The ability to spot a few classes of error is not nearly credential enough
When I was at a startup in the early ’90s and we were building our department, we took on as editor someone very new to the profession. She had studied design in school, and the portfolio she brought us was filled with visual pieces. But she had an ear for the language, she had a passion for reading and could parse a sentence, she was sharp and analytical, and she soon picked things up. She took classes, she asked questions, she worked with each of us in turn, we monitored her early work, and with this focused and dedicated approach, she developed into a fine editor. She later went on to become a pubs manager, then an editing manager, and she’s now a director.
That was a success story.
Now let me tell you another story.
She was an admin, and she’d been assigned to us to facilitate the style guide meetings and to record our decisions. She too had a passion for “editing.” Her interpretation of it, that is. She had absorbed the usual collection of simplistic rules and gotchas — quite possibly she’d have passed a simple copyediting test — and she was determined to wield what she knew, what she took to be “editing.” Of course, she couldn’t parse anything other than the most basic of sentences, nor could she take on anything beyond that. She couldn’t assess the logic or structure of a passage. She couldn’t recognize or repair a problem with coherence, cohesion, clarity. She couldn’t align substance with structure. She had no ear for the language, for the rhythm of sentences, for the cadence of English.
But she could hunt down passive structures — well, or structures that looked passive to her — and change them. Never mind that the connections between sentences were sometimes obliterated in the process. The verbs were now in active “tense” (active tense, active mood, she wasn’t sure which, maybe it was active tone?). She could swap in that for which and rout out instances of hopefully. She could strike out every instance of there or it that began a sentence (offensive structures, those), every instance of because or and caught in similar transgression, and every instance of since or as masquerading as because.
She could ruthlessly excise the extra words from a passage (she had a list, don’t you know), what matter that she chopped up the passage in the process. And she wanted sentences short, oh how she wanted them short. She knew all the rules. She had a tidy system, and she was resolved that the text passing under her scrutiny should follow it. She was a martinet in her kingdom, and her kingdom was us.
And so she fixed instances of subject/verb agreement that hadn’t been problematic, she undangled structures that hadn’t been dangling, she sorted out modification that hadn’t needed sorting, she mispunctuated, she overcorrected. She tweaked and revised what ought to have been left alone, sailing blithely by larger, more troubling issues. There was no list for those. It was a difficult and contentious time, and she was eventually removed from that position.
Or how about this story.
When I was teaching through UCSC Extension, one of the students asked if I would meet her outside of class for intensive, one-on-one instruction in editing. I agreed. Turns out, she’d been recently hired as an editor by a major player in the industry, and she now found herself in over her head because, actually, she couldn’t edit. Her background? She’d been a massage therapist who’d taken to computers when the desktop models first came out, and so she’d begun a small desktop publishing business. As she worked with the various pieces clients gave her, she began to make little corrections here and there. Soon, she was calling herself an editor. (After all, she was making changes in someone else’s text, wasn’t she?)
The manager who’d hired her a couple of months back was a friendly acquaintance, and apparently she’d taken my student’s qualifications on faith. So what was our newly hired “editor” doing now? Desperately trying to learn what she was already supposed to know. Unbeknownst to anyone in the department, she was subcontracting out the books she’d been given to edit and passing that work off as her own. She could afford to pay an editor to do her work, because she herself was being paid so very well.
Yes, that was my reaction too.
. . .
What can you do, to avoid situations like these? First of all, recognize that editing is a skill. A learned and practiced skill. Don’t hire just anyone. Look to education and experience as a start. Education does not ensure a fine editor, naturally, but it’s difficult to get to fine without a solid education to build on. Then, the experience. What’s the trajectory? Do you see vetted growth, the building of expertise? Is there sustained work, variety, longevity? And is the work truly professional? That is, did another company hire and retain the individual, or is the label merely self-assigned? Many editors do work on their own, with private clients, either under their own names or through a DBA, but where that’s the sole experience — most particularly right out of school or following a series of decidedly noneditorial positions — the warning bells should be sounding.
Ask to see samples. You should be shown before and after text, markup, and commentary on that markup in the form of queries to the writer and an edit memo. Ask the candidate about her approach to editing. Can she walk you through the samples and articulate the issues, the potential solutions? Can she point out the strengths and weaknesses of the writing? Can she speak knowledgeably about the writing context?
If it’s appropriate in your industry, ask for or assign a sample edit. You’ll want a natural piece of writing for this, something with a range of problems germane to the context. It’s best to start with a real section or passage, writing that came in with various issues, and then to obscure anything that would identify the source. When you judge the results, take into account that this person is coming into the piece cold, without any experience (yet) with this particular context. You can pair this piece with a standard copyediting test, or introduce additional mechanical issues into the sample you have.
Make sure that the requested sample edit is commensurate with the work. It’s appropriate to ask someone to spend some serious time on a difficult and detailed sample if what’s on offer is a full-time position, a contract of reasonable duration, or the promise of some sort of sustained work. It is not if the reward is a short, one-off project. And give candidates a reasonable amount of time to get the sample back to you. Two to three days for a short piece. A week or so for a longer piece. They’ll be fitting this work in and around their existing schedule.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), have any editing tests you devise, including the sample developed for edit, prepared by experienced editors. Likewise, set up a panel of experienced editors to evaluate the editorial work submitted by candidates.
If the open position/project calls for a solo editor, you might turn to your writers to develop the editing challenges and to evaluate the resulting work. Or you might contract with an agency to work with an editor or two for this purpose.
If you’re an individual looking for an editor to work with one on one, ask around in your writing groups for recommendations or turn to an editing agency or professional editors’ group in your area. You’d still want to see a sample edit, but in this case, it would be on a few pages of your own work. You’ll want to see the editor’s range and style, to see whether you’ll enjoy working with this person, whether she’ll be offering you the partnership, fresh perspective, and insight you’re looking for.
Over the years, I’ve run into writers who can’t write and editors who can’t edit, and it’s the latter who — as gatekeepers, sanity checkers, partners, would-be mentors — are in a position to do infinitely more damage. To the publication or company, to the piece in question, to the writers, even to the profession itself.
There’s something about working with words (which we all do, after all, in our daily lives) that leads some to think that it must be a fairly simple thing to write. Sometimes, they think it’s an even simpler thing to edit.
It’s certainly simple to jump into a page of text and start making changes. Unfortunately, editing involves more than making a bunch of changes. Editing well is both a science and an art. It takes study and it takes time. You can’t hang out your shingle simply because you’ve a facility for spotting a few simple categories of error.
Editing, actual editing, goes well beyond that.