Tag Archives: non-fiction editing

The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the eEditor-flavor-of-the-month.com hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

Recent read: The Devil Drives, by Fawn Brodie

Having spent our Pageant of Democracy at the coast (in Oregon, that’s how we say “the beach”), I needed a good read. If I had been doing the ideal thing, I’d have finished reading the book about marketing editing services. Instead I brought along this book, a biography of Sir Richard Burton.

Introductions are in order. Brodie was a UCLA history professor who wrote several biographies, notably one of Joseph Smith. I had read that one and thought it rather good, though the LDS Church doesn’t seem to have shared my opinion. In my estimation, she is credible. As for Burton, he was an 1800s English philologist, foreign service officer, explorer, and researcher of human sexuality. Some called him a cad, but no one called him dull.

Burton had a great natural flair for learning languages, eventually mastering about twenty-five with another fifteen dialects. He spoke Arabic well enough to infiltrate Mecca despite not being a Muslim, which would have gotten him a messy punishment in case of discovery. He quarreled with the British Foreign Office, fellow explorers, other researchers, and anyone who tried to boss him around. He visited Utah in the early 1860s, and Brodie (a native of Ogden) calls his book on the LDS community the best study of its time. I’d think she should know.

As for human sexuality, Burton picked an unreceptive time and place to discuss it. Wherever he went, he studied sexual practices and beliefs. Much of his work in that area scandalized much of his home country (in which he lived very little of his actual life), and much of it we will never see, because his fanatically religious wife incinerated a large amount of his unpublished work and diaries after his death. The effect was to attach to Burton an air of amorality, but his real sin was not to study sexuality and publish his findings. His real sin was not to appear properly ashamed and embarrassed about doing so. For that, the court of public opinion crucified him.

Brodie didn’t write nearly as many biographies as I wish she would have, probably thanks to her thoroughness and urgent need for a passionate interest in her subject. This one’s a winner. Recommended.