August 31, 2018

The Value (or Not) of Beta Readers

Carolyn Haley

Many novelists enlist the aid of beta readers after completing the first draft of a book. A beta reader, according to Wikipedia, is:

  • a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues . . . . so that an uncolored opinion of an average reader can be obtained. Usually, a beta reader will be unpaid. The feedback is used by the writer to iron out remaining overall issues with plot, pacing and consistency. The beta read also serves as a target audience test to see whether the book has the intended emotional impact and feel.

Beta readers usually precede professional editors in a novel’s path to publication; sometimes they replace professional editors for self-publishing authors on low budgets. A few professional editors offer beta reading as one of their services. I don’t, preferring to offer manuscript evaluations or developmental edits for work in its early stages.

Beta reading, in my opinion, is more subjective and freestyle than professional editing should be. I engage in it only with my writers’ group, whose members return the favor. Through long-term, piecemeal, opinionated back-and-forthing, we help each other convert our messy first drafts into manuscripts coherent enough to be professionally edited.

While beta reading can be immensely helpful to authors, it can also throw them off course or even change their progress to regress. The old adage “Too many cooks spoil the broth” might come into play. The following two cases illustrate the possible effects of multiple contradictory responses to a person’s first novel.

Case #1: Counterproductive Overload

One of my clients, whom I’ll call Henry, has been working on his book for several years. It is the first volume of a science fiction adventure series aimed at young adults, set in an alternate world with lots of action wrapped around a social injustice theme.

Henry hired me for copyediting and paid his deposit. In the weeks between scheduling the job and its start date, however, he had an unknown number of adult friends beta-read the manuscript. Their feedback knocked him from self-assurance to quivering uncertainty. He decided to postpone sending the manuscript to me so he could recast sections in response to the beta reader commentary.

Good idea, in theory. Copyediting is supposed to come at the end of a book’s development, giving it the final polish needed before sending it out the door. Henry was discovering that his story needed more development than he’d thought. His initial two-month postponement stretched into two years.

Eventually Henry finished the book to his satisfaction and delivered the manuscript. Since he didn’t want to change our original scope of work, I copyedited the novel. I thought he was still a long way from his goal of being traditionally published, but you never know, so I gave him my best effort and wished him the best of luck.

Two years later, he came back for a second copyedit of the same novel. Not only had my editing inspired him to make significant revisions, but also, while I had been editing, he’d been having another crop of people beta read the book.

Because of that response overload, Henry spent months revising in different directions. The conflicting information caused him to lose sight of his original vision and eroded his confidence. He started to wonder why he had bothered trying to write the book in the first place, and despaired of ever succeeding.

Eventually he bounced back, reaching a point of satisfaction and deciding to self-publish. That’s when he hired me for the second copyedit. But history repeated itself: During the weeks of waiting between hiring me and the job start date, he took in yet more beta reader feedback, which thrust him back into indecision. This time, he postponed copyediting for six months. (And this time, I inserted a cutoff clause into his contract, so if he bailed out again, he would forfeit his deposit.)

Luckily, I was able to fill the holes in my calendar caused by both of his postponements. It distresses me, though, to see an author get undermined and derailed by an invisible crowd of others whose opinions outweigh my professional observations, explanations, and encouragement.

This author is willing to pay twice for a service he doesn’t seem to believe has greater value than unqualified people’s feelings. He’s also willing to possibly lose a substantial amount of money if he can’t set priorities and boundaries, and hold tight to his own vision, before the time limit on his deposit runs out.

I question whether he will ever be able to own his work and find the courage to expose it to the world through publication, never mind acquire the storycraft skills to convey it. As well, the money he has already laid out would have covered a professional developmental edit. Had we done that in the first place, perhaps by now his book would be several levels farther along and he’d still be excited by its prospects. Even if I’m not the ideal editor for him, he would be making progress rather than riding a merry-go-round, trying to satisfy all readers in all things.

Maybe his time on the merry-go-round will ultimately result in a finished novel. Sometimes that happens, as it did with a member of my writers’ group.

Case #2: Productive Overload

This author, whom I’ll call Henrietta, has also spent many years on crafting her first novel. Unlike Henry, her book is a stand-alone story, set on contemporary Earth. Instead of action and adventure, it presents a deep character study written in a literary style.

Henrietta is trained in the commercial graphic arts, which gives her a seemingly infinite capacity to reformulate a concept. Like Henry, she’s new to creating personal art through words and is insecure about its validity. Also like Henry, she can’t resist the temptation to gather opinions. Thus, she’s had beta reader after beta reader, and goes through much psychological hand-wringing in trying to decide whose opinion matters, seeking to accommodate all of them in her work.

My opinion holds extra weight for her because I’m a professional editor. I provide my services gratis in this case, because in this writers’ group, we all volunteer skills in mutual support. Our personal creative works exist on spec — no guarantee any of us will publish, or earn a dime if we do — versus professional services provided under contract, where performance and delivery are part of an economic exchange. In the writers’ group, we are friends exchanging favors.

Regardless of my professional status, Henrietta routinely ignores my opinion because it disagrees with her vision. In this regard, she differs from Henry, who struggles to hold his vision at all. Her professional training enables her to weigh and measure and ultimately assimilate diverse opinions, while my professional training lets me leave her free to do it (copyeditor’s mantra: “It’s not my book, not my book . . .”). I serve instead as sounding board and devil’s advocate, with my real contribution being copyediting and proofreading.

Henrietta’s willingness to consider options kept making her book stronger — until the day came when she had incorporated too many opinions, and both the story and her writing voice began to unravel. That not only added months to her writing time, but also burned her out on the project. I invested a lot of time in pushing her to embrace her work and believe in herself.

After many more revisions, some of which brought sections of the book back to where they’d started, her manuscript was ready for submission to agents and, in my opinion, worthy of being published by a Big Five house. (I also believe that if she wants to skip the agent and submit directly to smaller publishers, she could sell the book in five minutes. If she chooses to self-publish [an option she is rejecting because she understands the huge and long-term marketing work involved], she could probably make some serious money.) But she knows what she wants and is staying her course.

Problem is, she can’t stop collecting beta reader opinions. Even as I was mechanically editing the “final” version, she continued to run every little late idea past multiple people. It took coercion to get her to send out her first query letter, after which she immediately started second-guessing how an agent would react to dialogue and scene details, and sneaking her fingers back to the keyboard. I’m hoping her future agent and house editor can manage this tendency, so the book can make it to publication.

Positive Outcomes

Most of my clients claim to use beta readers, without providing details. Occasionally they also refer to a writing class or a previous editor. A recent author mentioned using all three resources. He, like Henry, had signed up with me and paid his deposit, then suddenly postponed for two years. But when he came back, both his book and his confidence were strong. Like Henry, he’s launching a science fiction adventure series. Unlike Henry, I expect him to be a self-publishing success.

Another self-publishing client revealed that his novel, volume two of a historical fantasy, had been through developmental editing with a high-end professional I recognized. The investment showed, in that the manuscript I received for copyediting needed nothing more than token spit-and-polish.

I do not know if this client ever used beta readers. Possibly not, because unlike many authors, he has the wherewithal to spring for pros at each stage. He went through the same developmental-editor-to-copyeditor sequence when self-publishing his first volume, which came out beautifully and has been well received. I expect volume two will build his audience.

Yet another client seems to have the complete writing skill set hardwired into him. He cranks out one or two novels a year without help, and all of them are exciting, well-crafted stories ready for copyediting. He’s another self-publisher, and his sales are growing.

In general, whichever publishing path my clients choose, the newer they are to writing and publishing, the more beta readers they’re inclined to use. I believe there has to be a limit, though. As Henry and Henrietta show (and I can confirm from my own creative-writing experience), beta readers can be helpful or harmful. It’s important to restrict their numbers, and select readers who can couch their personal opinions in writerly terms. Otherwise, the author is just getting consumer reviews too soon.

Reviewing only should occur after publication, just as copyediting should only be done on a manuscript ready for submission or production. It’s tough enough for an author to weather a storm of diverse opinions once the book is finished; being hammered by that storm while still writing can impair an author’s creativity and zeal — right when those attributes are most needed to give a book its voice and vision.

Voice and vision are what make a novel unique, and, ultimately, draw the audience that defines an author’s career. Beta readers, like editors, may not be the book’s target audience no matter what their relationship to the author. They can inhibit or confuse authors by pushing them to satisfy the readers’/editors’ personal tastes. Beta readers and editors alike need to remember whose book it is, and work within the author’s frame of reference. Their collective goal should be helping authors achieve their individual goals.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

August 24, 2018

Helping Clients with Version Control

Ælfwine Mischler

I am interrupting my series on indexing (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) because a distressed client last week left me thinking about how to help authors with version control.

It is hot in Cairo. Daytime temperatures have been 100° F (38° C) for weeks and many of us, myself included, do not have A/C. It makes some of us fuzzy-brained and sometimes our computers overheat. That is what happened to a client (I will call her AB) when she called me repeatedly to help her with a file.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

AB, an active woman in her mid-seventies with a PhD, was having problems for several reasons. First, she could not maintain version control. Second, she told me that as she is getting older, she is still good in her work field but gets more confused by technology. Third, her aging computer was acting up, probably as a result of overheating. (The next day, she wrote to say that it performed better after she turned it off for several hours.)

As a result of this confluence of problems, I spent two unpaid hours “hand holding” over the phone when I really wanted to work on another client’s book. AB had “lost” the file I edited and returned four months ago. I told her to find my email, redownload the file, and then save it as ED 2. She had problems doing that. I sent her a copy of the file with SECOND EDIT as a prefix to the name, but she had problems downloading it, finding the Downloads folder, and then finding the folder she wanted to put it in — because she had several folders with similar names.

I was starting to get impatient and I wanted to tell her that I was going to charge her for my time on the phone, but we had never agreed to such a thing. Did I have the right, then, to ask for it? Would I have actually been able to collect it? I could hear in her voice that she was getting more and more frustrated. She really needed someone to walk her through what should have been simple procedures. I found it difficult to believe that she really did not know how to do basic things like downloading a file and putting it into another folder. From what she was saying on the phone, it seemed that she was opening the file and copying the text of it rather than copying the file itself from its folder. Did she really not know how to do these things, or was the combination of age, heat, and computer problems overwhelming her?

I have had clients who did not understand some things, such as using Track Changes, but I can send them instructions or send them two versions of an edited file, one with tracking visible and the other with all changes accepted. This was the first time I had to attempt to walk someone through basics. Should I have done anything differently? What would you have done? I welcome your answers in the comment box.

A File by Any Other Name

AB’s biggest problem was version control. This was not the first time she had called me while looking through multiple folders or files with similar names. She had been working on translating a book for many years, and in the end, she sent me the manuscript for copyediting in two parts. Now she had multiple versions of each part and several different folders, and she could not figure out where she had put the one I had edited or which file it was.

When I edit for clients, this is my work pattern:

  • I open the original and use Save As to make a copy with “ED 1” prefixed to the filename.
  • I don’t make any changes in the original (though I might look at it) while I edit version ED 1.
  • When I return ED 1 to the client for review, I tell the client to use Save As to put “ED 2” as the prefix to the name, to work only in the ED 2 file, and to return it to me for checking.
  • I open ED 2 and use Save As to make a copy with “ED 3” added to the name instead of “ED 2.”

Another recent client (“CD”) keeps adding new material to his book — but he follows my early instructions to save the file with a higher version number. He knows that files to me should have an even-numbered version number, and I return an odd-numbered version to him. CD recently sent me ED 10, but before I could get to it, he wanted to add still more lines. I instructed him to call the newest one ED 10.2 so that we could maintain the pattern of even numbers from him and odd from me. We have not had a problem with version control with this work pattern.

AB, on the other hand, has multiple versions that she cannot distinguish from one another. When you have several files with names such as these, how do you know which is the latest?

ABnancybooktranslation_aardvarks

nancybooktranslation_aardvarks

nancy-book-translation_aardvarks_newer

nancy-aardvarksbook_most recent

Is Your Computer Drafty?

If you tend to retain older drafts of your work, you need to systemize your naming of different versions. Keep the basic filename the same — not with different names as AB did — and add a number and date to each version. (I once joked with a managing editor that she had kept the same spelling mistake in the filename of volume three of a book I was about to index, having indexed volumes one and two with the same misspelled file. She replied that the spelling mistake was the designer’s, but she retained the same filename rather than mess up the designer’s system.) You can, of course, put the version number at the end of the filename, but I find it easier if the number is at the beginning.

Once you have more than two or three drafts, ask yourself if you really need to keep the earlier versions. If you cannot bear to delete them just yet, put them into a folder marked “early drafts” or “older stuff” so you do not confuse them with more-recent versions. You can also use an option described below to hide files so you do not accidentally work in the wrong ones.

Get a Better View

I did not think to tell AB this on the day I was helping her stave off a total meltdown — with her computer problems and distress, she probably could not have absorbed it anyway — but did you know that you can change the view of the files so you can see information about them, including when they were created and/or last modified?

If you open a folder and click on the View tab, you will find options for showing the contents of the folder. Many of the people I have worked with like to use medium or large icons, which display across the screen in rows. The icon view is easier if you like to drag files into subfolders because your “target” is bigger. In this example, I have also turned on the Navigation pane on the left side, which allows you to scroll to quickly find other folders.

My own preference is usually for List — I have shown it here without the Navigation pane.

If version control is a problem for you, try the Details view, and play with the Sort by options until you find the one that is best for you.

It seems that Date Modified, Type, and Size are the default details, because these are the ones that have always appeared when I chose Details view without making any changes. I will talk about some of the options below. You can resize the columns by positioning the cursor on the barely visible line between the column names and dragging. You can also choose Size All Columns to Fit to show the most information.

If you go to the top of the folder under Current view, you will find many more options.

If you click on the triangle under Sort by, you can choose to sort your files by something other than name. Date created or Date last modified would be good choices for version control.

The Add columns menu lets you choose which details to show. Use this along with the Sort by options.

Another useful option is Show/Hide. You can select one or more items, then click on Hide selected items. The files will still be in the folder but will be invisible. This is useful for version control so you do not accidentally open and modify the wrong files. If you want to see hidden items, you can check the box next to Hidden items. Their icons will appear faded in the folder. If you no longer want to hide them, select them and click on Hide selected items, which is a toggle switch, to “unhide” them.

A Word to the Whys

If you have problems with your filenames as AB does, I hope you will now understand why it is important to maintain version control. Keep the basic filename the same and add date or version number to the filename of each new version. Delete older versions that you no longer need. If you really cannot bear to part with them, or if they contain ideas for later works, put them into another folder with a clear name or hide them from view. Play with the folder view options I have described here (and the ones I have not, such as panes) to find the options that work best for your working style.

And stay cool.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

February 5, 2018

Thinking Fiction: Indie-Editor House Style, Part One — Establishing Parameters

Carolyn Haley

Managing independence is the biggest challenge of being an independent editor who works with independent authors. There’s no rule book, no boss to tell you what to do (aside from certain “musts” pertaining to conducting business legally and ethically).

I feel the absence of rules and bosses when editing dilemmas arise between technical correctness and creative license, as often occurs in fiction. Although numerous style guides and editorial forums exist to advise editors and writers, these resources don’t all agree on how to handle the complexities of language and context. In addition, publishing is an unregulated industry, so there is no official set of rules that all participants must comply with. Instead, publishers and independent editors are free to establish their own editorial criteria, with no one looking over their shoulders.

These editorial criteria — the “house style” — are built upon whichever dictionary and style guide a publishing house prefers, then are customized over time by staff preferences. For example, a house’s dictionary of choice might spell “e-mail” with the hyphen, but the company prefers it solid and adds “email” to its internal style sheet. Similar distinctions might be directed for capitalization (e.g., Internet vs. internet), one-word/two-word spellings (e.g., cellphone vs. cell phone), and when and how to use italics, ellipses, and en- and em-dashes.

Freelance editors working for publishers usually receive house style information and are required to adhere to it during the edit or be able to defend why an exception should be made. Independent editors working with indie authors, however, can choose which guidelines to follow for which kinds of jobs.

Building a House Style

After years of swaying in the opinion winds, I followed the publishing company lead and developed my own house style. Although I am not a publishing company, I am a business serving the publishing industry. Being an independent editor makes me the CEO, accounting and contracts departments, managing editor, and “chief cook and bottle washer” of my own enterprise, DocuMania. Why not create my own, official, DocuMania house style?

I was already halfway there, according to my style sheet template, which carries from job to job the conventions I’ve established for items that turn up routinely in client manuscripts. Despite the variability that characterizes fiction, some patterns have emerged that I now prepare for instead of waiting for them to surprise me. In these areas, I’ve decided to treat all manuscripts the same unless deviation is appropriate in an individual situation. More on this in Parts Two and Three of this essay.

In general, I set up macros and datasets where possible to help flag and fix terms and expressions that appear in the majority of client manuscripts. These relate mainly to Americanisms and personal preferences. More on this, too, in Parts Two and Three.

In some situations, it’s faster and easier for me to work with hard copy, so I have created a “cheat sheet” for items that refuse to stick in my memory. It lets me check certain items at a glance instead of wasting time looking them up again. For example, with light-headed or lighthearted — which one takes the hyphen? Same with V-8 or V8 — which one is the motor and which is the brand of vegetable juice? Is the word wracked in such expressions as wracked with pain spelled with or without the w? In which cases are awhile and a while one or two words?

My cheat sheet, style sheet template, and datasets, combined with my core reference works (discussed below), create a framework for operational and editorial consistency while leaving room for the flexibility my job demands. Flexibility is important because fiction is a freestyle form of expression. Like all writing, it has to be coherent, consistent, and credible, and the language essentially correct to connect with readers. Within those boundaries, however, the fiction author has total creative freedom.

Editing fiction can be like the proverbial herding of cats, or juggling plates and forks and beach balls at the same time. For indie editors like myself, each client presents a different writing style, voice, technical ability, education, and story type and subject; each has different publishing goals and opportunities, and understanding of the marketplace; and each has a different budget and priorities. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to editing client work, so it’s up to me to decide the rules of engagement. By establishing a house style, I can reduce the number of moving parts and focus on a work’s individualism.

Core References

Step one of establishing my house style was choosing my core reference sources. This amounted to deciding which editorial authorities I should I base my work on.

That was easy, because I’ve been following the same path since I took my copyediting certificate course way back when. In that course, I was taught that Chicago Manual of Style (CMoS) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (MW) were the “industry standard” style and spelling guides in book publishing, with Words into Type as a supporting resource. I duly acquired and studied them, found them sensible and palatable, and willingly embraced them.

I swiftly learned through my early work, which was anything I could coax in the door, that different arms of the publishing industry favor other dictionaries and grammar/style/usage guides. Newspapers and magazine publishers, for instance, tend to follow the Associated Press Stylebook, whereas some textbook and journal publishers lean toward the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association or the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style. There are many more across and within each subject area.

For dictionaries, some publishing houses and independent editors like the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Others prefer the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, the Oxford American Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English — or all of the above, or any other. Specialized fields have their own preferences, such as Stedman’s Medical Dictionary for medical editing. A library’s worth of subject-specific reference works exists, and, like most editors, I keep adding to my collection.

Once the Internet arrived, many reference works expanded to offer their material online as well as in print, and new resources came into being. Editors and writers now add electronic bookmarks to their pool of resources, and make good use of Google and online versions of major style guides — as well as quickly and easily accessible Q&A services for those guides.

It amounts to an embarrassment of riches that I find, simultaneously, a boon and a burden. The boon should be obvious: Whatever information one needs for making editorial decisions is almost always available at one’s fingertips. The burden comes from having too much information available, and no lodestar to follow when navigating a path through it. In the absence of some authority dictating a dictionary/style guide pairing specifically for fiction, I decided to stick with the ones I’m most familiar with, that is, MW and CMoS. No publisher I’ve edited novels for has directed me to use anything else, nor has any independent author asked me to comply with a particular dictionary or style guide. Consequently, the MW/CMoS pairing provides a solid foundation for me to build upon.

To round them out with grammar and usage guides, I floundered until a colleague informed me about Garner’s Modern American Usage. (Since then, a new edition has come out, with the name slightly changed to Garner’s Modern English Usage). That has proven to be a boon in itself. If I can’t find guidance for a conundrum in CMoS, or need expansion on that guidance to reach a decision, I almost always find it in Garner’s. This resources dovetails with CMoS through its author, Bryan Garner, who not only is a contributor to CMoS but also wrote The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation.

In a manner similar to how Garner’s and CMoS reflect each other, Merriam-Webster offers multiple dictionaries and associated resources. Their online unabridged dictionary includes condensed access to medical terminology, French and Spanish, and citations, plus a thesaurus and a style guide. On my bookshelf I keep MW’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary for people and place names. Between the MW and CMoS families of reference works for spelling, grammar, and usage, I find most of what I need to look up during fiction editing.

These resources don’t cover everything, of course, which is why I and other editors need the broadest library we can compile, along with Internet access. But using MW and CMoS as core resources gives me a frame of reference to support my editorial actions and authority, and minimizes the time I must put into addressing variables.

The Deviation Factor

My house style comes into play most often on points where, as Garner’s often says, “authorities are divided.”

For instance, when it comes to capitalizing the first word of a sentence following a colon, CMoS advises, “When a colon is used within a sentence . . . the first word following the colon is lowercased unless it is a proper name.” This general guideline is followed by advice on how to treat other, specific instances. The Associated Press Style Stylebook, conversely, says, “Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.”

Garner’s, meanwhile, gives many examples of when to cap or not after a colon, and the rationale behind them, plus an overview statement: “Authorities agree that when a phrase follows a colon, the first word should not be capitalized (unless, of course, it’s a proper noun). But when a complete clause follows the colon, authorities are divided on whether the first word should be capitalized.”

Garner goes on to exemplify how experts might come to choose their own preferences, concluding, “The first three bulleted examples in the preceding paragraph follow the prevalent journalistic practice: the first word is capitalized. But the other view — urging for a lowercase word following the colon — is probably sounder: the lowercase (as in this very sentence) more closely ties the two clauses together. That’s the style used throughout this book. It’s also the house style for The New Yorker . . .”

After studying all that, and comparing it to the seemingly endless ways that novelists can construct sentences, I decided that the DocuMania house style would take the simplest route: “Capitalize the first word of a complete sentence following a colon” (except when an individual situation calls for a different practice). That gives me approximately nine occasions out of ten when I don’t have to stop and review exceptions, ponder their relevance, compare different authorities’ opinions, and decide who’s right. In fiction, whether a colon is followed by a cap rarely disrupts a reader’s attention or changes a sentence’s meaning. The colon’s purpose in narrative is to signal that the following thought closely aligns with the first (or, as Garner puts it, “promises the completion of something just begun”).

What matters more than the cap is that the colon is used appropriately. Garner includes a helpful summary of when the colon is used inappropriately. That occurs more often in my clients’ material than situations where the fine shades of capitalizing after a colon influence reader comprehension.

With these core resources established, I have a framework in place to address the many variables that occur in fiction. Parts Two and Three explore some of those details.

The bottom line is that I now have a house style for my business that makes my editing fiction life easier.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at the Communication Central conference.

January 15, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 3: Spelling the Definite Article

by Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer in Cairo, I often work on materials containing Arabic terms and names. The Arabic definite article is usually romanized as al-, but the vowel is sometimes written as e (especially common in Egyptian names) or u. Although it is such a small word — only two letters, alif lam — it often presents problems for writers and editors of English texts.

In this essay, I talk about these elements:

  • assimilating with the following letter
  • merging the article
  • elliding the vowel

In Part 4, I will discuss these difficulties:

  • dropping the article in names
  • capitalizing the article
  • alphabetizing names and words with the article

Assimilating with the Following Letter

Years ago when I joined the staff of a large Islamic website, it did not have a style guide, so I set out to write one in consultation with the heads of several departments. It was not easy because the website had a broad range of intended audiences and levels of formality between departments, and for technical reasons we could not use diacritics (which I felt were inappropriate for most of the audiences anyway). The Arabic definite article was the source of many arguments, which I lost. The books I now work on use the style that I prefer, so I am not constantly cringing as I edit.

The arguments were about what to do with lam, the letter that is usually written as l in English. Half the letters in Arabic are shamsiya letters (“solar” letters) and half are qamariya (“lunar” letters). If lam comes before a solar letter, it is assimilated to the letter following and is known as lam shamsiya (“solar lam”). “The sun” in Arabic, al-shams, is actually pronounced ash-shams. If lam comes before a lunar letter, it is pronounced as usual and is known as lam qamariya (“lunar lam”). “The moon,” al-qamar, is pronounced as it is spelled.

Most scholarly books and trade books ignore the lam shamsiya and do not show assimilation. To my mind, this is best for the average reader, who will perhaps recognize al- as a morpheme but be confused by its variants. The assimilation should be shown when the correct pronunciation is important, such as in transcribing poetry, prayers, or Qur’an. Authors of Islamic books might insist on showing the assimilation in all cases. If you are an author, you should, of course, check the publisher’s guidelines and discuss them with your editor if you have any disagreement. If you are a copyeditor and your author has shown assimilation of lam and the managing editor is OK with it, be sure it is done consistently.

In romanization, the l of the definite article assimilates with the following letters, with or without diacritics: t or th, d or dh, s or sh, z, r, l, n.

Merging the Article

The article is usually romanized as al- in scholarly texts, but individuals may write the vowel differently in their names, and the article may merge with the preceding word. A common Arabic male name consists of Abd (or ʿAbd) [ʿ 02bf] (slave) plus one of the names of God: for example Abd al-Aziz (or ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz) [ʿ 02bf, ī 012b] “slave of the Almighty.” An individual with such a name might spell it with Abdal or (more often) Abdul or Abdel as the first part, and the second part might be attached to the first with a hyphen or closed up. Thus, someone named Abd al-Aziz might spell his name Abdal-Aziz, Abdal Aziz, AbdalAziz, Abdalaziz, Abdul Aziz, Abdul-Aziz, AbdulAziz, Abdulaziz, Abd el-Aziz, Abdel Aziz, Abdel-Aziz, AbdelAziz, or Abdelaziz. The name Abdallah (or Abdullah) “slave of Allah” is often spelled as one name.

My experience has been that people with Arabic names who grow up in a country that uses the Latin alphabet are consistent in spelling their names, but people who grow up in a country that uses the Arabic alphabet are often inconsistent in romanizing their names. This can be a problem for researchers — those who publish under multiple spellings will not get all the credit they should, and those who are looking for a particular person have to search multiple spellings.

Your job as an editor is to check that the spelling of an individual’s name is consistent, even if two people with the same Arabic name spell their names differently. A carefully prepared style sheet is essential for this. As I mentioned in Part 1, your task is easier when editing scholarly works that use diacritics (where ʿAbd al-[name] is used for historical names), but, depending on the style guide, names of people from recent centuries may or may not be transcribed using those rules and thus may be variously romanized.

Elliding the Vowel of the Article

In Arabic script, some conjunctions and prepositions are inseparable from the following word, and in most transcription systems these are shown with a hyphen: bi-, wa-, li-, la-, etc. The vowel of the definite article is not pronounced. Whether and how this ellision is shown in transcription varies from one system to another, giving writers and editors one more thing to watch for.

The International Journal of Middle East Studies (IJMES) gives the following examples in its guidelines: “fī al-ʿirāq wa-miṣr” (in Iraq and Egypt; is not an inseparable prefix in Arabic script) but “fī miṣr wa-l-ʿirāq” (in Egypt and Iraq). However, the Brill Encyclopaedia of Islam 3 differentiates between prefixes that keep the alif or delete it in Arabic script, and gives these examples in its Instructions for Authors: “wa-l-kitāb, fī l-masjid, Muḥyī l-Dīn, bi-l-kitāb, but lil-masjid.” Yet another transcription system shows the ellision with an apostrophe: wa-’l-kitāb, fī ’l-masjid. In this case, the author and copyeditor must also ensure that the symbol for hamza (ʾ) is not used where an apostrophe should be.

Part 1 of this series discusses the reasons for various spellings of Arabic names and terms, and Part 2 discusses some other challenges that authors and copyeditors might have. Part 4 will provide more discussion of the definite article.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

July 3, 2017

From the Archives: Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor

(The following essay was originally published on
An American Editor on January 13, 2010.)

A book has many contributors to its success. One contributor is the editor, and in some instances, several editors. Editors are the hidden resource that can help or hurt an author’s work.

There are many levels and types of editing, too many to address. In essence, I think all of the various levels and types of editing are divisible into two broad categories: developmental (sometimes known as substantive or comprehensive)  and copy (or rule based). Each serves a different role in the book production process, but each is important. (Disclosure time: I am an editor of 25 years experience. I am also the owner of Freelance Editorial Services, which provides independent editorial help to publishers and authors.)

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. The developmental editor addresses these types of questions (and many more):

  • Is the manuscript coherent, that is, do its various parts fit together as a coherent whole?
  • Who is the author’s audience? Does the manuscript present its information logically for the target audience?
  • Are the author’s ideas presented clearly? Will the audience understand what the author’s point is? Are the author’s thoughts clearly and logically developed or do they meander?
  • Does the author present the ideas concisely, that is, is the author using a shotgun or laser approach?
  • Does the material in chapter 5 connect with what went before?
  • Is the author using jargon or technical terms in such a manner as to befuddle the audience?
  • Is the work complete? For example, are sources cited where and when needed?

The developmental editor helps the author hone the manuscript for the author’s audience. It is not unusual for the editor and author to engage in multiple back-and-forth discussions to clarify text, find missing sources, reorganize chapters and parts, and the like.

Once the author and the developmental editor are satisfied with the manuscript, the copyeditor steps in. The copyeditor’s role, broadly speaking, focuses on the mechanics of the manuscript. That focus includes such things as:

  • Spelling
  • Grammar
  • Punctuation
  • Style
  • Consistency

The copyeditor is the “rules-based” editor. The copyeditor is usually given a set of rules by the author or the publisher to follow when deciding questions of capitalization, numbering, hyphenation, and the like. It is the copyeditor’s job to apply and enforce those rules, and to do so with consistency. In the editorial world, consistency is the law, not the hobgoblin of little minds.

When appropriate, a good copyeditor also questions the text. For example, if the author has referred to a particular character as Sam but now seems to have changed the name to Charlie, the copyeditor will “flag” this change and ask the author about it. Additionally, if the name change is sudden but from further reading appears to be correct, the copyeditor might suggest to the author that a better transition is warranted so readers can follow more easily.

Unlike the developmental editor, the copyeditor’s role is not to help organize and rewrite the manuscript. It is to make the “final” manuscript readable by ensuring that it conforms to the language conventions readers expect. It is to ease the reader’s burden, helping author and reader connect.

The ultimate role of the editor — no matter whether developmental or copy — is to help the author connect with reader. A good editor eases that connection; a poor editor hinders that connection. An editor is another eye, another view for the author. A good editor recognizes pitfalls and helps the author avoid them. A good editor is an artist of language, grammar, and the mechanics that help a manuscript take the journey from ordinary to great. When asked to define my role as editor, I usually reply, “to make sure what you write can be understood by your audience.”

The final arbiter of how the published manuscript will read is the author. Editors give advice that the author can accept or reject. In the end, the manuscript is the author’s; the editor is simply a contributor, but a contributor with special skills and knowledge.

One last note: The above description of what an editor does is not a comprehensive description. There are circles within circles, levels within levels, and many more tasks that editors can and do perform. The above is merely a broad view. If you are an author looking to hire an editor, you should discuss with the editor the parameters of the work to be performed by the editor. There is no set, immutable definition of, for example, developmental editing; for any given manuscript, what role the editor is to play is determined by dialogue between the editor and the author or publisher.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 20, 2015

Editing for Clarity

The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning. Consider this example from “The Birth of a Nation” by Dick Lehr (2014, p. 29):

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

(The book is an excellent look at D.W. Griffith’s movie “Birth of a Nation” and its effect on race relations at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Are you confused by the quote? I know I was when I read it. I eventually figured out what the author intended, but this quote is ripe for editorial intervention.

What causes the problem is the em-dash bracketed phrase “perhaps only one in six, according to one account.” When I first read the sentence, I thought “one in six is not a majority. Does the author mean one in six families did not own slaves or that one in six families did own slaves? The context made it clear that the author meant that only one in six families owned slaves, but the sentence permits other interpretations.

If I were the book’s editor, I would have flagged this sentence for review. I would have queried the author and suggested several alternatives. For example:

Only a small minority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — owned slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps five in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six owned slaves, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

Each alternative is, I think, clearer (with the first two alternatives better than the third) and better puts across the author’s meaning without interrupting the reading flow. And this is what an editor does — help the author hone her prose.

The question is this: Is this the job of a copyeditor?

The answer is difficult. I think clients do not distinguish between types of editors very well and see editorial roles as blurred, ill-defined. Editors, themselves, similarly blur those lines of separation, making client expectations as to what an editor will do different from what the editor expects to do.

Fundamentally, the role of every editor is to help an author reach the author’s readers. Clarity of expression is the understood key to a successful author–reader relationship; copyeditors address questions of grammar and spelling, which are essential to clarity, so addressing sentence construction does not seem outside the bounds of the copyeditor’s responsibilities. I know that I include sentence construction in my editing.

What I do not include as part of copyediting is reorganization; that is a developmental editor’s job. Organization is a time-consuming job and requires multiple readings of a manuscript. Copyediting is very time-sensitive, with the schedule being too short to permit developmental editing. Sentence construction is, however, another matter.

Copyeditors are responsible for ensuring clarity. It is not that we need to rewrite every sentence to make every sentence the best it can be; rather, it is that we need to rewrite or suggest rewriting of sentences that are not clear, that interrupt the flow of reading and require a reader to momentarily halt and devote time to determining what the author intends.

The appropriate role for a copyeditor is to query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. There are times when all we can do is query because the fix is elusive; over my years of editing I have encountered many sentences that I could not guess what the author meant and thus could not suggest a fix. Much more often, I could suggest a simple fix.

Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex. Whatever the fix, we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible). That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 30, 2014

Books, Buying, & Editing

The trouble with books is that there are too many of them that interest me. If I see a book advertised that interests me, I tend to buy it. I don’t wait to see if it will be reviewed in one of my magazines because I know the odds of that happening are very long and even should the book be reviewed, who knows when the review will appear. Even though my to-be-read pile is enormous and I could wait before buying another book, I can’t bring myself to do so.

I mention this because in recent weeks six of the books I have bought have been reviewed in at least one of the magazines I trust for reviews. Had I read the reviews first, I probably would not have bought the books. In the case of a seventh book, I haven’t yet bought it and am debating whether to do so.

In the case of the book I have yet to buy and of one that I did buy, The Economist reviewed the books. The books are “World Without End: The Global Empire of Philip II” by Hugh Thomas (the book I have not yet bought) (The Economist, July 12, 2014, p. 75) and “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman” by Robert O’Connell (which I had already bought) (The Economist, July 26, 2014, p. 69).

In both cases, The Economist‘s reviewer praised the book then damned it. In the case of “World Without End,” the reviewer wrote:

“World Without End” would have benefited from better editing. Two of the chapters on the Yucatán are reprised from an earlier volume of the trilogy and refer to events that took place well before Philip became king in 1556. Several of the epigraphs that introduce chapters are irrelevant or misplaced. A dizzying cast of minor officials confuses rather than enlightens. (p. 76)

As to “Fierce Patriot,” the reviewer wrote:

The book would also have benefited from better editing. It is oddly organized, with later parts doubling back chronologically on already-trodden ground. (p. 69)

Several of the other books that I bought received negative reviews in the New York Review of Books, but the editing was not specifically noted.

The better editing comments are directed at better developmental editing, not at better copyediting, but if the developmental editing is bad or nonexistent, I wonder about the copyediting.

There is an interesting factoid about these two books: they are both published by the same megapublisher, Penguin Random House, although by different imprints, Allen Lane (“World Without End”) and Random House (“Fierce Patriot”). This worries me.

As an editor, I know that many publishers, especially the megapublishers, have spent years cutting back. If they haven’t eliminated an author service, they have sought to minimize the service’s financial impact by limiting budgets for items that produce “hidden” value, such as editing. It is rare that a review takes a book to task for poor editing, but it is even rarer for reviews doing so to be so close together in time and to be of books from the same publishing house.

That these two books are from the same megapublisher but from different imprints bodes ill for imprint independence. It also makes me wonder what impact, if any, reviews noting the editorial flaws will have on future behavior of the megapublisher. Because the complaints are about developmental editing issues, my suspicion is that there was no developmental editing and poorly paid copyediting. I also suspect that the reviews will dent sales but that the wrong lesson will be taken from the dented sales.

That sales are low or lower than expected will be taken as justification for editorial cost cutting rather than seen as a result of ill-advised cost cutting.

I wondered what university presses were thinking when they set such high pricing for print-on-demand hardcover books (see What Are They Thinking? UPs and the Road to Self-Destruction). Now I wonder what the megapublishers are thinking as they limit editorial budgets. Clearly, the university presses see the audience as being so limited that the audience will either pay the high price or buy the paperback, doing either without complaint. The megapublisher also sees the audience for these books as limited and doubts a negative review will have much of an effect on sales when the review’s negativity is editorial quality not content-quality based.

In the end, blame really rests on the shoulders of the editors. We have not made the case for why our services are valuable and needed. Few readers (and I am beginning to think reviewers) have either the skills or the interest or the knowledge to notice poor editing — whether developmental editing or copyediting — and thus fail to note it as a flaw.

Is it not interesting that The Economist reviewers spoke of “better editing” without distinguishing between developmental editing (which is what they meant) and copyediting? Or does that distinction not matter?

To me it matters greatly. Had the reviewers said that the books were badly copyedited — misspellings, wrong word choices, bad grammar, etc. — there is no doubt that I would not have bought the books and I would have returned those that I had bought (assuming I could do so; if I couldn’t, they would be relegated forever to the very bottom of my TBR pile and read only in desperation); but that is not true of poor developmental editing. Books that are poorly developmental edited are in somewhat of a limbo land with me.

“World Without End” will not be bought (and had I already ordered it, I would have tried to return it). What ails that book, according to the reviewer, is significant enough to prevent me from buying; what is wrong goes to the heart of the book. The problems with “Fierce Patriot” do not seem so terrible in comparison, especially as I already own the book. They will be annoying and will reflect poorly on the publisher and the author, but they are developmental editing problems that I can suffer with; they are not of such caliber that I feel compelled to try to return the book. Had I known of the problems beforehand, I would not have bought the book.

What is your reaction to these reviews?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

July 22, 2013

Relationships & the Unwritten Rules

Every relationship is governed by rules. It doesn’t matter whether the relationship is between spouses, parent and child, government and citizen, rock and a hard place, or authors and editors. If there is a relationship, there are rules that govern it.

Some of the rules are written. The relationship between spouses is partially governed by the rules (laws) enacted by their place of domicile or even by a prenuptial agreement. Similarly, sometimes some of the rules that govern the relationship between author and editor are written, such as when there is a contract between them.

But the majority of the rules that govern relationships are unwritten. They come about as a result of the values we have absorbed each day that we live. We begin as a blank slate and with each day that passes we gain a little bit more of our moral compass. It is these unwritten rules that are the more important rules.

In the author-editor relationship, it is the unwritten rules that are most important. I do not disagree with the notion that a written agreement that says author shall pay editor $x on y date is not important; rather, I believe that the moral compulsion for the author to actually make the payment is the more important part of the relationship. As I used to tell clients when I practiced law, an honest handshake was much more valuable than a dishonest signature on a contract.

One unwritten rule (really, a group of rules) in the author-editor relationship addresses responsibilities. Who is responsible for what. Left unsaid, just like the rule is left unsaid, are the reasons why the author has certain responsibilities and the editor has others. But these unwritten rules, which are often the basis for controversy between the author and editor, are the rules that form the foundation of the relationship. In their absence, chaos reigns; in their presence, a foundation for dispute resolution is available.

What brings this to mind is a recent experience I had with an author. Let me be clear about several things. First, I did not have a direct relationship with the author; my direct client was a third-party who hired and paid me. Second, the parameters of the work I was to perform were negotiated between my client and the author. My client relayed the decisions made between the author and them to me.

Even though there was no direct relationship between the author and me, the unwritten rules of responsibility are still applicable.

The parameters of the job were to copyedit the author’s 400-page manuscript on specialized financing within 8 workdays. The edit was specified as “light,” a term that really has no meaning but which indicates that neither the author nor the client thought there were major problems with the manuscript. (For a discussion of light, medium, and heavy as descriptors of the level of editing, see Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?)

It is important to note that my company was hired to perform a copyedit, not a developmental edit (for a discussion of copyediting versus developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor) and that there was a rush schedule. The normal process, and the one I expected to be followed, was copyediting, return to author to accept or reject copyediting, proofreading, publication.

After the book was printed, reviewers began panning it. Complaints about content, editing, and proofreading arose, with some complaints about comprehensibility. The author was incensed and decided that all the fault was with the third-party and the author demanded that my client, the third-party, insert author corrections into the manuscript and reprint the book. The author provided a PDF of the book with author corrections added. Needless to say, my client was not happy.

I was asked to review the author’s complaints and the editing and advise my client. My client provided me with the reviewer’s comments, the printer file, and the author-corrected files; I had my own copies of the edited manuscript that I had submitted to my client. (I make it a point to keep copies of what I submit to clients for years.) Let me say upfront that I have an excellent relationship with my client and have edited numerous books for them. This kerfuffle has no effect on our relationship; the question is how to respond to the author.

I spent some time going through the author’s complaints. Two of the author’s complaints regarding mistakes in spelling that we missed were justified. We probably shouldn’t have missed them. On the other hand, there were more than a dozen errors surrounding those missed spellings that we did catch, including one that resulted in an AQ (author query) regarding the word immediately adjacent to one of the missed spelling errors.

The reviewer specifically quoted a sentence that the reviewer found incomprehensible. The reviewer was certainly correct, but the evolution of that sentence is what intrigues me. It turns out that the copyedited version that we submitted differs from the version that was printed. The author rejected one of the editor’s suggested changes to the sentence and made a couple of additional changes that we knew nothing about.

Another complaint was that a theory name was misspelled (the name began Sho when it should have been Scho) and the editor didn’t catch the misspelling. I searched the entire book and discovered that the name appeared twice in the book, both times spelled the same way by the author (i.e., spelled incorrectly), with more than 200 pages separating the two appearances.

I think you are getting the idea.

I then looked at the author’s corrected files to see what corrections were being proposed as necessary because of editing errors. This was revelatory. Some of the corrections were rewrites that added additional information that could not be gleaned from any of the surrounding material. There was nothing particularly wrong with the sentences before the additions, but the additions did add clarification. The question is, “How would the editor know to add the clarifying material?”

Other corrections made incomprehensible what began as poor writing; that is, the corrections would do more harm than good. Importantly, a large number of them were simply wrong, such as adding commas where no comma belongs, deleting a word or two so that a sentence went from poorly written to incomprehensible, adding a misspelled word or the wrong word to an otherwise difficult sentence, and so on.

Bottom line is that most of the author’s proposed corrections would make things worse, not better.

One other thing I noted is that some of the errors the author complained of should have been caught by a proofreader. Whether the manuscript was proofread or not, I do not know, but I do know that if it was proofread, the proofreader was not a professional, or at least not one I would consider professional. More importantly, the author should have caught these errors during the author review.

The author also refuses to accept that there is a difference between a developmental edit and a copyedit, that separate fees are charged for each service, and that the author paid only for a copyedit.

The question is the unwritten relationship rules. Who has responsibility for what. It is not that there weren’t some editor errors; there were. However, all of the editor errors could have been and should have been caught by the proofreader and the author during their review. It is one reason why there are proofreading and author reviews.

More important, however, is that the responsibility for a manuscript is a shared responsibility. This author insists that the responsibility lies solely with the editor. The author refuses to accept the idea that the author-editor relationship is a partnership and that the editor’s responsibilities are limited by the parameters imposed, ultimately, by the author; the author denies the commandment we discussed in The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners.

Ultimately, my client has to make a political decision: Should they appease the author or stand their ground? I think they have a solid basis for standing their ground. The book desperately needed a developmental edit, but no one wanted to spend the money to have it done. The author did not determine in advance what was needed and expected by way of a copyedit. For example, the author assumed that fact checking was automatically included, yet did not specify that as one of the tasks, did not pay for it, and did not allot sufficient time for it to be done (remember that the editing schedule was 8 workdays).

Realistic — and knowledgeable — division of responsibility is important in the author-editor relationship. As an unwritten rule, however, division of responsibility is so fluid that it is easy for one party to attempt to shift what should be their responsibility to the other party. Both the author and the editor should give careful thought to the division of responsibility before they begin the relationship and should recognize that such division is governed by the parameters set for the project.

More importantly, authors should clearly state, in writing, their expectations and the services they want an editor to perform, and be prepared to pay for those services.

June 17, 2013

The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners

We recently edited a new book that was badly written. Not only was it badly written, but we were financially and time-wise constrained. So, as we typically do, we do the best we can within the limitations imposed.

The usual process is for us to receive a manuscript that an author has already gone through a few times and often has had crowd-editing by friends and colleagues. In addition, it has received whatever developmental editing it will receive. We are hired to copyedit the manuscript. (For a discussion of the difference between copyediting and developmental editing, see Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) After we have copyedited the manuscript, it goes back to the author to approve or reject any changes we have made, to answer/address any author queries we have inserted, and to give it yet another read in case we missed something.

This last step is important. Like authors, we editors are human and we make mistakes and we do miss things that seem very obvious. In this particular editing job, the editor missed a very obvious error. The author had written “Jack and Jill is a married couple” and the editor failed to change the is to are. Out of more than 100 changes the editor made to this particular chapter, the editor missed this change, but that was enough. The author latched onto this error and wrote: “I suggest you review the edited pages I sent in and develop a list for you to use when speaking with the editor of this project.  As I am not compensated to help you do your job, I will offer the most blatant example and then let you do your due diligence on your end.”

This author ignored the commandment: Thou shall treat the editor as a partner, not as an adversary.

I looked at the “edited” pages the author had returned and found only one change the author had made (added a description), which was clearly not a change because of an editing error. Aside from that one change and a comment that praised a rewording done by the editor, the author noted no other “errors.” So I went through the particular chapter and a couple of others to see if I could figure out what the author’s complaint was, but I couldn’t find anything.

The author failed to treat the editor as a partner; instead, the editor was treated as an adversary. First, by not listing or identifying what the author perceived as errors. It is difficult to address unidentified “errors.” Second, the author made a general, broad-brush complaint. This is not helpful to anyone. The author failed to understand that the editing of his book is a collaborative process between the editor and the author, not an adversarial process. The professional editors I know are willing to correct errors they have made, but they are not willing to keep reediting a manuscript simply because an author proclaims dissatisfaction.

The third error this author (and many authors) make is refusing to understand and accept the parameters of the editing process for which the editor was hired. For example, this author also complained about the layout (not an editor’s job at all) and about the failure of the copyeditor to provide both a copyedit and a developmental edit.

The fourth and most important error the author made is to believe that to point out errors is doing the editor’s job and that the author has no role in doing so because the author is “uncompensated.” The author is the one who has everything at stake, not the editor. The book will be published in the author’s name, not the editor’s name. Any error that remains will be attributable to the author, not to the anonymous editor. As the largest stakeholder in the final manuscript, the author does have a responsibility to identify perceived errors.

I find it troubling that an author would look at 100 errors, find 99 of them corrected, but ignore the 99 and rant about the one that was missed (the author should point out the error, but not go on a rant about the editing). I also find it troubling that an author willingly ignores the sorry state of the delivered manuscript and the time and financial constraints under which the editor is working, and focuses on the one error, which error was introduced by the author.

Authors need to look at the manuscript broadly and not focus on one or two errors that slip past the editor. Authors need to remember that editors are human and suffer from the same problem as do authors: they sometimes see what they expect to see. We are not immune just because we are editors. Authors also need to recognize that the editor could have as easily caught the error about which the author is now complaining, but missed one of the other 99 errors.

Authors need to recognize that the editorial process is a collaborative process. If an author is reviewing an edited manuscript, the author should at least point out the missed error. The author could also correct it.

In the instant case, the author was uninterested in the constraints under which the editor worked. When publishers and authors demand a short editing schedule, they have to expect errors to remain. Something has to give to meet the schedule; the most obvious thing to give is second passes. This is especially true when the client demands that material be submitted in batches.

As many of us have experienced, publishers and authors are also putting pressure on pricing. For many authors and publishers, the paramount consideration is price followed by meeting a short schedule. Quality takes a backseat to those requirements. Low price and fast schedule cannot equate to a perfect edit. A perfect edit takes time.

Authors do have responsibilities when it comes to their manuscript. To think otherwise is to end in the publication of a poorly prepared manuscript. Authors need to think of editors as their partners, not as their adversaries. Authors also need to get away from the false demarcations of who is responsible for what when it comes to their manuscripts.

Thus the commandment for authors: Thou shall treat your editor as a partner, not as an adversary!

April 8, 2013

The Business of Editing: Expectations

The clash between client and editor often is caused by unmet expectations — the client’s expectations as to what services the editor will provide within what time frame and for what price.

In the negotiations between client and editor, the client wants more for less and the editor wants more for less: The client wants more work for less money, the editor wants more money for less work. This is just like every other business negotiation, except for one thing: client and editor expectations are rarely expressed; the parties act as if the other side already knows what the other expects.

The clash arises because clients expect an editor to do whatever it takes to make the client’s manuscript near-perfect regardless of the balance between the expectation and the rate of pay/time given to do the work, and editors feel pressure to do whatever is need to make a manuscript near-perfect, even if the pay, the time given to do the work, or both are inadequate. Both parties are wrong.

The most difficult thing to impress upon colleagues, something I have repeated over the years, is that compensation (which includes the time allotted to do the work) and work must correlate. If you are being paid a copyedit wage, then you copyedit, not developmental edit. If the manuscript needs a developmental edit, alert the client, explain why it is needed, and explain for what should be at least the second time why you are not doing it. And, clearly, if you are expected to do a developmental edit within a copyedit timeframe, explain — multiple times, if necessary — why you cannot.

Recently, an editor lamented that a client had an unrealistic expectation as regards how many pages an hour the editor should churn on a particular project. (I use churn to mean move through, to edit. Although technically this is not a correct use of the word, I find that the number of pages to edit in an hour has much in common with the idea of the frequent buying and selling of securities, which is a meaning of churn. Churn out, the transitive verb form, is perhaps closer in meaning to my use as editorial churn, in that it refers to producing mechanically or copiously, to which I would add nearly robotically.) The manuscript needed a developmental edit and the client expected not only the developmental edit but a churn rate of 10 to 12 pages an hour. The editor, however, was not being paid for such an edit.

The editor’s obligation is to provide the best editing the editor can within the parameters set by the client. If the client’s parameters include churn of 10 to 12 pages an hour, then the editor should strive to meet that churn goal and do the best editing job that the editor can at that rate on that manuscript. If the editing level decreases because of the churn and the complexity of the manuscript, the editor also has an obligation to alert the client to the editing limitations that result because of the churn rate required. It is then the client’s obligation to determine what balance is desirable.

But the immutable law, as far as I am concerned, is this: An editor does not owe a client a near-perfect edit of a manuscript; the editor owes the client the best edit that balances against the fiscal and time constraints imposed by the client — nothing more, nothing less. It is unreasonable to give a Mercedes performance when you are given a Yugo to drive. It is unreasonable to provide a Yugo when you want a Mercedes performance. Give a Yugo, receive a Yugo; give a Mercedes receive a Mercedes.

I make it very clear to clients the difference between a copyedit and a developmental edit (I usually refer them to my article, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor.) I also make it clear that the faster the churn rate, the less careful the editing will be. Some clients not only expect a high churn rate but a multipass edit. Perhaps if the churn expectation is 5 pages an hour, it is reasonable to expect at least a two-pass edit, which makes the effective churn rate 10 pages an hour, but that is certainly not true when the churn expectation is 10 pages an hour, which would make the effective rate 20 pages an hour with a second pass.

However, there are two problems that must be addressed. Both stem from how the editor is paid. If an editor is on an hourly rate, the client often sets a budget based on the expected churn rate (i.e., manuscript size ÷ churn rate = number of hours; number of hours × hourly rate = budget). However, an editor may not be aware of the budget and thus expect that every hour spent editing will be compensated. If there is an upper limit, a budget amount, the editor needs to determine the maximum number of hours for which the client will pay and scale the editorial services accordingly. If the client is not forthcoming about the compensation limitations, then the editor needs to make it clear upfront that the editor expects to be paid for the time spent regardless of whether or not it exceeds the client’s budget (subject, of course, to the ethical constraints discussed in The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing).

If the editor is paid on a per-page or project basis, the total fee does not change regardless of the number of hours. Consequently, if the editor spends 20 hours or 100 hours editing, the fee remains the same. As in the hourly situation, the editor needs to balance the fee the editor will receive against the client’s editorial expectations — before beginning editing or by the time the first pages are edited. Exactly what services the editor will provide for the fee to be earned needs to be spelled out so that there is no confusion on the part of either party. However, should the editor not take this step and discuss any editing limitations, then, in the circumstance of the per-page or project basis for compensation, the client is entitled to Mercedes performance even if the editor is paid a Yugo fee — as long as the client has made the Mercedes expectation clear before the compensation was agreed to.

Sometimes there can be no meeting of the minds: the client is unwilling to lower expectations or raise the fee or do both. In this instance, the editor should bail from the project, assuming that this discussion is taking place at the beginning of the project and not in the middle. If in the middle of the project, the editor should offer the client the option to either pay for work done and find another editor to complete the project or to accept a defined level of editing that meets the client’s churn expectations, even if it doesn’t meet the client’s editorial expectations, and which balances against the fee being paid.

The more clarity the editor brings to the project, by which I mean the more the editor explains the balance, the more likely it is that the editor and the client will work together amicably. It is important to remember that it is the editor who is initially dissatisfied with the lack of balance between expectations and pay; thus, it is the editor’s obligation to educate the client as to the need for the balance and as to what will meet that need. The client’s obligation is to listen, understand, and correct the misbalance in a way that is satisfactory to both the client and the editor.

But under no circumstance should the editor voluntarily (especially not while grumbling about it) accept the misbalance between expectation and compensation. Ultimately, the editor must say, “This is what I will do for this compensation — nothing more, nothing less — and I will do it expertly and professionally, but I will not provide [fill-in the blank, e.g., developmental edit] for the price of [e.g., a copyedit].” Editors must educate their clients about editing, and not assume that clients are already educated about it.

Most importantly, editors must realize that this is a business relationship and must be treated as one. I understand the need of editors to do the near-perfect edit on every job. Unfortunately, our creditors are unwilling to accept a near-perfect edit as payment. An editor who feels she cannot compromise on the edit to be delivered, such as doing a one-pass edit when she would normally do a two-pass edit, should then decline jobs that require compromised editing; happiness in what we do should be our number one motivation.

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