The editor’s role

On Friday, I was talking with a long-time colleague – my mentor in the world of instructional design, which is the other professional hat I wear – over a postmortem lunch for the project whose conclusion has now put us both back, as it were, On The Market.

As part of his we-were-so-lucky-to-have-you speech (which, believe me, the editor or writer on your workforce appreciates beyond rubies, even if it does make them a little embarassed), I got to hear some war stories about my predecessor on this team: an Oxford-educated editor of the Mrs. Badcrumble or Miss Thistlebottom school, who once gathered everyone for an emergency meeting so she could berate them on their grammatical shortcomings – a list that (of course) included a bunch of the old superstitions of grammar nitpickery. A veteran which-hunter, in other words.

This sort of thing is quite bad enough, even though I’ve grown used to being unwillingly represented by the most myopic practitioners of my craft, but it gets even better. The thing that really floored me was when my colleague told me about his efforts trying to submit a draft to this editor. He’s a natural collaborator; we share, among other things, an ethos of pride in the work but not ego, so he makes liberal use of the comments feature to tag his drafts with notes asking if such-and-such wording makes sense or has the right tone or is sufficiently supported in the rest of the piece. You know – all the things a writer’s supposed to do.

The response he got was, “I don’t know about any of that. I’m just the editor.”

Folks, gentlebeings, let us explore the ways in which this is Wrong Wrong Wrongity Wrong.

First of all, it seems fit at this point to pause for a brief discussion of basic forgodssake manners. You do not call your bosses and colleagues into a Very Important meeting to give them grammar lessons. You just don’t. It’s not your job to play schoolmarm to your managers and associates, no matter how much you think you know about the subject of English. It disrespects their time and, moreover, it’s tacky – not least because you’re almost certainly using it as an opportunity to air your own personal peeves about usage more than actually shedding light on the realities of language. Be an authority on the company stylebook, certainly (and if there isn’t one, volunteering to write it is often appreciated and a much more worthwhile use of your time), but understand what the stylebook is for: not to be the final authority on the right way to compose in English, but to provide consistent choices out of the several right ways, so your business doesn’t look sloppy by being all over the map in whether they capitalize Federal or use select or click when writing online navigation instructions.

If there’s something worth pointing out in a text that you’d like a colleague to remember, that’s what Track Changes is for, and a polite note in the comments to the effect of, “Per our style guide, we use application instead of program when referring to the company software” may save you a lot of hunting and replacing later. If it’s something you’re seeing a lot, a brief, diplomatic email to the team with a reminder of one or two points from the stylebook might be fine, depending on your workplace, though I’d get buy-in from your manager first (which might also give you additional leverage to enforce it later). But using company meeting time for an impromptu English class? No no no no no. Bad form, not cool, and, again, Not Your Job.

Which leads us to the matter of what your job as an editor is. Yes, it’s catching typos before they embarass someone; yes, it’s making sure the style guide is adhered to and the basic mistakes of grammar and typography and word choice writers are inevitably prone to don’t make it to the final product. But those are just the irridescent sheen on the deep pool of craft that is editing, and if you think that’s all you do – if your response to anything that pulls you deeper into the work is, “Sorry, not my job” – you need to step up your game and quit embarassing the profession.

Editing isn’t just asking if all the words are spelled right and the subject and verb agree. It’s asking the questions that come after that: Are these the right words? Have we said enough? Have we said too much? Is this even true? Do the ideas flow intuitively from sentence to sentence to illuminate the subject? What’s being implied here that we might not intend to say? What’s not being said that we might be assuming is implicit? Are we repeating ourselves unneccesarily? Are we repeating ourselves enough to make the case for our premises? Is the tone appropriate to the audience, and does it need to reflect a larger body of work so that everything speaks with a single voice? What’s the story here? Who is telling it, who is listening, and why should anyone care?

That’s the job, folks. Yes, I get that deadlines are probably tight, and confronting – interrogating – the text on that level is a big ask under the deadlines you undoubtedly face. But that’s why you command the rates you do. It’s a job for experts; part of your expertise is learning to do all of the above intuitively, keeping your sense of sprachgefühl tuned so that it’s second nature. If it were easy, they wouldn’t need you. And when your colleagues value that aspect of your job enough to seek your counsel on it, do them the good service of providing it to the best of your ability. Make time for it, because that’s what you’re going to build your professional reputation on – not how well you’re able to tell a restrictive clause from a nonrestrictive one.

Last week, my fair city’s own editorial luminary John McIntyre wrote in the Baltimore Sun:

The other day I posted my list of the classic peeves at a LinkedIn group for editors.

I know, I know, what was I thinking? I was hoping to get some sense of how widely these zombie rules are still being taught.

Instead, I got things like a complaint that I’ll put copy editors out of business altogether and replace them with machines.

Frankly, if copy editors see the core of their work as changing over to more than, recasting sentences to avoid terminal prepositions, and shifting only about in sentences, then it is probably time to automate their jobs instead of paying wages to people who make pointless changes in texts.

This, guys.

All of us in the field have likely indulged in the ritual lamentation of the Death of Editing these last ten years or so, often while rolling our eyes at an unclosed quote or oddly-placed comma in some online article – how we’ve been phased out, our positions no longer commanding the respect or stability they once did. And, hey, I’m right there with you (see On The Market, q.v.). But if we really want to prove our worth, we need to make sure what we do has value beyond mechanical search-and-replace.

McIntyre goes on to say, “These people profoundly irk me because they want to be considered professionals but do not appear to accept the professional responsibility to keep up. It’s as if they were science teachers explaining that phlogiston is released from substances during combustion.” He’s talking specifically about those zombie rules he referred to earlier, but the same thing also applies to those for whom editing is just another way of saying “proofreading.” It’s that, but it’s more than that. The “more than that” is why editing matters. It’s what makes it an art, requiring a series of subjective, difficult judgment calls while doing no harm to the work. And we do it with pride but not ego, seeking no glory, knowing our names are never going to appear on the marquee.

It’s a calling, and it’s not for everyone, not even for everyone with a love of language. And if you’re called to it, be sure that what’s calling you is the desire to make other people’s work the best it can be, shining and mending only where it’s needed – not out of a desire to feel superior to your colleagues by knowing how to fix their “mistakes.” Because if it’s the latter, if what you want is power, you’ll be seduced by the same shibboleths and zombie superstitions that the peeververein have held close for centuries, wielding them like arcane formulae to keep the ignorant in line and afraid – and the true magic is going to elude you forever.


10 thoughts on “The editor’s role

  1. ” … a postmortem lunch for the project whose conclusion has now put us both back… ” Whose? Hmmm.


  2. Thanks, Melinda! I can’t take credit for “shibboleth,” since it’s a term descriptivists have been using for a long time now for non-rules that mostly serve to mark the tribal status of followers of the One True Grammar; but it’s a great use of that word, isn’t it?


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