An American Editor

October 12, 2019

Saving the world from major typos

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, AAE Owner

One of the delights of hosting a conference for colleagues is the opportunity not just to meet and connect with people in person, but to share anecdotes about our business adventures, challenges and successes. In conversations during the opening day of Gateway to Success, this year’s Communication Central/NAIWE Be a Better Freelancer® conference,  I had a chance to reminisce (and chuckle) over what I consider my two major contributions to civilization through a sharp editorial eye. You might get a kick out of them — and have similar triumphs to share!

The first involved a visit home to Rochester, NY, years ago to see my parents. I had only officially been working in editing for a while, but had always had a pretty good eye for errors. I was driving past the park near our family home when I focused on the huge granite sign with letters at least a foot high, literally carved in stone, and realized that it said COBBS HILL RESEVIOR.

Now, that sign had been there for a long, long time. I can’t tell you how long, but it seemed like something that had always been there. I had walked, driven or taken a bus past it zillions of times, but never really looked at it until that moment. And I guess no one else had, either!

I called the city parks department, public works and I think the mayor’s office, trying to find someone, anyone, to report this to (this was long enough ago to predate e-mail, websites, etc., although I really wish it didn’t; I’d love to have had a photo for Facebook!). I don’t remember who I finally reached, but the next time I came home, presto: Somehow, the stone sign had been fixed! I think there was a plaque of some sort covering the original carving, but however it was done, I can say that I helped fix a typo that was … carved in stone. And my correction also had that standing!

The other was almost as satisfying, if not as permanent or visible. When Wayne-the-Wonderful and I went to Rochester for our wedding (I always wanted to be married at my parents’ house), we went to the town hall for our marriage license. I started to sign the form, but couldn’t help actually reading the thing. And … I found several typos. In the official marriage license form that had been used by the town, and possibly other New York locations around the state, for quite a few years.

I said to the town clerk, “I can’t sign this. It has typos in it.” “But that’s our official form.” “I understand that, but I can’t have typos in my marriage license. I’m a professional writer and editor, and I just can’t do that.”

This went on for several minutes, with Wayne not knowing whether to laugh, cry or leave; probably wondering what kind of a persnickety nut he was planning to marry, but prepared to stand by me as needed. I finally marked the errors and said, pleasantly but firmly, “Our wedding is on Saturday morning. I don’t care how you do it, but we’ll be back at 9:10 a.m. on Friday, and I expect to have a marriage license with no errors in it that we can sign. We’ll see you then. Thank you.”

Sure enough, when we went back at the end of the week, there was a corrected certificate for us to sign. It was my understanding that they typed up a fresh copy (this was before the days of MicroSoft Word) and used it as the new master for the license. No one else might ever have noticed, or cared, but I am proud to be responsible for — AFAIK — the town of Brighton in Rochester, NY, providing couples with error-free marriage licenses from that point on.

We all catch errors that affect meaning and comprehension, and that would have made our clients look foolish at best to their reading publics (my favorite in the more-common arena of catching errors in publications was noticing a reference to “food panties” in an article about food pantries (not edible underwear). Not many of us have the opportunity to see our work carved in stone or be responsible for fixing something as important as a marriage license. Such moments are wonderful personal triumphs that make all the hassles, arguments over usage and frustrations worthwhile.

What momentous edits have you made? Tell us about it!

October 31, 2016

The Business of Editing: Putting Out the Fire

Every editor eventually faces the question of “damage control” and over a long career, may face it more than once. Preparation is the best way to address the issue.

What do you do when a client finds an error
in your work?

Every business faces this problem. For service people, like editors, the issue is error; for a retailer, the issue is defective goods; for service-retailer (e.g., an auto mechanic), the issue may be either error, defective goods, or a combination. No matter, every business — from the smallest to the largest and in every type of commercial venture — has on occasion had to deal with the question of what to do when a client finds an error.

The difference is that most businesses have an existing plan to address the problem; editors rarely do. Reasons why editors rarely are prepared include:

  • We expect errors to exist in our end product; we know that editing perfection is a goal, not a standard against which we should be judged;
  • We understand that it is a matter of preference and opinion whether to use serial commas or to close up hyphenated compounds;
  • We recognize that language is fluid — what was forbidden yesterday may well be de rigueur today;
  • We expect at least one if not many more eyes will go over our material, thereby minimizing the number of errors; and, perhaps most important,
  • We know that our work product is not (or should not be) the final iteration because the client has the power, right, and duty to accept or reject our suggested changes.

It is for these reasons, among others, that editors — unlike content creators such as writers who carry errors and omissions insurance policies — do not carry editing liability insurance policies. Of course, those reasons do not address the problem with which we are faced: What should we do?

The usual suggestion is to offer a discount on the work or on future work. Some clients demand reimbursement for any costs incurred, such as the cost of reprinting. Neither is an acceptable solution.

The more severe the client considers the error, the less likely it is that the client will continue to use your services, making the ultimate goal of your giving the discount/reimbursement — to smooth ruffled feathers and maintain the work relationship — less achievable. If you cannot be certain that your goal will be achieved, why proceed down that path?

Taking steps to avoid this problem — that is, the problem of being asked to compensate a client for an error — should be among the first acts of an editor when setting up to do business. The steps that can be taken are to have a written policy regarding errors and liability. (It is important to note that we are speaking of editing errors, not content-creation errors that include fact-checking errors.) The policy should indicate:

  1. What constitutes an error;
  2. Whether there is a margin for error and if there is, the size of the margin. (The margin of error can be a set number of errors or a percentage such as “constituting greater than 4% of the number of words in the document/project.”);
  3. The remedy(ies) available to the client; and
  4. The client’s responsibilities to minimize any negative effects that might arise from the error(s).

The terms need to be in writing and part of any agreement or correspondence with a client.

Probably the most important item in the foregoing list is #4. Clients have to assume some responsibility for a final product, whether it be a novel, a biography, a quarterly report, a dissertation, or something else. Clients too often assume that they can hire an editor and walk away from the project. But they cannot. One of the responsibilities can be (and should be) to hire an independent proofreader to review the near-final product.

One of the reasons I do rarely work directly with authors is because it was always a battle to convince authors that editing without independent proofreading is like taking one’s car in for an oil change and just having the oil drained and not replaced. Authors were (rightfully) budget conscious, but there is a difference between being conscious of one’s budget and being a slave to the budget to the detriment of one’s creation. When I do work directly with an author, I make it clear that I cannot accept liability for errors in the absence of high-quality independent proofreading.

Probably the most difficult item in the list to define is error. But the absence of an agreed upon definition of error is an invitation to an acrimonious editor–author relationship. This definition must be clearly spelled out and in writing. The easiest way is by defining the parameters of the work to be done. For example, if the editor is being hired to fact check, that should be included in the definition of the job’s parameters; if fact checking is not part of the job, it needs to be explicitly excluded as part of the editor’s responsibilities and explicitly included as part of the client’s responsibilities.

Once there is agreement, then the remedies available to the client need to be spelled out. It is here that you give the answer to the question “What do you do when a client finds an error in your work?” The remedies have to reflect what you are comfortable doing and should never be based on the unknowable, such as the likelihood that a client will continue to send me work if this particular remedy is available. It is better to assume that no matter what remedy you offer, there will be no future work from the client. With that assumption, you can focus on what will enhance your reputation for fairness and quality work.

What do you do when you find an error in work
that you have already submitted to your client?

Although a related issue, this is a garment of a different color. Some editors choose to say and do nothing, assuming that the next person in the chain will spot and fix the error. Some, like me, prefer to notify the client immediately and send a corrected file.

We gain or lose work based on our reputation. Consequently, I try to make my decisions based on whether I think the action I am contemplating will build up my reputation or tear it down. To my thinking, sending the corrected document will enhance my reputation.

I have sent a corrected document even weeks after I submitted the original edited to the client. Sometimes it is too late, sometimes it is in the nick of time, but always the client has been appreciative. I have never lost a client by sending a corrected file.

I not only send a corrected file, but also a cover note in which I explain what the correction is and why it is important to correct my error. (Sometimes it is not an error but something has changed since I edited the document, such as the announcement of a new treatment modality.)

I have said in other essays that the most important marketing tool for an editor is impressing upon the client that you are knowledgeable about the subject area and are always expanding your knowledge. It sends an important message about you to your clients and prospective clients.

I grant that there are many ways to send such a message; my admission that I made an error and correcting it is one way. (Another is when I develop a better way to accomplish a task and I let the client know about it. For example, when I developed the reference renumbering report that I send along with a document with renumbered references, I made sure that clients learned about it and how useful the report would be to their authors, proofreaders, and compositors. The result has been an increase in inquiries about my willingness to take on large projects with complex reference renumbering.) Being forthright about errors gives clients confidence in my abilities and willingness to accept responsibility for what I do.

The key to both questions is to create a response that enhances your stature. Remember that as an independent businessperson it is your reputation that determines your success in building clientele.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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!

January 6, 2010

Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important

I recently finished reading two books about the Truman and MacArthur dispute. The first, The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War by John W. Spanier (1959; available in print only) is a well-written and well-edited book about the problems between a president and a general with an oversized ego.

The second book, Truman & MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown by Michael Pearlman (2008; available in both print and ebook), is a well-researched book that offers greater insight into the controversy between Truman and MacArthur, but is so poorly edited that it was a struggle to get through. Rather than being able to read the book within a matter of a couple of weeks, it took me many months of struggling.

Aside from author style and amount of detail, the two books illustrate the difference between good editing and not-so-good editing. A bad editor does not improve a book: at best, a bad editor leaves the book quality where it was, at worst makes the book a poor book. Conversely, a good editor always improves a book.

A good editor ensures that a book is readable. To my mind, that is the number 1 job of an editor: make sure that a reader can follow the story. After all, what good is a well-researched book or a well-plotted novel if the audience can’t follow the story? A good editor also ensures that the author’s language communicates well. All languages have rules of grammar and syntax and the reason for these rules (besides keeping the rule writers in work) is to create a common ground for understanding among all speakers and readers of the language; that is, to facilitate communication of ideas. That’s why it is important to know when to use since and when to use because, the difference between affect and effect, and to understand the implications of “the brief case is closed” and “the briefcase is closed.”

Sadly, publishers, as they seek to increase their quarterly returns are devaluing the work of editors. Whereas a decade ago the effort was made to hire experienced, qualified editors at a reasonable price so as to minimize the number of editorial errors in a book, today the effort is find the absolute lowest priced editor, regardless of skill level or qualification, and without regard to the number of errors that such an editor lets slip by. Sometimes I think that the only reason some publishers still hire editors at all is that they want to be able to at least claim they (the publisher) has provided added value to a book to justify their share of the revenue.

Unfortunately, Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur suffers from poor editing. The writing is confusing, repetitive, and not well-organized, all things a good editor would have addressed, although the book is a plethora of facts. For anyone particularly interested in the Truman-MacArthur controversy, which was a very important one in American history, this book is a must slog because of the detail provided. (For those who don’t know, the bottom-line issue was who was in charge of the military: the president or the general. Truman was widely unpopular at the time and MacArthur, through his manipulation of the press, was perceived by Americans as the war hero, the man who should have been president. MacArthur knowingly, flagrantly, and intentionally disobeyed his commander-in-chief, causing a showdown. Fortunately for America, Truman prevailed or the precedent of military over civilian control would have been established.)

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