Unrelated: Shameless Self-Promotion

Hey, all. A happy announcement! I’m officially self-employed. That puts so many important things in my grasp: location independence, the ability to pursue work that best uses my skills, and, importantly, the ability to Christmas shop while nine-to-five-ers are at work. (Just kidding, of course. As a member of this pleasantly civilized world where crowds are avoidable, I will be doing all my shopping on the internet.)

Wait until the cats find out how many road trips they’re about to go on. They will be thrilled.

You may have noticed that some of the tabs on the top of my blog have been changing. That’s in preparation for this move to full-time contracting.

So here’s a bit about me, if you’re not familiar. I’m primarily an editor by trade, but I’m doing writing and design work, too. My real dream is a kind of intersection of this blog and my editing skills—I love to study what makes writing powerful, and I’d like to apply what I’ve learned to people’s writing. In other words, I’m a decent writing coach, and I’d like to do more to help people develop skills that will put their writing game at the next level.

So what does this have to do with you? Well, if you or anyone you know have need for anyone with the skills I’ve talked about here, please check out my offerings/credentials on the tabs above and reach out to me at muledyaj at gmail dot com.

Also, please send soothing thoughts to the cats, who have no idea how many road trips they’re about to go on.

Scared-Cat-Photos_1

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On Editing, Part Three: How to Become an Editor

Proofreading red pencil with various errors on paper

This has been a series of posts on disconnects. So far, the series has covered the disconnect between the editing people need and what they think they need and the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what an editor needs to make per hour. This last post is on the disconnect between English courses at school and editing in the real world, and it’s all the things I wish I would have known a few years ago.

A few months ago, I was having a drink with a fellow language-lover. We were catching up on where each other was at in her life, and she asked, “So, how does one go to school to be an editor, exactly?” The implication, I suppose, was that step one (I went to school) led to step two (I’m an editor). It’s not an unreasonable thing to assume.

I thought for a second and said, “Um…one doesn’t.”

That isn’t to say one can’t, necessarily. The college I went to offered two English major tracks: writing and literature. I chose the literature track (which, by the way, demanded just as much writing as the other track). At no point was there offered any class on advanced grammar, linguistics, or the skill of editing.

Now, larger and differently-focused schools may offer editing classes, especially if they’re well known for their journalism programs. Of course, being an editor in the journalism world often actually means you’re writing. But you can seek out schools with editing courses.

For some, though, that’s not the most practical course of action to take. Editing and advanced grammar classes are not very easy to come by, I’ve found. And even then, they’re courses, not degrees.

You do need a degree, of course. English is best, but you might be able to squeak in with a communications, journalism or marketing degree. But this isn’t the way you will learn how to be an editor. A degree is your way into the door of a company.

If you want to be an editor, your training is in your own hands. Here’s how you really learn how to be an editor.

Learn Your Grammar

The first thing you want to do is become more grammar-savvy than the layman. You probably already are, if you’re thinking about going into this field. But you need to strategize around defense, especially if you’re just starting out. Assume someone is going to call you on every edit you make. If you know the rules, you can make many of these changes with confidence.

Figure our your parts of speech, your dependent and independent clauses, and your active and passive verbs. Learn to speak the language of grammarians. It will help you begin to understand how sentences work, and when those secrets are unlocked, sentences will become putty in your hands. Instead of thinking, “There’s just something awkward about this,” you’ll think, “Oh, of course this sentence sounding sing-song-y. It has five prepositional phrases in a row.”

Here’s where you start: at the 90s-tastic but still very useful website Garden of Phrases. Start on page one and take the quiz. Then select “quizzes” from the dropdown and start taking them all. It’s a brutal wake-up call. But you need to know what you don’t know.

From there, learn to diagram sentences. I got this workbook: I don’t know if I’m crazy about it, but lots of people are. Don’t get too hung up in mastering 100% of the details right away, like I did. Just plow through it.

Also, become zen about Murphry’s Law, if you write as well. There will be at least five errors in every post I make about grammar and editing. I try not to post garbage or anything, but if I actually strived for 100% perfection in everything I wrote, no one would ever hear a peep from me. I would just be sitting in front of the keyboard, shaking in terror. Don’t get so worked up about the rules that you can’t function, but know them.

Learn Your Style Guides

Following a style guide is what makes sure all things in the text are harmonious. These guides deal with issues that aren’t usually a matter of grammar, and they aren’t dictating what’s universally right or wrong. You can write a date as 9/5/15 or you can write it as September 5th, 2015. Neither are wrong. But you shouldn’t use both styles in one text. That’s where style guides come in.

The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook are your two must-know guides. Learn the key differences between these two, and you’ll be in good shape. As a starter kit, buy a copy of each guide that’s one edition old–you’ll save money, and you can quickly find out what’s been updated in the new versions with a Google search. And for light reading, check out AP vs Chicago for the essential differences. It kills me that this blog is inactive because it’s been a marvelous resource to me over the years. Plus, the author is a delight.

You can check out my own in-house style guide I made for a company (and you can tell me about any grammar errors you find). Some of the decisions I made about style itself was because I was swimming upstream against legacy, but there is some advice in there you might find interesting.

Here are some books on general style that are beneficial and/or fun to read. They are not by any means holy grail resources, since so much of style is personal preference. (Except Steven Pinker’s book. Everything in there is gold.)

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss–A little prescriptivist and “thou shalt” for my taste, but I’m better for reading it

Lapsing into a Comma by Bill Walsh–and I can probably blindly recommend anything else he’s written. I loved this book and am dying to read his others. Bill is an editor for the Washington Post, and he is hilarious and brilliant. I don’t agree with every little thing he says in this book, but I love all of it anyway. He also does live chats called Grammar Geekery the first Thursday of every month, where he’s answered tons of my questions. But even if you don’t need answers, you should lurk just to watch his on-point, delightful snark at work.

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White—Dated, troubling in many cases, perpetuates zombie rules, but, well, you have to at least have read it. You can’t be the editor that isn’t at least able to argue about Strunk and White.

Besides, “omit needless words” is an editorial mantra that should stand for all time. If nothing else, that phrase redeems much of the stylistic quackery.

When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda—Ben’s another great editor to keep tabs on, and this book will help you better understand the parts of speech and where they can go wrong.

The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker—A forward-thinking, beautifully written piece from a linguist who really understands how the written word works. I’ll be honest; I haven’t finished it yet. I’ve been too busy. But it’s so far been my absolute favorite book on style. Pinker is in the descriptivist camp, and with his ideas come great freedom to believe writing is improving as we communicate more and more. (See here for a description of prescriptivist vs descriptivist schools of thought. Hint: descriptivists are always on the right side of history.) He is a fan of deflating self-important academic/business writing in order to communicate with simplicity and elegance.

Follow Thought Leaders and Have Reliable Sources

Subscribe to the blog Lingua Franca, and keep your eye on people like Ben Yagoda and Geoffrey Pullman. Follow the marvelous Tom Freeman at the Stroppy Editor, though keep in mind that he’s operating under a slightly different set of rules due to geographic location. (And if you’re not American, beg pardon—it’s actually Americans who are operating under the different rules, of course.) I also subscribe to Baltimore Sun editor John McIntyre’s You Don’t Say, although you may want to avoid his blog if you have a low tolerance for politics. Keep tabs on the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) even if you don’t join. You can tweet to the editors at the Wichita Eagle @grammarmonkeys if you have any questions about grammar and editing. It’s an awesome service.

But most of all, if you have questions, learn where to go for answers you trust. If I can’t find answers in my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or if I know my question is purely grammar-related, I go to straight to the English Language Stack Exchange, where a meritocracy and a community of field experts guarantees a good answer. Search for your question before you ask. The community is a little hostile if they think you’re being lazy. But it’s my favorite resource, and it’s never steered me wrong. It also deals with really complex questions.

There are other good resources. Purdue’s OWL is not comprehensive, but it’s very useful and reliable. If you go to Google with a question, and anything shows up with the address “grammar.ccc.commnet.edu” attached to it, it’s going to be trustworthy—that’s the site with the Garden of Phrases. Things from Jane Strauss’ Grammar Book tend to be correct, as well, although I’d be wary of that site being out of the loop for too long. It’s also worth saying Grammar Girl is totally worth the hype. If she’s addressed your question, she’s got it right. Sometimes, but not always, academic resources can be helpful. Look for .edu as a tag at the end of the URL. But the correctness of .edu sites is not a given.

Also, if you have two editorial choices you’re wavering between, check out Google NGrams. It searches Google Books for your terms. That means you’re not necessarily looking up the right answer, but you are seeing at usage over time and trends. It’s useful for a lot of things. For instance, I can see that I’m not making the best decision by choosing to leave the space out of “copyeditor.”

Capture

Lastly, I hope it goes without saying that you never, never go to forums like Yahoo Answers. That’s where all truth goes to die.

Start Editing, Even if You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Offer to edit people’s blogs for free. Contact a small non-profit you love and offer to proofread their newsletter. Become an editor on your school newspaper or offer to do a little proofreading for your town’s community center. When you start, research the answer to absolutely EVERY question you have—never guess—and keep a list of your answers.

What really prepared me to be an editor had nothing to do with my coursework. It was tutoring at my writing center. Our writing center was no joke. I had four months of intensive training. I learned so much about research, argument structure, thesis-building, checking for coherency, writing for readers, how to self-edit, you name it. That was the true foundation to me becoming more than someone who just had a “feel” for what is right/wrong or clear/awkward. It was what bridged the gap between me just being a good second pair of eyes on text to being what is a real-deal editor. If you have an opportunity like this, take it. If you don’t have the opportunity for training like this, well, let me know. I was thinking of maybe starting a program that can do for others what this writing center did for me.

Have a Real Editor Look at Your Resume

Don’t have your mom read your resume. Don’t give it to college advisor. I mean, you can also do that. But if you’re applying to be an editor for the first time, you’ve got to get that resume in front of an actual editor. There are things you don’t know you’re doing wrong that can bump you off the radar if someone who knows what he/she’s doing is narrowing the field of applicants. I just looked at the resume I sent out as a fresh grad and I was horrified to see I had separated dates (as in “worked here September of 2010 through June of 2012”) with a hyphen instead of an n-dash. That might not seem like a big deal. But if I were hiring an assistant editor now and was looking through a pile of resumes, and all I’m looking for is a reason to throw some of them out, that hyphen tells me, “Oh. This person is too much of a newbie or doesn’t pay enough attention to detail to know that this isn’t how you treat dates.” Then I toss it to the side.

Get a real editor’s eyes on your resume. At least make sure the door doesn’t close prematurely.

I’m pleased to announce this part is pretty easy. I’m a real editor, and I’m happy to take a look at your resume if you’re starting out. No charge. I’m currently trying to build up good karma so I can go do something awful later and not be reincarnated as a cicada.

On Editing, Part Two: The Practicality of Editing

Two to too error found while proofreading paper

In my last post in this series, I wrote about the different levels of editing. In this post, I want to talk about the value proposition of having these layers of edit built in, or, more bluntly, the unquantifiable nature of that value, dollar-wise, for the individual. This is one of the disconnects that’s been bothering me: the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what it costs in time for an editor to work.

The Market Problem

There are a lot of freelance editors out there that seem to be making it just fine, but I also hear a lot of complaints about being underbid by unqualified, inexperienced editors. These disgruntled folks argue that this brings down the expected rate for real editors, and it becomes impossible for professionals to make a living without lowering their standards for their work. I understand their complaint, but I don’t really have a lot of sympathy for the argument. Markets have a way of sorting themselves out, and if it’s really important for people to have professional editing, they will only make the mistake of hiring someone cheap once. If it’s not important, well, either you’ve overinflated the importance of your work or you’re not making a good business case for your skills.

But this is where I worry. I believe wholeheartedly in the necessity of an editor if you want to your written content to be taken seriously.  I’m also a pragmatist. I understand that you have to make a dollars-based case for things. How does an editor create a value proposition, contrasting the “without an editor” copy with the “with an editor” copy? And even if one could do that, would the dollar amount really be high enough to support hiring an editor, if you’re an author? It’s difficult for me to put make a case that isn’t more abstract than I’d like it to be. (As an aside, I’m planning on putting the Freakonomics guys on the case.)

These concerns are somewhat dulled by salaried employment. Your whole reason coming to an establishment and sitting in your office is to edit, so your value is somewhat decoupled from the work per hour itself. Certainly, there are deadlines, but you can just pump out a little overtime to get them perfect and then relax a bit next week. You get paid the same either way.

But what if you’re freelance and just looking to work with individual authors or copywriters? What if a particularly challenging piece would take weeks of work, and you charge by the hour? Or, worse, what if you charge by the word and you’ve underestimated the time you’d spend getting it to your standards? Now you’re talking about doing hundreds or maybe thousands of dollars of work and dealing with one of two scenarios: working for a wage that doesn’t sustain you or getting a response from a client that says “$700 to hunt for typos?” (Which is what many individuals think you’re doing–see my previous “On Editing” post.)

Now, certainly there are savvy clients and experienced writers who know this price is coming. All you need to do is go to Google and check for average editor’s hourly rates. Businesses will know what they’re getting into and know the value of a good editor, which is why scoring a business-based clientele as a freelancer is really your ticket. But the thing I find, and the thing that causes me consternation, is that the layman author just doesn’t care enough about it being perfect to pay for it, and I can’t say I blame him.

The Problem, in Anecdote Form

Let me give you an example. My husband’s a great writer. He’s a popular blogger, and I edit his posts every once in a while, when I have spare time. He’s a dream to edit, compared to most writers I’ve worked with. But when I edit him, I always find a few typos and a decent number of sentences that need rearranging or breaking up. I also read his posts very carefully to make sure I understand what he’s getting at and that I’m not changing anything that would alter his meaning. To get his posts to the level of perfect that’s up to my standards, it takes me 45 minutes to an hour to go through a 1,200 word post. One time, I asked him how much he would pay someone to do what I’m doing, and he said, “Honestly? Five or ten bucks a post. Maybe less. I write three posts a week, and people like my unedited writing enough that it really isn’t worth much, money-wise, to have them perfect.” And that is a totally reasonable thing to conclude.

I’m remembering, too, the time a friend came to me all excited about a book he was writing. He described the plot and told me what he estimated the page count to be. (It was roughly a quadrillion; he’s a man of many words.) He said he was really excited to have me edit it and asked if I could give him an estimate as to how much it would cost. After straightening out what he meant by “page”–very important to be speaking the same language of what a page is before an estimate, if you’re a freelancer–I gave him a quote with a buddy-discount of 40% off built in. He was still stunned into silence at the number.

Unfortunately, that means bad things for me. My skills and my meticulousness just aren’t really worth very much to individuals. To companies, maybe I’m a great investment, but I find I really prefer to work with people. And here I see a disconnect between what I have to offer, what I need to charge, and what my skill is actually worth. That’s a pretty rough thing to have to come to terms with.

Solutions(?)

So I’ve been thinking. When I edit, I edit for readers like me. I edit as if another editor is going read what I’m working on. I edit as if I’m claiming sole responsibility for every line that isn’t the best it could be. I want everything I touch to be something both I and the author can share pride in. But maybe this isn’t always what the market wants.

I’m not really talking about lowering my standards as much as I’m talking about filling a market need. When people want a rush on things at work and ask how long it will take, I’ll give them the option of “an Amanda edit or a normal-people edit.” They know that to mean, “Do you want me to fix the things only people like me would know are wrong, i.e., make it perfect? Or do you want me to look for any embarrassing or obvious mistakes?” Which of those two they choose makes a big difference in my estimation of time . So I wonder if there wouldn’t be a market for my “normal-people edit” service, in which an editor doesn’t concern herself so much with every sentence living up to its potential or common capitalization errors or the interchangeably used and and ampersand. Or maybe there’s room in the market for an a la carte type of edit. People can say, “I know I have trouble with homonyms. Can you make sure I used the right words in this piece?”

Even better, I wonder if there’d be a market for a partnership. What if an editor analyzes a few pieces from an author, tells him the patterns of error he should be looking out for (e.g., “you tend to use really long lists that will make people space out,” “you use nothing but versions of ‘to be’ verbs that make your writing kind of snoozy,” “your bullet points are never parallel,” “you have subject/verb agreement trouble”) and do custom edits just for those things.

The real problem with that is, for me, it’s really hard for me to limit myself. If I see a fragment, by god, I have to fix it. Double space after a period? NO. The wrong “its”? One eye will start twitching furiously like I’m some kind of maniac.

There’s also the problem with the fact that I won’t be proud of the work I’m helping people produce. It won’t be the best it could be. I won’t want my name on it, and it’s not satisfying work. Frankly, it’s a little soul-sucking, too, unless I feel like my goal isn’t really editing as much as it is making people better writers.

Maybe I’m destined to lose money freelance editing.

On Editing, Part One: The Kinds of Editing

Proofreading its error on school term paper

I’m going divert from my normal course to do a series of posts on editing over the next few weeks.

I’ve been thinking lately about disconnects. There’s the disconnect between what editing services people think they need and what they really need. There’s the disconnect between what people are willing to pay and what it costs in time for an editor to work. And there’s a very important disconnect between English courses at school and editing in the real world. That’s led me to plan a series of posts I’ll call, in my infinite creativity, “On Editing.”

The Kinds of Editi—Wait, There Are Kinds?

Most people think that being an editor generally means you’re the grammar police. When I tell people I’m an editor for a living, I’ll usually get a response like, “Oh, so you check for typos and grammar mistakes and stuff.” And certainly, most editors will probably try to prevent those things from slipping by.

But “editing” is a word like “love.” (Sincerest apologies. I just got married and I’m feeling cheesy.) There are different forms it can take. That’s why editing is usually divided into three different categories: developmental, copyediting, and proofreading. They are in some ways fluid, just as “love” encomapasses different types of affection with undertones that can flow. But here’s my best attempt at a breakdown of the three types.

1. Developmental Editing

If you’re scratched out half a novel and are feeling the pain of being too close to the work, a good developmental editor will see the soul inside the text and help you understand how to bring it out. If you’re writing up a proposal, a developmental editor will help you brainstorm the message you want to convey and will help guide you through your main points and keep your paragraphs on task. This person will take your current work, look at the ideas presented in it, and help you understand how to tie it all together in a structure that packs punch. In the academic world, we referred to this as the process of thesis building and global structure development. But as a person that’s been in the world outside of the academic essay for some time, I think of it in a different way.

That way is this: whether you’re writing a sci-fi novel or a white paper, your developmental editor is your midwife. He/she will bring your baby into the world, and that baby will have all its eyes and toes and fingernails in the right places if the editor has done their job right. These people work closer with your text than anyone in some ways because they’re focused on your ideas–the whole reason you’re writing in the first place.

I know an editor who primarily works with poetry, and she embodies all that a good developmental editor should be. She sees someone’s poem, and it’s as if she instantly understands what the author is going for, inside and out. Then she sneaks in like a surgeon. When she’s done, the poem is somehow more itself than when she started. The author barely knows she’s been there–all he thinks is “Wow, I wrote something pretty great!”

It’s working with her that has made me see what developmental editing is–it’s coaxing an already-formed butterfly out of a cocoon.

Developmental editing is my favorite, probably because I think it’s the most rewarding.

2. Copyediting

Copyediting deals with the sentence-level stuff (and believe me, there will be sentence level stuff). It also may deal with things like fact-checking, style, and, if applicable, footnotes and references. For fiction, your copyeditor is also charged with noticing inconsistencies like your redheaded character flipping what’s described as brown tresses later on in your novel.

Copyeditors will ask you what style guide you’re dealing with, and that will help guide them to know how to consistently address things that have no right or wrong answer. Should your m-dashes be buffered by spaces? Should California be abbreviated CA or Calif.? And, hey, is it “copy editor” or “copyeditor”? There’s no right answer, per se, but there are style guides that call for different treatments. (And, by the way, “copyeditor” as one word is a personal preference of mine since I believe language constantly moves toward portmanteau, hyphen elimination, and word combination [and I’m an early adopter], but you’re probably safer saying “copy editor.”)

Most importantly, the copyeditor will make your sentences not only grammatically correct but readable. The copyeditor’s main goal should be clarity and communication at the sentence level.

This, unfortunately for those writers who are sensitive, often requires rewrites of sentences. If a sentence has parallel structure issues or misplaced/dangling/squinting modifiers, this almost always requires a rewrite. If an author has a habit of writing long, sprawling sentences where the subject is separated from its verb by two lines of text, it simply has to be rephrased. This is why, when people ask for a proofread, they often really need a copyedit. Their errors are not ones that can be fixed by adding a comma. Sentences need to be chopped up and reassembled. Sometimes, they need to be placed somewhere else in the document completely to make sense.

More than that, copyeditors work with tone. It’s easy enough to edit out contractions from a professional piece of correspondence, but what if an author who prides herself on having what she perceives as an affable, conversational writing style hands over something that is way too cute and flippant for the material under discussion?

Copyeditors are often workhorses, and they are trained diplomats. Except in the world of professional workflows employed by big-boy publishers and print and online media companies, they usually have to do a little of all three types of editing ’cause this text isn’t going to anyone else. They’re all the editors packed into one.

Not only must they catch the missing word in the sentence that’s so easy for the eye to skim over, they have to think about what the person is saying and if the sentence conveys their meaning. And what’s more, they have to think about how to share their edits with this author in a way that doesn’t ruffle any feathers.

Hug a copyeditor today.

3. Proofreading

I can’t say this emphatically enough–a proofread is not what you need unless you’ve been copyedited. Proofreading is last-ditch, pre-publication typo-catching. It’s finding missing words, misplaced commas, use of the wrong “its.” A proofreader will also double check stylistic things–was the name of a magazine italicised here but not later in the article? Are there periods at the end of each bullet point in this list but no punctuation at the end of the bullet points on the next page? Proofreading is the final step before publishing–it’s just there to catch errors and little inconsistencies, like the font being a different size for the captions on page 6.

Proofreading sounds like the easiest form of editing–and if the copyeditor has done a good job, it probably is pretty easy. But it’s my least favorite type, and I’ll tell you why. You have to have a real eye, even a talent, for spotting detail. Your eyes are the last to see this text. If you miss something, oh boy. That doesn’t fall on anyone else but you. There’s a lot of pressure on proofreaders. They’re the ones who are expected to pump out perfect manuscripts. And no human is perfect.

A Clarification

So those are the types of editing. And here’s a tidbit. Whatever level of editing you think you need, it’s probably actually the step before it. I say that not assuming you’re a bad writer. I say that assuming you’re a human being. Every time I’ve been asked to give something a “quick proofread,” it’s needed sentence-level work.

It’s okay if you didn’t know that when you asked. That’s why people like me spend our lives learning new things, figuring out why sometimes you put a comma before “so” and sometimes you don’t, understanding what violates the rules of parallel structure, etc. Frankly, if you’re in pursuit of perfection, the stuff is so complicated that you couldn’t possibly know unless you made it your job to know. You should see the rules around capitalization of position titles. It would make you rip out your hair. Luckily, an editor worth their salt has made it their job to know.

But I’ve told you now. Keep it in mind: there are things grammatically wrong with your sentences (at the very least), and you don’t even know that you don’t know.  So trust me when I say you don’t need a proofread–you need a copyedit. I just know this from experience.

Now you understand the different levels of editing. Yay! Except not yay! Because, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already thinking about the subject of my next post in this series: the practicality of it all. Having three levels of edit, or even two, is all well and good if (a) you run a magazine or (b) you are fantastically wealthy, in both the currencies of time and money. But it isn’t practical for an individual to hire out for this long series of edits. You likely want just a nice overview of your text, sparing you embarrassing mistakes.

This is one of the problems I’ve always had with real, professional editing, where time is taken to get it right. Is it practical?

Stay tuned to hear my non-answer!