An American Editor

June 17, 2015

I Can Say It Better

A constant question among professional editors is “What is the editor’s role?” There are lots of aspects to this question, but one that has recently made the rounds is this:

Is it the editor’s role to say it better if how it is already said is understandable, clear, accurate, not misleading — that is, imperfect but…?

I have pondered this question many times over my 31 years as a professional editor, yet it has come home to roost once again in recent weeks. Editors have been asking on different forums whether something the author has written (said) can be rewritten (resaid) in a better way. Sometimes it is clear that a restating would be greatly beneficial; other times I wonder why resay what the author has already adequately said.

What the author has written may not be the best way to say something but if we accept that clarity is the key editing job, then the second best way to say something, if it is the author’s way, should be sufficient. Too many editors believe they must make changes to justify their fee, and that is wrong. Have you never come across a chapter that is sufficiently well written as to need no editing? I have and in those cases I send the author a note saying how well written the chapter is and that I saw no sense in substituting my word choice for her word choice when her choice did the job.

This will, to some editors, fall under the rubric of “do no harm.” But it isn’t harm about which we are speaking. Rather, it is seeing an adequate choice that could be made better but still not so memorable that it will be repeated decades later by an adoring public (the “Ask not what your country…” and the “I have a dream…” type of alterations where the mundane becomes the unforgettable) and deciding to leave it as is.

The idea that “I can say it better” and should do so for the client is a flawed notion of our skills and our role as editor. First, whether I can really say it better is opinion; how can we objectively determine that our clear statement is better than the author’s clear statement? Except for ego, we cannot. This balancing is different when what the author has written is confused or difficult to understand or causes a reader to pause and wonder what he just read means. But in the instance where the reader does understand what the author has written and doesn’t pause to ponder meaning, there is no justification for the editor to rewrite.

When we believe that we can say it better and should do so, we change our relationship with the author. We proclaim ourselves the arbiter of correctness, yet we debate amongst ourselves word choice and correctness. It is similar to how we view style guides (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often? and Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). We tend to put them on a pedestal and forget that they are collections of opinion and suggestion, not necessarily the best way to do something. And that is the key to answering the question of whether we should say it better. If it isn’t clear-cut that our way is much superior to the author’s way, then we are just substituting one opinion for another opinion. We tend to value our opinion more than the author’s because — it is our opinion.

A difference between a professional editor and an unprofessional editor is knowing when to substitute one opinion for another opinion. It is the ability to recognize levels of clarity (not all clarity is equal) and determining whether the clarity of the author’s writing is sufficient or if it needs a boost. Too often editors misread the balance and decide that “I can say it better!”

Not too long ago I was asked to reedit a book originally edited by someone else. The author was very unhappy and the publisher wanted to determine whether the original editor’s edits were necessary, if they were necessary were they an improvement over the author’s original, and whether the editor missed important edits by focusing too much on text the editor thought “I can say it better” and rewrote.

It was an interesting experience. The reasons for the author’s displeasure did not take long to become evident. In rare instances, the editor wisely made changes; in most instances, the editor misinterpreted the balance — the author’s original text may not have been memorable (but then neither was the editor’s contribution), but there was no mistaking what the author was saying. There was no stopping and pondering.

What the editor clearly sought was perfection (a very elusive goal); what the editor “created” did not come close to that holy grail. It was not that the editor did a “terrible” job, it was that the editor failed to improve the author’s writing, failed to bring greater clarity to the writing, and failed to understand the editor’s role and appreciate its limitations. In other words, the editor thought her opinion as to how best to make a point was in fact how best to make a point, when it wasn’t any better than the author’s opinion.

Most interesting was what the editor — in my opinion — failed to rewrite. There were several instances where she should have said “I can say it better” and done so, but didn’t. Yet we fall back to the big bugaboo: Why is my opinion any more valuable or accurate than her opinion? I do not know if my alternatives were truly better than the author’s — I certainly think they were — but I do know it was problematic to leave the author’s writing as it was because of the difficulty in determining what he meant. (For a discussion of clarity, see Editing for Clarity.)

Professional editors are able to draw that line between improving and not improving writing and not cross it often. Just because we can say it better does not mean we should. The editing a professional editor does needs to balance against the author’s voice; only when the balance tilts toward improvement should we upset it.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 18, 2013

Tale of 3 Editors, a Manuscript, & the Quest for Perfection

My book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper, was recently published. Its making makes for an interesting tale about the quest for perfection.

Most books are subject to three limitations: one editor (chosen from a range of experience), limited editing budget, and short schedule. In contrast, The Business of Editing had three very experienced professional editors, essentially an unlimited editing budget, and no set time by which the editing had to be completed. In other words, from an editorial perspective, it was the dream project.

If I was to present this scenario to forums that were made up of noneditors — and even forums made up of some/certain editors — the comments would be the same: the book should be “error-free,” with various meanings attached to “error.” After all, there are multiple sets of eyes looking at each word, sentence, and paragraph, looking multiple times, and no schedule pressure; consequently, “perfection” — which I assume is synonymous with error-free — should be achieved.

Alas, even with three professional editors, no schedule pressure, and no budget worries, perfection is nearly impossible to achieve.

There are many reasons why perfection is not achievable even under such “perfect” circumstances, yet I think the number one reason is that one editor’s error is not another editor’s error.

In the editing of The Business of Editing, there were numerous exchanges concerning language and punctuation, which are the meat of editing. Spelling is important, but a professional editor isn’t focused on spelling. True spelling cannot be ignored; whether reign is correctly spelled is important. But spelling as spelling is not the key; the key is knowing which is the right word — is it rain, rein, or reign — which is why a professional editor does not rely on spellcheckers; they know that doing so often leads to embarrassment. If the correct word is reign but the word used is rain, rain is correctly spelled — it is just the wrong word.

The “real” editorial issues are word choice, coherence, grammar/punctuation — the things that can make for interesting discussion among professional editors. And such was the case with The Business of Editing. I don’t recall an issue of spelling arising, although it may have; what I do recall was the discussion over punctuation and wording. It is this discussion that demonstrated to me that there can be no perfection in editing.

We were three editors with at least two, and sometimes three, different opinions. (It was nice, for a change, to be the powerhouse. As the author, I got the deciding vote.) It is not that one opinion was clearly wrong and another clearly right; it was, almost always, that each opinion had merit and was correct. On occasion, one opinion was more correct, but on no occasion was an opinion incorrect in the sense that there would be universal agreement among professional editors that implementing the opinion would be tantamount to creating error.

Sometimes consensus could be reached; at other times, each of us stood firm. Yet in no instance was one of us “wrong.” Which brings us back to the matter of perfection.

How can we judge perfection when perfection cannot be pinned down? Given two equally valid opinions, how can we say that one leads to perfection and the other to imperfection? We can’t.

It is true that if all else were equal, using reign when it should be rein can be pointed to as clear error and imperfect editing. Reign, rain, and rein are three distinct things and one is not substitutable for the other. But if the correct one is used and is correctly spelled (i.e., reign and not riegn), then we must look elsewhere for imperfection and that elsewhere takes us down the path of opinion. (Of course, the question also arises if the correct word is rein but it is spelled rain, is it a misspelling or incorrect word choice? I would think that the latter is more problematic than the former.)

Is The Business of Editing perfect? With three highly skilled professional editors perusing it (and let’s not forget the eyes of the many professional editors who read the essays when they were originally posted on An American Editor), the expectation would be, “yes, it is perfect.” Alas, it is not. It is imperfect because there are elements whose grammar and construction are reasonably questionable.

This is the folly of client expectations, which we discussed several months ago in The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection. More importantly, this is the folly of “professional” editors who affirmatively state that they provide “perfect” editing or who declare that x number of errors are acceptable. The flaw is that the editors and clients who make these demands assume that only their opinion has any validity, that contrary opinions are inherently erroneous.

Consider this issue: An author writes, “Since taking aspirin thins blood, at least one aspirin should be taken daily.” The question is this: Is “since” correctly used? In my view, it is not; “since” should be replaced by “because” and “since” should be limited to its passing-of-time sense. However, a very legitimate argument can be made that its use in the sentence is perfectly good usage today. What we really have are two opinions of equal merit, neither being inherently wrong.

But if you are of the camp that believes correct usage demands “because,” how likely are you to declare the sentence (expand to manuscript) perfect or error-free? Clearly, those in the “since” camp would consider it perfect/error-free. Consequently, we either have an imperfect manuscript or an error-free manuscript.

Which is it in the quest for perfection? The truth of the matter is that both can be perfect and both can be imperfect — it just depends on who is doing the grading, which is why the quest for perfection is never-ending.

Consequently, depending on whose camp you are in, The Business of Editing is either perfectly or imperfectly edited.

October 21, 2013

To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate?

Recently, in editing my essays for my forthcoming book, The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN 978-1-4341-0369-7; Waking Lion Press; 2014), Ruth Thaler-Carter raised this question:

“Shouldn’t custom built locally be custom-built locally?”

There are three editors on this project — Ruth, myself, and Jack Lyon — which has meant there have been some lively language discussions and this was another such discussion. The opinion was split 2-1 in favor of hyphenation. I was the dissenting opinion and so won the battle as the author and final decider, but that doesn’t mean my decision was the grammatically right decision; it just means that as the named author I had final decision-making power and exercised it.

If you lookup “custom built” in the dictionary (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language [5th ed] and the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary [11th ed]), you find the entry hyphenated followed by “adj.” It is those three letters that cause the problem.

I agree that custom built needs to be hyphenated in an adjectival phrase, such as custom-built computer. But when not used in an adjectival phrase, as in “custom built locally,” I see no reason to hyphenate. What does hyphenation accomplish? Is a reader misled in the absence of the hyphenation? Is “custom built locally” more understandable when hyphenated and, conversely, less understandable when not hyphenated?

This is similar to the questions raised by short term and long term. A look at the dictionaries indicates that these are also adjectives and hyphenated. But there is no mention of when they are not adjectives. For example, “When the short term expires, payment will be due.”

Editors rely on dictionaries and other usage tomes for guidance — and so editors should. But the emphasis has to be on guidance. Editors are supposed to consider, evaluate, and exercise judgment with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the reader understands the author.

So the question arises: Do phrases that are hyphenated when used as adjectives continue to be hyphenated when not used in adjectival form? (Yes, I recognize that there are other forms in which the hyphenated version is needed or required, including in certain noun situations; let’s ignore those situations and look toward a more general rule.)

(Let me make clear that editors have and should have differences of opinion about such matters of grammar as hyphenation. Regardless as to how we ultimately “resolve” today’s question, there is no absolute right or wrong. Rather, we seek a guiding rule. Ultimately, it is my belief that a professional editor can and should make decisions, such as whether to hyphenate or not, based on whether the editor can support the decision.)

Perhaps a good phrase to evaluate is decision making. I raise it because it does not appear in the dictionary yet whatever rule we generate would be as applicable to decision making as to short term and custom built. I suspect that we would all agree that in this instance, decision making should be hyphenated: “In the decision-making process, …” But should it be hyphenated in this usage: “It is clear that the decision making was faulty.” In this latter sentence, the absent but implied word is “process.” Is implication sufficient to warrant hyphenation?

Or what about these pairs: “Betty was the decision maker” versus “the decision-maker Betty”? In the former, the modifier precedes the phrase; in the latter it follows on its heels. The latter is clear that hyphenation is warranted; not so in the former.

In the end, I fall back on my “rule” that what governs is clarity. If hyphenation will make the meaning clearer, then hyphenate; if it neither enhances nor decreases clarity, then don’t hyphenate. I do not stand alone in this view. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., §7.85 for those who require “authority”) says:

“In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.”

The problem with Chicago‘s guidance is that it still leaves us in the dark whether to hyphenate short term, long term, decision making, and custom built — unless we latch onto the final clause, “hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability,” which is what I use to make my decision. In the case of decision making, I can also latch on to the noun + gerund examples Chicago provides in the table that accompanies §7.85, where Chicago specifically says “decision making” and “decision-making group.”

On the one hand, it strikes me that short term, long term, and custom built should be no different than decision making. On the other hand, however, it seems that in the case of these three phrases, the fact that the dictionaries hyphenate them is sufficient fallback justification to hyphenate them (even though they classify the hyphenated form as adjectival). I prefer, however, to base my decision on what counts most: readability.

Do you hyphenate? What is your justification for doing/not doing so?

March 4, 2013

What Do Editors Forget Most Often?

In a way, this is a trick question. After all, editors forget lots of things, just like everyone else. But what I have discovered through very unscientific surveying is that editors forget three very specific things with astonishing frequency.

Who’s Who in the Relationship

The first thing editors tend to forget is their role in the editor-client relationship. Now, I grant that even more egregious forgetting occurs on the client side, having suffered that many times myself, but editors too often set themselves up to “fail” by forgetting their role in the relationship. An editor’s role in the relationship is to either do what the client wants or not undertake the job.

It’s pretty simple but one of the hardest things for an editor to do. Why? Because we are knowledgable about our business, have many years of experience dealing with issues of language and grammar, and as between the client and the editor, we are the “experts” on matters of language. Alas, all that is meaningless

Were we in a corporate setting and sitting in the chair of the vice president for communication discussing with a secretary whether the phrase is simply myriad or is a myriad of or whether it even matters, we know that our decision in favor of one would be binding: the relationship between us and our secretary is such that the secretary has to take the lumping. And so it is in our relationship with our clients: we are in the secretary’s position, yet we too often think that is our client’s position.

Perhaps we know better than our client, but it is the client who is the decider and we need to either learn to live with it or drop the project and the client.

Is it More Than Opinion?

As much as the editor-client relationship power struggle reigns high on the list of things editors tend to forget, the matter of opinion is the sticking point with me.

There is nothing I dislike more than being told by either a colleague or a client than “Chicago says…” or “AMA says…” or “Garner says…” in a manner that conveys that nothing more needs to be said. Don’t misunderstand. It isn’t that I don’t value their opinions, because I do; rather, it is that I am told what they say as if what they say is gospel from the Mount, a universal truth that can neither be questioned nor ignored nor deviated from.

In a way, this ties in to the editor-client relationship. If a client tells me that I am to follow the dictates of Chicago 16, then I either agree to do so or I decline the project. I do not dispute the client’s right to dictate whether compound adjectives should be hyphenated or not.

So my gripe is not with the application of the rules as disclosed by these authorities; instead, my gripe is with clients and colleagues who believe that these are truly rules by which we must live and edit rather than opinions by which we should be guided.

I am of the firm conviction that treatises like Chicago are merely suggestions, guides, if you will, to a method that enhances clarity and consistency. It is nice to be able to point to the hyphenation table on page 375 of Chicago 16 and say to a client that what I did is correct according to Chicago. It relieves me of the burden of justifying my “decision.”

Yet, that is precisely the problem. Reading and understanding the chart is not difficult. It requires little to no discretion on my part. I become just a pencil-pusher, because all that matters is that whatever “decision” I make I can justify by Chicago chapter and verse. So why should a client pay me more for my expertise when there really is no “my” in the “expertise”; the expertise, if any, lies with the team of contributors to the chosen style guide.

Consider, for example, how much discretion an editor has when styling references. None, really. I understand this when applied to references because references are really a more mechanical task than most editorial tasks. But should this mechanical approach also apply to the explanatory text, the main body of the book?

I think an editor has an obligation to remind a client that the style guides are just that — guides, not the holy gospel of editing. A professional editor brings to a project much more than the ability to read and understand a table of hyphenation or the mechanics of styling a reference. A professional editor brings to the project — or should bring to the project — the ability to understand language and make editorial decisions that enhance the author’s communication with the reader. And, most importantly, the professional editor should bring the ability to justify those decisions without saying “Chicago says…” or “AMA says…” or “Garner says….” The professional editor should be able to say “I say…” and then build the case for the decision based on multiple sources and reasons, even if contrary to what a style guide declares. And if the editor’s decision conforms to that of the style guide, the editor should be able to justify that decision by saying “I followed Chicago‘s suggestion because….” In other words, the editor should be the decision maker and should be able to justify the decision made using the style guides as one leg of support but not the whole support.

Isn’t the knowledge to make and ability to justify editorial decisions that fall outside the purview of a guide’s opinion the hallmark of the professional editor? This is what editors too often forget. We need to remind ourselves and our clients that although we often agree with a style guide, we sometimes disagree, and when we disagree, we do so knowledgeably and because we have the client’s interest in communicating clearly with readers uppermost in our mind.

Editing is a Business

The third, and final (for this article), most often forgotten thing is that editing is a business, not a hobby. Long-time readers of An American Editor recognize this statement: I make it often, and do so because the mantra too often falls on deaf ears or goes in one ear and out the other.

Here the focus is on the editor. Editors too often forget that they are a business and that they must view everything from that perspective. It is wonderful that you want to undertake the local SPCA’s newsletter as a freebie to give it the professional polish that organization deserves. But that doesn’t mean abandoning business principles. No matter how much you love the SPCA, you need to demand that it approach its dealings with you on a business-to-business basis. Payment or lack of payment is not the determinant.

Your time is valuable. You must respect it and the demands made on it; you must also insist that others do the same. A client is a client; a project is a project. Decisions you make should be made exactly the same way whether the client is a charity you love or a corporation you are indifferent about. And charity clients should be subject to firing on the same terms as a noncharity client. Being a business means acting like a business.

Thus we have three things that are important to editors that editors too often forget: (a) the client is the ultimate editorial decider in the editor-client relationship; (b) that editorial “authorities” such as style guides are simply one opinion in a spectrum of opinions and that the knowledge to make and ability to justify editorial decisions that fall outside the purview of a guide’s opinion is the hallmark of the professional editor; and (c) that no matter what project we do, whether a freebie for a local charity or a highly paid corporate document, we do so as a business and all decisions relating to any project need to be made as business decisions.

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