In Defense of Editors

I’m an academic book editor, a fiction editor, and a writing coach. Most people have only the vaguest idea of what I do. Some suspect that I must be an expert in all fields in order to edit all the academic books I edit. Not exactly. I leave the expertise to the authors, and it’s my job to make sure that their expertise is rendered in a way that can be comprehended by the educated reader.

For my fiction clients, I offer writing expertise in the form of editing, and as a writing coach, where I am part guide and part cheerleader, encouraging them in their endeavors, but also showing them how best to achieve story.

My academic dissertation writers tend to have confused ideas about what I offer. One client sends me her manuscript and protests that her mentor says it isn’t ready for publication. She asks me to fix it. I, of course, decline, stating that since it’s her PhD, she should be the one to write the darn thing!

Another PhD client wants me to take an “ax” to his prose, help him to hone it. That, I am happy to do. But, I’ll highlight the problem areas; I won’t fix them. Again, that’s his job, not mine. Once he has made the edits, I will “fix” the manuscript, but the thoughts and progression of ideas must be his.

Think of it like this. A copy editor cleans up the text, she doesn’t create it. As John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun writes in regard to copy editors:

“Think of a copy editor as a parent trying to clean up a teenager’s room. You open the door and, God above, there are discarded articles of clothing on every surface. You start to dig in and discover dirty plates, some with unconsumed food on them; notes and uncompleted homework assignments; still more malodorous articles of clothing, along with the unspeakable sheets; and, under the bed, dust bunnies the size of tumbleweeds.

“The basic function the copy editor performs, in all circumstances, is cleanup. We regularize the punctuation, correct the misspellings and typos, fix lapses in grammar and usage, untangle knotted syntax, and the like. And in public perception, that’s about it; we are essentially proofreaders, and we can keep our opinions about the prose to ourselves. (Some writers share that perception.)”

But, that’s not all that editors do. Not every copy editor is a glorified proofreader:

“But copy editors who are allowed to edit do more. They are not merely hauling the teenager’s dirty clothes down to the laundry room; they are putting the room to rights.

“Proper copy editing includes examining the focus, dredging the main point up from the tenth paragraph to make it more prominent. Proper copy editing addresses the language: rooting out cliches, substituting an ordinary term for jargon when it would serve the reader better, altering infelicitous wording. Proper copy editing prunes, deleting the irrelevant, tightening the language. Proper copy editing raises serious questions, including the kind that can identify plagiarism, fabrication, and libel.”

In defense of copy editors against writers who say editors have a pathogenic need to spoil the written text, Dick Margulis writes:

“Typically they do what publishers ask them to do. Publishers have style guides, most of which are crotchety and old and full of zombie rules and are sacrosanct because they were written by someone long gone and long forgotten but revered nonetheless. Managing editors are bureaucratic functionaries responsible for moving the project along, not necessarily skilled editors or people knowledgeable about linguistic subtleties, and they require the copyeditors they assign to follow the style guide as written, not quibble about zombie rules. Publishers see copyediting as a low-level mechanical function, and they don’t pay well for it, so there really is not time available for copyeditors to give serious consideration to doing more than they’re being paid to do. However, what they’re paid to do is mark up the manuscript to note everything questionable and let the author and the managing editor make the final call on which changes to make and which to stet. Blame the publisher, not the poor copyeditor.”

To Margulis, I say, “Amen!”

I love my job, but it’s a tough one, especially since my clients include numerous different publishing houses, each with their own set of style guides that supersede the Chicago Manual of Style, the APA, or the Oxford Style Guide, to name the top three I know and use. I edit in US and UK English, which means knowing spelling, phrasing, spelling, and grammar rules of both. Some days, I feel like a multiple-personality editor, unsure of how to spell my own name!

I leave the last words about editors to McIntyre:

“The blunt truth is that most people, and that can include many academics, are not very good writers. Their prose needs the basic cleaning up, but it also needs the clarification, the sharpening and pruning. The sad truth is that many professional writers are not particularly good at it either, and I can speak from the experience of one who has dealt with the prose of hundreds of professional journalists. As my former colleague Rafael Alvarez once said after a stint on the metro desk, ‘Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked.'”

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