Editors Don’t Need Constant Consistency

April 9, 2010

One of the hardest decisions editors make deals with consistency. To be credible, authors need to be consistent. They can’t say something is black one day and white the next and expect people to believe them–unless something is both black and white and alternates between the two daily.

Yet, people are often inconsistent and go with what works at the moment. Editors use manuals as the standard for their work, but sometimes there are reasons to deviate. For example, Chicago Manual of Style says to rewrite sentences to avoid pronoun/antecedent disagreement. That means if what the pronoun refers to (antecedent) is singular, the pronoun is singular. However, in our politically correct society, we’ve evolved to using the plural (they/their) instead of the singular (he/she, his/her). That’s not okay with Chicago and the manual says the author should rewrite the sentence.

While I’m pretty much a stickler for following Chicago when I edit books, I am inconsistent in allowing this standard to be compromised. I allow a plural pronoun (they/their) with a singular antecedent when we don’t know the gender (any student or anyone). Why? It’s easier for reading flow than he/she or his/her.

Another rule editors follow is change passive voice to active. Anyone involved in writing has heard of (or maybe even used) Strunk and White’s book, The Elements of Style.  While the active voice is more forceful, it isn’t always the better choice. Sometimes it’s okay to use passive voice. For example, use it when there’s no ownership assigned to the action (It was reported that you came in late three times this week).

Finally, editors don’t need constant consistency in placing headings and subheadings whenever a new concept is introduced in a nonfiction book. I’ve seen books with headings every three or four paragraphs, as the author introduced a new concept in a chapter. While this is effective after a list of bullet points because it helps the reader find the text connected to the bullet points, it is not usually effective in straight text.

Yes, strive for consistency for your reader’s sake, but be aware that constant consistency can detract from your message as well. Have a reason for the deviation, that’s all.

Happy writing!

What Makes a Good Editor?

April 6, 2010

When I teach my writing and publishing classes, I often get students who tell me they’ve always wanted to become a writer. I also get students who tell me they love finding errors in books and magazines when they read them. Then they tell me they think they want to become editors.

What makes a good editor?

A good editor is well read in many areas. To limit one’s expertise to one or two topics is to limit one’s ability to edit well to those few topics–at least if one wants to do more than edit for grammar or punctuation.

A good editor also needs to be adaptable. Authors have their own voices, and those voices won’t necessarily match the editor’s. Too often editors inflict their preferences on how to word something rather than accept the author’s wording. A good editor may suggest a better way to say something to make the writing more clear to the reader, but does not inflict his/her own voice onto the author’s work.

A good editor should be a bit compulsive. To be overly compulsive is to be disabling, but there’s merit in being compulsive about finding punctuation errors, incorrect word usage, and striving for clarity in writing.

A good editor understands the medium he/she is editing and uses the correct manual for editing that medium. For example, the book publishing industry uses The Chicago Manual of Style. Academia relies on the American Psychological Association (APA) for business and management, but on Modern Language Association (MLA) for other academic disciplines. Periodicals use the Associated Press Stylebook.

Finally, a good editor is self-disciplined. By that I mean a good editor understands the importance of deadlines and works to make sure every deadline is met. Sometimes that means shifting work priorities. Sometimes that means working long hours. Sometimes that means giving up lunch or a weekend event.

Whether you aspire to become an editor or are searching for an editor, you now have more information on what it takes to be good at editing.

Happy writing!