An American Editor

January 18, 2017

The Battle of the Familiar

I was discussing with a colleague the merits of a particular approach to editing when it occurred to me that what we ultimately were discussing was whether an editor should have some expertise in the subject matter being edited. For example, if you are editing a medical tome on arthritis, how much knowledge about arthritis should you have before you edit the first word?

The question arises from the idea that in the absence of subject-matter knowledge (expertise), the editor cannot do justice to the manuscript or to the author. Broadly speaking, there may be some validity to this argument if you are responsible for the content’s accuracy, as might be the case with a developmental editor. But what about the copyeditor?

Fundamentally, the matter circles the questions “What is the role of the copyeditor?” and “What are the editor’s responsibilities?” The matter also embraces the issue of “What is the copyeditor being paid (amount) and expected to do in exchange for that pay?”

I have been editing manuscripts for 33 years. During that time, at least 95% of my work has been medical (written by doctors for doctors) or educational (written by teachers for teachers); in the past few years, 99% has been medical. Yet, I am neither a doctor (or other trained and degreed medical professional) nor a teacher (i.e., accredited/licensed)—in fact, my education is more generalist (political science and law). The reason I am sought after to edit medical tomes is that I am an excellent editor who understands his role and limitations.

I am not hired for my subject-matter expertise; I am hired because of my command of the role of an editor and because I possess the knowledge and skills required to fulfill that role. More importantly, I think, I am hired because I am not a subject-matter expert.

Not so long ago I was discussing a colleague’s newest published book with him. I had some questions because I found myself confused by some of the statements in the book. The explanations I received certainly answered my questions but I then wondered why I was asking these questions to begin with; that is, why didn’t the book answer them before I asked them? The answer was obvious to the author, because the audience for whom the book was written would already know the answers and would not ask the questions.

What my colleague really was saying is that neither he nor his editors (a) thought these were points that had to be addressed because they already knew the answers and thus assumed that every reader would also know the answers and so would not ask the questions, and (b) assumed that no one outside the small group for whom the author knowingly wrote would have any interest in the book. Unfortunately for readers, my colleague and his editors were only 95% right, and thus were wrong on both points.

This experience highlights the problem of misunderstanding expectations and expecting that editors with subject-matter expertise are better editors than those without that expertise.

The Bible is a good example. When a book refers to the Bible but doesn’t identify it further, is that a problem? To me it is, but to many colleagues it is not. If the book is about Christianity and the reference is to the Bible, many colleagues would let that slide. After all, from context the reader should be able to identify the Bible. But can the reader? How many versions of the Bible exist in Christianity? Most people would think one but in fact there are as many as 50 different English versions, let alone versions in other languages. (For a good, brief answer and a list of the Bibles, see “What are the different English Bible versions?” at gotQuestions.org.) The point is that the editor with subject-matter expertise may well not ask for the Bible to be identified because the editor and the author are on the same page—which is not necessarily the same page as the reader.

If I am hired as a developmental editor, then I may need subject-matter expertise. After all, my role as developmental editor is to focus on content and organization, which are things that require an understanding of the subject matter. But if I am hired as a copyeditor, my focus is on grammar and readability (which includes communication to the reader), but not on content and organization. As copyeditor, I need to make sure that all the information the reader needs to follow the argument, to draw the conclusion the author seeks to have drawn, is present. In the above example, that would include identifying the version of the Bible being referenced.

In the medical books I edit, a consistent “gap” seems to be in measures; that is, an author will write something like this: “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given starting at 6 months.” The question is: What is the 6-month measure? Of course, context might help. In a chapter on giving vaccinations to persons who undergo or are candidates for transplantation procedures, context might lead a reader to read the sentence as “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given to a child starting at 6 months after the transplantation procedure.” This “reading” might be correct, but it might be wrong. It is just as likely that the sentence should be read as “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given to a child starting at 6 months before the transplantation procedure” or “In countries where it is recommended to the general population, the vaccination should be given to a child starting at 6 months of age.” And not all these possibilities are mooted by the text that precedes the sentence in the manuscript.

Interestingly, although such a sentence stands out to me, when I showed it to subject-matter experts, none thought it required a query—until they were shown other reading possibilities. Each thought their interpretation was the only one that could be drawn, yet others drew different conclusions.

What this means to me is that an editor should approach a project as would a reader seeking to be educated about an unfamiliar subject; this may be easier to do if one does not have subject-matter expertise. With such an approach, the editor is more likely to query material that the author assumes all readers would immediately understand. Editors need to remember that how well we edit is defined by how well the reader with the least familiarity with the subject matter accurately understands what the author intends to convey.

Editing is the art of helping an author communicate effectively with readers whom the author does not include in the market of likely readers. Just because a manuscript is aimed at cardiologists does not mean that internists or lawyers or college professors or nurses or others will not also read the manuscript. The noncardiologists may make up a smaller portion of the market, but that does not mean they are not part of the market.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 18, 2014

The Business of Editing: Walking the Line

On another forum, a colleague raised several interesting questions, ones that we need to address. Ultimately, the questions, although paraphrased below, boil down to this:

Did I cross the line?

The questions our colleague asked were these (as distilled by me; I did not receive permission to quote directly from the message our colleague posted):

  • Because I have years of editing experience, cannot I assume that my edits are always reasonable and correct and that the client — whether author or publisher — should both accept and trust my judgement?
  • Because the client should accept and trust my judgement, is there really any need for me to provide an explanation in a comment?
  • Because the client is free to accept or reject any or all of my edits, is there any reason why I should spend the extra time to add the explanations?
  • What are the limits, if any, to my role as a copyeditor?

Our colleague’s message began with an example of a sentence that our colleague edited. Because I do not have permission to quote the original sentence and our colleague’s alteration, I have mimicked the original and the change:

 Original: “The regime collapsed as a result of a decline in population from misguided birth control policies, the reintroduction of previously wiped out diseases from the regime’s refusal to allow vaccination, and famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production.”

Change: “The political hypotheses for the regime’s collapse include a decline in population from birth control policies, the reintroduction of epidemic diseases from the regime’s antivaccination campaign, and famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.”

The client pointed out to our colleague that the changes were made without any explanatory comment and asked, as an example, for justification for the change from “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies.” Our colleague’s justification for describing the farm policies as “Stalinist” was that our colleague just knew it — the information came from her acquired knowledge.

Did our colleague cross any lines? How do we answer our colleague’s questions?

Because I Have Years of Editing Experience…

Unfortunately, this is the approach of many editors. Yet, it is not a valid approach to our job. No matter what the author has written — be it novel, biography, scientific treatise — when it comes to subject matter, the author is expert, even if the author is not.

The role of the copyeditor is not to developmental edit. The copyeditor’s focus is on grammar, spelling, word choice, not on rewriting. Rewriting should be incidental, an occasional occurrence. Under no circumstance should the copyeditor interject their own knowledge except in the form of a query. This is true for many reasons, not least of which is that it is the author who will ultimately be held responsible for the quality of the book. We have discussed this author–editor relationship before (see, e.g., Relationships & the Unwritten Rules and The Commandments: Thou Shall Treat Editors as Partners).

More importantly, “I just know” is not something we would accept from an author. We would require the author of a biography to have a comprehensive bibliography, to be able to cite sources for statements given as fact (opinion, of course, is a different matter). Importantly, even if we construe an author’s statement as opinion, we want it to be the author’s opinion, not the opinion of an anonymous editor whose credentials to draw the conclusion are unknown and may be nonexistent.

In the absence of provable subject matter expertise, the editor’s alterations cannot be given the status of “always reasonable” nor can they, even if reasonable, ever be given the status of blind acceptance: Clients should neither accept nor trust the editor’s judgement on items that fall outside the editor’s known expertise or outside the responsibilities for which the editor has been hired.

Because the Client Should Accept and Trust My Judgment…

This was generally addressed above but the question is really about the need to provide explanations. The need to provide an explanation should be unquestioned. Editors are suggesters not arbiters of fact. If a sentence can be better written without changing meaning or author voice, then making the change and asking the author if the change is OK is acceptable.

But it is never acceptable for the editor to add to or substitute for the author’s facts — except by way of comment. I have edited many hundreds of books in my 30 years of editing, including books in my area of educational expertise. Yet, I have made it a rule to never alter an author’s facts; I always query (e.g., “Do you think that the addition of XYZ would better represent your view?” “According to Professor Smith, ABC was caused by poor logistical planning. Do you think it is worth mentioning or discussing here as further explanation of your perspective? See Smith, xxxxx.”)

If I know something is amiss, I try to let the author know something is amiss by commenting. The one thing I am absolutely certain of is that I am not so currently knowledgeable about the topics I am editing that I can infallibly rewrite what the (expert) author has written.

Comments are always justified; uncommented substantive changes are never justified.

Because the Client Is Free to Accept or
Reject Any or All of My Edits…

This is the traditional editor excuse, yet it neglects to address a very important topic: the editor–client relationship.

First, I never think that an author wants to spend hours going over my edits. Deciding whether the change from about to approximately is justified is boring enough but after seeing the change a dozen times, the author soon learns whether such changes can be skipped over (i.e., the author evaluates the editor’s credibility). But that is not true of substantive changes.

Second, I think about the message I send the author when I make a substantive change without explanation. Am I not telling the author that I am the one who should have written the book? And why should the author have to guess at why I made the substantive change? An author will accept that I changed “famine and malnutrition as a result of policies that discouraged food production” to “famine and malnutrition as a result of Stalinist farming policies” because three paragraphs earlier the author referred to the “Stalinist farming policies” as the cause of famine and malnutrition, especially if I make the change and include an explanatory note. But the author is likely to be upset by my change in the absence of the explanation and then resistant to other suggestions and changes.

Basically, I see making substantive changes without explanation as an invitation to disaster. With the explanation, I increase my credibility as an editor; without the explanation, I risk angering the author and making the author lose faith in my ability as an editor. I also risk making the author take a “stand-your-ground” attitude toward other editorial suggestions I make.

Regardless of whether the client can accept or reject any changes the editor has made, not providing an explanation for a substantive change jeopardizes the editor’s credibility. Which brings us to the penultimate question:

What Are the Limits, If Any, to My Role as a Copyeditor?

The line between copyeditor and developmental editor is not a bright line. We discussed the roles 4.5 years ago in Editor, Editor, Everywhere an Editor, but the demarcation is worth repeating.

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, as well as with the accuracy of the subject matter content. It is the developmental editor’s role to suggest other causes of an event to an author and even to rewrite sentences and paragraphs to reflect those suggestions. Yet, even the developmental editor needs to query the author about the changes being made, although such querying may be done more broadly, such as “I have rewritten the next five paragraphs to reflect the discussion of the subject found in chapter 3.”

The copyeditor’s role, on the other hand, is to focus on the mechanics of the manuscript — such things as, grammar, spelling, punctuation, conformance to a style, and consistency. Rewrites should be very limited, often to compact a sentence by removing redundancies or to ensure that, for example, material is in the present tense. It is not the copyeditor’s job to rewrite substantively. At most the copyeditor should suggest a substantive change in a comment.

In the case of our colleague, I think our colleague crosses that fine line that an editor needs to walk. Hired as a copyeditor, our colleague should not have crossed over into developmental editing without including an explanatory comment.

It is not unusual to see negative comments about editors generally. I think these comments come about as the result of numerous factors, one of which is the crossing of the line. What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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