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.

December 4, 2013

Is Editing Teachable?

There are two aspects to an editing career: business and editing itself. The business side of editing is clearly teachable. Its fundamentals are the same as for any business. The business side is not a craft; it is the application of rules and principles that stretch across trades even if modified to meet the needs of a particular trade.

The business side includes such things as record keeping, calculating rates, determining the services to provide, advertising, etc. — in other words, all of the same things that every other business has to do. The twin goals of the business side are to be profitable and to be efficient (see The Commandments: Thou Shall be Profitable and The Commandments: Thou Shall be Efficient).

Editing is different. It 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. Computers can be “taught” these tasks, even if they perform them rigidly and are unable to distinguish between “rain,”  “rein,” and “reign” in context. But editing has an air of unteachability about it.

True there are “editing” courses. But what is it that they teach? They teach the mechanics; they have to because it is not possible to teach one to be a good or great editor. If it were possible, there would be more great editors and fewer average editors.

Editing is art with words. Every artist knows how to mix colors and how to apply paint to canvas, but few artists master the craft of art. Every generation produces a handful of Vermeers and Rembrandts and Gauguins; every generation would produce millions of them if the trick to their artistry could be taught.

Editing is similar. There are many very good editors; there are few elite editors. Editing is a skill that can be nurtured and developed but which cannot be taught. How does one nurture and develop that skill? Are such high-level skills even sought in the market?

Unlike a painter whose contribution to art will last centuries, the contribution that an editor makes lasts until the next edition at best. Artists are not anonymous whereas editors are anonymous by design; it is the author who receives credit for the well-edited manuscript. Rarely does the editor’s name even appear, and when it does appear, it is difficult to ascertain what the editor’s contribution to the work was.

So does it matter (except to editors) whether an editor is highly skilled or average skilled? The market seems to think it doesn’t matter. A free market economy is based on the principle(s) that demand will cause prices to rise and fall and that greater skills will command greater money and greater demand. Perhaps that is true of some professions, but it doesn’t seem to be true in the editing economy.

Within the editing economy there is a narrow range of pricing and a broad range of requirements that accompany that range of pricing. Editors set a price for their services, but if the price is too high, find few takers. If anything, the free market acts as price depressor because the editing market does not value skills, it values price.

If editing skills were teachable, perhaps the market could be taught to value the skills. Because such skills are neither teachable nor transferable, the market views and reacts to what it considers average. It has no way to measure or see the differences in skillsets and apply different metrics to each of the skillsets. It is because these skills are not teachable that we cannot separate ourselves into tiers and demand pay equivalent to our tier. Nor can we rise from tier to tier as we gain experience and skills as no tiers exist.

When someone hires an editor, they have no realistic way of knowing whether they are getting the Michelangelo of editors or the average editor. We can proclaim our skills but each project provides its own challenges and how well an editor does changes with each project. On some projects an editor will demonstrate outstanding skills; on other projects, the same editor will struggle to be average.

It is the nature of editing.

Consequently, when we look for an editor, we ask the editor to pass a test or demonstrate mastery over grammar and spelling and usage. What we cannot and do not test for is that skillset, that spark of mastery or genius, that something that raises one editor above another. We look for and test for those things that are teachable. Perhaps that is a disservice to ourselves, to the editing profession, and to authors.

But the free market does not reward — and is not designed to reward — greater editorial skills, especially intangible, nondemonstrable skills. We need to remember that because of the ease of entry into the editing profession, dilution of the skills required to be an editor occurs. More importantly, ease of entry means that “everyone knows” what constitutes editing and what makes an editor a “good” editor.

How many times have we heard that so-and-so had to be a good editor because they teach English to fifth grade students? In the absence of “knowing” what makes a good editor, there would be no way to correlate teaching English with being a good editor. Similarly, it is also assumed that a degree in English Arts is the necessary educational background for a successful editing career. Yet professional editors know that neither teaching English nor having an English Arts degree assures that the person will be (or is) a good, let alone great, editor.

Editors favor independence and the solopreneur work style. Perhaps if we were less independent in our approach to the profession we could establish minimum “guild-type” requirements for entry into the profession and figure out a way to teach (or at learn) what is currently unteachable. I think that will be the only way to receive acknowledgement that, like with painters, there are levels of skill and mastery and the higher levels of skill and mastery require higher pay. Of course, in the market economy, especially when controlling and minimizing costs is a governing principle and editing remains a hidden benefit, this might be tomfoolery because few will be willing to pay for high-skill editors when average will do.

What do you think?

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