An American Editor

September 23, 2013

The Twin Pillars of Editing

The twin pillars of editing are the thinking and the mechanical. Every editing assignment includes these twin pillars; they are fundamental as well as foundational.

The thinking pillar is what attracts people to the profession. Should it be who or whom? Does the sentence, paragraph, chapter make any sense? Does the author’s point come through clearly or have the author’s word choices obfuscated the message? The thinking pillar is what professional editors live for; it is often why we became editors. The semantic debates thrill us; the ability to rework prose to make it flow better is like an opiate.

Alas, the thinking pillar alone is insufficient to provide us with an income. Every manuscript requires the mechanical pillar and, to earn our wage, editors need to tackle that mechanical pillar.

The mechanical pillar includes many different functions, such as cleaning up extra spaces, changing incorrect dashes to correct dashes, incorrect punctuation to correct punctuation, and, perhaps most importantly, incorrect words to correct words and inconsistencies to consistencies. Many of these things can be, should be, and are done using macros.

Since 1984, I have earned my living as an editor; since the early 1990s, freelance editing has been my only source of income. I am pleased to say that I have made (and continue to make) an excellent income as an editor. The reason I have done well financially is that I have looked at the mechanical pillar of editing as a puzzle to be solved. Essentially, to be profitable and to make editing enjoyable, I want to minimize the time I need to spend on the mechanical aspects of editing and maximize the time I spend on thinking about what I am editing, while minimizing the time I need to spend on any single project.

The professional editor is part philosopher and part engineer. In our case, the engineer makes possible the philosopher. The mechanical pillar, which is the engineer’s role to tackle, often is the part of editing that most slows us down. It is the most difficult part of our work in the sense that it is difficult to find efficient, productive ways to speed the mechanical aspects. That is the function that macro tools try to fulfill, but we still end up doing individual searches and replaces to fix the rote things that the macros we use fail to fix.

The more financially successful an editor is, the more likely it is that the editor has mastered techniques that quickly eliminate some, if not most or all, of the tasks that fall under the mechanical pillar of editing. As I have stated many times before, mastering the mechanical aspects is why I created EditTools and why I use PerfectIt and Editorium macro programs. It is not that these programs eliminate the mechanical aspects of editing; rather, they reduce those tasks.

The remaining task is generally the applying of styles or codes to elements of the manuscripts. Unfortunately, this cannot be done automatically; I must read the manuscript to know whether something should be coded as a quote, a bulleted item, or something else. This is where, were we to apply a Venn diagram, the thinking and the mechanical pillars overlap.

The smaller I can make the overlap and mechanical areas of the Venn diagram, the larger the remaining area for the thinking pillar. The larger the thinking pillar, the more enjoyable the project. But this area is also the area in which I can best control my time.

Professional editors soon learn that there are some editorial questions that could be debated for hours and when the debate halts, still have not achieved a nondebatable resolution. In other words, many more hours could be spent on the point in question. Consequently, as we have honed our skills via the grindstone of experience, we have also developed a sense of how to best spend our time on the thinking pillar of editing.

We learn to stop debating endlessly whether to use serial commas or not, or whether which can be used if not preceded by a comma, or whether about is a true equivalent of approximately, or, my favorite, whether since and because are wholly interchangeable in all circumstances. (Another of my favorites is whether it is permissible to use due to in lieu of all its possible contextual meanings expanded.) Once we stop debating these issues, we begin to edge their resolution closer to the mechanical pillar.

If we decide that since can only be used in the sense of time, it becomes mechanical to change since to because or as in nontime usage. This becomes one more thing that liberates the thinking pillar to spend more time on those issues that require thinking skills. It also means that a little less time needs to be spent on the manuscript, unless we devote that time savings to the thinking pillar.

The point is that what editors need to seek to do, ultimately, is to increase what belongs as part of the mechanical pillar, lessen what falls within the overlap, and increase the time available for the thinking pillar. The more items that fall under the mechanical pillar and that can be macroized, the more income and profit an editor can make (assuming the editor is charging by a method other than the hourly method), because we can control the time we devote to the thinking pillar better than we can the time we devote to the mechanical pillar. The thinking pillar is like a bubble that can expand and contract as needed or as conditions warrant. The mechanical pillar lacks similar flexibility because there is a set amount of time required to accomplish all of the mechanical and overlap tasks. We reduce the time by using tools like macros, but then we increase the time when we add additional tasks or tasks that cannot be macroized.

If we think of editing as built on these twin pillars, we can make strides toward increasing our productivity, efficiency, and profitability.

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