An American Editor

October 22, 2012

The Business of Editing: On My Bookshelf

One of the things that editors don’t often discuss is what’s on their editorial bookshelves. If someone asks for a recommendation, say for a grammar book, editors chime in with their favorites, but the overall bookshelf, the tomes they rely on in their daily work, are rarely discussed.

Knowing what’s on an editor’s bookshelf is like having a window into the editor’s “soul.” Okay, perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but only a bit.

I remember hiring a freelance editor years ago and when I received back some edited chapters for a medical project, I was concerned by the spelling errors that remained. I inquired whether the editor used medical spellcheck software as an initial screening tool, and was surprised to learn the editor did not. The editor was an experienced medical editor and had a related medical background before becoming a freelance editor. The editor told me that he/she did not use medical spellcheck software because he/she didn’t trust it and believed his/her background was sufficient and he/she could do much better without it. Alas, the fruits of the editor’s efforts didn’t support that belief.

I know I am limited in what I can require freelance editors I hire to use and own. It is a fine line between freelancer and employee, and it is a line that cannot be crossed without financial penalty. I can recommend but not require. However, I do inquire before hiring.

(Just as having the right resource materials handy is important, so is it important to have the right tools handy. Although I cannot require the freelance editor I hire to own and use EditTools or Editor’s Toolkit Plus, or PerfectIt, or any other piece of software — Microsoft Word being the sole exception — owning and using these tools, and others, would improve the editor’s accuracy, consistency, and efficiency, and increase their effective hourly rate. It seems to me that it is to the freelancer’s own benefit to buy and use these tools.)

Knowing what resources an editor uses other than the Internet gives an insight into the quality of the editing I am likely to receive. It is no guarantee, just an insight. Too many editors, I believe, rely too much on Internet sources, and do so to the exclusion of local resources. I know of editors who do not own a dictionary, for example, because they can use the Internet. I suspect that in another decade or so, online-only resources will be the accepted norm. My problem with it (well, I really have several problems with online-only resources, not least of which is reliability) is that when an editor tells me that they rely on online-only resources, I cannot get a feel for how competent an editor they may be. The Internet is so vast and the quality of the resources so variable, that it doesn’t give me confidence. Consequently, I want to know about local (as opposed to Internet) resources that the editor owns and uses.

It is not that the local resources need to be exhaustive; rather, they should reflect the editor’s sense of professionalism and be geared toward the focus of the editor’s work. For example, if a medical editor tells me that they use only Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, I wonder why they do not also have and use Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, which is the other leading medical dictionary in the United States. And I also wonder about them when they tell me that they are using Stedman’s 26th edition instead of the current 28th edition, or Dorland’s 31st edition when the current edition is 32. (In my library I have the current editions of both dictionaries as well as the past three — or more — editions. Sometimes it is important to check past usage as well as current usage. And sometimes words get dropped from dictionaries.)

Specialty dictionaries are important but are insufficient by themselves. We deal with languages that are ever-changing and no single dictionary or usage guide is always and forever sufficient. So, I also like to know what primary language resource books the editor uses. I find that I often have to go to more than one dictionary to determine whether a word is used correctly (see, e.g., the discussion on ultramontane in which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition did not have the sense that fit the author’s usage but The American Heritage Dictionary 5th edition did).

And as the fact of specialty dictionaries implies, the more general dictionaries, such as The American Heritage Dictionary, often lack field-specific terms, or, more importantly, do not accurately reflect what is the standard in a particular field. So additional supplemental dictionaries are important, such as the APA Dictionary of Psychology. And authors love to use popular phrases, which makes resources like the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying, & Quotation, the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, the Dictionary of Modern Slang, and The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase & Fable, and thesauruses valuable.

What do you do when faced with a word that you cannot locate? Authors love to “create” a word by combining forms. Do you immediately reject the combination? This is not an unusual occurrence in medical writing (which is why I prefer character count to word count for determing the manuscript page count). Resolution of the problem is not always easy, but I have found Brown’s Composition of Scientific Words, The BBI Dictionary of English Word Combinations, and Sheehan’s Word Parts Dictionary to be invaluable. Also useful, albeit for a different purpose, is Bothamley’s Dictionary of Theories. It provides a capsule way to determine if the author’s use of, for example, “paradoxical cold” or “paralanguage” is appropriate.

Which brings us to the base issues of editing — usage and grammar. I like to know what usage sources an editor owns and uses. It is not enough to make a decision about grammar, an editor must be able to defend it and to be able to defend it, an editor must have some sources to consult. Many editors have a single source; some rely solely on the grammar sections found in various style manuals. But usage changes over time and I think a professional editor has to follow those trends and have the local sources to do so. I, for example, use H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (4th ed revised with supplements), Garner’s Modern American Usage (as well as its two predecessor editions), Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Good’s Whose Grammar Book Is This Anyway?, The Gregg Reference Manual, and Burchfield’s Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as well as several other usage and grammar guides, in addition to the sections on usage and grammar that appear in various editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, The Council of Science Editors’ Scientific Style and Format, and the APA’s Publication Manual.

It is not unusual for me to have several of my resources open on my desk as I compare and contrast the views of each before making a decision. The books I named above are only a small portion of my local resources. As an editor, I believe it is important to also be able to trace the etymology of a word or phrase, so I have numerous etymological books handy.

The point is that a professional editor relies on much more than just a single dictionary and a single style manual. A professional editor has and uses a library of resources because language is constantly changing and because no single source covers it all. I grant that the Internet has made more resources available and accessible, but it is not always easy to determine the reliability and accuracy of online information. Print publications rely on reputations earned over decades. When I hire a freelance editor, I want to know that the editor has and uses resources in which I have faith.

Do you agree? What’s in your professional library?

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