Tag Archives: editors

Advice to a beginning editor

I am regularly invited as a guest expert in an online editing course taught by a friend. This time around, one of the students asked “Do you have any tips for aspiring editors or editors that are just getting started on their first project? Also, what resources are some of your holy grail must-haves?” Here is my advice for her.

Editors who are just starting out often have a combination of overzealousness and insecurity: they won’t ask about things they should ask about, but will ask about things that are actually covered in the style sheet or standard references. Remember: whatever document you’re working on, it’s part of a certain genre for a certain publication in a certain field, and there will be things that are standard or assumed in that context that you may not know about yet. If a thing seems weirdly wrong or nonstandard, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. But also don’t be afraid to look it up and look at other examples from the publication in question.

Many eager editors have “hills to die on”: points of usage that are dogmatically beyond compromise for them. Having a hill to die on is a great way to be slaughtered in full view of the neighbourhood. Beginning editors shouldn’t have them. Experienced editors also shouldn’t have them, but the more experienced you are, the more you know that anyway. Any position you take you should be able to support, and if you can’t persuade the client, (a) there may be a good reason for it, and (b) it’s their document with their name on it and their money they’re paying for it, so at a certain point it’s better to lay down your arms and go to the pub.

You should get to know the preferred style of the publisher you’re working with, of course, but standard guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style ought to be part of your repertoire and you should refer to them for advice as needed (advice! not law! unless it’s in the style sheet). I also like the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. Some people love the Canadian Press and Associated Press guides; as far as I’m concerned, if your client is a newspaper or is specifying CP or AP style, go with it, but otherwise it will have advice and take positions that may be inappropriate for your document. These styles have been developed for a specific genre, and there are debates that can be had over whether they’re even optimal for that genre. You will find that some people who have taken journalism courses tend to think that CP or AP is the absolute God-given legislation and optimal for all contexts. They are not right about this.

I’m a big advocate of studying at least some linguistics, but not everyone is in a position to take an intro course. It’s important to know how all the machinery of the language actually works, though. It’s very, very important not to heed the self-important counsel of curmudgeons, peevers, “grammar Nazis” (a term that should be abolished), and similar sorts. Stay far, far away from Lynne Truss and Nevile Gwynne and anyone of that ilk. You can identify them by their habit of declaring that well-known and well-respected authors are wrong on points of grammar, and by their use of such terms as “barbaric” and their endorsement of such acts as vandalizing signage. None of this has anything to do with clear communication; it’s all dominance behaviour, classism, brutishness, and schoolyard punkery in a gabardine suit.

On the other hand, there are authors who are well informed and worth a read for enlightenment and entertainment; you need not take everything they say as law, but it is at least well founded. They tend to be experienced professional editors. These include ones such as Emmy Favilla in her A World Without “Whom,” Mary Norris in Between You & Me (which is also autobiographical), and Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer’s English. Other editors who have written books worth turning to include June Casagrande and the late, great Bill Walsh. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list! For the art of being an editor, read The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller.

That should be a good start! The good news is that you never stop learning. (Or, if you do, stop editing.)

The Editor’s Carols

After my previous editorial music video, I had a couple of requests for some Christmas songs. Which is good, because I was going to do it anyway. Here’s my medley – quick and dirty, because I’m too busy editing to spend all day on it. (I’m not lying: I’m fully booked – editing full books!)

Rime of the Ancient Editor

Marie-Lynn Hammond (a luminary in the world of Canadian folk music and also a professional editor) was asked to write a song to celebrate the 40th birthday of Editors Canada (also known as the Editors’ Association of Canada), and she asked me to join in writing the words. She wasn’t able to be at the conference in Halifax, so I led those present at the opening reception in singing it. Here’s a cellphone video of it.

And here are the words:

I am an ancient editor (well, OK, not that old);
I do to words what’s right and true and also what I’m told.
I mostly work alone and yet I’m not alone at all,
for editing lures many with its nerdy siren call!

CHORUS:
Hey ho! Haul up the manuscriptand brave the waves of prose,
and on the storm of muddy words some order we’ll impose.
Hey ho! Fix up the manuscript by sunlight and by moon!
We’ll steer a course to clarity for deadline’s coming soon!

I sail through books and articles, and sometimes even verse;
I try to make them better or at least not make them worse.
I move, delete, and query, tracking changes all the while,
And though hands and eyes may weary, still I do it all with style.

I toil in anonymity, I serve the author’s voice;
It’s grammar over glamour—but when freelance, I rejoice!
For I can work from coffee shops, or home if I decide,
In my housecoat and pyjamas with my cats all by my side.

And when the writing’s so banal I fear I’ll fall asleep,
[I must] beware the dangling modifiers lurking in the deep!
And if the structure’s full of holes and threatening to sink,
I pray I’ll be forgiven should I end up in the drink!

Our crew’s been here for forty years, and we’re still going strong;
They said that we’d be obsolete, but oh! we proved them wrong.
As long as words are in the world, they’ll need a steady hand,
And that’s why we are editors, and oh! my friends, it’s grand!

Who are you, and who are you talking to?

Here are the slides from my presentation at the 2016 Editors Canada conference. I didn’t have a separate script, and I neglected to record myself presenting, so this is what there is to give you, but it covers the points; my speaking was generally expansion on the points.

Here is the whole show, downloadable: harbeck_who_EAC_201606

Here are the slides, one by one.

Slide01

Slide02

Slide03

Slide04

Slide05

Slide06

Slide07

Slide08

Slide09

Slide10

Slide11

Slide12

Slide13

Slide14

Slide15

Slide16

Slide17

Slide18

Slide19

Slide20

Slide21

Slide22

Slide23

Slide24

Slide25

Slide26

Slide27

Slide28

Slide29

Slide30

Slide31

Slide32

Slide33

Slide34

Slide35

Slide36

Slide37

Slide38

Slide39

Slide40

Slide41

Slide42

Slide43

Slide44

Slide45

Slide46

Apparently ignorance is in vogue at Slate

Yesterday I had a little asterisked mini-rant about some sloppy thinking in an article on Slate. Well, today I discover that they’ve printed an article from someone who thinks that editors are narcissistic megalomaniacs who deserve no credit or consideration. I won’t name him (I’ll say why below), but I will say he knows Jack Sh…itt about editors and editing. Continue reading

Let’s be clear about something

As I often mention, I’m an editor. I’m also obviously someone who likes to play with words and who appreciates ambiguity; as I say in my About page, a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. Some people may consider these two facts incompatible: shouldn’t an editor’s job always be to enhance clarity?

Not to put too fine a point on it: Hell to the no! An editor’s job is certainly in many cases to enhance clarity. But by no means always. An editor is there to facilitate the best effect on the reader, which is a function of enhancing the author’s communication with the audience. But sometimes what the author wants to communicate is precisely ambiguity, open-endedness, an invitation for the reader to contribute some as well. To fill in the blanks.

Some authors value this more than others; the editor should pay attention to the author’s bent on this. (I, for instance, in writing fiction, usually prefer to let the readers fill in many visual details of the characters and contexts. If you’ve read some of my story-type word tasting notes, tell me what the following characters look like: Daryl, Jess, Margot, Ross. Why do you think so?) Inasmuch as the writing is at all an artistic expression, it has as part of its utterance “appreciate this aesthetically,” which means “look for the things that resonate with you in it,” which means that each reader will have his or her own individual experience and interpretation of it, similar but not identical to that of any other reader.

Ambiguity is even sometimes valuable in nonfiction. Well, not always so valuable for the reader per se, but quite often valuable for the author (or uttering body – much nonfiction is produced in the name of organizations or corporations), who doesn’t wish to be pinned down on this or that! And as the editor, you do have to keep that in mind. An editor has to be mentally flexible. (See Are you editor material? for more on what an editor should be.)

I mention this just because my attention has been drawn to an instance where an editor – without consulting the author, which is the worst part – made clarifying rewrites to a short story based on the editor’s own interpretations. This is an excellent example of what an editor should not just go ahead and do, and of why many writers grumble about copyeditors. The author is Mima Simić, and the story is “My Girlfriend,” published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction for 2011. Read about it in The Facts Behind One Story in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction for 2011.

Are you editor material?

Editing is not a glamour career. If you want to be famous, it’s not what you can do to get there (though you can be an editor and be famous for something else; I know of examples). Nor is it a career that will make you rich. (In fact, freelance editing is hard to survive at if you’re not married to someone with a good salary. In-house editing jobs can, but don’t always, pay better, but they’re not so easy to find.) Nonetheless, there are many people who want to be editors, including some who offer their editing services to friends or colleagues, sometimes without being asked. So what are the characteristics of a person who could become a good editor?

Well, first of all, if you have a burning desire to fix other people’s prose, if the very sight of a minor grammatical error puts you into a rage, if anytime you see something written you know you could have written it better, if you are often heard to counsel your friends (without being asked) on how to improve their grammar or expressions, if you perhaps carry a marker with which to correct signs in grocery stores, DO NOT BECOME AN EDITOR. At least not until you’ve grown up and changed your personality.

If, on the other hand, you love language and think it’s fun, and you love communication and understand that what’s most important in communication is bringing minds together, and that the results dictate the means, you could become an editor.

If you always have to have things your way, STAY OUT OF EDITING. If making other people happy makes you happy, you may be editor material.

If you are often heard to say things like “That doesn’t matter” and “Why should I care about that?” and “I don’t know about that; it’s not important to me” and “Why do you know all these dumb, useless things,” you will never make any sort of decent editor. On the other hand, if other people often say things like that to you, you very well may! Certainly, if you are more likely to say “I wonder” and “Let’s find out” and “Let me look that up,” and if reading reference works and looking random things up out of sheer interest is something you have always done for fun, you have the right disposition to become an editor.

If you see something that you don’t recognize and don’t know the function of, and you conclude it’s useless, stay out of editing. If you see something that you don’t recognize and don’t know the function of, and it provokes in you an excited desire to find out what it is and what it does, you’re editor material.