An American Editor

April 1, 2015

The Makings of an Unprofessional Editor

I like to think that all of my colleagues are professionals. I take pride in my editing career and in my skills as an editor. Thus, when confronted with editorial rigidity, I shudder and think “there goes an unprofessional editor.”

What brings this to mind are posts in another forum in which a “professional” editor declared that using a comma before “and” (as in a serial [Oxford] comma) is always wrong and that the very first thing the editor does is search for those commas to delete them. Another editor stated that she refuses to work with authors who are unwilling to accept as gospel her punctuation decisions, including removal of that pesky comma.

If you ask editors with opinions such as these the basis for their position, it usually boils down to “that’s the rule and rules are rules, made to be adhered to, not broken!” Grammatical rigidity is not, in my book, the sign of a professional editor.

First, think about the rule of no serial commas. If strictly applied, it would be “I thank my parents, John Jones and God,” which is easily interpreted as Jones and God being the parents. Perhaps Jones and God are the parents but what if they are not? What if the thank you was supposed to be “I thank my parents, John Jones, and God,” which is interpretable as “my parents and also Jones and God.” The obvious point is that rigidity in application of editorial rules does not always produce the correct textual meaning.

Second, think about the rules themselves. It is not possible to ascribe them immortality. Language changes, especially English, perhaps French less so thanks to its language academy, and if language changes but the rules do not, we get the awkward constructions that often occur when the “rule” against splitting infinitives or the “rule” prohibiting ending a sentence with a preposition is arbitrarily applied.

Of course, the easy response is that it is today’s rules that are applied today, not yesterday’s rules. But how did yesterday’s rules become yesterday’s rules? Some professional editor had to show flexibility; in the absence of such flexibility no one would have been exposed to the change that is today.

There are many problems with inflexible editors, that is, editors who apply rules so rigidly it is hard to understand what the role of the editor is. Inflexible editors are like computer macros — they see something that fits the pattern and assume that they have the cure. Professional editors use tracking because we know that someone else (usually the author) may well have a different opinion and want to undo the changes we made.

Unprofessional editors are a problem for professional editors because they inspire their clients to complain loudly in public forums about poor editing and how much better it would have been had the client self-edited. They are a problem because they tend to cheapen the value of editing.

More importantly, unprofessional editors loudly proclaim what they are doing and thus influence other editors. There is nothing more heartbreaking as an editor to see another editor emulate an unprofessional editor, thinking that is the correct path to take.

There are lots of roads that will lead one down the path of unprofessionalism. Being unethical in one’s dealings with clients and colleagues is certainly such a road. But the more common road is rigidity in thinking and in applying “rules.” I think this road is also the more dangerous for the editorial profession.

How many times has an author posted a comment saying “I used to hire editors until I found that they were all bad” and then listing the reasons why they were bad editors, with a common one being inflexible thinking and rigid application of “rules.”

When I speak with these editors, I often ask if they understand how the “rules” came into being, what they represent, and how evolving language requires flexibility. I find that I am always disappointed in the responses. If I ask which rule book they are following, and then ask why they are not following a different rule book, the response is usually one that asks “Are you crazy? Everyone knows that the book I follow is the book to follow!”

We’ve discussed this before (see, e.g., “Dealing with Editor’s Bias,” “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line,” “On Language: Are There Rules?,” and “What Do Editors Forget Most Often?“). The style guides and grammar books and usage books change. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, is in its 16th edition. What would be the need for 16 revisions if language, usage, and grammar didn’t change over time?

If the guides we use need to show flexibility, shouldn’t the editor who uses the guides also show some flexibility? Isn’t flexibility a key attribute of professionalism? Isn’t the ultimate test that the reader understands the author’s message?

I may be parochial in my thinking, but I find it difficult to comprehend how the application of a “rule” either furthers in all instances a reader’s understanding of an author’s message or makes the editor anything more than a robot. To me, the difference between a professional and an unprofessional editor is the editor’s decision making: The unprofessional editor does not need to make editorial decisions because those decisions have already been made for him; the editor only needs to apply them mechanically. The professional editor, however, needs to know the “rule” and needs to make the decision, in each instance, whether to apply or not apply the “rule.” The professional editor needs to make editorial decisions.

I make hundreds of editorial decisions in every project and I am prepared to defend my decisions. I let guides guide me, acting as advisors to inform my decision-making process. I do not let guides be the decision maker; that is what I am being paid to do — to make editorial decisions.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 4, 2015

The Business of Editing: Correcting “Errors”

In my previous two essays, “The Business of Editing: Wildcarding for Dollars” and “The Business of Editing: Journals, References, & Dollars“, I discussed two ways to improve efficiency and increase profitability by using macros. Today’s essay digresses and discusses correcting earlier-made errors.

I need to put errors between quote marks — “errors” — because I am using the term to encompass not only true errors but changes in editorial decisions, decisions that are not necessarily erroneous but that after reflection may not have been the best decision.

Once again, however, I am also talking about a tool available in EditTools: the Multifile Find in the Find & Replace Master macro. The F&R Master macro has two parts, as shown below: the Sequential F&R Active Doc and Multifile Find (to see an image in greater detail, click on the image to enlarge it):

Sequential F&R Manager

Sequential F&R Manager

 

Multifile Find Manager

Multifile Find Manager

Today’s discussion is focused on the Multifile Find macro, but the Sequential is worth a few words.

The Sequential F&R works on the active document. It is intended for those times when you know that you want to run a series of finds and replaces. If you are working on a book and it is evident that the author does certain things consistently that need changing, you can use this macro to put together several items that are to be changed sequentially and you can save the criteria so that you can reuse them again in the next document. I often find that, for example, authors use an underlined angle bracket rather than the symbol ≤ or ≥. I created a F&R for these items that I can run before editing a document to replace the underlined versions with the correct symbols.

For editorial “errors” I have made, however, it is the Multifile Find macro that is important.

As I have said many times, I tend to work on large documents. The documents tend to be multiauthored and each chapter is its own file. Sometimes I am able to work on chapters sequentially, but more often they come to me in haphazard order. Consequently, I have to make editorial decisions as I edit a chapter that may well affect earlier chapters that have yet to arrive. And it may be that if I had had the ability to edit the earlier-in-sequence chapter first, I would have made a different editorial decision.

For a recent example, consider “mixed lineage kinase.” My original decision was to leave it unhyphenated, but as I edited additional chapters my thoughts changed and I decided it really should be “mixed-lineage kinase.” But as is usual with these kinds of things, I had already edited another half dozen chapters when I changed my decision. In addition, by that time, I also had edited close to 40 chapters and I couldn’t remember in which chapters “mixed lineage” appeared.

The Ethical Questions First

The first questions to be dealt with are the ethical questions: First, is “mixed lineage kinase” so wrong that it can’t simply be left and future instances of “mixed-lineage” changed to the unhyphenated form? Second, if it needs to be changed to the hyphenated form, do I need to go back and change the incorrect versions or can I just notify the client and hope the proofreader will fix the problem? Third, if the future versions are to be hyphenated, can I just leave the unhyphenated versions and hope no one notices?

We each run our business differently, but number one on my list of good business practices is good ethics. In this case, the third option, to me, is wholly unacceptable. It is not even something I would contemplate except for purposes of this essay. A professional, ethical editor does not fail to accept responsibility for decisions she makes; he does not attempt to hide them. The decisions are faced squarely and honestly and dealt with, even if it means a future loss of business from the client.

The first and second options are less clear. In the first instance, I need to make an editorial decision and abide by it. Whether to hyphenate or not isn’t really an ethical question except to the extent that it forces me to decide whether to overtly or covertly make a change. The world will not crumble over the hyphenation issue. Hyphenation does make the phrase clearer (especially in context), so ultimately, I think the editorial decision has to fall on the side of hyphenation being “essential”; I cannot skirt my obligation to do the best editing job I can by omitting future hyphenation, which means I need to go back and fix my “errors.”

The crux of the ethical question is really the second option. This depends on circumstances. If, for example, I know that the earlier edited material has already been set in pages, it makes no sense to resend corrected files. A note to the client is needed. If they have yet to be set, then new files are the order of business plus advising the client. The key is the advising of the client and identifying where the errors occur. I think that is the ethical obligation: for the editor to identify to the client exactly where the errors are to be found so that they can easily be corrected and to provide new files at the client’s request.

Multifile Find and “Errors”

This is where Multifile Find (MFF) comes into play. MFF will search all the files in a folder for phrases and words. You can have it search for and find up to 10 items at a time and you can have it do one of two things: either it can find the wanted phrase and generate a report telling you where it is found and how many times it is found or it can find the phrase, pause to let you correct the phrase, and then find the next instance. I generally generate the report first. An example of a report for “mixed lineage” is shown here:

Mixed Lineage Report

Mixed Lineage Report

The report tells you name of the document in which the phrase is found, the page it is found on, and how many times it occurs on that page. With this report, you can manually open the named files, go to the appropriate page, and decide whether a particular occurrence needs to be corrected. If I am not sure whether the client can use corrected files, I send the client a copy of this report along with my mea culpa.

If I think the client might be able to use corrected files, I correct them and send the files, the report, and my mea culpa.

Multifile Find Update Files Option

If I know the client can use the corrected files because, for example, pages have not yet been set, I send the corrected files and an explanation of why I am sending revised files. But in this instance I use the MFF update option rather than generate report option:

Multifile Find Replace Option

Multifile Find Replace Option

The update option requires a few different steps than the generate report option. The biggest difference is that you need to save the find criteria for the update option; you do not need to do so for the generate report option.

I enter the find term in the first field (#1 in image above). I also need to check the Inc? (for Include?) box (#2). Only those terms listed that also are checked will be searched for. If I do not want the current active file also searched (assuming it is in the selected search directory), I check the box at #3, which is also where I select the search directory. Because I want to update the files, not generate a report, I check Update files (#4). I then Save my find criteria (#5).

The way the macro works, is that it will first search the files for the first listed find term. When that is done, it will proceed to the next listed term. As you can see, you can list up to 10 terms to sequentially find.

Finally,, I click Run (#6) and the macro will begin searching files in the selected directory until it comes to the first instance of the find term. When it finds a match it displays the following message:

Find Message

Find Message

In the file, it highlights the found term as shown here:

Highlighted Find Text

Highlighted Find Text

I can either insert my hyphen or click OK in the Find Message dialog to find the next instance. If I insert the hyphen in our example, I then need to click OK in the Find Message dialog to go to the next instance. When there are no more instances to be found in the particular file, a message asking if you want to save the changed file:

Save Changes?

Save Changes?

The macro then proceeds to the next file in which it finds the term and the process continues until the term is no longer found or you cancel the process.

Saving Time and Making Profit

Again, I think it is clear how the right macro can save an editor time and make editing more profitable. In my experience, it is the rare editor who doesn’t have a change of mind the further along she is in editing a project. I think it is a sign of a professional editor. But editing is a business and as a business it needs to make a profit. One way to do so is to minimize the time and effort needed to correct “errors” and to do so in a professional and ethical manner.

Over the years, I have found that using Multifile Find has not only enhanced my profitability, but it has enhanced my reputation as professional editor because my clients know that I am not only willing to recognize that I have made a mistake, but I am willing to correct it. One reason I am willing to correct a mistake is that it doesn’t take me hours to do so; I can do it efficiently with EditTools’ Multifile Find.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Related An American Editor essays are:

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January 14, 2015

Dealing with Editor’s Bias

The one thing, aside from my being a professional editor and not just an editor, that I like to think I am is bias-free. Of course, that is more wishful thinking than reality.

Reality runs more like this: Every editor is biased. The important question is: Do I recognize my biases? If I do not recognize my biases, I fail to provide the quality and level of service my client pays me for.

Which raises another question: Is there a relationship between bias control and fee being earned? That is, is a high-paying client entitled to greater effort on my part to control my biases than is a low-paying client?

From the beginning — every editor is biased. We have subject-matter biases, client biases, and editorial biases, among a world of other biases. Client and subject-matter biases are easily dealt with: we simply do not (hopefully) undertake projects in areas we abhor or from clients we cannot stand. For most of us, the problematic area is editorial biases.

One of my editorial biases is “due to.” How I hate that phrase. Yes, it does have a proper place and use, and then it should be crowned king. But authors use “due to” to mean so many different things that it has come to represent the sign of a lazy author. The author may be brilliant — a genius in the field — but the author who uses due to as a substitute is lazy. And to my way of thinking, the editor who (speaking nonfiction, not fiction) doesn’t try to replace the vagueness of “due to” with the more precise and accurate term it is substituting for is even lazier than the author.

There are at least 20 alternatives for “due to” and each alternative carries important connotations and levels of precision. The point is that I know I have a bias against the use of “due to” and instead want more precise language used so that the reader does not have to guess at which alternative is meant.

I also prefer precision in time; I have a time bias. For example, I dislike when an author writes “in recent years” or “in the past 20 years.” Using this type of time reference allows the time to shift. The shift occurs because the reference was made when the author was writing the sentence, which could have been 5 years ago or 2 days ago, but doesn’t allow for the passage of time since the writing of those words, or for the editing and production time until publication, or for the book’s expected several-year shelf-life.

There are other words I have a bias against, such as “since” as a substitute for “because” and “about” as a substitute for “approximately.” Many of us also have biases when it comes to hyphenation (is it “co-author” or “coauthor”? “copy-edit” or “copyedit”?). I am aware of my biases and try to be judicious in my application of the biases. Where it doesn’t affect understanding or meaning, I weigh whether or not to act on my bias. Quite often that decision is made based on the subject matter and complexity of the book I am editing.

Yet, there is one more constraint on the exercise of my biases: Can I justify my decision to act/not act? Justification does not include “I like it better” or “It looks better to me.” Clearly, “due to” is liked better and looks better to the author. My justification for changing “due to” is grounded in clarity/precision versus vagueness/imprecision.

Yet, in discussions with colleagues, I find that the answer depends on whether what I view as editorial biases are viewed as a bias or as basic grammar/editing matters. That is, if the colleague believes that word choice is not a matter of bias but purely a matter of usage or grammar, the colleague sees no reason to either think about the issue or to exercise control. Thus, in the case of “due to,” the colleague would rarely, if ever, change or query its use. For such colleague, “since” is always properly used to convey the passing of time and as meaning “because.”

I asked earlier if there is a relationship between my control of my biases and the fee paid by the client. The answer is “no.” Regardless of how much I am being paid, I should always control my biases because my role is to help the author, not substitute for the author. From an ethical perspective, “no” is the only correct answer.

For colleagues who do not view these things as editorial biases, the question does not arise. It only arises for those of us who take the time to consider whether “since” is being used to convey a sense of time or as a substitute for “because.” It becomes an issue for us because the longer we take in deciding what “due to” is substituting for, the less money we will earn if we are on a per-page or project fee rather than an hourly basis.

A final thought: To do a proper editing job, we need to create and maintain a project stylesheet. It is appropriate to include in the stylesheet the “rules” we are following when it comes to our biases. Alternatively, we could insert a note, in the form of a query, at the first instance in which we explain the rule we are following. For example, the following could be used either as a note to the author or as a stylesheet explanation:

Although in today’s English “since” and “because” are considered synonymous, I adhere to the rule that “since” is used to express the passage of time, as in “since 2000,” and the terms are not synonymous. I adhere to this rule because I believe it makes your meaning both clearer and more precise, and considering the subject matter, clarity and precision are important tools for ensuring there is no miscommunication between you and your reader.

Do you recognize your editorial biases? How do you deal with them?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 1, 2014

What a Tale We Tell

Editing is intended to provide the polish to a story. Cicero gave three reasons for telling a story: “to teach, to please, to move.” Although these are not all of the reasons to tell a story, they do form a sound foundation for telling of all types of tales. Editors take the rough tale and polish it so that the tale does teach, please, and move a reader.

As has been noted many times on An American Editor, editing is a craft. One cannot simply hang out a shingle and magically have the skills to change carbon to diamond. Editors sharpen their skills with each manuscript they work on. How well we polish a manuscript tells a lot about how good an editor we are.

We all are familiar with those books that blatantly boast of poor editing. Yet some of those badly written and even more badly edited (assuming they were edited at all) manuscripts sell well. Why is that? It is because the consumer/reader has been poorly educated and doesn’t recognize dreck when she reads it. (It is also because them author has connected with readers regardless of whether the book is editorially perfect.)

And it seems that things are getting worse, not better. Increasingly, I find editors lack the fundamental skills needed to be editors and business people — they lack both the editing skills and the business skills, a very deadly combination — but they do have one very important attribute: They can be hired cheaply.

And therein lies the tale of editing.

Editing probably began with contracts and disputes over contractual terms. Two people without advanced authorial skills probably wrote and signed a contract and discovered when brought before a third person that what they thought they had written, they hadn’t. As the need for clear expression grew, so grew the editorial profession. We may have been called other things, such as scribe or lawyer or priest, but whatever we were called, our role was to bring clarity to chaos.

Over the years, greater skillsets were needed and editors rose to the occasion. We were among the educated classes, and in those eras, class stratification ensured that editors had distinct skills. Not anyone could be an editor.

Then came the shift in philosophy. No longer were classes based on education. Education became free and universal. Everyone who wanted to be an editor had the opportunity to learn the necessary basic skills. The original editors had to learn every task and skill intimately and had to have mastery over language; there were no electronic aids to provide a crutch as a foundation.

The twentieth century became the great leveler; education became universal. What counted was how much education an editor received and the editor’s grasp of language and vocabulary. The editorial eye had to be sharp because there wasn’t a tool available that could point out misspellings or wrong usage except the editor’s eyes and brain.

The late twentieth century brought a revolution to the special status of editors. First came grade inflation — everyone got an A for effort. Then came personal computers with squiggly lines beneath alleged misspellings. The combination of these two at the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first centuries finally leveled the ground to a perfectly flat line. Editing became a profession of whoever wanted to be called an editor; elitism was destroyed.

Amidst that destruction one hoped that editing would suffer a rebirth, have a phoenix moment, but that is not what happened. Instead, the bane of civilization occurred — a worldwide recession. With it came job losses, yet people still had bills to pay and food to buy. Combine the Great Recession with the greatest equalizer of all time, the Internet, and a deadly cocktail for professional editors was born — the door swung wide for the exponential growth of the numbers of editors.

With that growth in numbers of editors came competition for editing assignments. Competition was done on the only known basis for competition: price. Every publisher, regardless of size and including the self-publishing indie author, wanted lower costs, which meant that hidden services, like editing, suffered greatly. Yet, surprisingly, the number of editors didn’t decrease — it increased. So, editors began competing on price.

The more editors competing, the lower the price. Ultimately, the price became a drag on the profession. Increasingly, professional editors struggled. Increasingly, there was author dissatisfaction with the quality of the editing received. Interestingly, an increasing number of book reviewers noted poor editing.

Editors are on the brink of becoming commodities. The link between professional editors and quality editing is being stretched thin — so thin that eventually it will break.

I know that many AAE readers will read this and say this is not true, this isn’t happening to them. They are still both important and relevant to their clients. But if you look at the broader picture and try to see down Future Road, you will see that the walls within which lies the editor’s craft are being assaulted and weakened by the ease with which one can hang out an editor’s shingle that says “open for business.”

We need to write a different ending to this tale while the ending is still in flux. Professional editors need to support more stringent educational standards so that upcoming workers have the intellectual skills and exposure to be good editors. As noted in earlier essays, we need to support and advance certification and education for editors. We need to sell ourselves to the publishing industry as necessary and needed participants in the production process. We must make the case for the differences between professional and amateur editing. Above all, we must believe we are relevant and proclaim it.

We need to absorb some lessons from accomplished authors. The diligence that goes into an author’s telling of a tale is waiting to be learned by editors for application to the editorial process. We need to make sure that the story we tell about professional editing teaches the value of editing and professional editors; that the tale is told in such a way as to capture the imagination of publishers and authors; and that there is a pathway to move from amateur to recognized professional.

In the continued absence of telling our story, our profession will continue to decline. Our standards will become ever more lax and our income ever lower. As that occurs, our skills will decline. Ultimately, future clients will see no need for professional editors; future clients will do as nonprofessional editors do — run spell check and call it editing.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

September 22, 2014

On the Basics: A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

You don’t have to be a Girl or Boy Scout for “Be prepared” to matter. It’s also an excellent rule of business for a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, or other publishing/editorial professional.

For any freelancer (and most in-house editorial professionals as well), “be prepared” means some, if not all, of the following.

  • Create and maintain a stash of cash or a credit-card balance to cover emergencies — a computer crash, printer breakdown, phone foul-up, even e-mail outage (you might have to rent time at a cyber café to stay in touch with or send assignments to clients), not to mention family crises.
  • Have the right tools at hand — equipment (computer, software, printer), reference books, style manuals (both print and online), paper, pens and pencils (some of us do still write in long-hand, or get asked to edit or proofread on paper), fax capability (either a machine and phone line or an e-version) — whatever is essential to get your work done.
  • Put together a backup system so you’re ready to cope in an emergency. Have a laptop if you usually work on a desktop machine, and a second laptop, tablet, or other device if you do all your work on a laptop and it conks out; extra printer cartridges or toner; both disk and download versions of essential software so you can power back up after a crash; places to go — cybercafé, public library, co-working site — in a power outage or equipment breakdown; trusted colleagues in case you (or a spouse, child, or parent) get sick when you’re on deadline. Think about what could go wrong, and try to have mechanism in place ahead of time to respond.
  • Have a website, and keep it updated. It’s an invaluable tool for promoting and building your business. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extensive, but it has to exist these days for a freelancer to succeed.
  • Update your résumé, promotional brochure, website, and online profiles regularly. Every time you have a new client (or job) or publish a new project, add it where appropriate. If you read about new trends in résumés, revamp yours accordingly. Keep current versions as Word documents and PDFs on every computer or device you use, so you can dash it off in response to every new opportunity you might see or receive and update whenever the need arises. Make sure you never have to make excuses for not being ready to respond promptly or simply miss out on the chance to be considered; timing can be everything.
  • Have a good photo of yourself. You probably will want one for your website, and you might need it for a bio to go along with an assignment, or if you’re asked to make a speech somewhere. It doesn’t have to be an expensive studio portrait; an informal, well-composed, flattering snapshot will do.
  • Have a business card; get a lot of ’em printed up and carry them with you always, including to social events, the store, wherever. You never know when it might come in handy and lead to a new client.
  • Be ready to take on assignments with little or no notice. That might mean beating instead of meeting deadlines so you have time available to accept something new with little warning, or organizing your projects so you always have some wiggle room to add something new and appealing when the opportunity shows up.
  • For when you can’t or don’t want to be available for new projects, practice ways of saying “No” (or “Thanks, but not now” if that’s more appropriate). Plan ahead to know what you prefer not to cover or work on — topics, types, or lengths of projects; kinds of clients, etc. If you think about these things ahead of time, saying no will be less intimidating and you’ll be less likely to let someone badger you into saying yes to projects you don’t want to do.
  • Develop a personal script to use with difficult, demanding clients and ones you’d rather not work with, so you don’t have to respond to them off the cuff. You’ll be more likely to protect yourself against such situations if you don’t face every one of them as new and distinct.
  • Have a template for contracts and letters of agreement, so you never forget to include important details or clauses in assignments.
  • Have a template for invoices, so it’s as easy as possible to do the billing that’s part of every independent editorial business.
  • Develop a strong network of colleagues so you have someone to turn to when you’re sick, want to take a vacation, are offered a project that doesn’t interest you or you’re too busy to accept, or want to subcontract.
  • Read, read, read! The more you read, the better prepared you will be to cope with assignments. Read newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else for both business and pleasure — they all inform and expand your skills and ability to handle assignments.
  • Have health insurance, so you and your family are protected against the costs of health emergencies.

In addition, for writers, “be prepared” means:

  • Develop an ongoing, ever-growing network of sources and contacts, so you always have someone or somewhere as a starting point for a new assignment or project. Some editors and clients will tell you whom to contact, or at least a couple of sources to include, but even the ones who give you all the names you’ll need will be impressed if you can add a couple more. If you’re writing fiction, that network might be the starting point for character names or sources of background information and other research.
  • Know the market for your kind of writing. Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace are great starting points, but look for writers’ groups — either in-person or online — to build up your knowledge base and stay tuned to news about publications that are right for your work. Conferences are also a good resource for market knowledge (and expanding your network).
  • Follow trends in publishing so you know what new ones might be best for your work and when to adopt them.

For editors and proofreaders, “be prepared” means:

  • Invest in training every year — either refresher courses or classes with new information — because trends in language, usage, tools, and technology are constantly changing, and we have to keep up with them to do our work at our best.
  • Consider learning new style manuals to be prepared to work with new types of clients or publications, just in case your current niche dries up.

Essentially, being prepared means being ready to cope with work and life emergencies, and up to date on anything that affects the work we do — or might do. Being prepared means being a better businessperson, better employee, and better freelancer.

Therefore, the commandment:

Thou shall be prepared.

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, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

July 28, 2014

The Business of Editing: Do You Tell? Ethical Considerations & Subcontracting

In a comment to an earlier essay on ethics, The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics, Teresa Barensfeld asked several questions. With her permission, I plan to give my view on some of them over the course of several essays. I begin with this question:

“Do you tell clients if you hire another freelancer to work on a job you’re doing?”

I think the formation of an answer begins with how hold yourself out to clients and your relationship with clients. How you hold yourself out to clients helps shape their expectations, and from an ethical perspective, I think it is the combination of your presentation and client expectations that determines the correct answer to this question.

It does not matter, in my view, whether you are a single-person operation or a corporation of many editors. What does matter is how you present yourself: Are you presenting yourself as a single-editor operation or as a company. We discussed the merits of solopreneurship versus company in several essays, including The Business of Editing: Why a Company?, Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (I), Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (II), and Business of Editing: Solopreneur or “Company” (III). The beginnings of the answer to the ethical concern lies in those articles.

The presentation as a solo editor is done in many ways. For example, do you use a company name or just your name? Are checks made payable to you instead of to a company name? Are electronic payments made to accounts that bear your name or a company name? Do you use a personal identification number (e.g., Social Security number) or a business tax identification number (e.g., the Employer Identification Number)? Do you answer your phone with your name or a company name? Does your email signature include only your name or does it include a business name? When asked about, for example, availability, do you speak of “my schedule” or do you indicate you will need to check whether you have “an available editor”? Does your website indicate that the only editor is you? And the list goes on.

It is these types of actions that build an expectation in clients. If you present yourself as a solo editor, which is how most freelance editors present themselves, then whether you tell clients if you hire a subcontractor depends on whether the client hired you because of your specific skills or hired you because the client needed an editor and you were available. The issue really is one of client reliance on the unique perspective that each of us has as we do our editorial magic.

Unfortunately, I do not know of a way to discern the level of the client’s reliance on individual uniqueness. Consequently, I think you should assume that you were hired for your uniqueness if you present yourself as a solo editor. If you presented yourself as being a solo editor, then I think it is reasonable for a client to expect to be told (asked?) when you subcontract.

Conversely, if you consistently present yourself as being a company, I think the client’s expectations are different. I think clients expect companies to have access to more than a single editor. Even if they do not, it is my belief that not discussing subcontracting with a client is consistent with the presentation as a company.

From an ethical perspective, in the case where you present as a company, there is no deception in taking the position that the client is hiring a company and that the company decides whom to assign to a project. This is subject to an important exception: If a client specifically asks you to undertake the editing, then, regardless of whether you present as a solo editor or a company, you are obligated to advise the client of any subcontracting and to give the client an opportunity to cancel the contract.

As I have mentioned in any number of previous essays, from the very beginning of my freelance editing career, I presented myself as a company. When approached to take on projects, I have always made it clear that I need to check “editors’ schedules” and I never promise to personally undertake a project — except when a client specifically asks, which has occasionally happened. I never discuss with clients editor assignments and I never ask if subcontracting is acceptable. I assume it is okay because the client knows I am a company. I have never had a client object; more importantly, it has often been the case that a client who hired me for one project would call again for a second or third project because the client expects me to have multiple editors.

Ultimately, as I previously indicated, I think the answer to the question lies in how you have presented your business to clients and what clients expect. I think it is unethical to not advise the client of subcontracting if the client views you as and expects you to be a solo editor because that is how you have actively presented yourself. In such a case, there is strong reason to believe that the client is hiring you personally.

In contrast, I do not think it is unethical to not advise a client of subcontracting if the client’s expectation is that you are a company. When dealing with a company, the client may hold you, as the focus of the company, responsible for problematic editing, but that is different from the issue of being notified about subcontracting.

A subsumed issue in the question, in the case of a company, goes to the arrangement between the editors. Is it an employer–employee or contactor–subcontractor relationship? And does that relationship affect the ethicality of not notifying a client that you intend to subcontract the work?

I think it makes no difference whatsoever. The employer–employee versus contactor–subcontractor relationship is a tax and insurance matter; it has no bearing on the editing. The client is still hiring the company and expects the company to have more than one editor (assuming that is how the company has been presented to the client). The arrangement between the company-owning editor and the employee/subcontractor editor is not a client matter.

So we are back to where we began. The answer to the ethical question is: What are your client’s expectations based on your presentation of yourself and your business?

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 21, 2014

The Business of Editing: Does the Trend Ever Go Up?

Let’s set the stage with the following two music videos. They aren’t really on point, but they do broadly cover the theme. First up is “Money, Money, Money” by Abba.

Next up are Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in the classic “Money” from the film Cabaret.

Now that the stage is set, let’s talk money.

I was contacted by a potential new client recently (for ease of writing, I will refer to the company as if it is a client). The client needed a couple of large medical books edited and wondered if I would be available. After saying that I would be available depending on schedule and other terms, we started discussing terms.

The client indicated that a new process would be inaugurated with these books. No longer would the editor do any type coding or deal in any way with references. In addition, the editor would not have to convert any words from British spelling to American spelling (or vice versa); the client would have someone else deal with these “mechanical aspects.” The editor’s sole role would be to provide a “language” edit.

Consequently, the client believed that the following should be agreeable:

  1. The definition of a page could be changed so that more data constituted a page; and
  2. My usual fee could be reduced by more than one-third.

Needless to say, we hit a snag immediately.

Our competing definitions of what constitutes a page were not so divergent that we could not eventually come to an agreement. Truly, we were very close. But the reduction in fee was another matter.

I wish I could say that this was the first client to think this way; unfortunately, it seems to be a trend. There is something amiss when clients think that not requiring the editor to type code (or apply styles) amounts to a significant amount of work savings. I tried to explain to the client that in a 500-page manuscript, the type coding could be done in about an hour and often less, especially with the use of Code Inserter in EditTools (or, in the case of styles, Style Inserter, which is now in beta testing).

It is true that if an editor does not have to format references that could be a significant timesaver, but that depends on many factors, including how many references there are. More importantly, however, as I explained to the client, if the editor does not have to deal with the references, then the references are not included in the page count calculation or, the if fee is hourly, in the number of hours spent editing. In other words, it is no different than if the manuscript has no references.

But this “new” process leaves a lot of things undecided. For example, if the author uses “recognize” five times then uses “recognise” once, who changes the British spelling to American spelling? If it is not the “language” editor, then how does the “someone else” find the incorrect version? Similarly, if the editor is no longer responsible for determining head levels, how does “someone else” determine whether a head should be a primary or a subsidiary head?

As for references, if the editor is no longer responsible for them, who determines whether the reference is called out in the text, is complete, or is appropriate to the material at the callout location?

The list goes on.

There seems to be a misunderstanding, perhaps, a willful one, about what an editor does and what it takes to do certain tasks in the editing process. For example, an editor doesn’t willy-nilly assign head levels. The editor reads the material and determines its rank in the scheme of the manuscript. It is not possible to determine a head level without having read the preceding and following explanatory material. So, unless the author has marked the manuscript, someone has to read it to determine head levels. And what about whether a list should be bulleted, numbered, or unnumbered, or material should be quote indented, or myriad other things that can only be determined by reading the manuscript.

Yet the client thinks that these are “just mechanical” tasks that can be separated from the “language editing” and because the editor is no longer responsible for those tasks, the editing is much easier and thus worth less.

I have always viewed the editor’s role as primarily that of “language” editing. The editor needs to help an author with message delivery. Yes, the editor also does some mechanical things, like type coding, but they are incidental to the editing, not a major (or perhaps even significant) part of the editor’s job.

Thus, I explained to the client, although the editor is relieved of some rote work, the relief doesn’t amount to a great deal in terms of what the editor does. A professional editor is hired not to type code or look up references for missing information, even if the editor does that work. The professional editor is hired to police the language of the manuscript, to help the author deliver his or her message clearly and accurately. Consequently, the editor’s fee is not based on whether a job includes or excludes type coding, but on the editor’s language skills and experience.

Alas, increasingly I am seeing these arguments fall on deaf ears. Publishers and packagers have learned and taken the wrong lesson from the offshoring of editorial work. The lesson learned is that editorial work can be done more cheaply; the lesson not learned is that there has to be a balance between fees paid for editing and the quality of the editing. The lower the fee paid, the lower the quality that should be expected.

A professional editor knows that she must earn a certain amount per hour in order to make ends meet and produce a profit. This is a fundamental rule (equation) of all businesses: it is not enough to have work, the work must be profitable. If you cut my fee by one-third, how many more pages must I churn per hour in order to make up for that cut? Presumably, the uncut fee level represents the amount I must earn to be profitable.

I find this mindset difficult to change, although I keep trying. It is worrisome to me that the trend is to bring more work onshore because of perceived quality problems yet to offer editors the offshore price, with the thought that the client can receive onshore quality for offshore pricing. That is a no-win formula for both the client and the editor.

Just when I thought it was getting better for professional editors, the trend downslope returns.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 19, 2014

The Practical Editor: Teaching the Art of Copyediting

Teaching the Art of Copyediting

by Erin Brenner

A while back, Rich Adin wrote in a blog post, Is Editing Teachable?, that copyediting can’t be taught. He said:

Editing is…a craft, a skill. It is more than knowing an adjective from an adverb, a noun from a pronoun. It is more than being able to construct and deconstruct a sentence or a paragraph. We know that grammar and spelling are things that can be taught.…But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

I agree that editing is a craft, one that editors continue to learn throughout their careers. And while telling an adjective from an adverb is useful, it’s just the beginning of learning copyediting.

Editing courses, Adin says, teach only the mechanics of copyediting because that’s all they can teach. By “mechanics,” he means “the things that are applied by rule [or] rote,” he told me in an email.

But you can’t teach students how to “reconstruct a sentence so that it is clear and accurately portrays the message,” Adin continued.

“It is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor,” Adin had written in his blog post. “If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.”

Let’s look at these two ideas separately.

Teaching More Than Editing Mechanics

My own definitions of editing come from The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. Einsohn breaks down the task of copyediting into several parts, including:

  • Mechanical editing: making a manuscript conform to a house style, including correcting for such items as spelling, hyphenation, capitalization, punctuation, treatment of numbers, and so on.
  • Language editing: correcting or querying the author on errors in grammar, syntax, usage, and diction.
  • Content editing: correcting or querying the author on errors of internal consistency, content discrepancies, and structural and organizational problems.

Adin and I have essentially the same definition of mechanics, then. Editing a weak sentence into something clear and accurate would seem like language editing to me; in some instances, it might be content editing. Both are teachable, though, and deconstructing sentences and paragraphs is an excellent way to do so.

Break that sentence into its parts and see how it works. What happens when you move modifying phrases around? Does a sentence sound stronger with an important phrase at the beginning or end? These are places of power in a sentence, and a copyeditor can learn to use those places wisely.

Maybe word choice is the problem. Has the author chosen a word that’s precise enough to carry the meaning? Copyeditors should be alert to connotation and denotation of words.

Another key to finding clarity in sentences is understanding rhythm and how that’s achieved. An awkward rhythm can distract readers from the message.

All of these things and more can be explained and, more importantly, practiced. A recent lesson for my Copyediting II students included an exercise in coordinating and subordinating ideas in sentences and paragraphs. My job is to judge how well they’ve done that based on the original meaning of the text and to guide them to better decisions when necessary.

A lot of language editing can be taught by teaching writing style. In The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing, Thomas S. Kane broadly defines style as “the total of all the choices a writer makes concerning words and their arrangements.” What kind of choices are we talking about? Things such as:

  • Diction
  • Verb choice
  • Passive vs. active voice
  • Coordination and subordination of ideas
  • Use of negatives
  • Variety in words, sentence structure, and paragraph structure
  • Redundancy

In addition, copyeditors can learn how to create transitions between sentences and paragraphs and how to organize words in a sentence to better emphasize the main idea. All of these items can be taught and practiced.

Of course, a writing style is a complex thing and not always easy to identify minutely, but we can identify certain characteristics of style and note when something doesn’t fit. When you can identify the problem, you can fix it.

Why Aren’t There More Great Editors?

If teaching copyediting is possible, then, how come there aren’t more great editors? Many reasons, including:

  • Not all copyediting training is created equal. Some materials, no matter what kind you use, are simply better than others. In part, you’re only as good as your training.
  • Not all copyeditors are created equal. Like any other career, copyediting demands certain abilities, such as attention to detail. Some people are simply better at noticing details. Others are good at seeing the big picture. We all have innate abilities that suit us to certain kinds of work.
  • If more people were great, who would be average? Those at the top of their industry are just that: the top. The exceptions, not the rule. Most folks are average, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

In fact, though, we don’t really know how many copyeditors are great. As Adin has pointed out, we lack a national organization in the United States that measures how good a copyeditor is. How can we know how many great copyeditors labor in obscurity? We may bemoan the quality of the published word, but can we lay all the blame on copyeditors and ignore writers’ skills, the time given to edit, or any other variable in the publishing process?

I, too, would like to see a national organization that sets a standard for editing, recognizes those editors that achieve it, and educates the world about the importance of those standards. Doing so would also indicate that we think copyediting can be taught.

Erin Brenner is the editor of the Copyediting newsletter and the owner of Right Touch Editing. You can follow her on Twitter. Erin is also a guest presenter at various conferences on topics of interest to freelancers.

April 30, 2014

Editing for the Message or the Language?

I was reading a review of a book about Stefan Zweig, an author who is obscure today but was quite famous in Central Europe and Russia in the 1920s and 1930s when this question occurred to me: Do professional editors edit for the message or for the structure and language of a manuscript?

I realize that in the abstract the answer can be “both,” but the reason this question came to mind was because of Zweig’s history. Zweig was one of the founders of the formalist school of writing and subsequently came to be viewed as its leader.

The question I ask does have some parameters. For example, message means the politics, philosophy, or “religion” of the manuscript, whereas structure and language refer to the specifics of the manuscript. For most of us who are asked to edit on tight deadlines, I think the answer is clearly that we edit for the structure and language, not for the message. For us, the message is incidental except for how clearly and coherently it is expressed. It is because of this that we see the discussions about the ethics of turning down work on a manuscript whose message we personally abhor.

But the article on Zweig got me thinking about editing and its role. Perhaps this question best sums up my wondering: Is editing literary criticism just in another guise? If editing is literary criticism, then we need to be concerned with the message. If editing is not a form of literary criticism, then we need only be concerned with the formalism aspects of the manuscript.

Zweig’s world divided editing into formalism and symbolism. Under formalism, the concern was with repeatedly seeing and “enforcing” across manuscripts the same literary style and approach. Formalism determined that there is one way in which to present a genre and all manuscripts had to conform to that one way.

Although I am sure there will be a rush to dismiss the strictures of formalism in today’s editing, I am not convinced we can so easily dismiss formalism as a product of a bygone era that no longer has life. After all, isn’t the approach of the style manuals a formalism approach? When we ask what “Chicago” says about compound adjectives or when we are told by a client to adhere to the APA style manual, are we not practicing formalism? Maybe we are not so rigid that every plot is identical, but are we not rigid enough to require that every manuscript we edit adhere to certain predetermined rules and if it does not, we make it conform?

The formalism school goes much deeper than (perhaps) copyediting today goes. For example, formalism allows the same basic story to appear in multiple cultures at varying times using different words but the same fundamental story. In other words, the details and the evolution are the same just with different words. And formalism requires the stories to start at similar places and end in similar places, having crossed similar places and themes getting from beginning to end.

Editing as often practiced today is a search for patterning. We know that certain formulaic presentations work and others do not for today’s audiences. There are rules — express or implied — of which editors are cognizant, consciously or subconsciously, and which we apply in the guise of “improving” a manuscript, either at the request of our client or because, in the absence of client direction, we choose to “apply” a particular style.

Which leads me back to what I consider the most intriguing question: Is editing a form of literary criticism? If we get past the formalism approach and, instead, work on the message of the manuscript, there is a chance that our work as editors could rise to the level of literary criticism. I would consider that a worthy goal, especially today when literary criticism, as practiced in the early and mid twentieth century, seems to be a lost art.

A knowledgeable editor could easily be a literary critic. With the ability to call upon multiple sources as well as to discuss the more formalistic aspects of a manuscript, the editor can provide invaluable insight. Alas, that would amount to volunteer work because it is clear that few publishers and authors are willing to pay an editor for the time necessary to think about a manuscript’s message.

Today’s professional editor is much different than the professional editor of 30 years ago, when I first entered editing, and certainly much different than the editor of the 1950s. When I began editing, one of the things I was asked to do was to give a critique of the manuscript. The critique was to be emphasize any structural issues and, more importantly, any message issues. Was the message coherent? Was it understandable? Was it sustainable? How did it fit, if it fit at all, with similar topic manuscripts?

The in-house staff asked me what books I was reading (in those days, my to-be-read pile was never more than two or three books) and I often was given a manuscript that fell into the broad field of what I was reading. The publisher wanted to know whether the manuscript was carving out its own place in the field or simply mimicking what was already there. If it was mimicking, did it do a better job of communicating?

What was wanted was literary criticism, which made editing exciting and intellectually stimulating (and provided a great excuse to buy books for my library). Unfortunately, it was not financially rewarding.

Today, most clients, if not all clients, want and expect the formalism approach to their manuscripts. For the most part, editing lacks the literary criticism component. I do not expect to see a revival of the literary criticism approach to editing.

Today, I think, most professional editors edit for the structure and language of a manuscript, not the message. This is what clients want and also reflects the skills and mindset of many editors. Fewer and fewer editors have been exposed to or educated in literary criticism; the description of editing has changed over the decades.

What is most fascinating to me is that 100 years after the rise of the formalism approach of Stefan Zweig’s era we are participating in its rebirth. Whether this is good or bad remains to be seen; that it is what the market wants seems obvious.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 5, 2014

Why Are You Hiring a Professional Editor?

Increasingly, I wonder why professional editors are being hired. In reading online discussions, it is pretty evident that (a) everyone thinks they can be an editor, (b) a growing number of authors think that self-editing or peer editing is more than sufficient, (c) professional editors are believed to be overpaid, and (d) people who have edited a romance novel think they can as competently and easily edit a 5,000-page manuscript on the genetics of cancer.

Of course, a lot of discussion online centers around price. Not only are editors offering services at unsustainable prices (see The Business of Editing: Why $10 Can’t Make It for a discussion of sustainable pricing), but users of the editing services offered are balking at those prices. (How absurd is this “pricing war” becoming? I received a job application from an editor offering to work for 25¢/page!)

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is that those who need a professional editor’s services have no clue as to why they need those services except that everyone tells them that they do and because using an editor is what authors have done for decades. The users of editors do not contemplate the purposes for which they want an editor’s services.

We have discussed professional editors and what their role is in the publishing process numerous times over the life of this blog. The editor’s role hasn’t changed, probably since the time of the very first editor. Yet even with that history, when asked “Why are you hiring a professional editor?”, the answer is rarely inclusive of what the editor does.

Within the past few weeks, I was asked to edit a paper that was going to be submitted as part of a grant proposal. The instructions were clear: check spelling and look for egregious grammar errors but touch nothing else. Why hire me? (I turned down the work for a multitude of reasons, including the project’s schedule was incompatible with my schedule, but largely because I am not a spell checker — I am a professional editor who expects to make use of my editorial skills, not a verifier that spell check software didn’t miss something.)

I think a significant amount of blame for the state of editing lies in the hiddenness of what editors do. It is hard to point to a paragraph in a book and say that because of the suggestions of the editor, this paragraph altered the author’s destiny, turned the author into a star or into a has been. Editors may have star-making power, but if they do, it is not readily apparent to either the editor or to the person who hires the editor.

The person hiring the editor is really looking for someone who can take away embarrassments before they become embarrassing. That’s because of the limited understanding of the editor’s role. Each person who hires an editor needs to ask, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” If the answer is to verify spell checking software, then the follow-up question should be, “Why am I hiring a professional editor for a job that doesn’t require a professional editor?”

Ultimately, there should be an epiphany. The questioner should realize that what she needs to know is what a professional editor does. It is this appreciation of the skills owned by a professional editor that will enable the answering of the original query, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?” Importantly, once the question can be answered, it is likely to move the focus away from pricing and toward skillsets.

Another result of being able to answer the question is that the asker will be able to analyze her needs and guide the editor as to what is needed and wanted: If all you need to do is cross the street, you don’t hire a taxi. It is the lack of understanding on the part of an editor’s clients as to what an editor does and why it is important that is at the heart of the problems professional editors face in terms of unrealistic expectations and downward pressure on pricing. It is hard for an editor to convince a client that she is worth $50 an hour when the client thinks the editor is just a glorified spell checker.

Someone who understands what an editor does, understands the need for a professional editor. It remains true that no one will be able to point to a single paragraph in a book and say that the editor’s transformation of that paragraph instantly altered the author’s status; such singular events remain within the realm of the speechwriter. Unfortunately, because readers never see the before and after of an editor’s work, it is not possible for readers to see how the editor has improved or worsened an author’s work.

In addition, an editor suggests and the author decides, which means that an author can easily reject the advice that would transform his work from a member of the pack to leader of the pack as accept the advice.

The reason a professional editor is hired is that the client wants to ensure that her manuscript is accessible and understandable, that it flows not just in her eyes and mind but in the mind and eyes of others. She wants to know that her word choice conveys the meaning she intends. Professional editors have honed the skills that deliver these results. Professional editors are able to maintain a distance from the manuscript that enables an objective assessment; it is very difficult for a mother to objectively assess her child.

Once it is realized what a professional editor does and what skills he has, it becomes clear that not everyone can be an editor, just as not everyone can be a lawyer or doctor; that peer group editing is not the same as using a professional editor; that professional editors are skilled artisans who are worth more than a bottom-scraping fee; and that the editor who has successfully edited a romance novel is not necessarily the editor who can successfully edit a large manuscript on cancer genetics.

In other words, once one realizes what skills a professional editor possesses, it is easier to see that different skills are needed for different projects. Now one can answer the question, “Why am I hiring a professional editor?”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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