I just discovered Geoff Hart’s archive of articles and essays. I’m glad his material is available to read even though it is mostly 10 to 20 years old: although some of the material, particularly concerning computers, is out of date, the bulk of it is still valuable. A lot of the pieces are about technical writing and editing. The essays are thoughtful and cover a wide range of topics, such as “Repairing Bad Author–Editor Relationships,” “Politeness in Editing,” “Part of the Problem?” and “Creating ‘Living’ Policies and Procedures,” and he has humorous pieces too, such as “Son of ‘A Programming Primer’: How to Speak Geek.” I pretty much devoured his archive in a few days, and I think you’ll find it worthwhile too.
Recently I encountered the Zen concept of beginner’s mind. “The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities,” according to Richard Baker’s introduction to Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.
“When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something,” wrote Suzuki in that book.
As I begin my new job, this sounds like a good attitude. Yes, I have experience and expertise, but editing pieces of writing that are new and different to me, for new and different people, means I will need to learn. The answers and solutions I have applied elsewhere may not be exactly what are needed.
As I approach the situation I can be open to discovering the client’s needs, the writers’ needs, the readers’ needs—and what I can do to help.
I can see that beginner’s mind can be helpful not just in a new position of employment but in taking on any new editing task. I’ve learned to listen to people who know more than I do, and there are plenty of those. If I have “no thought of achievement, no thought of self,” I can approach new editing assignments not merely as one who makes corrections but as one who is “open to all the possibilities.” That sounds to me like a good beginning.
How physically strong does an editor need to be? Lately I’ve spotted a few ads for editors that say the editor must be able to lift 35 pounds.
Is this a genuine requirement? When I was young and worked at a couple of book publishers, I did indeed move a lot of cartons of books weighing more than 35 pounds. The companies had small staffs, and people pitched in with other tasks as they were able.
However, I wonder whether some of the current advertisements for editors really involve heavy lifting. I suspect that the requirement to lift 35 pounds may really be a way of weeding out older applicants.
What do you think? I welcome your comments.
A hiking trial? Sounds like a grueling hike. This caption was in the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Free Lance–Star on Feb. 23, 2017.
Don’t let this happen to you: Maintain a list of “bad words”—words that probably shouldn’t be in your documents but that a spellchecker won’t catch. Search for these words as part of copyediting. Trail happens to be in my own list but in reverse: that is, trial is more likely to appear in the work I edit, and trail is more likely to be a typo.
Certainly, to be an editor, you must be good at English or whatever language you’re editing. Also, you must care. Be a perfectionist. No one else involved in publishing a document, whether it’s a blog post or a book, may be attuned to the nuances of words and punctuation. The editor may have to compromise or be overruled, but striving for excellence is essential.
Also, pay attention to the details but don’t get mired in them. John McIntyre, copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, wrote on his You Don’t Say blog that some people in publishing think that copy editors are “comma jockeys”; he pointed out that by careful attention to content, copy editors had prevented the paper from publishing libel and plagiarized writing. Be aware of the content: is it coherent and complete? Also, unless someone else is doing the fact checking, I recommend verifying anything you can. This takes time and patience, but the alternative—getting names, numbers, and titles wrong—is worse.
One choice for editors is to specialize in certain subjects. For example, Katharine O’Moore Klopf, who maintains the Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base website, is a medical editor. Adrienne Montgomerie, a major contributor to Copyediting.com, edits scientific works.
Copyediting.com has a lot of articles to assist freelancers, and Liz Dexter’s Libro Editing blog has, besides lots of helpful information for editors, a continuing series of interviews with small business owners. Her book How I Survived My First Year of Full-Time Self-Employment: Going It Alone at 40 is available at Liz Broomfield Books. I reviewed it on my website.
For years I wondered why so many writers and publishers were choosing to use en dashes (which are the width of a capital N) where em dashes (yes, the width of a capital M) used to be standard.
Em dashes have long been used to separate phrases and clauses—groups of words that contain a subject and a verb but aren’t written as an independent sentence. The dash in the previous sentence between the words clauses and groups is an em dash.
En dashes were normally used to separate a range of numbers (such as 50–100) or to join a compound word to another word or words (such as New York–Chicago).
In typing class, back in the (ulp) 1960s, we used two hyphens in place of em dashes–because typewriters didn’t have em dashes.
Microsoft Word has a feature called “Autoformat as you type,” and one of the choices under “Replace as you type” is “Hyphens (–) with dash (–).” (I don’t use it because I do a lot of HTML formatting in Word, and replacing double hyphens with dashes will ruin some of the code.) But if you use this feature (and I believe it’s turned on by default) and if you type two words with two hyphens between them, Word will replace the two hyphens with an em dash. What the “Replace as you type” menu doesn’t tell you, and what I didn’t learn until this month (September 2016) is that if you type a space, a hyphen, and another space, Word will turn the hyphen into an en dash, as illustrated in the title of this blog post.
My guess is that a lot of writers and publishers have not been choosing to use an en dash in place of an em dash. My guess is that a lot of writers don’t know one kind of dash from the other but have been typing space, hyphen, space where they wanted a dash, and Microsoft Word supplied one, and the publishers left it as written, or, to be precise, as typed by the author and as modified by Microsoft Word.
My solution when editing in Microsoft Word is to search for en dashes with space before and after them (in the Find menu, enter a space, then alt+0150, then another space) and change them to em dashes without space if that’s appropriate or to en dashes without space if that’s what they should be.
The editor “will see to it that the sensibilities of the readers of the book have been respected and not unnecessarily offended,” says Words into Type (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 57). I earnestly wished that the editor had followed this instruction with Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Bryson is an entertaining, best-selling, humorous writer who occasionally has been a bit crude. In this book he went beyond being occasionally crude and used the f-word a lot, along with a bunch of crude and obscene terms. I’ve enjoyed some of his other work, but I was sorry I borrowed this one from the library and glad I didn’t buy it.
Words into Type doesn’t say never to let an author offend readers. Sometimes controversial content needs to be published, and some people won’t like it. In The Road to Little Dribbling, there was no need for Bryson to be a potty-mouth. Probably some readers didn’t mind, and probably some found it funny. But his humorous observations didn’t require crudeness, and the book would have been better and just as funny with more restraint.
So how does an editor see that readers are not unnecessarily offended and that their sensibilities are respected? I’ve never personally had to remove obscenity while editing, but I have occasionally had to keep authors on course. My advice is to respect the author’s sensibilities and not unnecessarily offend the author. Where editors recognize a digression, the author may see a jewel of writing. The editor can point out which portions detract from a piece of writing and how they may limit the readership. In my experience, the best authors are open to correction. Still, you may present your advice politely and respectfully and have it rejected. And if the author is a best-seller, the publisher may come down on the side of the author. When Words into Type says, “See to it,” that presumes some authority that an editor may, in reality, lack. Nonetheless, it’s important to try—for the sake of the readers, the author, and the publisher and to do your best work.