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.


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!

Writing to Read and Reading to Write

This is a bit off the beaten path, but it has to do with a recently-published article that addresses the way I read in a curious way.

Allow me to preface. I was an English tutor for years. My golden years of tutoring were spent at my college’s writing center, where structured training gave me wonderful, concrete tools that I still use to this day in my job as an editor.

My favorite technique was one I felt not only helped the students I guided but also helped me as I wrote my own essays.  It’s a skill worth cultivating, and it’s simply this: learn how to read as a reader, not as an author.

It’s a bit infantilizing to ask writers to role play, I know. But you can’t imagine how revelatory it is as a college student to pick up an essay you wrote and think to yourself, “I am now my teacher, reading this essay for the first time.” All of a sudden, reading as your audience, you see that things you thought were implied don’t seem clear at all. The point of the essay isn’t obvious. Quotes from other sources are dropped into the text in ways that leave you thinking, “wait, what does your quoted material have to do with what you were just saying a sentence ago?” When you take some time away from your writing (enough time to help you forget your own train of thought as you wrote), distance yourself from your perspective as author, and consciously try to place yourself in the position a first-time reader, you can eliminate a great deal of spots where your writing is unclear.

My experience doing this role playing concerns expository writing–either I’d be doing it with my own essays or helping students do it with theirs. I write and edit mostly presentations of arguments, analyses, and explanations, both at work and in my spare time. Creative writing has never been my forte, and I don’t often write more than one or two creative pieces a year. Yet my greatest recreational delight, as you can probably gather from this blog, comes from reading creative work.

I love knowledge, but I need the information to be beamed into my head via laser or something. Reading nonfiction absolutely puts me to sleep. Even the things I’m most interested in–history, biography, natural science, cars, and yes, even grammar and language–can only command my total focus for a few minutes when presented in book form. I read almost solely fiction because I adore stories, characters, symbols, experiences. I can’t create it myself for the life of me. But I love to enjoy others’ work.

An article called “The 10 Commandments of Reading Like a Writer” showed up in my Twitter feed the other day. Because its wording so closely mirrors (yet puts a twist on) my mantra of “read your writing like a reader,” I was intrigued. And I found that, though I’m not at all a creative writer, many of the things the article’s author lists are exactly the things I do when I read. It’s why many of my blog posts even exist.

The author, K.M. Weiland, first says that you should be able to see both the good and the bad in the authors writing and, instead of focusing on it, learn from it. I’m often very much aware of an author’s technique, and I’m often thinking of where it’s going wrong and right. I’m lucky that I’m able to be caught up in a story while understanding there’s a real person who’s penned the thing, composing every word and orchestrating every turn. Paying attention to these things things doesn’t detach me from a novel, and in that sense, I think I’m pretty blessed. But my ultimate goal isn’t to write myself–it’s to understand what I like about writers and help me know why I think what I read is good or bad.

The article’s author also encourages her reader to take in works that are superior to what you produce, saying “Absorb them like a sponge. Figure out how they tick. Supposedly we’re each an aggregate of the ten people with whom we spend the most time. Same goes for the authors we read.” Funny–I should be a better creative writer from all my reading, shouldn’t I? I spend way more time with great authors than I do actual people. But I know what she’s saying. I love becoming acquainted with a really great author and taking in all their techniques. I love experiencing something and then trying to figure out how he or she did that–made me feel the way I felt, react the way I react. In a lot of ways, I feel it’s like watching a magic trick and allowing myself to be totally astonished. Then I learn how the trick is done. But seeing the trick isn’t ruined for me once the secret is revealed; rather, it’s enhanced when I watch someone with great skill do it so smoothly and with such finesse that I’m still enraptured. And awareness I would never have the grace to pull off the same maneuvers only enhances the experience.

The author of the article suggests to mark up your books like crazy, which I also do. Anyone who’s ever let into either my personal book stash or Kindle will see an abundance of observations, connections, and (in books with which I’ve had bones to pick) obscenely-worded tirades that would make the squeamish blush. I revere the skills of the author, but I never have been the type to see books themselves as sacred objects. They are alive and meant for interaction. Writing all over books is how I interact. I image this may result in problems one day–I might skew a future reading by prejudicing myself toward old interpretations just by their presence in the margins when I’d otherwise be open to a new interpretation. But if I find this happening, I just buy a new copy. The glory of the Gutenberg is that books aren’t sacred. They’re a dime a dozen (literally so, at garage sales and your library book sales).

But the article’s reading-as-writer point I liked best and related to most is the “study specific topics” suggestion. Here, she suggests doing what I do to particularly riveting songs–dissecting them piece by piece.

If I find a song a really like and that I also think is complex, I like to go through the track several times, once focusing only on the bass line, once only on rhythm guitar, once only on drums, etc., until I’ve figured out how every piece fits together. Weiland suggests doing a similar thing in her “reading to write” article, specifically “studying narrative, dialogue, character arcs, or foreshadowing.” It’s not often I’ll actually go through and read a book over and over, once looking at character arcs, once examining foreshadowing, etc., but I do try very hard to pay attention to how all these the instruments come together to make a symphony. And I think you can only do that if you’re cognizant of all the parts.

Anyway, I thought it was very interesting that I, without ever having any hopes (or illusions) of becoming a novel-writer, accidentally practice all the reading techniques she suggests for becoming a better novel-writer. I wonder if it’s from all that advocating for role playing in my college’s writing center. The reverse of reading your own writing as if you were the audience is to actually be the intended audience and try to understand the author. And I very much love to use a book to pick the author’s brain. It allows me to enjoy what I read so much more and appreciate a talent I simply don’t have.

Writing vs. Speaking: Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners

I’m wandering my way through Donald Palmer’s Structuralism and Poststructuralism for Beginners.  (And even the beginner-oriented explanation of this theory/school of criticism/worldview is tremendously hard to comprehend, but this book does a decent job of at least making you able to speak the language of the theorists.)  In section on Jacques Derrida, Palmer talks about the precedence set by past thinkers for shunning written language and favoring spoken language.  This pretty much blew my mind, for a reason I’ll get to later.

Palmer begins with Socrates, who believed that “true philosophy had to be a living, conversational exchange of ideas.” This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s studied philosophy, since it’s well known that Plato, speaking for Socrates, wrote in dialogue.  The tradition of seeing writing as an empty version or hollow imitation of speaking continues.  Palmer lists a series of people who felt the same way: Aristotle, Paul the apostle, Rousseau, Saussure.  For theorists coming from a tradition of Freudian thinking, this makes sense to me. Spoken language can reveal underlying beliefs and motivations, providing information about people and society that written language cannot as easily show.  (Think Freudian slips.) That’s because written communication (minus the infamous 2AM drunken text message, of course) is a more self-censored, deliberate form of expression.

But Palmer even discusses the fact that Claude Levi-Strauss felt guilty about introducing a written language to a tribe in South America that, presumably, only communicated via spoken word. What confuses me most about this point of view is that people lump spoken and written communication under a general umbrella so unquestioningly.  It’s as if the communication forms are washing machines, and people need to check consumer reports to see if the Maytag or the Kenmore unit is superior.    In my mind, the spoken word and the written word are completely different, and they give us opportunities to do completely different things.  Spoken word allows us to give multiple meanings to what we say through intonation and facial expression.  The wonderful addition of sarcasm to our communication arsenal is a purely conversation-based development. (I’d argue that any writing that is sarcastic can only be identified as such from our experience of it in interpersonal interactions.) Banter and repertoires are  more easily established from spoken communication.  We also get immediate feedback on what we say, on which we can base our next word choices. But writing allows us, as I said before, to be deliberate.  It allows us to craft an entire intricate story spanning thousands of pages, with every detail worked out. It lets us think carefully about our sentence structure without the jarring choppiness of long pauses.  It gives us the opportunity to go on the record as saying something a certain way, which (ideally) is a documented defense against people reshaping your words.  This is why it’s amazing to me that Levi-Strauss felt guilty for introducing writing to the Amazonian tribe.  Their oral communication wasn’t being watered down; they, instead, were gaining a whole new method of communication in addition to the one they had.

For me, the difference between writing and speaking is so great, the two forms are barely comparable.  At no time has this been more apparent to me than in the last few months as I’ve been interviewing. I’ve been applying for editing and writing jobs–in essence, jobs where I’d be paid to be a wordsmith.  On paper–where it counts, in this case–the right way to say things comes naturally.  I imagine authors often feel the same way. I’m thinking of reclusive, awkward novelists who struggle with real world relationships but are somehow masters of human interactions in their stories. In person, I struggle mightily for the right words, I draw blanks, and I put my foot in my mouth so often I’m surprised it isn’t stuck there.  Now, over the course of the last few months, interviewing has been a kind of boot camp for me. I’ve managed to develop an in-person professionalism that is no longer feels stilted and like a mask.  But the difference between my spoken communication and my written communication is still so vast that I hardly consider them comparable.    And it isn’t just that I’m better at one than the other anymore–they just aren’t the same thing.  They serve different purposes, and they add different things to our communication.

What gets really interesting is when these two communications come together.  The journal I interned for just had its release party, and I was asked to do a reading of one of my poems.  I had written a poem that I absolutely intended to be read aloud, so I was excited for the opportunity to share it.  It’s ugly on paper, frankly.  But, when performed,  it has a flow that it lacks on paper, and it becomes a kind of hip-hop song (which is appropriate, because the poem’s setting is a club). This piece can’t live or breathe without both forms of communication.

So, is speaking vs. writing a battle worth having?  Is one better than the other?  Simple answer–in my world, it’s not even a question to be asking.

Me. Published. Awesome.

Super excited to report that my essay, “Paradise Lost: The Indeterminate Eve” (linked in my “Writing Samples” tab here on the blog) has been chosen for publication in the 2013 edition of the ACM Midwest Journal of Undergraduate Research.  Not sure when it will be out yet.  You can be sure that, in the interest of shameless self-promotion, I will link to it when it comes out.