An American Editor

September 24, 2012

The Business of Editing: Light, Medium, or Heavy?

One of the things I have never understood about my business is the concept of a client wanting a light, medium, or heavy edit. I’ve never understood it because these are words that really have no meaning when spoken in conjunction with edit.

(It is probably worth noting that these terms are used by publishers, not by authors. In the past, a manuscript was reviewed by inhouse production editors for general problems and for anticipated difficulty of editing. The terms were then used to justify a lesser or higher fee to the copyeditor. Today, most publishers have a single fee and only skim the manuscripts inhouse. No author has ever used those terms when describing what is wanted from me when hiring me to edit his or her manuscript.)

A professional editor gives a manuscript the edit it requires within the parameters of the job for which the editor was hired. If a client says to ignore references, I may ignore references, but if a client says a manuscript needs a heavy edit, I haven’t got a clue of how my editing would — or should — differ from what I would do had the client asked for a light edit.

The three terms, instead, are signals to me as to how problematic the client believes a manuscript is. When a client asks for a light edit, I understand it to mean that the client believes the manuscript is in pretty good shape with no structural flaws and minimal grammar and spelling errors. Conversely, a heavy edit indicates to me that there are likely to be numerous structural flaws and lots of grammar and spelling errors, with medium edit falling somewhere between the two extremes.

Yet, there’s the catch. Nearly all clients make the same mistake of confusing copyediting with developmental editing (see, for a refresher on the difference between the two, Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor!). In some cases, it is a mistake made out of ignorance; in other instances, it is a deliberate mistake made in hopes (perhaps even in expectation) that the editor will provide a developmental edit at the price of a copyedit.

This comes about because for an editor, there really is no difference between light, medium, and heavy editing. A manuscript gets the edit it needs — except that edit is limited by whether the editor is hired to do a copyedit or a developmental edit. There are boundaries between the two that a professional editor will not cross in the absence of compensation.

Structural problems are a good example. The developmental edit is intended to deal with structural problems but not to focus much on grammar and spelling problems. In contrast, the copyedit is focused on grammar and spelling, and except to note that there are structural problems, ignores structural problems. This is as it should be because the skills required and the time needed vary greatly. It is not uncommon to find that a developmental edit has a speed of 1 to 2 pages an hour, whereas a copyedit runs at 6 to 10 pages an hour.

The use of the terms light, medium, and heavy is problematic because clients and copyeditors are talking past each other when the terms are used. There is no common definition of what they mean and the client’s use is usually based on a false assumption: that the copyeditor will do something different as part of the editing process based on the term chosen.

The assumption is false for many reasons, but the most fundamental reason is that no matter how a client describes the edit, the copyeditor still needs to read and evaluate every word and all punctuation with the goal of ensuring that the manuscript communicates to readers. (Note that I have changed from the broader editor to the narrower copyeditor. This is because the problem particularly arises and is particularly acute when an editor is hired as a copyeditor rather than as a developmental editor.)

In my nearly 29 years of professional editing, I have not changed a single thing that I do as a copyeditor based on whether the client asks for a light, medium, or heavy edit. Copyediting is what it is; it doesn’t change based on light, medium, or heavy.

But those terms do mean something to me as a copyeditor — or at least did in the past, perhaps not so much today. They are flags for the difficulties I can expect to encounter, which means they affect my estimation of the time it will take to edit a manuscript. In past years, I found the terms to be excellent indicators of what to expect; today, I find that they are rarely an accurate indicator. Instead, today, I find that the terms are used as substitutes for whether the manuscript is for a first edition or a revision and for whether the authors are known to be difficult or not difficult to work with.

Invariably, when a publisher hires me to work on a first edition, I am told that the manuscript requires a heavy edit. When I am hired to work on the revision that will be the eighth edition of the book, I am invariably told it requires a light or medium edit, or I am told nothing at all, with the client assuming I understand that only a light or medium edit is required. So, as relatively meaningless as the terms were in the past, they have become even more irrelevant and meaningless today.

Except that I use those terms as a guide to negotiate schedule. For example, I was recently hired to edit a manuscript that was estimated to be 380 pages and that required a heavy edit. The schedule was 2 weeks. I immediately negotiated a longer schedule based on the client’s claim that a heavy edit was required (the sample chapters the client sent didn’t show any unusual problems but there were a lot more chapters yet to come so it becomes a guessing game). I subsequently renegotiated the newly negotiated schedule because when I received the complete manuscript, the page count was 490 — the combination of a heavy edit and more pages warranted a longer, just-in-case,schedule.

I think editors need to clearly separate what tasks they will do based on the type of edit — copyedit or developmental edit — that a client asks for and ignore requests for a light, medium, or heavy edit except insofar as such terms are viewed as descriptors of the number and type of problems anticipated and how they might affect the editing schedule. After all, how would you edit any differently a manuscript that was to be lightly edited from one that was to receive a medium or heavy edit? Wouldn’t you (don’t you) do all the same things regardless of the characterization of the edit?

One last note: Some clients do, in fact, pay more for a heavy edit and less for a light or medium edit. The number of publishers doing so is rapidly declining as the squeeze on editorial costs increases. But if you do have such a client, then the characterization is also important for setting the fee. Where this is the case, a more thorough evaluation of the manuscript is necessary to ensure that it has been properly characterized — especially as copyeditors do all the same things regardless of the characterization of the edit.

July 30, 2012

The Business of Editing: The Hyphenated Compound

As I have mentioned before (see The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing), I get asked by clients to give an opinion on editing decisions made by other editors. (It would be much easier if they simply hired me to do the editing originally rather than asking my opinion after the fact, but that isn’t how it works these days!) I was recently asked to give an opinion on hyphenating right-heart syndrome (and its opposite, left-heart syndrome).

Medical terminology is a world of its own. Only in very recent editions, for example, did Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, a standard reference in the United States, agree that disease and syndrome names should generally not be possessive. Dorland’s was slowly getting to that point, but until recently, it was a hodgepodge of possessive and nonpossessive. The result was that authors were resistant to dropping the possessive.

Similarly, in medical terminology, most journals refer to right heart syndrome, shunning the hyphen; a few are beginning to make the change. This raises an interesting problem for an editor: the hyphenated version is clear and accurate from both a reader’s perspective and grammatically; the nonhyphenated version is traditional and requires reader interpretation (does the author mean that his is the right [correct] heart syndrome or the syndrome that occurs on the right side of the heart?). From context one can often tell what is meant, but — and but is an important qualification — not always.

The question becomes one of 100%, all-the-time accuracy versus 98%, less-than-all-the-time accuracy: Which should an editor strive for? More importantly, which should an author strive for?

If we were discussing a novel, 98% — even 85% — accuracy can be acceptable. After all, by its very definition a novel is not intended to be true, accurate, real; it is intended to be, foremost, entertaining. In contrast, a work of nonfiction, such as a medical text or a history of the French Revolution or a biography of Lyndon Johnson, is intended to be factual, accurate, true, real. Consequently, not only does word choice matter, as discussed in The Business of Editing: Words Do Matter!, but so does how words are formed. Thus, the use of the hyphen in compounds is important.

There is no doubt that the rationale for omitting the hyphen in right heart syndrome is that it has been omitted since the naming of the disease. That may be good enough reasoning for an author, but should it be for an editor? There is yet another question: What weight should be given to author preference? In this regard, whether to use distension or distention doesn’t matter; both are acceptable spellings with the same meaning — essentially a schizoid word that can’t settle on one spelling. Yet they same deference to preference perhaps should not be extended to an author when deference can lead to less than 100% accuracy and understanding.

Consider it from another angle. What harm does hyphenating the phrase do to the fundamental goal of accurate communication? On the one hand, if hyphenating the phrase changes the intended meaning, then clearly it is harmful. On the other hand, if it clarifies meaning or enhances understanding or doesn’t change the intended meaning, then it isn’t harmful. If it isn’t harmful, why should it give way to an author preference that is based simply on “that is the way it has been done in the past”?

The reality of publishing today is that the editor is a weakened link in the process of taking a raw manuscript and making it into a polished, published product. In the early days of modern publishing, the editor had the time and was expected to make the effort to cajole an author into doing the correct thing, whether it took days, weeks, months, or even years. Quality of output was the key guiding factor. Today, the process is governed by tight schedules and cost saving. Today, the publisher backs the author and not the editor. The one common refrain I hear regularly these days (and for the past couple of decades) is to give the author what the author wants, regardless of whether it is correct or not.

If I were the editor of right heart syndrome, I would add the hyphen. It does no harm. Right-heart syndrome will not be misunderstood by the reader, unlike right heart syndrome, which can be misunderstood although not likely. There is no question in my mind that right-heart syndrome is accurate and clearly conveys to the reader that the discussion is about a syndrome of the right side of the heart.

My dilemma arises when I receive author feedback that says:

Ed: I have never seen a hyphen used for this syndrome at any time in the medical literature.  I think most readers would find it odd. I suggest doing away with the hyphen throughout the text unless you can find documentation that this is correct.

What do I do? Even though I can find recent journal articles that support hyphenation, the truth is that the vast majority do not use the hyphen. Even though I can make the argument that adding the hyphen makes the term clearer, avoids any possibility of misunderstanding, and is grammatically correct, the current weight of published articles is against me. Even though I can say that hyphenating it conforms to American Medical Association (AMA) style guidelines, this appears to be irrelevant because, again, the weight of the literature is against me.

My response to the client is essentially to outline the dilemma discussed above. Because I was not the editor, I didn’t have to make the yes/no decision. Had I been the editor, I think I would have cited a couple of recent articles that do use hyphenation and outline why I think hyphenation is the better choice, and then I would kick the ball back to the client for the final decision. In the end, it depends on whether the client prefers to accede to the author’s wishes and avoid a fight.

Yet knowing that, after the fact, the client is likely to accede to the author’s wishes, does not relieve me of the responsibility of doing what I consider correct while editing. Consequently, I would hyphenate the phrase (absent initial instructions from the client to the contrary) and if questioned give my rationale. The point is that the editor is obligated to do the correct thing even if it is subsequently undone by the client. The editor’s job is to change potentially less-than-accurate terminology into precise, accurate terminology without sacrificing meaning; it is the client’s job to decide whether it is better to be fashionable or accurate.

July 16, 2012

The Business of Editing: Words Do Matter!

Within the past few weeks, Americans learned that words do matter. Allegedly, editors and authors have been aware of this since forever, but on occasion I am reminded that ingrained habit can be more important than what a word really means.

Within the past several weeks, Americans learned that Obamacare is constitutional because the individual mandate penalty is a tax, and not a penalty. According to the American Heritage Dictionary (5th ed), a penalty is “A punishment imposed for a violation of law” and a tax is “A contribution for the support of a government of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.” Black’s Law Dictionary (6th ed) defines penalty as “An elastic term with many different shades of meaning; it involves the idea of punishment, corporeal or pecuniary,…, although its meaning is generally confined to pecuniary punishment” and tax as “A charge by the government on the income of an individual….The objective in assessing the tax is to generate revenue to be used for the needs of the public.”

For the average citizen, the difference is meaningless. Most of us who have to pay taxes consider ourselves as being penalized (thus tax = penalty) and don’t worry about the fine distinction made by lawyers and judges. But the difference does matter and choosing the right word equally matters: Obamacare would have failed if the mandate was a penalty, and succeeded because the mandate is a tax. (The importance of using the right word is reinforced by efforts to call copyediting proofreading and pay less for the service, as discussed in The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting.)

Yet the pundits have it wrong when they conclude that the government cannot force us to buy broccoli. The effect of the Roberts’ opinion is that if the government imposes a tax on persons who do not buy broccoli, such a tax is constitutional and if it is constitutional, then all that needs to be done is to make the tax onerous enough that it is fiscally more prudent to buy the broccoli than pay the tax. But I stray.…

In the world of editing, we have been exposed to possessive diseases and the demise of the serial comma. When we speak of Lou Gehrig’s disease, what exactly is meant? It is true that Lou Gehrig had the disease and if the writer means to discuss the agony that Lou Gehrig faced, then the possessive Lou Gehrig’s disease seems appropriate. However, if the writer wishes to convey the agony my grandmother underwent when she was struck by the disease, the nonpossessive Lou Gehrig disease strikes me as significantly more correct. The latter requires no interpretation as to meaning — it is clearly not referring to Lou Gehrig’s bout with the disease named after him — whereas the former does require interpretation and a best guess.

That is the problem with not choosing the correct word: the reader is left to make a best guess. The choice between penalty and tax involves also a set of consumer/taxpayer rights that arise depending on which term is used. For example, there are certain procedures that have to be followed by the government in order to collect a tax that differ from those that arise when collecting a penalty. In addition, the defenses that can be raised and when they can be raised by the consumer/taxpayer differ.

Similarly, the conclusion that a reader can draw from a group of words differs based on the words chosen. Consider how cleverly, for example, the words chosen by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lead readers to one conclusion but Sherlock Holmes to another; or what would have happened had Charles Dickens chosen different opening words to A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,  it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of  incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was  the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Literary immortality came to Dickens via this opening and readers were given a scene setting that compelled further reading.

Editors need to be aware of the words used and ensure that the author is communicating precisely, as well as capturing a reader’s interest. The primary role for an editor is to help the author avoid miscommunication. Whether an author’s work will rise or fall on word choice is increasingly reflected by the importance grammar, spelling, and word choice are given in reviews of books.

Two decades ago, grammar, spelling, and word choice were rarely mentioned in book reviews. The editorial quality of a book was not suspect and was taken for granted. Since then, especially as cost control has come to be the number one goal of the publishing industry — especially with the consolidation of publishers into international conglomerates, the globalization of editorial services as a cost-control measure, and the rise of ebooks and the self-publishing phenomenon — the triad of grammar, spelling, and word choice has become a mainstay of book reviews.

This need to ensure that the correct word is chosen validates the need for the services of a professional editor — a person who is removed from the rigor and stress of the creative process of writing a captivating tale, yet who has command of the essentials of language and language usage.

Although by itself, choosing the right word will not turn stinkweed into a rose, choosing the wrong word can, by itself, turn a rose into stinkweed. This is something authors need to remember when deciding whether to hire a professional editor and something the professional editor needs to keep in mind during the editing process.

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

A client asked me to look at some excerpts of material that had been offshore outsourced for editing and to give my opinion whether something struck me as wrong or incorrect. In the past 6 months, I have had several requests from clients asking me to clarify style rules and whether material comports with those rules. The clients have recognized that their expertise is different from mine and that the combination of our skills can result in a better product.

A frequent query involves American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style 10th edition §19.1 “Use of Numerals.” Most non-editorial clients find the AMA’s instructions confusing, especially as it contravenes the instructions given in other style guides, notably the Chicago Manual of Style.

But this client request fell into another category: not was a style guide convention contravened, but did the editing make sense.

The subject had to do with legislation and one sentence in one of the text portions I was asked to review read as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry women to obtain birth control…

Certainly, from a grammatical perspective and taken in isolation, there is nothing wrong with that sentence fragment. But was it culturally correct?

Editing cannot be done in isolation of the world around us. Form (grammatically correct in isolation) cannot control over function (communication and understanding). Instead, there needs to be a meeting of form and function because only with that meeting can we be certain that what is intended is what is expressed.

It immediately struck me that something was wrong with the sentence. A good test is what I call the substitution test, in which I substitute a synonym for a key word to ask does it still make sense. In this case, my immediate notion was that no substitution was necessary but I applied the test anyway, substituting homosexual for gay. Why was this important? Gay in America increasingly means male homosexual exclusively; homosexual means both male and female, that is, gays and lesbians. Other cultures may use other terms for genderizing homosexuality, but since this was a book for American audiences, American culture rules.

With the term gay, the sentence makes sense every which way but sexually; with the term homosexuality, it makes no sense either politically or sexually. In America, lesbians currently are generally not free to marry women for any reason. In a culture that does permit homosexual marriage or civil unions, the sentence would pass the substitution test, but not in the United States, where the overwhelming legal position is that homosexuals cannot marry or even have legally recognized civil unions.

The point is that because of my familiarity with the culture of the audience for whom the book is intended, it is clear to me that there is something wrong with the sentence. The cure is simple, however. All that is needed is a well-placed comma, so that the sentence reads as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry, women to obtain birth control…

Yet there is another problem with the sentence. Logically, why would a gay marry a woman to obtain birth control? That alone, under normal circumstances, should have raised red flags. But, again, I think it may be a cultural thing. I suspect that in more repressive cultures or in cultures in which the homosexuality is more underground than in America, gays may well marry women for a variety of reasons, even as a means of birth control.

Yet there is one other, at least questionable, problem with the sentence, with or without the comma cure, even though it is illogical for gays to marry women to obtain birth control: the use of gays. As I noted above, in America, gays increasingly is gender-specific, referring to male homosexuals and excluding lesbians. So the sentence, even as cured, means that it would be easier for males to marry but still impossible for females to marry. If nothing else were true about legislation affecting homosexual marriage, this would be true: In the United States, legislators would not grant marriage rights to one sex but not the other when granting homosexuals the right to marry.

Although the cured sentence would be better if homosexuals were substituted for gays, and much less prone to possible misunderstanding, there is another cultural reality in America. As noted above, gay has traditionally meant both male and female homosexuals, but it is increasingly being used as the word for male homosexuals to the exclusion of lesbians. As Bryan Garner writes:

Gay and lesbian. Though common, this phrasing is peculiarly redundant since lesbians are gay women.…What is actually happening, no doubt, is that gay is undergoing what linguists call specialization — that is, in some of its senses the word is becoming sex-specific. (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 387)

Consequently, in this instance, aside from adding the comma, I think a professional editor would query the author, explain the historical uses of the words, and suggest that homosexuals be substituted for gays. I also think that the professional editor would query the author to make sure that the addition of the comma is correct, that with the comma the sentence now reads as the author intended. Although I cannot think of a valid reason to omit the comma, perhaps the author has one

Alas, in this instance, neither the comma was added nor the queries made. Alas, also, there were several similar sentences in the samples I was asked to comment on, that had very questionable phraseology but passed the editor without query. Several needed no query, just punctuation.

I think this is less a matter of the editor’s skill, although it could well be that the original editor was not a professional editor, but more of a culture-related problem. It is not easy for out-of-culture editors to catch the cultural nuances of material intended for an audience that lives in another world culturally. For publishers, the question is solely one of containing costs. Instead, it should be one of making sure that the published product doesn’t miscommunicate; unfortunately, that is not the trend in today’s publishing. Just as publishers see a worldwide market for their books, they see a worldwide market for service providers. In some instances, that broad sight is appropriate, but not when it comes to editing for a specific cultural market.

June 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.

June 11, 2012

The Business of Editing: Being Cheap Isn’t Always the Best Choice

A recent story on Ars Technica, which was picked up by many blogs, demonstrates that cutting corners isn’t always the smartest move. The story, “Nook version of War and Peace turns the word ‘kindled’ into ‘Nookd’,” is an editorial classic.

If you recall, a couple of weeks ago I wrote about consistency (see The Business of Editing: Consistency) and the Never Spell Word macro. What I didn’t do in the article was discuss the problems of indiscriminate Find & Replace, under the assumption that professional editors, authors, and publishers innately understood that indiscriminate use of Find & Replace can lead to all kinds of disasters. The Nookd article indicates that perhaps I was wrong.

Our reliance on computers and macros makes us vulnerable to silly mistakes. Computers and macros have greatly reduced the number of errors, and the costs associated with them, that occur in printed materials — when properly applied by professional editors. Unfortunately, the bean-counter quest to squeeze as much savings as possible out of the editorial budget because what editors do is largely invisible to both the bean counter and the reader, can easily lead to the kind of disaster the befell War and Peace.

Unfortunately, the Nooking of War and Peace is representative of what happens when self-publishing authors forego hiring professional editors. Perhaps it isn’t the obvious disaster of changing of Kindle to Nook, but it is the using of you’re for your, which indicates a lack of quality and professionalism. I suppose one could argue that there is a difference in that “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern” is nonsensical and the vast majority of readers would stumble on Nookd, wondering what is meant, whereas substituting your for you’re is likely to be missed or glossed over by a majority of readers (who probably would make the same mistake themselves). How many readers understand the difference between which and that, wood and would, its and it’s? How many make the same mistake themself and are unaware that it is a mistake?

It is one thing to compose Jabberwocky, another to assume that jabberwockian grammar and language is the standard against which all writing is to be judged. And this is the result of the demise in our education system of the teaching of such fundamental things as spelling and grammar. Because spelling is no longer part of the testing that determines a school’s and a teacher’s passing or failing, it is bypassed to emphasize those things that are tested. The result is that we graduate students who lack these skills and who become teachers of the next generation. It is difficult, if not impossible, to teach what one neither knows nor understands.

Yet this is a free-market problem as well, if not primarily. In the rush to increase quarterly profits, rather than think long-term strategy, publishers are deemphasizing the skills that separate a poorly prepared book from a professionally prepared book. Professional editors are skilled in spelling and grammar and know the limitations of automation. It is not yet possible to automate detection of the misuse of your and you’re; human intervention is required and human decision making is required.

The pressure to reduce costs and pricing of a book exacts a penalty. If there is not enough margin, services have to be skipped. The services that are skipped tend to be those that are invisible, and editing is invisible until it glares, as in the Nooking of War and Peace. As this demonstrates, being cheap isn’t always the wisest course to follow.

Unfortunately, this error will become a hall of shame error that readers, editors, publishers, and authors will all point to, but which will not result in the alteration of current practices. Each publisher and author will take the stance that it can’t/won’t happen to their books, only to someone else’s books. The ultimate losers are readers and society. Readers because they are taught by example that what is wrong is acceptable so that no effort needs be made to do things correctly, and society because imprecision becomes acceptable and skills are downplayed and lost.

Additionally, as professional editors are financially squeezed, they, too, will make choices about what services they can provide for the reduced fee they are offered. Conversations with colleagues indicate that reduced fees have resulted in a reduction in what they can and will do as part of the editing process. Combined with tighter schedules, it appears that the high standards of editing of previous decades may not be standard in coming decades. The consequences of making cost the determining factor are only now beginning to be seen in the marketplace, but I think we will all rue the day costs became king. We are likely to see more Nookd books than fewer.

May 31, 2012

The Business of Editing: What an Author Should Give an Editor

I know I’m a bit out of synch with my usual schedule of posts, but this topic has been swirling around my thoughts for several days, and I’m finally getting time to write about the topic.

The hardest job an editor has, I think, is determining what the author wants the final product to be like. The editor’s role is to help the author mold the manuscript so that it ends up meeting the author’s wants, not the editor’s belief as to what the author wants.

The problem is that few authors provide the information necessary to accomplish the task. In the books I currently work on, any guidance comes from the publisher, not the author, which is not how it should be. Years ago, when I edited fiction and worked directly with authors, a lot of time and effort were wasted with back-and-forth communications in an attempt to land the author and me on the same page. It is one of the reasons why I stopped working directly with authors (although in the past year I have had many requests from authors to edit their fiction, and I am contemplating doing so).

In the case of fiction, I think an author should provide an editor with the following information:

  • a one-page summary of the story;
  • a complete list of characters, including the desired name spelling, any relationships between characters (e.g., spouse of, sister of, granddaughter of), and a physical description of each character;
  • a complete list of geographical locations, indicating whether each is real or made up, and with correct spelling;
  • a list of special terms or made-up words;
  • a timeline of major events; and
  • an indication whether this is part of a series (e.g., book one of a trilogy).

Depending on the story and the author’s plans I would also ask the author to provide additional information.

It is true that an editor can gather all of the above information herself from a first read of the manuscript. But leaving the task to the editor means that there is no assurance that something important will not be missed or misinterpreted. More importantly, it wastes valuable (and costly) time that could be better spent actually editing.

With nonfiction, the list changes based on the type of book and the intended audience. As I have mentioned in other posts, most of my work is in medical textbooks written by doctors for doctors. What I would like to know in advance are such things as:

  • which acronyms can be always used as acronyms and not spelled out because they are commonly understood by the intended audience;
  • how certain terms should be approached (e.g., Is ultrasound acceptable/preferred when talking about the procedure, which is more correctly called ultrasonography? Should it be x-ray or radiography?);
  • preferred spelling where there is more than one spelling option (e.g., distension or distention?); and
  • any other author preferences that I should be aware of.

The point is to make the editing and the review of the editing go smoothly and not end up being focused on something that is minor because it is a pet peeve of the author.

This review focus is really at the core of why an author should provide an editor with as much information as possible. Over the course of 28 years of editing, more times than not, when an author has complained about the editing, the complaint has been because no one passed on information about what the author wanted or expected. The author became focused on the tree rather than the forest.

An often heard complaint from disgruntled fiction authors is that the editor screwed up the book. I don’t doubt that the editor made mistakes, but my first thought goes to the information that the author provided. Was the editor just handed the manuscript or was the editor given sufficient information that the editor’s mistakes are really the sign of an incompetent editor and not of a lazy author?

Unfortunately, there are authors who believe that the only role an editor should play is that of spellchecker because whatever the author wrote is perfect as is, with the exception of the occasional misspelling. I remember editing a novel early in my career where I correct the misuse of their, there, where, were, your, and you’re only to receive a nasty note from the author telling me how I had taken a well-written manuscript and made it a poorly written one, and that I had been hired just to check spelling, not to change words or meaning. I scratched my head vigorously because I would have thought that changing where to were was correcting a misspelling and not changing meaning, but I clearly was missing something. As it turns out, the author believed that using the wrong words reinforced the character’s illiteracy. The author may have intended that but missed the connection because the character used polysyllabic words that indicated a good command of language except for these words. More important, however, was that the author’s failure to communicate to me that the character was intended to be illiterate meant that I didn’t catch the characterization error that resulted from other word choices. The book was a disaster from the author’s intended perspective and I didn’t help matters because of the lack of pre-editing information.

Authors and editors should collaborate, not fight each other. The goal of each is to make the book the best it can be. Authors need to take a more proactive role in the collaborative effort by providing basic information — without waiting to be asked for the information — before the editor begins work. Together, the author and editor can make the author’s voice heard.

May 9, 2012

Should Editors Certify That an eBook has Been Edited?

I’ve been toying with this idea for some time now. I haven’t gotten very far with it because of resistance from editorial colleagues, but I’m wondering if professional editors should certify that a book has been professionally edited as a way to assure the author’s customers that the book was edited?

I know it is impossible to certify an ebook as error-free, especially as editorial decisions are rarely black or white, instead often being shades of gray. Besides, it is the rare book — e or p — that I have bought or read that doesn’t have at least a few errors. The idea is to minimize the number of indisputable errors and to help move a manuscript from the kitchen sink to a more sharply focused story. More importantly, the idea is to encourage authors to make use of professional editors by giving them something of tangible value, something they can use to help sell their ebooks.

There are some gaping problems with the implementation of such an idea. For example, what good is the certification if there is no “penalty” for not meeting the standard? What standards does an editor need to meet to grant the certification? Who will decide whether certification is appropriate? What happens if the author makes changes on his or her own after the ebook has been certified? Who will promote the value of the certification to the reading public? Can the author demand that an ebook be certified if the author rejects the editor’s suggestions? What fee schedule is reasonable for a certification process? And the list goes on…

In reality, few of the problems cannot be overcome, except that manuscripts are not like manufactured goods that are churned out by the thousands in identical form so that there is a single standard that is easily defined. Certification of ebooks requires more individualization than do mass-produced goods.

Yet I suspect that reasonable criteria can be established if what is sought is a uniform standard. I am not, however, convinced that a uniform standard that a manuscript must meet is required; rather, I think the standard needs to be more focused on what constitutes professional editing (as opposed to editing by anyone who claims to be an editor) and what certification means, as well as how the standards are enforced.

This raises the bottom-line problem of identifying a professional editor. I’ve discussed this before and, although I can say that a professional editor has certain characteristics, I cannot say that a lack of one or more of these characteristics makes for a nonprofessional editor. Our industry is too hazy for such clarity — at least as currently configured.

What is needed is a national standards organization for editors. I know I’ve suggested this before, too. Unfortunately, such an organization is unlikely to come about; too few independent editors would be willing to create such an organization and abide by its standards.

So, instead, why can’t individual editors offer their own certification? It is an author’s responsibility to find a professional editor and have their work edited. There is little reason why such an editor couldn’t issue a “seal of good editing” to an ebook that indicates to the consumer that the proffered ebook has been professionally edited so the reader will find few of the errors that plague too many ebooks, such as you’re for your, where for were, and a character with blue eyes and blond hair on page 10 but green eyes and light brown hair on page 55.

Ultimately, the question for the consumer is, “How can I be certain that the ebook really was professionally edited?” The answer is another question: What does the editor “pay” to the consumer should the consumer find a goodly number of these errors? (Which raises another issue: How many errors are acceptable?) Should it be a refund of the purchase price? Twice the purchase price? Some other multiple of the purchase price? Something else?

A lot of matters would have to be addressed when setting up a certification scheme, but it seems to me that it may well be worthwhile for editors, authors, and consumers. For editors, it could be a way to stand out from the crowd and gain more business. For authors, it could be a marketing tool that sets their ebooks apart from the crowd of ebooks. For consumers, it would provide a method for weeding out some ebooks.

Cost is a difficult issue, but one that needs tackling upfront. In exchange for the certification, the editor should be paid a premium fee for the editing work. Yet authors have no assurance that certification will boost sales sufficiently to justify paying a premium, let alone hiring an editor to begin with.

Unfortunately, each day sees hundreds more ebooks become available, all fighting to capture the imagination of the same limited audience. In the absence of quality assurances, how does one ebook get distinguished from the myriad other available ebooks such that it entices consumers to give it a second look? Price is one answer, but price alone has not proven to be a sufficient answer.

Perhaps the combination of price and quality assurance will do the trick. It certainly can’t hurt to try.

May 7, 2012

The Business of Editing: Contracts — A Slippery Slope

When I first began editing as a freelancer, I never was offered a contract by a client. I was hired to copyedit or developmental edit, and it was understood that I would do my best and the client would pay me for my work. Even the structure for payment was understood to be what constituted a billable (i.e., hourly or a page, which consisted of x). It was a “handshake” agreement.

For the most part, even today, this is how I conduct much of my work. Yet, increasingly, I am being asked to sign a contract. This has occurred since the last time I addressed this issue, in Editors and Contracts: Editor Beware! In the prior article, I talked about a contract from India. Today, I am talking about a contract from the United States.

Because this is the “client’s” standard contract, I have to wonder how many editors either read the contract that is proffered or if they do read it, understand it; or if they simply sign it and consider doing so a necessity to have any business. I also wonder how many, if any, editors simply reject a burdensome contract.

As some of you know, my background is as a lawyer. Before becoming a professional editor, I practiced law for a number of years and learned early on in that career that business-to-business contracts really do need to be read and understood, and not just blindly signed.

The latest contract that I received simply reinforced that learning. It would almost be impossible to write a more one-sided and unfair contract short of one that says I would be responsible for the other party’s financial losses should the stock market decline for the next 100 years.

Good editors are language-smart, but sometimes not business-smart. Sometimes the need or desire to have work outweighs the common sense that dictates “do not sign the proffered contract.” But it shouldn’t, because some contracts are so exploitative that you have to wonder about the company that is proffering it. Would you trust the dog that bites the hand that feeds it?

Essentially that is what a contract is — an expression of distrust. The question is how much distrust is tolerable. I find that the more onerous the contract, which indicates that the offeror really distrusts the people with whom it “wants to work,” the less worthy the profferor is of being trusted. And thus I prefer not to sign.

Consider statements that say you will be paid “for satisfactorily rendered services.” What exactly does that mean? Who decides? How long do they have to decide? Is it satisfactory to leave “due to” in a manuscript? Is it satisfactory to not distinguish between “since” and “because”? Suppose you think a series of items should be a bulleted list rather than a run-on sentence. Is that okay?

What about a clause that says the client can audit your books? Are you an independent contractor or an employee?

Or consider the attorney-in-fact clause, which says that you appoint the client as attorney in fact to sign your name to any necessary applications for intellectual property protection for any reason. The only thing missed is taking possession of the bathtub.

One of the strongest methods to ensure payment is the availability of the lawsuit remedy. Yet the contracts insist that any claims be arbitrated and that doing so be at your expense. Back in the beginning of time, arbitrators had a reputation for lack of bias and for fairness; that reputation is long gone. I would be hard-pressed to voluntarily give up my right to sue.

The contract I was most recently offered also stated that my work product was a work for hire and that I waive any claim to ownership in my work product. Period. End of story. The waiver doesn’t come about because I have been paid or even because the client is obligated to pay me. No, it comes about because I unconditionally waive all my rights (which I’ll do immediately after the cheese the moon is made of is placed for sale in my local supermarket).

When you receive a contract to sign, do you look at the limitation of liability clause? You should. Invariably, the client has no liability. There is no mention of your not having any liability, which means that you might have some.

My favorite clause is the one that reads similar to this: “This agreement shall be interpreted as written and negotiated jointly by the parties.” Rarely is a client willing to negotiate any term of the proffered contract; it is a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. But this clause has a great deal of legal significance should a dispute arise.

Finally, I love when I get a contract that incorporates the material in an attached exhibit and the attached exhibit is not filled out. An early learned rule is never to sign a contract with blanks. Good luck proving it was incorrectly filled out after you signed, not before.

The list of objectionable clauses and why they are objectionable can go on, but simply listing them doesn’t answer the fundamental question: What can I, the editor who is offered such a contract, do about it? What should I do about it?

I usually send a note back saying I cannot agree to the contract as submitted and give reasons paragraph by paragraph. Usually there are a couple of unobjectionable paragraphs, but, for the most part, the more wrapped in legalese the contract is, the less likely I am to sign it.

I usually begin by noting that the contract has little relevancy to the services for which I am being hired. What relevance does a clause about patents have to copyediting? I suggest that, if a contract is necessary, we should discuss realistic terms that are relevant to what I am expected to do as an editor. I also make it clear that, contrary to the assertion in a contract, there are no universal, objective standards to which either party can look as measures of quality for editing, so it is necessary that client define precisely what standards the client will apply to my work product.

I go through this exercise knowing that it is futile; with rare exception, these contracts are nonnegotiable. But I want the client to understand that I do pay attention to detail, and this is a subtle way of enforcing that message.

In the end, it usually comes down to either signing the contract as submitted by the client or passing on the work. Given that choice, I decide how trustworthy I think the client is. If I think I can trust the client, I will sign the contract; if I have any doubts at all, I will not. There is little sense in inviting trouble.  Usually — but not always — my refusing to sign the contract means no work from the client. Several times in recent months, however, the client has simply worked with me as if nothing about a contract had ever been discussed. In these cases, the work with the client has been ongoing, not just a single project and then no more.

Regardless, editors need to be careful about the contracts they sign. It is better to not sign and lose the work than to work for a client whom you can’t trust. Just as you have a minimum acceptable fee for taking on work, so you should have a standard for contracts below which you will not descend. At the very least, never sign one before reading it carefully and assessing its potential impact on you and your business.

April 30, 2012

Business of Editing: Schedules and Client Expectations

A couple of months ago, I was hired to edit a new medical text. The publisher estimated the manuscript to be 2500 pages and wanted a 4-week turnaround with a medium-level edit. When I received the files for the entire project, I did a page count; the client had greatly undercounted the manuscript size. Instead of 2500 ms pages, the actual count was 5300 pages. (Why the disparity? Because, for example, in the original manuscript figure legends were in 7-point type and chapters had 70+ legends; tables and references [of which there could be several hundred in a chapter] were in 8-point type; paragraphs were single spaced.) In addition, it had to be conformed to AMA style; almost nothing conformed to AMA style as presented.

I advised the client and suggested that a 10-week schedule would be more appropriate. I was told to start the editing and the client would get back to me about the schedule.

In 2 weeks, I was able to edit nearly 1400 ms pages, but even at that rate, an 8-week schedule would be needed and it assumes that the initial pace could be maintained.

At the 2-week mark, I was told to stop work on the project. Instead of being edited locally, the manuscript would be shipped overseas (i.e., outside the United States to India) for editing because (a) the budget was based on 2500 ms pages and (b) there is insufficient flexibility in the schedule to extend it to 8 to 10 weeks or longer. The client was assured that both its budget and schedule could be met in India.

I was not overly concerned about the loss of this particular project; I had others waiting. But I was concerned about how realistic client (not just this particular client, but clients in general) expectations are when it comes to both price and schedule; more so schedule than price. I wonder how Indian copyeditors — let alone copyeditors from anywhere — will be able to do a medium edit on a very technical medical textbook in 4 weeks. I am not questioning the Indian editors’ editing skills, as I do not think this is a question of skills. I do understand how the price can be met in India, but not the schedule or the required editing level.

More importantly, it worries me what is becoming of the publishing industry. The upheaval caused by ebooks is not being well dealt with by anyone yet. One of the outstanding negatives to ebooks is the ease with which poor quality books can saturate the marketplace. Too many ebook authors are writing as if they were Georges Simenon, an author who once stated that he was able to turn out a new novel every 21 days. (Simenon was prolific and I particularly enjoyed his Inspector Maigret novels.) But unlike Simenon’s novels, which were well-written and well-edited, many ebooks are neither.

At one time readers could feel assured that the pbook they were buying that was published by a traditional publisher also was well-edited. Publishers devoted the time and the money to ensure a minimum quality.

Yet that seems to be changing today. In the case of the books I work on, which are medical texts written by doctors for doctors, I am concerned that unrealistic expectations will cause a decline in quality in books that can have serious implications for the well-being of consumers. If a novel tells you that the Taj Mahal is in Tibet, no harm is done to the reader, only to the author’s reputation. But if a medical text tells you to remove the left lung when it should be the right lung, the potential for harm is present; you have to hope someone catches this error before you are operated on.

Again, the question is not so much that of competency of the editors as it is the compression of the schedule. Editing a 200-page novel in 4 weeks is not wholly unreasonable; errors that slip by are not likely to be catastrophic except possibly to the author’s reputation. But to edit a 5300-page medical text in 4 weeks strikes me as unreasonable, even if the editorial work is divided among numerous editors. I suppose the question boils down to how many editors are used, but as the number of editors used increases, the greater the likelihood of inconsistency and the greater the variation in skill level among the editors.

I know that publishers are increasingly being run by the “bean counters” who take steps to reduce editorial costs because there is no readily visible-to-the-consumer effect of an editor’s work. Editors are the invisible people who can make a good manuscript better. Publishers are increasingly competing with the self-publishers and so must mimic the self-publishing way to final version, which is little to no editing and/or the least expensive editing possible combined with a compressed production schedule in order to get the finished product to market more quickly.

I wonder if, in the end, this will be good for the industry as a whole; that is, not just for the traditional publisher but for the self-publisher, too. In the attempt to get to market sooner and to publish as quickly and as often as possible, are publishers of all stripes sacrificing too much? Will the result be a changed literary landscape that would not be recognizable to a reader who grew up reading the Hemingways and Steinbecks of an earlier era?

Perhaps more importantly, in the case of nonfiction, is this compulsion to reduce costs and speed up production dangerous for the reader and consumer? Is our insatiable appetite for instant gratification and cheap pricing going to boomerang?

How do you give a high-quality edit to a highly technical manuscript of 5300 pages in 4 weeks without making any significant editorial sacrifice? Are client expectations becoming increasingly unreasonable? Something to ponder, I think, and perhaps even to worry about.

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