April 02, 2013
Over the course of five Saturdays in March, I taught a class in copyediting at Bellevue College. The class is a requirement for students in the Technical Writing certificate program, and an elective for people in other cert programs.
We try to cram a lot into the 15 hours of class, though not at great depth, obviously. Things like what the different levels of editing are—developmental editing, substantive editing, and copyediting. (This class focuses only on the last.) What copyeditors do. What sorts of resources editors draw on. How to interact with authors. How to use revision marks and comments in Microsoft Word. How to create a project style sheet.
The texts are The Copyeditor's Handbook by Amy Einsohn and the Chicago Manual of Style. We spend a lot of time riffling through Chicago in search of guidance for specific situations: Where do commas go? How do you format a book title? Do you use a hyphen with anti- ? Still, the point is not actually to learn a lengthy list of rules for all occasions. Instead, we’re trying to illustrate for the students how and when and why to use a guidebook like Chicago. We had ample opportunity to discuss the limitations of One Rule to Rule Them All, and how the real task is much more pragmatic—help the reader, help the author, help yourself by keeping a style sheet.
For the last class, I put together a list to try to summarize the aspects of the class that weren’t just about finding the right chapter and verse in Chicago or APA or MLA or MMS. I can’t take much credit; I lifted pretty much all of it from people who really know what they’re talking about when it comes to editing.
Here’s my list; annotations follow.
- Do no harm
- Know the audience
- Prioritize the work
- Look things up
- Have a reason for every change
- Ask the author, nicely
- Record your decisions
- Do things consistently
- Review at least twice
- Advocate for the reader
- Remember it’s not your name at the top
Do no harm. A mandate from the uber-sensible Carol Fisher Saller. Surely nothing harms the editor’s credibility more than introducing errors.
Know the audience. This is fundamental to writing, of course, but it’s essential that the editor likewise understand what the reader does (and doesn’t) need to know. Scott Berkun has a great blog post that pertains to UI design but that covers some of the same ground. Along with Scott, I wish that I, too, had a t-shirt that said “It Depends.”
Prioritize the work. In TCH (pg 19–21), Amy Einsohn has a brief but critical section on “Editorial Triage” in which she describes how to use your editorial time wisely. “The copyeditor’s first task is to ask the editorial coordinator to help set priorities: Which editorial tasks are most important for this particular project, and which niceties must fall by the wayside?”
Look things up. It might not be inaccurate to observe that the less experienced the editor, the more they trust their own judgment. One way that I can gauge my own level of experience is to think about how often my editorial mentors have answered a question by looking the answer up, and to what extent I’ve learned to do that myself.
Have a reason for every change. John McIntyre: “The whole integrity of editing rests on the editor's ability, when challenged, to give a reasonable and persuasive explanation for every change in the text — and that disagreements over judgments can be worked out collegially, in discussion.”
Ask the author, nicely. Before assuming that the writer is mistaken, why not ask? And don’t be cranky: Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s advice is simple: “Respect the writer. ” Gary Kamiya: “An editor needs to remember that writing is much harder work than editing. Sending something you’ve written off into the world exposes you, leaves you vulnerable. It is a creative process, while editing is merely a reactive one.” See also McIntyre’s adverb in the preceding point: “collegially.”
Record your decisions. Whatever decision you’ve come to, write it down; that’s what style sheets are for. Melanie Spiller: “If you put your decision in a style sheet, you won’t find editors changing it to suit themselves.”
Do things consistently. It doesn’t really matter that much whether you follow one rule or another rule or you ignore them both and make up your own. Just do it the same way. Readers actually do notice—and wonder about—inconsistency. Carolyn Rude: “Consistency gives useful information to readers. […] Consistency enhances usability.”
Review at least twice. Another voice-of-experience recommendation. On page 243 of TCH, Amy Einsohn lays out her strategy for reviewing tables in three passes, looking for different things with each pass. The wise editor will do the same for headings, figures, and every other element that can benefit from oranges-to-oranges comparisons. That aside, the editor (you) should always review the edits and comments to the author before handing a document back—not only will this catch inconsistent edits and ones you’ve changed your mind about, it will help you tweak the tone of your comments.
Advocate for the reader. The point of all the work is to make the text comprehensible for the reader. The rules exist only for that purpose. Michael Swaine (on writing): “You don’t have to worry about rules of punctuation, spelling, grammar, or usage. It’s not that they aren’t useful, and you ignore them at the risk of impairing your communication. I’m just saying keep them in their place: so far as you as a writer are concerned, those things are just possibly helpful heuristics to help you say what you mean to say, and not say what you don’t mean to say. Writing is communication. Don’t lose sight of that fact and you’ll be all right.”
Remember it’s not your name at the top. It’s the author who ultimately gets the credit (or blame). You help, but they own.
Relax. It’s just editing. Get it done, and then let it go. Carol Fisher Saller again: “The manuscript does not have to be perfect because perfect isn’t possible. […] It simply has to be the best you can make it in the time you’re given, free of true errors, rendered consistent in every way that the reader needs in order to understand and appreciate, and as close to your chosen style as is practical.”