An American Editor

October 23, 2013

Business of Editing: Editing in Isolation

I am constantly perplexed at how people who want to be acclaimed as editors or writers can pass on material to readers that is less than clear. In the editors’ case, I hope it is because the author ignored queries or left queries unresolved — but I cannot be certain of that except in my own work.

I suspect that the problem is that the self-editing author, as well as the “professional” editor, is “editing” in isolation. What I mean is that the author is looking at each sentence in isolation rather than looking at each sentence as part of the global mix.

What brought this to mind was a sentence I recently read: “I prefer epics.”

By itself, the sentence is complete and clearly understandable by me, the reader. But placed in context, I wondered whether the author meant “epics” or “e-pics.” The problem was that the article was talking about both books and pictures, thus both or either could have been meant. This was a case of the editor and/or the author not looking beyond the sentence — any editing that was done was done in isolation.

Isolation editing is a clear sign of nonprofessional editing. Professional editors know that no sentence stands alone; every sentence must be considered in context and as part of the more global text, as well as being complete in and of itself. Increasingly, however, I read books that suffer from the narrow view. In its most blatant form, a character is 5-foot tall on page 10 and 6-foot tall on page 25; has brown eyes on page 11 and blue eyes on page 27; spells her name Marya on page 3 but Maria on page 50. We’ve all come across these types of gaffes, but they seem to be occurring with increasing frequency as traditional publishers and authors make price, rather than quality, the number one consideration.

There are many answers to the problem of changes in character descriptions, not the least of which is a comprehensive stylesheet. Yet that is another red flag as regards the quality of the editing: the skimpy, incomplete stylesheet.

I have been working on second and subsequent editions of books in the past few months. With two exceptions, none of the manuscripts were accompanied by a stylesheet that was created by the editor of the prior edition. One exception was the book that was a second edition of a book whose first edition I had edited. In this instance, the client didn’t send the stylesheet from the first edition, but I had a copy because I have stored online every stylesheet for every book my company has edited since at least 2006 and often earlier.

But it is the second exception that signaled a poor editing job was likely done by the original editor. In this instance, the client sent a copy of the stylesheet for the prior edition. However, the stylesheet was one page. I knew immediately that it was incomplete as the manuscript for the book ran more than 3,000 pages and was medical, with each chapter written by a different author or group of authors. It is not possible to do a comprehensive stylesheet of such a manuscript in one page.

As I edited the manuscript, my initial reaction was correct — the prior (existing) edition clearly had not been professionally edited (or proofread). There were numerous sentences that should have been flagged and/or corrected, sentences that were like “I prefer epics” and thus potentially misleading, in the manuscript. The more I progressed into the manuscript, the clearer it became that the editor edited in isolation: If a sentence was grammatically correct, it was accepted as is, even if a more global view would have raised queries or caused the editor to modify it.

I am sure that some of you are thinking, “but are we talking about developmental editing or copyediting?” I am talking about both. True, the primary function of the developmental editor, but not the copyeditor, is to think globally, but even the copyeditor has to think globally. We are not talking about reorganizing a manuscript, which is the realm of the developmental editor; we are talking about ensuring that the author’s message is clearly conveyed, without confusion or uncertainty, to the reader, which is the realm of both editors.

Professional copyeditors will not rewrite paragraphs, will not move paragraphs or sections of text (i.e., will not reorganize) except on rare occasion. Yet professional copyeditors do have a responsibility to at least query the author and ask whether “epics” or “e-pics” is meant, which cannot be done in the absence of a more global perspective. A sentence-centric perspective views sentences in isolation: the previous sentence could talk about women, while the current sentence talks about men. Whether that change in gender is correct depends on what was said in the prior sentence, what is said in the current sentence, and, perhaps, what will be said in the following sentence.

Isolated editing is a sign of the nonprofessional. Isolated editing is on the rise because of the rise of the nonprofessional editor, which is driven by making cost concerns and limitations, rather than quality, the primary decider of whether and whom to hire as an editor (see What is Editing Worth?). We have discussed this several times, and you know that I believe that quality should be the initial driver when hiring an editor, with cost taking a secondary role. I recognize, however, that because of publisher and author misperceptions about the value of editing, those roles are reversed and cost is the primary driver.

At one time I thought the way to combat this was to send the publisher or author a few corrected pages as examples, but I quickly learned that publishers ignore the corrected pages and authors too often reply with a “how dare you question my writing!” I also quickly learned that the problem rests mostly with professional editors who fail to educate publishers and authors on the value of editing. (The value of editing was discussed in greater depth in What is Editing Worth?)

Yet even those authors who do understand and appreciate the value of quality editing are often stymied by their budget. Authors are being asked to gamble money on a service that will have some, but not a compelling, impact on sales. Self-publishing is making it clear that even poorly edited books can sell a lot of copies and that well-edited books can sell few copies — there are just too many other variables in play, such as how the author markets the book, the quality of the story and the writing.

In the end, editors are between a rock and a hard place. Do they lower their fee to meet author budgets and to compete with nonprofessional editors? If they lower their fee, do they move closer to isolated editing? Or do they stick to their more reasonable fee schedule and the more global form of editing knowing that they will lose a significant number of clients by doing so? This is the dilemma of the professional editor. It is a dilemma that is not easily resolved because of market pressures and the ease of entry into the profession of editing.

February 4, 2013

Is Editing a Future Safe Harbor?

One of the newspapers I read had an article discussing the future workplace and what kinds of jobs will be lost to technology. The article pointed out that both white-collar and blue-collar jobs are subject to loss as technology advances and gave some examples.

One example it gave was the truck driver. As automated cars and driving are perfected, will there be a need for the truck driver? The article concluded no, but I’m not so sure. Perhaps there will be no need for a person to actually do the driving, but there will still be a need for someone to make sure that the items are delivered correctly. In other words, the role may change but the need for a real person may not.

The article got me thinking about editors. I know we’ve discussed the future of editing before (see, e.g., Is There a Future in Editing? and The Business of Editing: Will the Tide Turn for Us?), but not from the perspective of technological advances.

With each passing year, computer software gets smarter. Increasingly, the tasks that editors perform are being performed by software. Consider just spell-checking and grammar software. I remember when the software first appeared and how limited it was. Now it offers suggestions that were unimaginable 15 years ago — and it is increasingly accurate when it suggests whom instead of who.

It wasn’t so long ago that spell-checking software was only found in word processing programs; now programs like Acrobat and InDesign include spell-checking software and third-party vendors sell enhanced versions.

I don’t want to get hung up on a particular type of software because what editors do is so much more than just spell checking and grammar. Yet the issue remains: Do editors face technological extinction?

I think that if we do, it is yet many decades in the future. It is not because our routine skills cannot be emulated by a computer, but because of nuance. If the only thing that mattered was that there are no spelling mistakes in a document, editors would be far down the path to being jobless. But the real key to being a successful editor is nuance competence, that is, the ability to understand the subtleties of language and language choice and what those subtleties communicate.

Consider this example: “Up to 20% of fractures are missed on plain film.” Both the spelling and the sentence are correct and so should pass muster if the a computer is evaluating it. Yet an editor should note a problem: What does the sentence really mean? It simply isn’t clear. Does it mean that the radiologist will miss these fractures even though they appear on the plain film or does it mean that the imaging technique itself doesn’t display (i.e., misses) these fractures? The difference is one of nuance but is also one of great importance.

If it is the radiologist who will miss the fractures, then it is one type of problem that needs resolution. Perhaps better training or perhaps a second or third set of eyes to review the film or maybe something else. If it is the imaging technique that misses these fractures, then what other technique should be used either instead or as supplemental to the plain-film technique or is there no technique currently that will image these fractures? In both instances, questions of treatment are raised. This is a nuance that only a human (at least for now) can provide.

Consider this second example: “Left-handedness, above average weight and height for age, family history and spondylolysis or spondylolisthesis are associated with Scheuermann disease.” Again, nuance is important. The editor should be asking whether family history of or family history, and is meant. Each is a possibility and each leads to a different conclusion and perhaps affects treatment. How likely is it that computer software will be able to identify the problem and ask the pertinent question?

Because editing is more than just rote spelling and grammar, because it involves nuance and understanding of possibilities, it is likely that for the foreseeable future that editing will be a safe harbor while technology advances. Although some forms of white-collar work will disappear as technology advances, even some of the functions that editors currently perform may fall to technological advances, it is likely that editing as a profession will remain viable.

A companion question to viability, however, is whether potential clients will believe that there is a need to go beyond what computer software can do. This problem is one that editors face today. A goodly number of publishers and self-publishing authors believe that Microsoft Word’s built-in spell-checking and grammar software are all that is needed; the eye of the professional editor can be bypassed.

I recently received an “ad” from a new author for his new fantasy ebook. Although I found the summary in the notice a bit confusing, I decided to look at a sample of the ebook. Perhaps the summary got garbled but the ebook was fine. Within the first three pages I discovered a dozen problems, so I privately wrote to the author and mentioned a few, suggesting that it would be worth his while to hire a professional editor. The response I got was that he would take care of the problems himself.

My thought was: If you didn’t catch these types of error before you published the ebook, what makes you think you will find them now?

His response is the response I increasingly see as publishers and authors fall into the trap of believing that technology is the savior. Increasingly, no one thinks about the nuances of language. The consequence is that the story is not well communicated and readers (and authors) are made poorer for that lack of communication.

To combat the rise in reliance on technology, editors need to discuss nuance and to focus prospective clients on the nuances of writing, the things that technology is not adept at finding. This is truly our value. I expect that in the not-too-distant future software will be able to accurately distinguish between the proper and improper use of, for example, your and you’re, but not the nuances that choosing one word over another may entail. This is the editor’s strength and what should be pushed as we fight to maintain our relevance in the future.

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