An American Editor

April 1, 2015

The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor

I like to think that all of my colleagues are professionals. I take pride in my editing career and in my skills as an editor. Thus, when confronted with editorial rigidity, I shudder and think “there goes an unprofessional editor.”

What brings this to mind are posts in another forum in which a “professional” editor declared that using a comma before “and” (as in a serial [Oxford] comma) is always wrong and that the very first thing the editor does is search for those commas to delete them. Another editor stated that she refuses to work with authors who are unwilling to accept as gospel her punctuation decisions, including removal of that pesky comma.

If you ask editors with opinions such as these the basis for their position, it usually boils down to “that’s the rule and rules are rules, made to be adhered to, not broken!” Grammatical rigidity is not, in my book, the sign of a professional editor.

First, think about the rule of no serial commas. If strictly applied, it would be “I thank my parents, John Jones and God,” which is easily interpreted as Jones and God being the parents. Perhaps Jones and God are the parents but what if they are not? What if the thank you was supposed to be “I thank my parents, John Jones, and God,” which is interpretable as “my parents and also Jones and God.” The obvious point is that rigidity in application of editorial rules does not always produce the correct textual meaning.

Second, think about the rules themselves. It is not possible to ascribe them immortality. Language changes, especially English, perhaps French less so thanks to its language academy, and if language changes but the rules do not, we get the awkward constructions that often occur when the “rule” against splitting infinitives or the “rule” prohibiting ending a sentence with a preposition is arbitrarily applied.

Of course, the easy response is that it is today’s rules that are applied today, not yesterday’s rules. But how did yesterday’s rules become yesterday’s rules? Some professional editor had to show flexibility; in the absence of such flexibility no one would have been exposed to the change that is today.

There are many problems with inflexible editors, that is, editors who apply rules so rigidly it is hard to understand what the role of the editor is. Inflexible editors are like computer macros — they see something that fits the pattern and assume that they have the cure. Professional editors use tracking because we know that someone else (usually the author) may well have a different opinion and want to undo the changes we made.

Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited. They are a problem because they tend to cheapen the value of editing.

More importantly, unprofessional editors loudly proclaim what they are doing and thus influence other editors. There is nothing more heartbreaking as an editor to see another editor emulate an unprofessional editor, thinking that is the correct path to take.

There are lots of roads that will lead one down the path of unprofessionalism. Being unethical in one’s dealings with clients and colleagues is certainly such a road. But the more common road is rigidity in thinking and in applying “rules.” I think this road is also the more dangerous for the editorial profession.

How many times has an author posted a comment saying “I used to hire editors until I found that they were all bad” and then listing the reasons why they were bad editors, with a common one being inflexible thinking and rigid application of “rules.”

When I speak with these editors, I often ask if they understand how the “rules” came into being, what they represent, and how evolving language requires flexibility. I find that I am always disappointed in the responses. If I ask which rule book they are following, and then ask why they are not following a different rule book, the response is usually one that asks “Are you crazy? Everyone knows that the book I follow is the book to follow!”

We’ve discussed this before (see, e.g., “Dealing with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is in its 16th edition. What would be the need for 16 revisions if language, usage, and grammar didn’t change over time?

If the guides we use need to show flexibility, shouldn’t the editor who uses the guides also show some flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a key attribute of professionalism? Isn’t the ultimate test that the reader understands the author’s message?

I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the application of a “rule” either furthers in all instances a reader’s understanding of an author’s message or makes the editor anything more than a robot. To me, the difference between a professional and an unprofessional editor is the editor’s decision making: The unprofessional editor does not need to make editorial decisions because those decisions have already been made for him; the editor only needs to apply them mechanically. The professional editor, however, needs to know the “rule” and needs to make the decision, in each instance, whether to apply or not apply the “rule.” The professional editor needs to make editorial decisions.

I make hundreds of editorial decisions in every project and I am prepared to defend my decisions. I let guides guide me, acting as advisors to inform my decision-making process. I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Blog at WordPress.com.

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