An American Editor

May 20, 2015

Editing for Clarity

The primary role of an editor is to help an author clearly communicate. The test is whether a reader has to stop and puzzle out meaning. Consider this example from “The Birth of a Nation” by Dick Lehr (2014, p. 29):

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

(The book is an excellent look at D.W. Griffith’s movie “Birth of a Nation” and its effect on race relations at the beginning of the 20th century.)

Are you confused by the quote? I know I was when I read it. I eventually figured out what the author intended, but this quote is ripe for editorial intervention.

What causes the problem is the em-dash bracketed phrase “perhaps only one in six, according to one account.” When I first read the sentence, I thought “one in six is not a majority. Does the author mean one in six families did not own slaves or that one in six families did own slaves? The context made it clear that the author meant that only one in six families owned slaves, but the sentence permits other interpretations.

If I were the book’s editor, I would have flagged this sentence for review. I would have queried the author and suggested several alternatives. For example:

Only a small minority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six, according to one account — owned slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps five in six, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

or

The majority of Kentucky families — perhaps only one in six owned slaves, according to one account — did not own slaves, and the plantation model was not widely established.

Each alternative is, I think, clearer (with the first two alternatives better than the third) and better puts across the author’s meaning without interrupting the reading flow. And this is what an editor does — help the author hone her prose.

The question is this: Is this the job of a copyeditor?

The answer is difficult. I think clients do not distinguish between types of editors very well and see editorial roles as blurred, ill-defined. Editors, themselves, similarly blur those lines of separation, making client expectations as to what an editor will do different from what the editor expects to do.

Fundamentally, the role of every editor is to help an author reach the author’s readers. Clarity of expression is the understood key to a successful author–reader relationship; copyeditors address questions of grammar and spelling, which are essential to clarity, so addressing sentence construction does not seem outside the bounds of the copyeditor’s responsibilities. I know that I include sentence construction in my editing.

What I do not include as part of copyediting is reorganization; that is a developmental editor’s job. Organization is a time-consuming job and requires multiple readings of a manuscript. Copyediting is very time-sensitive, with the schedule being too short to permit developmental editing. Sentence construction is, however, another matter.

Copyeditors are responsible for ensuring clarity. It is not that we need to rewrite every sentence to make every sentence the best it can be; rather, it is that we need to rewrite or suggest rewriting of sentences that are not clear, that interrupt the flow of reading and require a reader to momentarily halt and devote time to determining what the author intends.

The appropriate role for a copyeditor is to query a poorly constructed sentence and suggest a fix. There are times when all we can do is query because the fix is elusive; over my years of editing I have encountered many sentences that I could not guess what the author meant and thus could not suggest a fix. Much more often, I could suggest a simple fix.

Sometimes the fix is a change in punctuation or the substitution of a word or two; sometimes the fix is much more complex. Whatever the fix, we demonstrate our value to our clients by identifying problems and suggesting cures (when possible). That is the role of the professional editor — to help the author communicate clearly by identifying unclear passages and by suggesting alternatives.

Do you agree?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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