What they think about when they think about editing

The Baltimore Sun

In an online discussion, some colleagues who freelance have been talking about being approached with projects for which the client offers to pay what amounts to minimum wage. They wonder why people put such a low value on their professional skills.

I know part of the answer. Editing, good editing, is expensive. And there is so little money in writing these days that writers don’t feel that they can afford to pay very much. They probably can’t, and they wind up with no editing, or cheapjack and inexpert editing.

I suspect I know another part of the answer. People, even many writers, don’t understand what proper editing is. I assume they think, "But you're just READING. How much work can that be?"

Most people appear to think that proofreading is the beginning and the end of editing: Check the spelling, correct the typos, mind the punctuation.

That micro editing is indispensable. The text needs to look clean. But the macro editing is the hard, and equally necessary, part.

Writers have in their heads an image of what they are writing—their intention, their goal, their means to the purpose. That mental sense of what they mean to say gets in the way of their seeing the actual words on the page, which may only imperfectly convey that intention to the reader.

I was once engaged to edit a book proposal and sample chapter for a former colleague, an exceptionally able writer, and I had to convey delicately that the sample chapter was troubled. The compelling part, actually the section identifying the focus of the chapter, was buried deep in secondary material. I suggested that taking that section, making it the opening of the chapter, and filling in the secondary material around it.

That is part of proper editing: recognizing the writer’s intent and assisting in the accomplishment of it. That means divining the focus when it has not been clearly established, making sure that the prose structure is the appropriate one, and moving the parts around as needed to streamline the organization.

Along the way there are many editorial tasks that go beyond proofreading. Infelicities to address (inapt wording, misguided metaphor, ill-judged register), wordy passages to compress or delete, gaps in chronology or detail to be identified and filled.

The editor may, likely will, come across legal and ethical issues, such as plagiarism, fabrication, and potential libel. Identifying them requires a shrewd eye, and dealing with them demands professional integrity.

The writer may also need an editor with technical skills that do not just fall out of the sky: enough mastery of word-processing software to repair the mess the author has made of the manuscript, expertise in electronic publication, knowledge of the conventions of book publishing, specialized intellectual capital.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to meet a group of freelance editors attending Ruth Thaler-Carter’s Communication Central conference in Baltimore, and this year I met another group of editors at the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto. They are an impressive group of professionals, boasting skills and experience in the technical matters of editing, but also the practical skills of running a business and negotiating with clients. They are the sort of people you really want to have counseling you about your prose.

They should not come cheap. Don’t expect it.

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