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Brendan O’Brien

Is It All About the Author?

Copyright: bakhtiarzein / 123RF Stock Photo

The prevailing orthodoxy in online editors’ groups, I have noticed, is one of huge respect for, and empathy with, the author. The author is king/queen. We, as editors, primarily serve the author’s vision, the author’s voice.

However, in my own work (both in-house and freelance, primarily as a copyeditor of non-fiction), the emphasis has generally been different. I work for, and serve, the publisher. I hope the author will ultimately be happy, but the publisher pays me. In fact, I worked as an editor for many years before I was even fully aware of the concept of “the author’s voice,” and it still doesn’t impinge much on what I do.

For example, it appears to me that many (most?) copyeditors work to a system whereby the revised version of a manuscript is sent to the author, with changes tracked, before typesetting. The author may reject some or all of the changes (this is why “Stet happens” appears in the banner of a couple of Facebook editors’ groups).

In my in-house jobs (for science/engineering publishers), queries (if any) would be sent to the author and responses incorporated: that was all. The book or paper was sent for typesetting; in due course the author would receive proofs and see the editorial changes for the first time. This has mostly been the practice in my freelance work as well. One fewer stage means a shorter production cycle, less time expended by the editor and less money expended by the publisher.

This system is emblematic of a publisher-centred rather than author-centred philosophy of publishing. It says to the author: “You do your job — we’ll do ours.” Of course it is highly desirable that the author be happy, but it’s essential that the journal or book be up to standard and the publisher’s reputation maintained.

Non-fiction authors (certainly the ones I deal with) tend to be primarily subject-matter experts rather than professional writers. They need help, but may not know that they need it. And serving the author doesn’t mean indulging the author.

Very rarely, in my experience, has an author objected strongly to copyediting changes (of course it’s harder to do this when they are a fait accompli, and the publisher insists that changes at proof stage be minimal). The temptation to try to reinstate errors or poor writing (wordiness, repetition, lack of clarity, inconsistency, cliché) is largely taken away.

The system depends on the standard of copyediting being reliably high. It’s essential that copyeditors make the work better rather than worse, and that they can justify their changes.

I expect that some editors will see this mentality as heresy: they regard themselves primarily as enablers of the author. But might excessive “respect” for the author sometimes compromise the quality of the published work? Saving authors from themselves, after all, is part of the editor’s role.

It takes all kinds of editors to make a world. For this freelancer, it’s not really all about the author. It’s all about doing a good job and getting paid.

___

Previous post from Brendan O’Brien: Beginnings.

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23 Comments on “Is It All About the Author?”

  • Nancy Johnson

    says:

    Hear! Hear!

  • Absolutely. I always distinguish between authors (authorities on the content) and writers (crafters of works). I’m delighted when the same person fills both roles, but that is not a requirement. My job as an editor is to help the author tell their story well and communicate effectively with the audience, no matter what the category or genre.

    Fiction, of course, is primarily written by people who believe in their own writing ability, whether or not that belief is justified. So the path of least resistance for the editor is to give the author their head and let them learn their lesson in the marketplace. I don’t buy that argument. My goal is to improve the prose, not cater to the author’s ego.

  • Louise Adam

    says:

    I’m in a similar position (in-house editor for one publisher/one journal) and I see myself as meeting and balancing the needs of 3 parties: the publisher (by helping to maintain the journal’s standing at the top of its discipline and the longstanding reputation of the association), the author (by making their research shine and ensuring a smooth publication process), and the reader (by following consistent style, querying things that the non-specialist scientist might stumble on, and ensuring clear, lively, readable prose). Although authors have freedom to reject my edits, I can and do resist if something doesn’t match journal style. Of the ~1000 papers we publish each year, I get serious push back on maybe 3 of those, where the author is truly unhappy with our edits. I consider that a win for all 3 parties that I serve.

  • My experience as a non-fiction author is as you describe. I send in a manuscript, and I get queries from the copy editor (often through an in-house contact). The first time I see the edited text is when I get the proofs. I’ve never had the option of rejecting the editor’s changes. For non-fiction I think this works fine. For fiction I imagine it would be more important to make sure the editor hasn’t changed an intentional use of cliché or unusual language.
    As a copy editor, I have worked for publishers who have me send the edits to the author for their approval. It’s more common for them to decide to add new text at this point than to stet my changes, so I’m not sure it adds much to the process. I think if the author knows that their submitted MS is their final version, and they will not have the opportunity to rewrite after editing, they are more likely to self-edit carefully and give you a polished text.

  • Brendan O'Brien

    says:

    Thank you for the interesting comments, Nancy, Dick, Louise and Michelle.

  • Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

    As an inhouse editor for a provincial government, I made sure the publisher’s voice carried across publications ranging from posters on HIV-AIDS testing to departmental annual reports to environmental strategies to text for the internet (which is what we called it in the 1990s). Authors were experts in their fields, and I respected their voices within our style guide.

    Style ensures predictability (always valued in an information publication), correct grammar, and a reading level suitable for an audience. An author’s voice often brings the words to life. The two often work together.

    My freelance work continues to set style for a publication or series of publications or adhere to a set style, respecting, but not prioritizing, the author’s voice. My projects are being edited because the text doesn’t meet readers’ needs for one of several reasons — bad writing, technical language being repurposed for the general public, or outdated information and writing style. The writers I deal with seem grateful someone reliable is checking their grammar and sentence structure.

    This type of work calls on my creativity every day; the structure of style guides adds to the challenge. If I didn’t have a style guide to follow, I would likely make one. It would respect the author’s voice while prioritizing the publisher’s.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thanks for this, Nicole.

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    As an editor, I feel far more free to suggest all the changes I want to make if I know the author will be reviewing both a clean and a tracked version of my edit. I work at the structural, stylistic, and copy editing levels, and the final text is often very different from the original in organization, length, and presentation. For the most part, authors are very happy with the result, but they do find occasional changes in meaning or nuance that we need to fix. And then there are the queries in the comment boxes that we must discuss. In other words, I’m most comfortable regarding the author-editor relationship as a true partnership, one that leads to the best possible publications.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Yes, I think structural and stylistic editing do require a different kind of relationship with the author. It’s primarily copyediting that I’m thinking of here.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Excellent piece, Brendan. That is my experience as well (past tense, as I have been retired for almost a decade). In theory at least, though, the audience that the editor tries hardest to serve is the reader. I like the last bit about they pay cheque. For most of us, it is business, not art.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thank you, Anita. That’s certainly how it is for me.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    It’s important to make a distinction between «author» and «writer.» In the business world, many documents don’t really have an «author,» or at least not someone who has a clear vision and distinctive style. Quite a few are even written by committees, not just one person. So the role of editor becomes quite different than when working on a ms by Margaret Atwood.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Yes! That would be a different challenge altogether.

  • I agree with both of Anita Jenkins’ comments but would go further to suggest every job is different based on role, audience, and purpose.

    I wrote a long essay in support, arguing that it all depends on the editor’s role, the author’s purpose, and the target audience…and then the comment system told me I was limited to 2000 characters. Oops! Probably suggests I was mansplaining… Yeah, preaching to the converted, I’m sure. So I’ll just stop now.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      I would have been interested in your views. 🙂

    • Anita Jenkins

      says:

      Robert, it’s time for you to write an article for Editors’ Weekly. The blog manager, Anna Williams, would be pleased to hear from you.

  • Glenna Jenkins

    says:

    I also work freelance. I consider that my job is to help a researcher meet a journal’s requirements in terms of organization, style, and content. That is, the writing must be excellent, and the content organized, logical, understandable and readable. I don’t really consider that I edit for the reader. But, then, perhaps I do this too.

  • Anne Brennan

    says:

    My experience has been the same as yours, Brendan.

    I’m primarily concerned with the reader. I work for the publisher. I respect the writer, but bring different skills to the table than s/he does, and expect that my skills will be respected, too.

    One of the reasons I don’t work with self-publishing writers is so I don’t have to explain this all the time.

    • Anita I. Jenkins

      says:

      «… so I don’t have to explain this all the time.» Yes !

  • It certainly is a fine line, isn’t it? Ultimately, I answer to my own standards and expectations, knowing that I cannot send back «good enough,» no matter who is paying. Thanks for a good article, Brendan. I’m sure it will give newbies and even some intermediate editors food for thought, too.

  • Brendan O'Brien

    says:

    Thank you, Glenna, Anne and Vanessa.

  • Wada Angela

    says:

    I have the dream of becoming a professional editor. The posts have been really impactful. Thank you all.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thanks for saying so, Angela, and good luck with your dream.

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