An American Editor

July 2, 2012

The Business of Editing: Culture and Editing

A client asked me to look at some excerpts of material that had been offshore outsourced for editing and to give my opinion whether something struck me as wrong or incorrect. In the past 6 months, I have had several requests from clients asking me to clarify style rules and whether material comports with those rules. The clients have recognized that their expertise is different from mine and that the combination of our skills can result in a better product.

A frequent query involves American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style 10th edition §19.1 “Use of Numerals.” Most non-editorial clients find the AMA’s instructions confusing, especially as it contravenes the instructions given in other style guides, notably the Chicago Manual of Style.

But this client request fell into another category: not was a style guide convention contravened, but did the editing make sense.

The subject had to do with legislation and one sentence in one of the text portions I was asked to review read as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry women to obtain birth control…

Certainly, from a grammatical perspective and taken in isolation, there is nothing wrong with that sentence fragment. But was it culturally correct?

Editing cannot be done in isolation of the world around us. Form (grammatically correct in isolation) cannot control over function (communication and understanding). Instead, there needs to be a meeting of form and function because only with that meeting can we be certain that what is intended is what is expressed.

It immediately struck me that something was wrong with the sentence. A good test is what I call the substitution test, in which I substitute a synonym for a key word to ask does it still make sense. In this case, my immediate notion was that no substitution was necessary but I applied the test anyway, substituting homosexual for gay. Why was this important? Gay in America increasingly means male homosexual exclusively; homosexual means both male and female, that is, gays and lesbians. Other cultures may use other terms for genderizing homosexuality, but since this was a book for American audiences, American culture rules.

With the term gay, the sentence makes sense every which way but sexually; with the term homosexuality, it makes no sense either politically or sexually. In America, lesbians currently are generally not free to marry women for any reason. In a culture that does permit homosexual marriage or civil unions, the sentence would pass the substitution test, but not in the United States, where the overwhelming legal position is that homosexuals cannot marry or even have legally recognized civil unions.

The point is that because of my familiarity with the culture of the audience for whom the book is intended, it is clear to me that there is something wrong with the sentence. The cure is simple, however. All that is needed is a well-placed comma, so that the sentence reads as follows:

The legislative solution was to make it easier for gays to marry, women to obtain birth control…

Yet there is another problem with the sentence. Logically, why would a gay marry a woman to obtain birth control? That alone, under normal circumstances, should have raised red flags. But, again, I think it may be a cultural thing. I suspect that in more repressive cultures or in cultures in which the homosexuality is more underground than in America, gays may well marry women for a variety of reasons, even as a means of birth control.

Yet there is one other, at least questionable, problem with the sentence, with or without the comma cure, even though it is illogical for gays to marry women to obtain birth control: the use of gays. As I noted above, in America, gays increasingly is gender-specific, referring to male homosexuals and excluding lesbians. So the sentence, even as cured, means that it would be easier for males to marry but still impossible for females to marry. If nothing else were true about legislation affecting homosexual marriage, this would be true: In the United States, legislators would not grant marriage rights to one sex but not the other when granting homosexuals the right to marry.

Although the cured sentence would be better if homosexuals were substituted for gays, and much less prone to possible misunderstanding, there is another cultural reality in America. As noted above, gay has traditionally meant both male and female homosexuals, but it is increasingly being used as the word for male homosexuals to the exclusion of lesbians. As Bryan Garner writes:

Gay and lesbian. Though common, this phrasing is peculiarly redundant since lesbians are gay women.…What is actually happening, no doubt, is that gay is undergoing what linguists call specialization — that is, in some of its senses the word is becoming sex-specific. (Garner’s Modern American Usage, 2009, p. 387)

Consequently, in this instance, aside from adding the comma, I think a professional editor would query the author, explain the historical uses of the words, and suggest that homosexuals be substituted for gays. I also think that the professional editor would query the author to make sure that the addition of the comma is correct, that with the comma the sentence now reads as the author intended. Although I cannot think of a valid reason to omit the comma, perhaps the author has one

Alas, in this instance, neither the comma was added nor the queries made. Alas, also, there were several similar sentences in the samples I was asked to comment on, that had very questionable phraseology but passed the editor without query. Several needed no query, just punctuation.

I think this is less a matter of the editor’s skill, although it could well be that the original editor was not a professional editor, but more of a culture-related problem. It is not easy for out-of-culture editors to catch the cultural nuances of material intended for an audience that lives in another world culturally. For publishers, the question is solely one of containing costs. Instead, it should be one of making sure that the published product doesn’t miscommunicate; unfortunately, that is not the trend in today’s publishing. Just as publishers see a worldwide market for their books, they see a worldwide market for service providers. In some instances, that broad sight is appropriate, but not when it comes to editing for a specific cultural market.

June 27, 2012

The Business of Editing: A Rose By Another Name Is Still Copyediting

I recently received an e-mail from a long-ago client who lost my services when they lowered their payscale to substarvation rates and began offshore outsourcing nearly 100% of their production process, the exception supposedly being proofreading, for which they paid sub-substarvation prices. Their e-mail stated:

We are a new team with a new process, but still need qualified readers for our books, so I hope you don’t mind that we are contacting you at this time.

We now do all of our composition and copyediting in India. However, we do put all of our books through a cold read using US-based freelancers. Our readers work on first proofs (PDFs)….

The assignment involves checking grammar, style (APA 6th Edition), punctuation, consistency, and poor phrasing. Rework awkward sentences only if confusing or very awkward. Feel free to query the Editor or Author. We realize there will be a lot of questions  with this test and perhaps the first few assignments. When in doubt – make the change and add a query. We want to see your “stuff.”

Needless to say, the rate of pay is very-very-low. They attached a PDF “test,” which they would pay me to take at the lowest rate they offer. The former client deserves a few kudos for at least offering to pay for the test taking.

This is an interesting ploy for obtaining copyediting from American-based editors. Calling it a rose doesn’t make it any less copyediting. It is worth noting that by requiring it be done using PDF rather than in Microsoft Word, the client is implying to most editors that it is not copyediting but proofreading, because experienced editors will tell you that the trend is to do proofreading in PDF. Very few publishers, especially when dealing with book-length projects, will ask for copyediting to be done using PDFs. It is much more difficult to edit a PDF than it is to edit a Word document, as many of the tools that editors use in the editing process are simply unavailable, including specialty spell-checking and the myriad macros that editors use.

The attached “test” was a PDF of composed pages. But if it was already satisfactorily edited (which I would assume because why would a publisher knowingly send manuscript out for editing to incompetent editors?), the “cold reader” — also known as a proofreader — should not be checking “poor phrasing” or “rework[ing] awkward sentences.” Those are editing tasks; they require decision-making skills, knowledge of grammar, and specialized subject-matter language, all of which are why the editor creates a stylesheet that is supposed to accompany the manuscript when it is sent for proofreading.

But call it what you want — rose, stinkweed, proofreading, cold reading — it doesn’t matter: The service they want is copyediting and they want it at substarvation pay.

The e-mail follows a recent trend among publishers. The trend is to offshore outsource copyediting and then ask the local people who the publisher previously hired to do the editing, to “proofread” at a rate that matches what the publisher is paying its offshore editors while simultaneously demanding that the “proofreader” correct all of the errors not fixed or introduced by the offshore editors. Publishers are squeezing local editors by taking away the work and then trying to get the same work after the fact under another guise, one that has always commanded a lesser fee.

In an attempt to lower costs, proofreading is now the new copyediting and copyediting is now the new typesetting/composition. Yes, I know that traditionally typesetting/composition meant simply putting the tendered manuscript into a WYSIWYG form that was called pages, and for the most part, that is what is happening with outsourced offshored copyediting. Publishers are banking on the local proofreaders to do the copyediting.

Not only is this sneaky, but it is also difficult to do well. Traditional proofreading meant comparing the typeset pages to the edited and coded manuscript that had already been copyedited, developmental edited, reviewed by in-house production staff, and reviewed and approved by the author to make sure that the typesetter didn’t introduce new errors.

Much of this changed when publishers switched to electronic editing, as electronic editing reduced the likelihood of typesetting errors. Such errors weren’t eliminated, merely exponentially reduced. With today’s bean counters unwilling to assign much value to editorial skills, publishers are trying to squeeze more editorial work out of freelancers for less pay. As many authors have complained in recent years, this is a recipe for editorial disaster.

Copyediting (along with other forms of editing) is a skill set that becomes honed over the course of years. One doesn’t simply hang out a shingle calling oneself an editor and suddenly become a highly competent editor. As with other skills, copyediting is a collection of myriad skills learned and honed over years of work and learning. It is not a wholly mechanical process; rather, it requires educated judgment calls.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that causes books that have been edited to seem as if they have never met the eyes of an editor. It is this loss that distinguishes a professionally edited, well-edited book from the amateur editor who is doing the editing for a neighbor as a favor.

It is this loss of perspective and experience that publishers seek to regain at a cheaper price by renaming the service they want as “cold reading” rather than copyediting. You can call a rose by another name, but it is still copyediting. It is this ploy that editors need to be aware of and need to say thanks, but no thanks to the “opportunity” being offered — especially if the opportunity is to do the editing in a software program that is really not designed for the task, such as editing in PDF format/software.

As the competition wars heat up, by which I mean as the ebook world with its lower profit margins overtakes the pbook world with its relatively higher profit margins, this ruse by publishers will gain momentum. The result will be increasing numbers of published books that make the literate reader grimace, with yet further squeezing of profit margins as readers rebel at paying high prices for poorly edited books.

Although bean counters have yet to grasp the notion, long-term the survival of publishers will depend as much on quality editing as on changing strategies to deal with ebooks. Editors do provide value but need to receive value in exchange. Smart editors will just say no to opportunities disguised as roses that are really stinkweed.

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