Why You Need an Editor

As I slog my way through my first semester of graduate school, I find that the need for editors is more of an imperative than I imagined. The world of cyberspace has left many writers, periodicals, and publishing houses under the erroneous impression that can they skip the editing and proofreading stages of publishing. Some even imagine themselves text designers and layout artists. From what I have seen and read, nothing is further (or farther if you wish) from reality.

Note however that even editors, when they choose to be writers, require editors and proofreaders and professionals skilled at creating designs that invite readers into the text and make the reading experience enjoyable and coherent. A recent book I read on social marketing and environmental issues was designed in a fashion that reversed the order of subheads, so the encompassing level of type was smaller in size than the dependent heads under that category. Seemingly minor, this defect greatly affected my ability to follow the author’s train of thought. An editor or proofreader would have caught this error, and a competent designer would have never made it to begin with.

Before deciding to return to graduate school, I practiced my craft in the practical or applied world for 35 years (some might say “real,” but academia is real albeit often not practical). Most of the authors I have edited have never heard of AP style (Associated Press), of The Chicago Manual of Style, or any of the other compendiums of literary order available to writers and editors. Authors with advanced degrees may admit to struggling with some stylebook when doing their theses or dissertations, but the vast majority have completely forgotten anything therein and succumb to inconsistent and sometimes incoherent style rules, particularly for endnotes and references. While my favorite stylebook, the erudite Chicago Manual of Style, does proffer that references and endnotes can take any style one wishes, even a hybrid style, the key is consistency.

Since the semester start, I have read nearly 50 academic papers and four books (and we’re only at midterm). What I have seen largely appalls me. Many times I feel sorry for the author because while the material may be intriguing and exciting, the prose is riddled with incomprehensible phrasing and construction that an editor could have easily fixed. (Editors help authors make future books better as well because of the heuristics inherently involved in the corrections.) Authors expect publishers to handle his or her work with care, which means conscientious editing and proofreading and a layout that is helpful and not frustrating for a reader. However, astronomical publishing costs and the advent of electronic publishing have caused publishers to cut corners, at the expense of the author. Editors, proofreaders, and book designers are luxuries in many cases.

Notes about Grammar
While it is true that grammar rules have relaxed since the 20th century, editors do a lot more than correct technical style errors, they help authors communicate effectively in an increasing overcrowded and cacophonous marketplace.

For instance, you can end a sentence or phrase with a preposition if you want to, especially when any other construction seems stilted or awkward. Acronyms (technically called initialisms) can begin sentences. Editors are much less fussy about rules regarding numbers in sentences–while nevertheless retaining a consistent style per document.

Editors seek to follow logical sets of rules while allowing many authors their “voice” and peculiar character. A good editor will have developed a deliberate and discernible style that corrals language but lets the author breath. This appears to be a lost art, as I’m amazed at the sloppy writing and style issues that make reading a chore. We’re the most literate society in the history of the world, and yet it is not a panacea for poor communication. Everyone can write. However, not everyone can write well.

Some of my pet peeves:

  • Neglecting complete names on first mention is a favorite of academic writers who feel a reference will suffice. Sometimes just the last name is used on the first mention, and the entire name pops up two chapters later!
  • Using the honorific abbreviation Dr. on first reference without telling the reader if that means Ph.D or M.D. Using acronyms without first spelling them out.
  • Sentences that are long and winding roads to nowhere.
  • Lack of transitions between topics.
  • A paragraph lead that is not developed (i.e., the paragraph sidetracks onto another topic).
  • Paragraphs that encompass too many topics.
  • Lost antecedents (a rampant problem in academic writing). And if you don’t know what an antecedent is check back later. At some point I will discuss this issue.
  • Commas that defy reality (either too many, not enough or in all the wrong places). Note however that comma use is an art rather than a science and editors have various approaches which are different. The key again is consistency within a document and logical reasoning for choices.
  • The improper use of “their” and the cumbersome uses of his/hers, he/she, and him/her continue to plague modern writers. The constructions can be hilarious and unfortunate. (This is currently a contentious debate among editors (and grammarians), and after much research I am leaning toward limited use of “their” as a gender neutral singular pronoun when appropriate. Bill Walsh addresses this problem in his lively Lapsing into a Comma. And Amy Einsohn writes about this issue in her competent The Copyeditor’s Handbook: “The tide has now turned, and the newer grammar books recommend using [a] plural pronoun after an indefinite subject . . .” She offers “Everyone took their seat” as an example. The use of “their” as a gender neutral pronoun has a 400-year history, but more about that in another post.

Professionals also need to be enlisted for creating indexes. These should not be left up to computer brains, which while comprehensive in ferreting out index entries haven’t a clue if there is any logic to the selections. As a result computer-generated indexes these days are frustrating, amusing, or useless. Editors can do this chore, although many will refuse. A publisher (or even the author if the publisher declines) does well to spend the money on a professional indexer unless the book is relatively short and straightforward in subject matter. However, most academic books should be professionally indexed with both author and editor participating in the final review. There are some great ways to create indexes with a combination of author, editor, and computer, a topic for another post.

In the meantime, the very least an author can do is subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary online. But hire an editor or insist that your publisher do so before signing a contract. You’ll have more respect as an author, your book will sell better, and your readers will be able to actually read and learn from your work as opposed to putting down your book in favor of one on the same subject that is well presented.

Want to be a better writer? Stay tuned for posts that detail some problems encountered by today’s writers, and/or check out some of links in the sidebar to other Web pages with ideas to help you craft prose so that others actually want to read it!

Future Topics:

  • How serial commas make your writing comprehensible.
  • A discussion of “their” as a gender neutral pronoun and why many see it as relevant and acceptable for modern writing.

Notes on indexing.

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