Thursday, 18 April 2019 10:44

Editing tips from The Subversive Copy Editor

Written by Claire Bacon

Last month I took the train from Heidelberg to Sylt (one of the North Frisian Islands, and Germany’s northernmost point), where I was planning to run the annual 33-kilometre Syltlauf. Looking forward to a nine-hour train journey with no children to look after and nobody to talk to, plus lots of guilt-free relaxation in the face of the impending run, I finally had time to read Carol Fisher Saller’s The Subversive Copy Editor, which had been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile for ages.

The Subversive Copy Editor is an established classic in the editing world. Saller worked for many years as an editor for the University of Chicago press and has handled countless requests about writing style on the Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A forum. Clearly, anything she has to say on the subject of editing and how to do it must be worth reading.

It certainly was. I wasn’t far into the book before I found myself nodding in approval and making notes. Although many of you have probably already read the book, I couldn’t resist sharing some of Saller’s valuable advice. So here it is...

Do no harm

According to Saller, this should be our first goal as an editor. While none of us would dream of harming our client’s text on purpose, you may be surprised how much damage you can do to a text if you insist on imposing all the grammar rules you have learned. Rules are often style choices after all, and the author may have broken a rule on purpose.

Both the experienced and the novice editor can fall into this trap. Grammar ‘experts’ may assert a specific rule because ‘that’s the way it has always been’ without realizing that said rule is now outdated. And the less-experienced editor may cling to the limited rules they do know without realizing that the ‘mistake’ they are correcting is a perfectly suitable alternative.

That doesn’t mean you should forget all you know about grammar. Far from it. A thorough knowledge of grammar and usage is essential for good editing because it allows us to decide when the rules should be broken to help the reader. So before you make a change, keep the golden rule do no harm in mind. To help you make the right decision, stay up to date with the latest changes in grammar and usage and, if you are still learning a style guide, show restraint and look something up if you are not sure.

Cultivate a good author–editor relationship

As editors, our first loyalty is to the reader. To help the reader, we have to work through the writer, so it is a good idea to build a good working relationship with our clients. In her book, Saller explains how to lay the groundwork for a collaborative author–editor relationship:

  • Carefulness: show the client that you pay attention to detail. Identify issues, make informed preferences (make sure you know your stuff when doing this) and, where appropriate, let the writer decide. In your introductory email to a client, ask questions that show you have read the manuscript carefully and that demonstrate your competence.
  • Transparency: start by reassuring the client that you won’t make big changes without permission or without letting them know why the change is necessary. Saller’s advice is to always be prepared to defend your changes. And before you challenge a writer, check that you have your facts right.
  • Flexibility: show your client that you are willing to listen and negotiate. This may be the most challenging virtue for a copy-editor to master, as it sometimes involves ignoring what we think is right. Remember that style guides are arbitrary and changeable. If they weren’t, then we wouldn’t have different style guides. Simply offering to discuss why your preference is different from that of your client’s is usually an effective strategy for ensuring the best decision is made (for the reader).

Know thy word processor

In her book, Saller says ‘if you charge money for editing services and you aren’t an expert word processor, you’re not doing honest work.’ Oh dear. Sure, I know my way around Word, and I don’t waste too much time shouting at my computer to do what I want it to. Still, I know that I don’t use Word to its full advantage when I’m editing. Saller emphasizes that becoming an expert at the keyboard will make you faster, more confident, more accurate, and more valuable. Sounds like a good idea – tell me how.

Learning to use keyboard shortcuts instead of your mouse is a great way to start improving your skills, Saller says. Many of these are already built in, but you can assign your own (I have discovered the power of Ctrl F6 for switching between documents and Ctrl Shift W for underlining one word. I also assigned my very own shortcuts for square brackets, which I use all the time). I also signed up for the SfEP’s Editing with Word course, which has introduced me to the delights of wildcards and macros. How did I live without them?

Meeting deadlines

Saller also offers a wealth of good advice on managing projects. To be able to meet deadlines, we should master three skills, she says: prioritization (deciding which job is most important), organization (monitoring our tasks in lists, schedules and logs) and documentation (keeping track of any changes in a project’s schedule). The most useful advice for me in this chapter was to keep your inbox as empty as possible and file messages away as soon as you have dealt with them. I acted on this advice as soon as I was home (nursing very tired legs after successfully finishing my run!). Now, instead of having more than 1,000 emails in my inbox, I have two. The rest have been dealt with and filed away, and I really do feel much better.

For more great advice from Carol Fisher Saller, or to buy your own copy of The Subversive Copy Editor, visit The Subversive Copy Editor blog.

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