An American Editor

January 29, 2018

Signs that an Editor Might Not Be a Pro

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Today’s aspiring authors have a lot more resources for getting their work into readers’ hands than ever before, but often have little experience in the publishing world. That can make authors vulnerable to people who call themselves editors — whether of books or of other projects — but are not truly skilled or experienced in that realm.

Since I’m a writer as well as an editor and proofreader, I often think about editing matters from the author’s or client’s perspective. For subscribers to An American Editor who are writers, here are signs that an editor might not be a pro, so you know not to use the same person for your next book, or you might not want to hire an editor you are considering working with. You might even want to find someone to redo an already-published book so it does better in future sales.

For subscribers who are editors, these might be areas to consider when wondering why you aren’t getting as much work as you’d like, haven’t gotten repeat assignments from past clients, or are just starting out in the field. They also might serve as talking points when you want to explain to a potential client or employer why you’re the best pick — or at least an appropriate one — for their editing work.

As colleague Katherine Hinkebein Pickett has said, “Due diligence is essential to finding a qualified, reputable editor. When you know what to look for, you can hire your editor with confidence.” Equally, when we know what prospective clients might look for when choosing an editor, editors can power up their responses more effectively.

Authors don’t have to be experts in language and usage to notice some problems that could indicate work by an unprofessional editor, such as:

  • Every word in every title or chapter heading starts with a capital letter, including a/an, and, the, of, etc. (I see this a lot in online material, but that doesn’t make it right.)
  • Commas, periods, and closing parentheses are outside the quote marks (in projects using U.S. English).
  • There are commas before opening parentheses.
  • Basic spelling errors jump out at you or have been noticed by readers.
  • Punctuation is inconsistent or missing.
  • References/citations are all in different sequences or styles.

To head off such problems with your next book, or a new edition of the current one, here are some red flags to keep in mind. These also can function as suggestions for how editors can position their businesses better.

  • A prospective editor has no website, no testimonials at a website, no professional memberships, no LinkedIn profile/account, no formal training, no apparent experience, and/or no references.

A professional editor will probably have a website that outlines his or her training and experience, such as coursework from a respected publications program, in-house work, or a freelance track record. It should include testimonials from employers, colleagues, and/or clients attesting to the editor’s skills and approach, and references that prospective clients can contact (or a link to reach the editor to receive contact info for references).

The editor should belong to an organization such as the American Copy Editors Society, Council of Science Editors, National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, Society for Technical Communication, Editorial Freelancers Association, Society for Editors and Proofreaders (UK), Editors Canada, etc. Since groups like the American Medical Writers Association, Society for Professional Journalists, and National Association of Science Writers all have freelance sections and members who are editors, membership in them is also a good sign that someone is a professional.

Belonging to the Copyediting-L e-mail list and Editors Association of Earth (EAE) Facebook group also would be useful indicators of an editor’s professionalism and commitment to staying on top of trends in language in general and editing in particular.

Training could include having earned certificates from respected editing programs. Experience would, of course, include working in-house for a publisher, publication, or organization, or with individual authors. An editor who writes about the crafting of editing in his or her own blog, has published a book about editing, or is a regular and respected contributor to the editing-related works of others and lists or groups is also likely to be someone with experience and skills.

  • An editor hasn’t asked what style manual/guide you use or the editor should use, or hasn’t told you which one s/he will use for your project. There are several standard guides for using language and formatting documents. The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, American Psychological Association Publication Manual, and Government Printing Office Style Manual are the leading resources, with many more available for specific professions and industries. A professional editor is familiar with at least one of these and lets prospective clients know that’s the case, which should reassure authors who might be concerned about consistency and accuracy in their documents.

Identifying the dictionary that an editor uses is also helpful to clients. Spellcheck, as most of us know, is not sufficient, but even if it were, some clients have to be convinced by an authority other than the editor that a given word has been spelled correctly.

  • The editor’s only credential is a degree in English or a career as an English teacher. While knowing English is a plus (a strong grasp of grammar is essential for an editor), there’s a difference between what’s involved with teaching English and knowing how to edit. Simply having taught English or earned an academic degree in English is not enough to understand the importance and use of style manuals, publishing standards and conventions, and other aspects of editing.
  • An editor’s pricing is very low. That might be great for your budget, but is likely to be terrible for the quality of the editing. Someone whose rates are super-low is probably either new to editing or inexperienced, untrained, minimally skilled, and/or only editing as a hobby, rather than seriously committed to editing as a business and profession, with training and experience to match. From the editor’s perspective, lowballing your rates can make you look as if you’re new to the field, unsure of your skills, or desperate for work. If we don’t value ourselves, our clients won’t value us, either!
  • There are typos — misspellings, grammar and punctuation errors, etc. — in the editor’s e-mail messages, résumé, and/or website. An e-mail or word-processing program will highlight some of these issues for authors who are not sure of what is right or wrong. Some authors might not recognize such issues in communications from an editor, but they often are egregious enough for an amateur author to notice.
  • The editor promises 100% perfection or guarantees agent placement, a publisher, and/or bestseller status for your book. It probably would be easier to pitch an edited manuscript to an agent or sell it to a publisher, but having the manuscript edited is not a guarantee of getting published or selling lots of copies.
  • The editor claims to rely on spellcheck, online programs like Grammarly, and other tools to ensure perfection. Not only is perfection unlikely, as noted above, but it takes more than a mechanical software program to ensure high quality in editing. An editor who uses PerfectIt, the various tools at editorium.com, and EditTools from wordsnsync demonstrates a commitment to knowing about and using appropriate, respected resources to contribute to a better result, but doesn’t say those resources are all it takes to provide excellence in editing. The human brain and eyes are still essential to the process, which means experience and training are still vitally important to professionalism and providing high-quality service.

What have colleagues here encountered as examples of poor-quality editing, and how have you positioned your experience and skills to convince clients to hire you for editing projects?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and the new editor-in-chief of An American Editor.

July 1, 2015

Thinking Fiction: Fiction Editors’ Resource Kit (Part II)

by Carolyn Haley

In Part I of this essay, I list the reference books in my resource kit for editing fiction. Part II discusses the balance of the resource kit: software,­ a luxury unknown to editors of an earlier era; specialty resources that help editors address story structure and verify details across diverse subjects; and links to editorial groups and information for professional development and support.

Software

Three applications form the core of my quality-control tools: Editor’s ToolKit, EditTools, and PerfectIt. Followers of this blog will recognize these names because they are mentioned often here, and their designers are part of the American Editor tribe. I learned of the tools through this association and now depend on them for fine-tuning the mechanical side of an editing job and checking my own work.

Editor’s ToolKit contains an assortment of consistency checkers, search/replace aids, converters, fixers, and macros. These program add-ins are available individually, as well. I most often use FileCleaner as a preflight tool to tidy up manuscript elements such as double spaces, incorrect dashes, and the like. Starting with a clean manuscript helps me see content with less distraction, thereby making editing time more focused and efficient.

Also for preflight, I use EditTools, which is a collection of macros designed to save time and money while improving accuracy. Although initially intended for medical and academic editing, it can be customized to serve fiction. I use the Never Spell Word feature, for instance, to build a list of terms I frequently misread (led vs. lead, woman vs. women, form vs. from, etc.), which the application flags in the manuscript. I can then pick them off as I go or review the manuscript for just these highlighted words, either way reducing my error rate. The package includes other useful tools ranging from deleting unused styles (thank you!) to removing all highlighting to changing case to inserting queries and doing a wildcard find and replace.

At the end of a job, I run PerfectIt. This is a consistency checker, constantly being updated and refined, that catches tricky details like hyphenated compounds, inconsistent capitalizations, and spelling deviations. It is easily customizable for which tasks it performs and alternative style sheet criteria, in variants of English (U.S., U.K., Canadian).

The Editor’s ToolKit/EditTools/PerfectIt software suite offers more capability than I have yet plumbed the depths of. Even barely scratching the surface, I have found each profoundly helpful and time-saving. The trio combined is affordable to people on tight budgets (offered here as a set as Editor’s Toolkit Ultimate) and pays for itself promptly by making one more accurate and efficient, which leads to happy clients, which leads to more and better work.

Most of the suite’s tools are macros in some form or other, bundled into easy-to-use packages. The nature of fiction, however, is its unpredictable variability, so there’s always something new that it would be useful to have a macro for if you don’t want to create them yourself. Many such situations are covered by Paul Beverley in his publicly available macro collection, Computer Tools for Editors. The book includes the actual macro steps, which editors can copy and install. Of these, I use ProperNounAlyse to form the basis of my style sheet before starting an edit, because it identifies place and people names, variant spellings thereof, unusual terms, and common terms with capitalization changes (e.g., Captain, which might appear in the manuscript as a both a direct address [cap] and a generic [lower case], thus reminding me to include it on the style sheet). It also picks up any words capped at the beginning of a sentence, so some manual grooming is required.

To use any of these tools effectively, one must have a solid grasp of one’s editing software, which for most of us is Microsoft Word. Almost every manuscript presents a fresh problem to solve, or pushes one to master a trick one stumbled through the first time it arose. So I keep within reach a quartet of my colleagues’ foundation works: Jack Lyon’s Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals and Macro Cookbook, Hilary Powers’ Making Word Work for You, and Geoff Hart’s Effective Onscreen Editing. Between them I’ve learned to operate Word at a higher level, including searches that find missing, inverted, and straight quotation marks and apostrophes, and missing or incorrect punctuation inside quotes — a boon for dialogue-heavy novels. Links to these books can be found at The Editorium.

Word contains its own spelling checker (and grammar checker, too, which I ignore). I run spellcheck last thing before delivering a manuscript; and for all its quirks and inadequacies, it always finds something that saves me from professional embarrassment. I’m prone to missing errors like “the the” and “assesssment” which most other tools don’t catch. Someday, I hope, one of the macro gurus will find a way to catch duplicate phrases like “in the in the,” which I’m prone to overlooking, too.

Specialty References

There’s no anticipating what facts or figures will need to be verified in a novel, so the best plan is to have a broad library in your office, including at least one encyclopedia set, as well as to find reliable, accurate sites on the Internet. The novels I work on routinely need checking in weights and measures; biblical references; guns and ammunition; vehicles (including boats and aircraft); people and place names and historical events, so I’m forever collecting resources to cover these. A sampling: Convert-me.com for weights and measures, Gun Grammar and Gun Digest for firearm info, Bible Hub for access to different versions of the Bible, The Rand McNally Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, along with the Jane’s recognition guides, plus Merriam-Webster’s Biographical Dictionary and Geographical Dictionary.

As a general source for you-never-know-what, there’s Project Gutenberg, which offers downloadable public domain works of literature and reference. For names and data about consumer products, I head to the manufacturer’s website. Wikipedia is also a convenient starting point for diverse lookups.

Writing Craft How-To’s

Editors do not have to be writers themselves, and indeed many prefer not to be. But novel editors need to be conversant in the lingo of storycraft, and to be able to recommend educational aids to their authors. I point many to Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer for its nuts-and-bolts approach to constructing a novel; along with Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This book is part of the Writers’ Digest Elements of Fiction Writing series, which covers primary components of novel writing (such as dialogue, plot, scene, and structure) one at a time. The series is one of several that have come and gone over time, including the Howdunit Series for mysteries and thrillers. I refer to Armed and Dangerous: A Writer’s Guide to Weapons and Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons and hope eventually to have the complete set in my library.

Genre-specific websites like those for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America and Romance Writers of America also offer how-to information, although in the latter case you have to join to gain access to the writing resources.

Groups/Lists/Forums/Conferences

An invaluable resource is the hive mind formed by the editorial community. I learned about most of my tools there, along with tricks and techniques; and I learn something new every day from staying in contact. The groups I interact with most are Copyediting-L, Project Wombat (formerly Stumpers), and the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) (must be a member). These are populated with editors, writers, proofreaders, indexers, designers, and reference librarians happy to share their knowledge and who enjoy chasing down answers to obscure or difficult questions. They also provide “virtual water-cooler” company for editors working solo from home.

Many editors from these organizations are also active on Facebook (for instance, Editors’ Association of Earth. Questions pertaining to fiction editing are often discussed here. One colleague active on almost all platforms is Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, who maintains The Copyeditor’s Knowledge Base on her website. I’ve found multiple resources there, along with a rich selection of others yet to be explored.

Finally, a terrific way to learn how to work more efficiently in general and edit fiction in particular is to interact with peers in person. For that, editors gather in annual conferences hosted by the American Copy Editors Society, Editors’ Association of Canada, and Communication Central. These organizations offer classes, seminars, and webinars, as well, as does the EFA.

This lengthy list forms a drop in the proverbial bucket of what’s available to aid in fiction editing. Since every editor has their favorites, and most of us shift around as we find better or more-relevant tools, please share your own favorites through the comments feature of this blog, along with a reason why it is among your favorites.

Carolyn Haley lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

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