An American Editor

May 18, 2015

Compromise and Expectations — A Clash in the Making

I was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Engineer’s Lament” (The New Yorker, May 4, 2015), an article I highly recommend, when I came across this quote (p. 48 of the print version):

No one tells you to build a perfect car. People tell you to build a car in eighteen months that will sell for twenty-five thousand dollars.…[I]mperfections and compromise are inevitable.

If I were to write that quote for my editing business (and I suspect your editing business, too), it would read something like this:

Clients tell you to build a perfect manuscript. Clients tell you to edit a manuscript of one thousand pages in seven days that will be error-free and cost less than one thousand dollars.…[I]mperfections and compromise are unacceptable.

I wish I could say I was exaggerating, but I am not. I am finding that client demands are increasingly impossible. I try to be politic when responding to clients, but sometimes I just want to scream in frustration.

Recently, I worked on a book that had I known was going to be as much trouble as it became, I would have refused the project at any price. Not only was the schedule difficult, which I knew upfront, but the client became increasingly difficult as the project progressed.

I would turn in a chapter and two weeks later I would receive the chapter back with the in-house “editor’s” comments. I put editor in quotes because if the person is a qualified editor, he hides those qualifications very well.

Did the editor catch some errors? Yes, he did. In one 120+-page chapter he found a serial comma I missed. And he also found a few other minor errors. But when berating me for missing those errors, he ignored (or refused to recognize) that to meet the schedule, I had to edit 400 to 450 pages per week, that the authors of the chapter were not native English speakers/writers, and that the editing of the chapter was very extensive with significant rewriting. For the client, the key was that the editing wasn’t perfect.

Compounding my exasperation was all the time I had to spend explaining why, for example, a phrase was sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not hyphenated. I ultimately learned that it was decided by the client’s in-house editorial team that either a phrase was always hyphenated or never hyphenated and thus they changed the editing and assigned this as to editor’s error.

Which made me think of “The Engineer’s Lament” — editors are expected to be perfect but engineers are not.

I’ve decided not to accept work from this client again because the client is a very-high maintenance client. I wouldn’t mind so much if I thought the client’s in-house editorial staff had a good grasp of editing, language, and grammar — but my discussions with them indicated they do not.

The problems begin, I think, with the expectation of perfection. For there to be perfection in editing, there must be inflexibility. There must be a rule that is always applicable, in all circumstances, that is never deviated from, such as the client’s rule that a phrase is either always hyphenated or never hyphenated, not sometimes hyphenated depending on how it is used. There may be languages in which such a rule exists, but that language is certainly not U.S. English.

Once a client starts thinking in terms of perfection, the editor is bound to fail. Too much of editing is opinion for perfection to be achievable. What we can achieve can come close, but how close depends on many factors that are independent of but greatly influence editing. One example is schedule.

Schedule is interesting because clients set an editing schedule based on another schedule of which editing is but a part. It is best described as a schedule within a schedule within a schedule. Editing must be done by a certain date in order to meet a typesetting schedule that has to be completed by a certain date so as to meet a printing schedule, which has to be completed by a certain date to meet a marketing schedule. The concern is not for the difficulty of the editing but for how the editing schedule helps meet the other schedules. How quickly and accurately a manuscript can be edited depends on the quality of the writing, the subject matter, what the editor is expected to do in addition to spelling and grammar, whether the authors are native writers of the language involved, and myriad other things. But clients rarely consider any (or, at best, no more than one or two) of these dependencies when setting a schedule.

When an engineer is given a schedule, it is recognized that to meet the schedule means compromises have to be made. When editors are given a schedule, compromise on quality is not a consideration. That there has to be compromises means there will be a clash between editor and client. Usually the compromise is satisfactory to both parties. It is when the parties clash that there needs to be a reevaluation of the relationship — and when the editor should decide whether to continue with the client.

I try to get clients understand that perfection in editing is a goal that is nearly impossible to meet because so much in editing is opinion based and controlled by schedule. Usually clients understand and accept this; when a client does not, trouble is brewing. Much of the trouble can be averted with an appropriate schedule.

What do you think?

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.

July 31, 2013

The Business of Editing: The Demand for Perfection

In a LinkedIn group, there has been a discussion about errors that are missed by editors. The discussion is a great illustration of the disconnect between reasonable and unreasonable expectations in editing.

On the one hand, you have an author who admits his manuscript is far from perfect and who expects the editor to make it error-free or keep working on it at the editor’s expense until the manuscript is error-free. On the other hand, you have editors who offer a broad range for what constitutes an acceptable number of errors. The discussion began with the question, “How many errors is it acceptable for an editor to miss in a 200-page manuscript?” The answers ranged from zero to (you pick a number).

Needless to say, there was a gap that could not be bridged. Authors (and some editors — usually editors who were also authors) remained steadfast in the belief that an error-free manuscript was not only a desirable goal but an achievable goal. Others, including myself, remained steadfast in the belief that, as long as editing is done by humans, there will be errors.

Fundamentally, however, the entire discussion missed the salient point. The discussion remained focused on coming up with a number, such as 5 errors in 1,000 pages, rather than on the core issue: What constitutes an error?

Editing has always been a profession of opinion. Unlike the physical sciences that are governed by strict “laws,” editorial decisions are governed by informed opinion, nothing more. One person’s error is another person’s artistic breakthrough. Although we point to “authorities” such as dictionaries and manuals of style and usage to justify decisions we make, we really aren’t pointing to immutable, unbreakable “laws” or “rules” — we are pointing to consensus opinion at best.

That the consensus opinion is formed by a group of people who we grant the power to be the diviners of what is and what should not be, the truth is that their opinion is rarely more informed or valuable than our opinion. Their opinion has an aura, a mystique, if you will, of authority, something our opinion lacks, but that doesn’t change their opinion from opinion to gospel. It has the force and validity we give it.

Which brings me back to error. Is it error to be diametrically opposite consensus opinion? If it were, we would still be preaching that the sun revolves around the earth — or is that something different? Surely it is different because it is fact, immutable, provable, and today unquestionable (except by the fringe few) —  it is nothing like an editorial opinion.

Is it grey or gray? One or 1? Is they singular or only plural? Can we safely and correctly split the infinitive? Is due to acceptable or must it be replaced with the correct, precise phrase? Can since and because be used synonymously or is since only for expression of time passage?

At precisely what point in the journey do we pass from opinion to error? Who decides what is error?

Perhaps of all the questions, this last question is the most important, because once we assign the power to determine error, we assign the right to make editorial decisions and we determine whose opinion is superior. The fallacy in my argument is, of course, demonstrated by the three Ws (or is it W’s?): w8, weight, wait. Is it an error to leave unchanged “I’ll w8 for you” or “I’ll weight for you”?

The immediate answer I expect from colleagues is, “Yes, it is clearly error to use w8 or weight when you mean wait.” But let us consider the response. First, it assumes that I intend wait. Based on the education we have received and our years of experience with interpreting language, it is very likely that wait is intended. It is a 99.9999999% safe bet. But it is not a 100% sure bet in the absence of surrounding information.

The second problem is that to declare the use of w8 or weight for wait as an error is to declare that English is a static language; that meanings and spellings never change; that because it was linguistically true yesterday, it must be linguistically true today, and will be linguistically true tomorrow. Where, then, has the growth in dictionaries come from? How did since become an acceptable clone of because?

So we go round and round, with no beginning and no end, in resolving the question of what is an error. No matter how it is sliced and diced, what is an error in the editorial sense is a matter of opinion, not a matter of fact. We can turn it into a matter of fact by prefacing the editorial process with a declaration that these authorities — x, y, and z — shall govern matters of spelling, grammar, and usage, which is what we do in our daily work.

When dealing with publishers, such parameters are usually laid out in advance of the work. In my experience, few authors have enough familiarity with these editorial resources to make such a predetermination. I suspect that it is one novelist in 5,000 who says “Please follow the _________ style manual” when hiring an editor.

When an author demands perfection as the standard, predetermining who and what will be the arbiters of what constitutes an error is fundamental. However, there are other factors that need to come into play as well. Consider time.

Most novelists I have dealt with have said that they spent more than a year, often many years, on writing and rewriting and having their novel peer-reviewed and redrafted again to bring the manuscript to its current state of readiness for editing. Then they drop the bombshell of wanting an error-free edited manuscript in 30 (or fewer) days. After years of writing and rewriting and not producing an error-free manuscript, the expectation is that the editor can fix all problems quickly. Does anything more need to be said about the matter of time?

Consider money. I have yet to meet the publisher or author who says that neither time nor money is a problem. Editors are rarely, if ever, given unlimited time and an unlimited budget in which to produce an error-free edited manuscript. I also have not met a publisher or author who will agree to pay $150 an hour for as many hours as it takes to achieve an error-free manuscript. Usually what I hear, and what colleagues tell me they, too, hear, is that the edited manuscript is needed within 30 (or fewer) days and that the budget is capped at, say, 30 hours at $20 an hour.

It isn’t clear to me how perfection is to be achieved on a limited budget with a limited amount of time. It took months or years to bring the manuscript to the more perfect, but still imperfect, state it is in at the time it is presented for editing. Why is the expectation that it can be moved from its current state of imperfection to a state of perfection within days at very little cost? Why do some authors consider this a reasonable expectation?

An error-free manuscript should be the goal for which an editor should strive, but it should not become an albatross. It is unreasonable, I think, to demand perfection from someone else when you do not produce it yourself. But if you are going to demand editorial perfection, be prepared to define what constitutes an error in advance and who and what shall be the arbiters of right versus wrong (error vs. nonerror), to accept an open-ended schedule, and to provide an unlimited budget at a reasonable (to the editor) rate of pay.

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