An American Editor

January 18, 2016

The Zen of Editing: Tales of the Pen Master

by Jack Lyon

If you’ve ever read much about Zen Buddhism, you’re probably aware of its strange but wonderful stories of masters, monks, and enlightenment. Here is an example:

The Emperor asked Zen Master Gudo, “What happens to a man of enlightenment after death?”

“How should I know?” replied Gudo.

“Because you are a master,” answered the Emperor.

“Yes,” Gudo said, “but not a dead one.”

In that spirit, here are some tales not of the Zen master but rather of the Pen master, whose job is to open the minds of editors everywhere. As is usual in Zen tradition, each story is followed by enlightened commentary.

Following the Precepts

An assistant editor went before the Pen master, saying, “Lo, these many years I have faithfully followed the precepts in Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style. Why am I not yet enlightened?”

“Because,” said the master, “you have faithfully followed the precepts in Garner’s Modern American Usage and The Chicago Manual of Style.”

In true Zen spirit, this story illustrates the importance of following the rules and not following the rules. Editors have “rules” for an important reason — to make sure that the author’s intended meaning is clearly communicated to readers in a consistent, coherent way. But blindly following the “rules” can also result in miscommunication. That is why, since its initial publication in 1906, The Chicago Manual of Style has included the following disclaimer: “Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

Editing Is More Than Mechanics

One day the Pen master was passing an assistant’s cubicle.

“Oh, master,” said the assistant, “I’m so glad you came by. Look at this wonderful new editing software. It flags incomplete sentences, finds dangling modifiers, and much more. With this software, the manuscript practically edits itself!”

“Interesting,” said the master. “How does it know when a paragraph should be deleted?”

Editing is not simply a matter of mechanics; if it were, a computer could do it. Fortunately for editors, a human mind is required. At the Editorium, I create and sell Microsoft Word add-ins to help editors do their work. These add-ins, to some degree, automate parts of the editing process. But in the end, cognitive judgment is needed to decide which parts should be automated and which should not, and if any of the automated parts should in some cases be overridden. In addition, there are many parts of the process that simply cannot be automated. Language is complex and subtle, and something as small as a misplaced comma can literally make the difference between life and death (as in a medical journal).

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

An assistant editor was reading a manuscript that had already been gone over by the Pen master. To her surprise, the manuscript contained not a single correction.

Questioning the master about this, the assistant remarked, “You said you had edited this manuscript, but it contains no corrections at all.”

“Nevertheless,” said the master, “now that I’m finished with it, the manuscript is perfect.”

What if you went completely through a manuscript without making a single correction, because, as far as you could tell, no corrections were needed? Would you have done your job? I believe that you would have. An editor’s job is not to make corrections; an editor’s job is to make sure the writing is clear, and if it is, no corrections are needed. Of course, in real life, that is probably never the case. But it’s an interesting thing to think about.

Something Is Always Broke

An assistant brought a new book, hot off the press, to the Pen master. “Master, look!” she said. “The book is beautiful! The cover is bright and attractive, the marketing copy is appealing, the typography is excellent. Surely this is the finest book we have ever published.”

The master opened the book to a random page. “Read the first line,” he said.

“‘When this matter came to the attention of the pubic …’”

These are the things that haunt our lives. I started my publishing career as a proofreader at a university press. On prominent display in our office was a book on whose cover the title had been misspelled — a reminder of the need for constant vigilance on every part of the book during every part of the publishing process. At a later job, thousands of copies of a publication ended up being shredded because of a photograph that should not have been included. So pay attention! As a famous Zen story (a real one) teaches:

A student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.”

Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.”

The student said, “Is that all?”

The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.”

The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.”

In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word attention mean?”

Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”

(Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen. [New York: HarperCollins, 1993], 168.)

Editing Reveals Meaning

After receiving his edited manuscript for review, the author was furious. “How dare you!” he said to the Pen master. “This manuscript is covered with corrections.”

“You must not look at the corrections,” said the master. “You must look at the meaning behind the corrections.”

Here we have the opposite case from the one above, where nearly everything needs fixing. Again, however, the process is not about correcting “errors”; the process is about making sure that the author is clear — and not just to the reader. An editor is not out of place to say to an author, “You seem to be saying this, but what I think you really mean is this. Is that right?” It’s all about meaning.

It is not the editor’s place, however, to add meaning, to “improve” the author’s ideas. Editors who feel the need to do so should write their own books.

Context Matters

An editor and a designer were arguing about which was more important, layout or words.

“The layout is finished,” said the designer. “You’ll need to edit the wording to fit.”

“The editing is finished,” said the editor. “You’ll need to change the design to accommodate.”

Finally, they took their argument before the Pen master, who looked at them severely. “What matters is neither the design nor the words,” he said. “What matters is the meaning.”

“And how does one know the meaning?” asked the editor.

“By looking at the design and the words.”

And this is what makes publishing so interesting — and so difficult. The meaning of a word or a sentence or a paragraph always depends on what’s going on around it. Ideas are not fixed; as we change the words or design of a publication, meanings change too, so we must be constantly on our guard.

A student once asked Zen master Shunryu Suzuki, “Can you reduce Buddhism to one phrase?” His reply was spontaneous and profound: “Everything changes.” (David Chadwick, Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teachings of Shunryu Suzuki [New York: Broadway Books, 1999], xii.)

Here’s another of my Pen Master stories that illustrates the same principle:

One day an assistant came to the Pen master for help with an awkward sentence.

“No matter what I do, I can’t seem to fix this sentence,” he said. “If I delete a word, the sentence no longer makes sense. If I add a word, the sentence seems bloated.”

“If fixing the sentence doesn’t fix it,” the master replied, “perhaps it doesn’t need fixing.”

The next day, the assistant came to the Pen master for help with another awkward sentence.

“Again,” he said, “I can’t seem to fix this sentence. If I delete a word, the sentence no longer makes sense. If I add a word, the sentence seems bloated.”

The master picked up his pen and deleted the sentence entirely. “There,” he said. “Now the fixing is fixed.”

The following day, after a sleepless night, the assistant came again to the Pen master.

“The first day, you said the sentence didn’t need fixing. The next day, you simply deleted the sentence. How does one know when to fix, when to stet, and when to delete?”

The master looked at him shrewdly. “It doesn’t depend on the sentence; it depends on the sentences around it.”

Thinking to outwit the master, the assistant replied, “And what if there are no sentences around it? Then how does one know what to do?”

The master gave a great sigh. “One doesn’t,” he said.

Sometimes It Doesn’t Matter

An assistant came to the Pen master for advice about reconciling proofs.

“One proofreader fixes an error one way; another fixes the error another way,” said the assistant. “Which way is right?”

“Neither is right; neither is wrong,” said the master. “What matters is that the error was fixed.”

Editors sometimes argue about the “right” way to fix something. But in the end, it may not matter as long as the meaning is clear. There are other considerations, of course, such as elegance, euphony, and even beauty. But these are in the realm of enlightenment beyond enlightenment.

What Is Perfection?

An author brought her manuscript to the Pen master. “This new book is my masterpiece,” she said. “It needs no editing at all; it is perfect just as it is.”

“Truly the book in your mind is perfect,” said the master. “But this is not the book in your mind.”

The real job of an editor is to capture what an author means to say and convey that meaning intact into the mind of the reader. This, of course, is impossible in reality, but that doesn’t keep us from trying, and sometimes we may come close. As the Zen masters say, “Practice itself is enlightenment.”

Subhuti was Buddha’s disciple. He was able to understand the potency of emptiness, the viewpoint that nothing exists except in its relationship of subjectivity and objectivity.

One day Subhuti, in a mood of sublime emptiness, was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him.

“We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,” the gods whispered to him.

“But I have not spoken of emptiness,” said Subhuti.

“You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,” responded the gods. “This is true emptiness.” And blossoms showered upon Subhuti as rain.

(Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, comps., Zen Flesh, Zen Bones [Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 1985], 53.)

Jack Lyon ( owns and operates the Editorium, which provides macros and information to help editors and publishers do mundane tasks quickly and efficiently. He is the author of Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Wildcard Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and of Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word. Both books will help you learn more about macros and how to use them.

June 4, 2014

Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing

I am currently reading David Edmonds’ Would You Kill the Fat Man?: The Trolley Problem and What Your Answer Tells Us about Right and Wrong (2013). The book focuses on what has become known as the trolley problem, which goes like this (the following is a summary of Phillippa Foot’s original thought experiment from the 1960s, which subsequently morphed into the “Fat Man” variation, as well as other variations):

The trolley is coming down the track and you are standing by a switch. If the trolley remains on the current track, it will kill five people who are tied to the track and cannot escape. If you throw the switch, the trolley will veer onto a spur on which one person is tied and will kill that one person, but the five people will be saved. Do you/should you throw the switch?

This is the conundrum of right and wrong, which underlies most religious and moral beliefs.

Reading this book made me think of editing ethics. I grant that the decisions we have to make are not of life and death, but still, they can be weighty and certainly raise the specter of morally and ethically right and wrong behavior.

Is the absence of the conundrum equivalent to saying that there is no ethical or unethical behavior, there is just behavior? Is this a conundrum for philosophers to quarrel over but that has no particular value outside the philosophical debates? As with most philosophical questions, there are only philosophical answers, any of which can be correct at a given moment in time.

I think few of us would say that editing (of all stripes, including proofreading) raises such philosophical conundrums that we grind to a halt as we consider them and discuss them with colleagues. Over the past 30 years, I have had editing-related “philosophical” discussions with colleagues only on a handful of occasions, and those discussions were rarely earth moving.

I suppose our initial foray into the conundrum is whether we are competent to handle the project being offered. This is not about our competency in general as an editor, but our competency specifically for the project in question. For example, we work alone, there are 3,000 manuscript pages to be edited; they require a “heavy” edit; the subject matter is a sub-sub-subspecialty area of nuclear physics, an area with which we have no familiarity; the manuscript is heavy in math, which we know is a weakness; the schedule is six weeks and cannot be extended, which means we would have to edit 500 manuscript pages a week, yet the best we have ever done is 300. The project is for a long-time client who pays very well (more than any other client we have) and will pay double our usual rate. Finally, if we do not accept this project, we currently have nothing else to fill the time, although it is always possible for something to come along. Also, the project still will have to be done by someone — and that someone might be even less qualified.

What do we do? Some of us will immediately decline, outlining our reasons for the client. Some of us will accept and hope that we can convince the client to extend the deadline. Some of us will simply accept and hope that we do a satisfactory job. Some of us will accept and try to find colleagues to work on the manuscript with us. Regardless of which path we take, I suspect that most of us would think more about the practical problems than the philosophical problems associated with the project offer.

But should we be so focused on the practical problems, or should we have already had a philosophical discussion about such a situation and have our moral and ethical compass already set to give an answer to the offer? My thinking tends toward the latter.

The job offer raises many of ethical questions. Should an editor accept work in unfamiliar subject areas? What makes up an unfamiliar subject area? How much depth of knowledge in a subject area does an editor need to accept an offer? (For example, do we need to have studied Jewish writings regarding the Talmud for years to be able to edit a book on Jewish philosophy that arises from the Talmud? Do we need to be able to cite the German order of battle before we agree to edit a book on the German offensive in World War I? Should we have at least a nursing degree before we edit a medical text intended for nursing students?)

Should our decision be based on schedule and our past history with regard to schedule? That is, if the schedule requires 500 edited pages per week but the most we have ever done is 300, are we morally obligated to turn down the project because we have never accomplished that speed before? Or is this one of those ethical considerations that need to be given some weight, but not much weight because we can find techniques that will speed up our editing? Which raises the question of whether we would be substituting technique for skill.

Let us not forget the money part. The offer comes with more money than usual — a doubling of our normal fee. Why? Is it not the client’s recognition of the difficulty of the project and the client’s method of incentivizing us to undertake what appears to be a difficult project? How much should the fee offered govern our decision-making process? If we were to prioritize elements of the offer, where would we place fee?

I know that some of us would say that before approaching these or any other question about the offer, they would insist on seeing a few chapters to make their own decision about the project’s difficulty. Even if chapters are chosen at random, how much can we learn from them? The two or three chapters randomly chosen could be the most difficult to edit, the longest, the shortest, the easiest to edit, or something else that would unduly influence a positive or negative reaction. Such a review could (and likely would) divert us from addressing the more important underlying ethical and moral questions.

In a sense, that is exactly the problem: We editors do not have a universal code of morality or ethics that serves as a guide to any of the editorial decisions we make, which range from whether to accept an offer to whether to bill the client for hours we didn’t actually spend on the project because we were more efficient than the client calculated we would be (in other words, the project took us 50 hours but the client expected it to take and budgeted for 75 hours. Do we bill for 50 hours or 75 hours?).

In the absence of such ethical codes, editors tend to approach the job-offer problem from the practical side rather than the philosophical side. Granted, in our instance, unlike in the trolley problem, there is no balancing of life versus death(s). And I also grant that in the trolley problem the dilemma has a cultural/religious element (substitute for the trolley problem the abortion problem and its variations) that editing will rarely face (an exception being, perhaps, the offer to edit a virulently anti-Semitic book that calls for a new genocide). Yet I think we — and our clients and profession — would gain greatly were we to have this discussion and come to a consensus on what constitutes ethical and moral behavior for an editor and what doesn’t.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

August 28, 2013

What is Editing?

Have you ever wondered what editing really is? Or about what course of study is best for preparing for an editing career?

The practical answer to the latter is that it doesn’t matter what you study because education is valuable and broadening; experience matters more. But when backed to the wall, my answer, unlike that of many of my colleagues, is that the best courses of study are philosophy and law.

The reason is because of what editing is. Editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application. I suppose a little context would be helpful.

The matter arose in a discussion on LinkedIn in which I suggested philosophy as the best course of study and another member suggested linguistics. Linguistics is a wonderful field and certainly of great interest to editors, but it is a structural field. True, it wonders about word origins as well as how words are used, but its focus is the structure and lineage of language.

Philosophy and law, on the other hand, focus not on structure but on how to think. Both are “argumentative” fields — Does a god exist? If I don’t see you, do you really exist? What is my place in society? — What role should/does X play in social affairs? — that require thinking about all sides of a question. The difference, I think, between the philosophy-trained thinker and the linguistics-trained thinker is the difference between the average chess player and the chess champion. We all can learn to play chess and even to play it well; few of us, however, can master the advance thinking techniques required to be a grandmaster.

(Before I stray too far afield, let me reiterate that all education is good and all education can prepare a person for the intellectual challenges of editing. What we are discussing is the hierarchy.)

Much of editing is structure-oriented, such as grammar and spelling, and coding manuscript. Structure is mechanical and can be self-taught or picked up in a couple of courses on, for example, grammar. I grant that it is the rare person who develops that same depth and breadth of knowledge about the structural issues via self-learning or a couple of entry-level courses as would be obtained from the rigors of a university major in linguistics, but how much is really needed for editing, especially as editing is the art of language compromise, not the art of strict structure application.

Over my 30 years as an editor, what I have most realized about some of my editor colleagues is that they are very capable of applying the “rules” of language. Where they are weak, and what I think often distinguishes the good, competent editor from the great editor, is that they are unable to “think” about what they are editing. They are unable to grasp a broader picture by, for example, putting themselves in the shoes of a variety of readers or by analyzing a text from multiple angles. To use another metaphor, most editors are like professional baseball players in that they are the better, more professional, more able players from the pool of would-be professional players, but are not the superstars who are an even more finite group. Baseball fans recall Willie Mays, for example, but how many of his teammates on the 1954 World Series team do we remember?

It is this “thinking” ability that I believe philosophy and law teach but that linguistics and other study disciplines do not. Linguistics will teach us how to ascertain the origins of all the variations of “god,” but not to think about what “god” means in the context of the manuscript and as being conveyed to the variety of hoped-for readers of the published manuscript. Linguistics doesn’t really teach the art of communication as much as it teaches the science of communication, but editing is (or should be, I think) more concerned with the art than the science.

I am not suggesting that the science of editing is unimportant. Knowing what punctuation to use where and when is very important in making sure that the author’s meaning is correctly understood (using Lynne Truss’s famous example, is it “eats shoots and leaves” or “eats, shoots, and leaves”?). Knowing whether the right word is being used to convey the intended meaning is equally important, as is choosing among the homophones (does the author mean to, too, or two?). And good editors do these tasks well and correctly. For the most part, I suspect, this is the job for which most editors are hired. And this is the job for which most education prepares us.

Yet there can be more to editing than just those tasks. And, for many of us, when we suggest rewriting a sentence or a paragraph or reordering paragraphs or chapters, we are embarking on that additional path. As we gain experience, we begin to think differently about language and its use. I know that the editing I did 30 years ago is not as good as the editing I do today; those intervening years have taught me many things and exposed me to many new ways of looking at language. The more I read and learn, the better editor I become.

But even 30 years ago I had the advantage of having been trained to think analytically. That is the legacy of a philosophy and law education: It is not what to think, but how to think. What I think about is of little importance to philosophy; the methodology of thinking about it is important.

Editing is a combination of structure and philosophy; it is not one without the other. The more accomplished one is as an editor, the more skilled one is at both prongs. Most of us begin our editing careers strong in one prong but not the other, and we build strength in both prongs as we gain experience. But if asked what is the best course of study for a wannabe editor, my answer is philosophy or law because it is learning how to think that is hardest to master.

Once we have mastered how to think about language, we learn that editing is more the art of language compromise and less the science of applying rules.

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