An American Editor

August 20, 2014

The Commandments: Thou Shall Know the Basics or Don’t Edit

The title may tell you that I am a bit frustrated. But let’s begin this story at the beginning.

My daughter wrote a nonfiction book that was accepted by a major crossover publisher for fall publication. (A crossover publisher is, in this instance, one that publishes academic titles for popular consumption — think Doris Kearns Goodwin-type books, which are well-researched nonfiction and could be written and published for a strictly academic market but instead are written and published to appeal to both academics and consumers.) Everything has been going smoothly with the process and my daughter has been very happy with the publisher.

Except that like far too many publishers these days, this publisher outsources to a packager the editing and production services. When told that the copyediting would be outsourced, my daughter asked about the assigned copyeditor. She was told that the editor had worked with the packager for more than 6 years, and was considered an outstanding editor — in fact, she was considered to be the best of the editors who worked for this packager.

Hearing that made my daughter feel better and gave her high hopes that the editing would be high quality.

Then I started receiving phone calls with questions about Chicago style, capitalization, whether it was OK to change “was” to “had been” in every instance, and on and on. Finally, my daughter asked me point blank: “Should I panic about the quality of the editing?”

I had not seen the edited manuscript but assured my daughter that some of the changes, such as removal of serial commas, were a matter of preference and house style and not (generally) something to panic over unless meaning was changed. I also suggested that she read more of the edited manuscript before coming to any conclusions about the editing.

Then she dropped the bombshell: The editor altered/rewrote direct quotations, making ungrammatical quotes grammatical. “Is this what a copyeditor does?” she asked.

Now I began to panic and asked her to send me a sample chapter to look at.

Within 15 minutes I saw that the editing was unacceptable in multiple ways and that my daughter not only needed to panic but needed to contact the publisher immediately. The editing was a disaster. (I also subsequently learned that no one told my daughter that as the author she could accept or reject any of the editor’s changes; she assumed that she had to accept the editor’s changes on the basis that this was the editor’s area of expertise. I quickly disabused her of that notion.) Once she explained to the publisher the problems she was finding and some of my comments, the publisher agreed that the book needed to be reedited by a different editor.

Which brings me to the commandment: Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

If you do not know that direct quotes in nonfiction (and that the quotes are sourced should give you a clue) should not be changed, you should not claim to be an editor. I was taught that basic principle in sixth grade, if not even earlier. If you do not know that editing changes are to be limited to those that do not change the meaning of the sentence or paragraph, then do not claim to be an editor.

More importantly than not claiming to be an editor, you should not edit — period.

An editor is supposed to understand the value and meaning of words and how they fit, or do not fit, within the structure of a sentence and paragraph. When a sentence reads “…when he suddenly awoke…”, an editor needs to think twice about deleting “suddenly”: “…when he awoke…” is not the same as “…when he suddenly awoke…”. And if you think “suddenly” is unneeded and should be deleted, you should explain why you are deleting the word (or suggesting deletion). As an editor, you should know the importance and value of communicating with the author your reasoning for nonobvious changes.

In the case of my daughter’s book, this was a major failing of the editor. Not a single change that the editor made in the entire book was accompanied by an explanatory note, not even something as simple as “changed per Chicago.” Providing an explanation is fundamental to maintaining good author–editor relations. We have discussed this in detail before (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often?).

The question that arises is: How does someone know that they do not know the basics? If you don’t know something, you don’t know that you don’t know it. And in the case of my daughter’s editor, supposedly she had been a professional editor for 6 years and was receiving superior grades.

This is a tough question and it is a question that vexes authors who hire an editor. The only solution I know of is to ask for a sample edit. The problem is that there is an underlying assumption when a sample edit is asked for: That the person who will review the sample edit actually knows enough about editing that the reviewer can separate the wheat from the chaff. As my daughter noted, she has no experience and wouldn’t know whether the editor was correcting her mistakes or creating new mistakes. My daughter can fall back on me to review the sample but most authors and in-house production staff do not have someone to fall back on.

In the end, all an author can really do is rely on “gut” feeling unless, as occurred in my daughter’s case, a blatant, basic error repeatedly occurs (in this instance, it was the altering of direct quotes).

Editors can instill confidence by adding explanations and by knowing the basics of editing, such as direct quotes in nonfiction are left as they are but may be queried; that one doesn’t make a change unless it improves the sentence and doesn’t change the sentence’s meaning; that you don’t change tenses willy-nilly; that an editor’s role mimics that of the doctor — do no harm; that it is better to break a sentence into multiple sentences than to make an incoherent sentence even more incoherent.

Alas, my daughter’s experience convinces me even more of the need for a national editor’s accreditation. Her experience also convinces me that a significant part of the problem is the willingness of publishers to leave the task of finding qualified editors to third-party vendors whose interests are not synchronous with the publisher or author’s interest.

I’m not too worried about my daughter’s book, but I do worry about authors who do not have someone knowledgeable they can call on for help in evaluating the quality of editing. No matter what, ultimately the responsibility lies with the person offering the editing service, and that person should remember the commandment:

Thou shall know the basics of editing or don’t edit!

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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