An American Editor

August 17, 2016

On Language: The Power of Words

We have all heard the maxim “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Although much older as an idea, the maxim comes from the 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which Richelieu says:

True, This! —
Beneath the rule of men entirely great
The pen is mightier than the sword. Behold
The arch-enchanters wand! — itself is nothing! —
But taking sorcery from the master-hand
To paralyse the Caesars, and to strike
The loud earth breathless! — Take away the sword —
States can be saved without it!

I am reminded of this maxim repeatedly as I read Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi (2016). I have not yet finished the book and I do not intend to review it here and now, other than to say that I think everyone should read Stamped from the Beginning to understand the origins and growth of racism in America, and that every editor should read the book to understand how powerful words can be and why it is important for editors to be masters of language and to use that mastery in their editing — because the wrong word can lead to unintended consequences.

Consider, for example, the word sacrifice. It’s used by Gold Star parents (i.e., parents of soldiers killed in combat) to mean the death of their child — “I sacrificed my child for the cause of liberty.” In contrast, sacrifice to a narcissist seems to mean “I sacrificed by giving people jobs,” in which sacrifice can be interpreted as equaling not making as much money as I could have. Are these both sacrifices? Perhaps as long as the money “sacrifice” is not used in rebuttal of the death sacrifice or claimed to be equivalent to it, as Donald Trump claimed in response to the challenge of the Khizr and Ghazala Khan family (see, e.g., “Hillary Clinton Crushes Donald Trump in Another National Poll as Khan Controversy Disgusts Voters” by Jason Silverstein, Daily News [New York], August 7, 2016). A master of language would have known not to try to equate money “sacrifice” with the Gold Star parents’ death sacrifice.

Words, spoken or written, can influence the course of history. Consider, for a contemporary example, U.S. presidential candidate Trump’s words about defending the Baltic States as required by the NATO treaty: “If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes” (“Donald Trump Sets Conditions for Defending NATO Allies Against Attack” by David E. Sanger and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, July 20, 2016). With these words, Trump has changed an absolute obligation into a conditional obligation. More importantly, he has used words that are subject to differing interpretation, and an audience can never be certain exactly what “fulfill their obligations to us” means. How different the meaning would be had Trump instead said something like: “Yes, but I plan to make sure that they are fulfilling their obligations to us, too.” Problematically for the United States, the words he spoke reverberated around the world. Japan and Korea, for example, wondered whether a President Trump would honor America’s commitments to protect them; Europe has begun to panic — all from a few words.

One other example is Donald Trump’s recent statement: “By the way, and if she gets the pick — if she gets the pick of her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno” (see the editorial “Trump Must Go: Hinting at Assassination Is Too Much, Even for Him,” Daily News [New York], August 9, 2016, and “Donald Trump Suggests ‘Second Amendment People’ Could Act Against Hillary Clinton” by Nick Corasaniti and Maggie Haberman, The New York Times, August 9, 2016). Many Trump supporters rushed to his defense and said he was joking; Trump said he wasn’t joking, then said he was joking. The problem is that Trump did not carefully choose his words; he forgot a fundamental principle by which editors must work: words have power!

For this reason, editors have a special obligation to be literate and knowledgeable about language. Even the simplest words can matter because words have power, and some words have more power in a particular context (such as sacrifice above) because they more accurately and forcefully express the message by not requiring the reader (or listener) to interpret them — they deliver a clear, unmistakable message.

Consider due to. I know in my editing work I see this phrase used frequently as a substitute for clearer, more powerful (and accurate) words and phrases. I have no idea how many words and phrases due to acts as a substitute for, but in my EditTools Toggle Word dataset I have 22 words and phrases that I choose among as replacements for due to. I understand that as a result of usage over time, once distinctly used words have become treated as roughly synonymous, at least in speech, good examples being the use of due to in place of, among many others, caused by or because of. It is easy to understand how this happened, and it is also easy to see the role of editors in abetting this transition.

The question is not whether due to and because of are viewed as being roughly synonymous in common parlance. The question is whether editors should treat them as synonymous rather than as nonsynonymous. The answer depends on several factors, not least of which is the editor’s command of language and understanding of the importance of precise language as a method of communication. The more skilled the editor, the greater the striving for word precision and the less tolerance for ambiguity.

The problem with due to is that when it is used as a substitute for more precise language, the reader (or listener) must guess at meaning. Due to is ambiguous when not used in the sense of “attributable to” — is it a substitute for because of or caused by or as a consequence of or as a result of or resulting from or based on or something else?

In the case of a president, the use of a vague word can lead to severe economic and military consequences. For an author, it means that a weak statement is being made, one that lacks punch. Although using due to is an excellent example of how to weaken a sentence, other words can have a similar effect.

Some might object that context will provide clarity, but that is not always the case. Consider Trump’s various statements. In horror movies blood pours from the ears, nose, mouth, so why was that interpretation of his blood comment —“…blood coming out of her wherever…” — rejected (see “Donald Trump’s ‘Blood’ Comment About Megyn Kelly Draws Outrage” by Holly Yan, CNN, August 8, 2015)? It is, in context, equally likely (if not more so) that he meant wherever in the horror movie sense, but that is not the interpretation assigned by others. Suppose, instead, Trump had said: “I have hated her since I have been treated unfairly.” Does he hate her since the first time he was treated unfairly — the passage-of-time sense — or because he was treated unfairly — the causal sense? Context might or might not clarify meaning. Or consider Trump’s recent Second Amendment statement, quoted above. Context didn’t provide meaning or understanding. More importantly, does a good editor say, “Because in context _____ must, in my interpretation, equal (i.e., mean) _____, I do not need to query it”? I think not; that there is any possibility of misinterpretation should be sufficient cause to query.

The purpose here is not to convince editors that we should be preserving these fine-line distinctions. The issue is broader — language skills and mastery. In the absence of mastery, how do you know whether, for example, since or due to is appropriately used (i.e., leads to clarity rather than ambiguity)? Editors need to have mastered their language so that they know these fine-line distinctions and can choose the appropriate words to enhance clarity of meaning. Most editors — and based on responses to the copyediting test I have given job applicants over many years, I would guess it is close to 95% — would simply pass over such usages and not ask themselves whether the sentences involved are communicating correctly, and thus not query the author.

Consider again Donald Trump’s statement regarding the Baltics and NATO. What if he had said, “Since they do not fulfill their obligations to us,” rather than “If they fulfill their obligations to us”? Would it have been a more forceful (or worrisome) statement if because had been used rather than since? Because, after all, is considered a more forceful conjunction than causal since (“inasmuch as,” “seeing as”).

Words are powerful weapons. They can be the source of peace or war, understanding or misunderstanding, depending on how they are used. When we speak, a significant part of what is meant by our words is determined by how we say them — tone and emphasis add meaning. With the written word, all aural and some visual clues are missing, making the choice of words even more important.

A difference that matters when seeking an editor is the editor’s knowledge of language. Too many consumers of editing services fail to focus on an editor’s mastery of language, yet knowing which is the “right” word is the difference between someone being just an editor and being a great editor, the difference between an editor who helps an author achieve mediocrity and an editor who helps an author achieve greatness. Although today’s editors often accept a word’s usage because it fits with the common usage (consider, e.g., about and around when conjoined with a quantity) and because the line separating the words is razor-edge thin, knowing that line may make the difference between good writing and great writing. Just as is true with due to, around, about, approximately, since, and because, so it is true with myriad other word combinations, such as who and whom, that and which, that and who, convince and persuade.

Choosing the right word adds power to a statement; choosing a lesser but “equivalent” word softens the power of the message and, more importantly, can make a sentence’s meaning so ambiguous that audiences may well miss — or reject — the intended point. The best editors are knowledgeable about the power of words and choose among them thoughtfully and carefully.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

April 22, 2015

The Proofreader’s Corner: The Power of the Portfolio

The Power of the Portfolio

by Louise Harnby

Including a portfolio of clients and completed projects on your editorial website is one of the most powerful marketing tools you can use. Why? Because it’s shows you can practice what you preach.

The introductory paragraph on the homepage of my website tells potential clients how many years’ experience I have, the editorial services I offer, the types of client for whom I work, the national editorial society of which I am an Advanced Professional Member, my primary training qualification, and the number of books that I’ve proofread to date. Other pages on my website tell the client what I can do for them – for example, proofreading onscreen or on paper; the subject specialisms I’m comfortable tackling; the different types of mark-up I can offer. So far, all well and good — but how do I prove it?

Can do versus have done

The above information is, I believe, important and should be communicated to the client. But I don’t want just to focus my clients’ minds on what I can do; I also want them to know what I have done. That’s because what’s been done makes what could be done more believable. Inculcating a sense of trust and belief in a client is essential because each of us is competing with hundreds, if not thousands, of colleagues offering similar services. This is where the power of the portfolio comes in — it shows our customers that we are doers rather than just talkers. Anyone can set up an editorial business and write (or hire someone else to write) great copy that tells the customer what they want to hear. The portfolio takes things a step further, anchoring the message in a have-done practice-based, rather than could-do promise-based, framework.

But, oh, the clutter…

I’ll admit it, my portfolio web page is a dense beast. I made the decision to break it up across three pages in order to make information more accessible to potential clients: academic, fiction, and commercial non-fiction. But I’ve been in business since 2006 so, even with this remedial work, there’s still a lot of text. I’ve thought long and hard about this over the years, and on several occasions I’ve dabbled with the idea of decluttering, perhaps by offering a selected portfolio of completed projects. But then I’ll receive another request to proofread from a publisher, project manager, independent author or student, they’ll mention how impressive they found my portfolio, and I’ll put aside my urge to spring clean.

Some benefits of busyness…

  1. If you’re wondering how much information to provide in your online portfolio, and you are worried that including almost everything will make the web page look too busy, put yourself in your customers’ shoes and ask yourself whether you think they will be put off by your long list of completed projects, or whether it will generate a stronger belief that you can provide the solution to their problems precisely because you have shown you have done it before. I know this much: the people who’ve told me (gently) that my portfolio “might be a little on the heavy side” are not clients — they’re colleagues, friends, and my husband! All of their opinions are gratefully appreciated, but, alas, they’re not the ones hiring me, and they’re not the ones hiring you!
  2. An extensive portfolio, though busy, provides you with rich key words that may help make you discoverable and interesting to potential clients. I don’t believe it hurts me to have a long list of completed proofreading projects on my website that include author names like David Silverman, Jürgen Habermas, Mary Kaldor, China Miéville, and James Herbert, but that’s because I want to work for people who want proofreaders comfortable working in the fields of qualitative research, critical theory, international relations, speculative fiction and horror, respectively. Neither do I think it hurts me to have a long list of completed proofreading projects on my website that include titles such as Criminology and Social Policy; Ethics and War; Globalization Theory; The Transgender Phenomenon; A Visit from the Goon Squad; Beyond Duty: Life on the Frontline in Iraq; and The Mammoth Book of New Erotic Photography. These are more than titles; they include key words that may be used in long-tail searches (lengthier, more specific search terms) by my potential clients.

When considering your online portfolio, think about what these titles and author names tell your customer about what you have already done for other clients. Then consider how this affects their perception of what you can do for them.

Use navigation tools

You can include an extensive portfolio on your website without making your client want to gnaw off their own arm in a bid to navigate the information.

  • Consider separating the information into sections by genre, subject area, or the particular type of editorial service you provided.
  • Use multiple pages if you think this will add clarity.
  • Jump-to code is an excellent way of reducing the amount of scrolling the reader needs to do in order to move up and down a long web page (see how I managed this in “Website Tips for Editorial Pros: Using Jump-to Instructions” on my blog, Proofreader’s Parlour — I was surprised by how easy it was to incorporate into my website even though I’m not a techie!).

Test it!

Nothing is set in stone when it comes to any aspect of marketing your editorial business. If you’re nervous about what and how much information to include in your online portfolio, test different options: full portfolio of all works completed; selected works only; short summary including only a few key works. Keep an eye on your visitor stats (using tools such as Google Analytics or StatCounter), and do comparisons in six-month blocks to see who’s looking at which pages on your site. You may be surprised. Analysis of my own website stats (excluding my blog) in 2014 showed that my online portfolio represented 20% of all page views — second only to my home page.

Nailing the job before you’ve even quoted

If your client hasn’t seen your portfolio, the quotation stage can be trickier because you have to do all your selling at the same time as you’re discussing money. However, a strong portfolio that engenders trust and belief in a potential client before they’ve started talking to you means you’ve done a chunk of the hard selling work ahead of time. They can already see that you’re fit for purpose because of what you’ve already done. This instills in them a sense of professionalism that will be front of mind when it comes to direct contact.

In other words, a strong portfolio puts the value you are offering on the table ahead of the money that will have to leave the client’s pocket; the focus is, first and foremost, on benefit rather than cost.

What if I haven’t completed much work?

If you’re at the beginning of your professional editorial career, you probably won’t have an extensive portfolio. Be creative:

  • Consider using a narrative format that discusses the projects you have worked on in more detail, and how you delivered solutions to your client’s problems.
  • Expand your portfolio page to include testimonials from your smaller list of satisfied clients.
  • Include (with permission) a list of clients for whom you’ve worked.
  • Update your portfolio every time you complete a new project so that the list is always expanding.
  • Provide online samples (they can be made up) that demonstrate what you do when you are proofreading, copy-editing, or indexing. This shows you in a practice-based, rather than a promise-based, framework — these samples are things you’ve already done, not things you could do in the future.

Summing up

  • If you don’t yet have an online portfolio, get cracking and build one!
  • Tell the client what you have done as well as what you can do.
  • Focus on practice, not just promise.
  • Think of your portfolio in terms of what it tells people you want to hire you – your target customers — rather than your friends and colleagues.
  • Don’t over-fret about clutter — it’s about the quality of the information, and what it tells the client about your proven ability to solve their problems.
  • Consider the information you incorporate into your portfolio in terms of key word searches — that is, how it might help clients to find you.
  • Use navigation tools (including embedded code) to help your customer move around a busy portfolio web page.
  • Track page views to your site and test different portfolio styles to see what format you’re most comfortable with in terms of making yourself interesting to a customer.
  • Use your portfolio to put the value you offer ahead of the fee you charge.
  • Be creative if your portfolio is still in the early-growth stage.

Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.

July 9, 2014

The Business of Editing: Certification & Ethics

In a recent essay, “The Practical Editor: What Does Professional Certification Look Like?,” Erin Brenner discussed certification of American editors. The essay also provoked a number of comments. Yet, I found the essay lacking in one respect: There was no mention of requiring taking a course in ethics and passing an ethics exam as part of the certification process.

To my way of thinking, certification implies that the person certified is not only skill competent but also not ethically challenged. Yet the certification programs pay little to no attention to ethics issues. Many certificated professions require the taking and passing of ethics courses and exams. I remember having to take such a course in law school and then having to pass a special ethics exam administered by the State of California in the early 1970s. If I failed the ethics exam, I could not be admitted to the practice of law even if I earned a perfect score on the bar exam itself.

Over the years and on many different editor forums there have been discussions about ethics. Colleagues would ask a question, seeking advice from others about how to handle a particular situation. We’ve asked and discussed questions of ethics many times on An American Editor in essays like “Trolleyology and the Ethics of Editing”, “The Ethics of Editing“, “The Business of Editing: The Ethics of Billing“, “Ethics in a World of Cheap“, “The Business of Editing: Expectations“, and “The Business of Editing: Walking the Line”, to cite a few examples.

Ethics are always on an editor’s mind, as ethics should be. But we lack a uniform standard of ethics that can act as a guide to our decision making and against which we can be judged.

Even though we constantly ask questions about ethics (“What would you do in these circumstances?”), there seems to be a dearth of focus on ethics in conferences or in certification courses. Conferences and courses all focus on the mechanics of editing — the things that we can do to improve our earnings or to improve our editing skills and make us more desirable to clients and prospective clients. Consider, for example, the certification program offered by the University of Chicago Graham School. Not one of the required classes focuses on ethics. The same is true at the University of Washington, the MediaBistro Online Editing Course, and the University of California at San Diego Copyediting Program, to name a few of the available certification programs. Even the Editor’s Association of Canada offers tests of your editing skills, but not of your editorial and business ethics.

From this (admittedly) incomplete survey of certification courses, one could surmise that editorial and business ethics are not particularly important in the editing profession. I have always thought that ethics was important in all business dealings. The purpose of certification is to broadcast to clients and prospective clients that we are qualified to perform the services we offer. It is a way to distinguish professional from nonprofessional editors.

Similarly, meeting ethical standards is a way to separate professional from nonprofessional editors. Of course, simply passing an ethics exam is insufficient. The certifying agencies need to also be enforcers of the ethics standards. Thus our problem.

First, we have no single agency that sets standards that editors must meet to gain certification. The agency that sets the standards does not need to provide the courses to educate editors to those standards; other institutions can do that, just as is done with lawyers, doctors, and accountants — the key is to have a standards-creating organization whose standards form the educational core around which other organizations form their programs.

Second, we have no standard set of ethics. Each editor establishes and interprets his or her own ethical standards. As a profession we need an ethics-setting agency that also has the authority to resolve ethical questions and disputes, especially disputes between clients and editors.

Third, and perhaps in today’s environment most important, those programs that offer certificates should create an ethics course and require that students take the course and pass an ethics exam as a condition of certification. This would (a) make the courses more valuable, (b) would put ethics on par with editing skills, and (c) would help reassure clients and prospective clients.

Fourth, I would like to see conferences include seminars on editorial business ethics. We need to begin exposing editors to the types of situations that can hurt an editor–client relationship because of misunderstanding and teach editors how to avoid those situations and how to resolve ethical conflicts that might arise.

Regardless of what path, in terms of nationwide standards setting, is taken, I believe that certification programs need to take the lead and incorporate an ethics component into the requirements. This would be good for the editor, for the certification program, and for clients. It is not enough that an editor be master of editing skills; an editor who is ethically challenged and who angers a client as a result threatens the livelihood of all editors.

We need to remember all those author comments on forums like LinkedIn expressing the author’s unsatisfactory experiences with editors and who tell everyone who will listen that it is better to self-edit or have trustworthy friends do the editing. If you look at their complaints carefully, many of them are ethical complaints.

We also need to remember that ethics is part and parcel of doing business, especially a service business such as editing. The more we discuss and educate ourselves about ethics issues, the better our business will be.

What do you think?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Blog at WordPress.com.

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