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Anita Jenkins

What’s an editor to do?

An attractive, long-haired blond woman looks straight at the camera, holding up a magnifying glass in front of her right eye, making that eye appear extremely large within the frame of the magnifying glass.

An attractive, long-haired blond woman looks straight at the camera, holding up a magnifying glass in front of her right eye, making that eye appear extremely large within the frame of the magnifying glass.Virginia Durksen recently stated in her blog post The Inner Editor: Reflections on Editing as Mindful Practice that an editor must “respect the writer’s voice and suggest only those changes that serve the writer first, and then the writer’s reader.” Certainly I agree; it’s a big mistake to indiscriminately apply a standardized style so firmly and rigidly that the text loses its individuality and verve.

Unfortunately, though, many documents we editors tackle in our daily travails don’t actually have a writer—or at least not a skilled one. Often, the source is someone who, for whatever reason, does not communicate clearly or well. Worse yet, the editor who works in government or business regularly encounters documents filled with corporate-speak that have been cobbled together by committee.

I was therefore delighted to read the fourth-from-last paragraph of John E. McIntyre’s recent article in the Baltimore Sun. He says that an editor’s essential skills include such things as the ability to

  • reduce the length of a text,
  • sharpen the focus,
  • “get to the damn point up front instead of permitting the writer half a dozen paragraphs of throat-clearing,”
  • tone down an overblown and pretentious style,
  • ensure factual accuracy and clarity, and
  • eliminate jargon.

My interactions with the editing world often lead me to believe that an army of copy editors is busily applying the refinements of punctuation and grammar to documents that should have received major surgery but didn’t.

This is worrisome. Rosemary Shipton, Toronto-based editor of numerous award-winning books, says it best: some houses just need a coat of paint, but others need some walls knocked out or a front porch added.

Many clients send a file to the editor, saying, “It’s all ready for the printer but I thought I’d have you take a quick look first.” So, what is the editor to do? Make a call to suggest getting out the scalpel, and possibly end up out of work? If you take clients at their word and fix the obvious grammatical and punctuation errors, will they notice that the document still doesn’t read well and blame you? What would you do?


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4 Comments on “What’s an editor to do?”

  • Adrienne (scieditor)

    says:

    Good question. There is undoubtedly more than one wise approach to such situations. In the past, I have hybridized my response to include two parts:
    1. Do exactly what was asked.
    2. Include a memo with «bigger picture» feedback and an explanation of the time and cost for that kind of edit.
    Sometimes, the client can’t pursue option 2 for any number of reasons. But, the client now has a good sense of what they can do differently next time. Most often, the new understanding results in them calling me much earlier in the process.
    Often, the client is grateful to get the memo (2) and asks me to do the work I outlined. This is basically how I went from proofreader to developmental editor: I kept saying «Did you also notice how these changes might make a difference?»

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    I believe that editors should use their professional judgement to suggest whatever they think would make the publication as good as it can be – structuallly, stylistically, and in terms of copy editing too. Within the budget and the schedule allowed, of course …

  • Sally Evans-Darby

    says:

    It’s certainly tricky when by the time it lands in your inbox, and the deadline is a matter of days away, you discover that the thing needs a whole going-over rather than just a polish. If you’d had more time, you might have suggested more of a developmental edit, but you can see your client’s up against a deadline and asking you to turn it around quickly. Then comes the dilemma of worrying that the express copyedit you apply won’t do much to combat the bigger issues, reflecting badly on you…

  • Wilf Popoff

    says:

    “It’s all ready for the printer but I thought I’d have you take a quick look first.”

    The concomitant remark comes after you’ve sweated hours trying to correct the copy: «Oh, I see you didn’t have to change much.»

    We must understand one thing. Writers who need editors the most realize it the least.

    If my tooth aches my dentist solves my problem and I appreciate the difference; if my motor makes a strange noise and my mechanic solves it I appreciate the difference.

    Bad writers, however, simply do not recognize a problem and cannot appreciate the difference an editor makes.

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