[This page has just been started. Lots of work remains to be done on it, including design. Please be aware that I have never taken a course in Web page construction. All errors are attributable to me alone; I thank all those who have been of assistance. They may be enlisted again.]
A Managing Editor's Trap and What to Do about It
Three Short Essays on the Editors' Nemesis, Jacques Barzun
On Editing (an ad hoc summation of at least eighteen years on the job)
Editing is a never-ending pursuit. One may start but never end. What of the Gettysberg Address? you may ask. No comment. The Constitution, the Declaration of Independence? Too time-honored to touch.
We are all editors, in the sense that we correct constantly; we criticize, we rewrite, we redo. Professional editors merely apply this drive toward perfection to the written word. I am a book editor, so that most of my assignments are easily hundreds of pages. It is awesome to have such manuscripts entrusted to me. There are so many ways to expressing every idea that exists. To pinpoint the best one in each instance would be miraculous, though I encountered a professor of English, an American transplant, who had an exquisite command of the language--whatever her hapless victims (read: students) wrote she could re-express exquisitely, making them feel like utter fools at the hands of no less a grand stylist than Jane Austin.
But she taught English rather than editing it. Her specialty is . . . I won't say, lest she or a student come upon this. Suffice it to say her nickname is Dragon Lady, a striker of terror into the hearts of far finer editors than I.
Below is a photo taken of me imitating Dragon Lady. Not the sort of editor that Barzun trashed but someone who would freeze his blood. The photo was taken by Peggy McGehee Horton.
It occurs to me that the four essays linked to above best encapsulate my life as an editor. What I'd like to do here is collect examples of problem expressions, sentences, and so on, and take readers through the experience of fixing them. The top link is one such example, but easy prey.
One example I went over with an author about a week ago. It concerns the popular adverb hopefully, which means, literally "in a hopeful manner." It has come to mean, in everyday discourse, "I hope that." So far I have seen it in print in casual contexts but not more formal ones. If readers find it in the New York Times, please let me know. It may not be the "newspaper of record" it claims to be, but there are some fine writers on staff.
A correct use of hopefully would be, "She walked into the building hopefully; she was about to be interviewed for a job she really wanted."
What do you know? Today I found this usage twice in that creme-de-la-creme portion of the Sunday Times, the Book Review section and, get this, in two separate articles on language. In one on slang, the back-cover essay, occurred the term "thankfully" to mean "fortunately," and in the other, dismissing words like "irregardless," occurs the term "sadly" for "unfortunately." These adverbial abuses are chain-reactive. What will come next? Both authors are not just linguists but eminent linguists. Cry, the beloved grammar, or at least correct usage.
Have I mentioned that in the most learned of narratives I keep coming upon the pleonasm "could potentially" and the like? The notion "to be able to" is embedded in our complex verb "to be able to," which encompasses "can" and "could." Similarly, the "might" or "may" used with "potentially" is a pleonasm.
Wellesley College's second linguistics major, an interdisciplinary hodgepodge of a curriculum involved, is aggrieved to have to witness such disintegration and linguistic insensitivity. That's the April 3, 2011, issue of the NYTBR, if anyone wants to check it. In between an article on slang and one on grammar occur two out-of-place colloquialisms. What fearful symmetry!
The first piece of advice I received before my first official editing job was, "Never use a hyphen between an adverb ending in -ly and the adjective it modifies." For example: "That is a beautifully written poem."
Far be it from me to compete with the Chicago Manual of Style, which has a marvelous Web page on editorial issues and expert editors who answer editorial questions one-on-one. I consulted for their latest [15th] edition. But I do want to share experiences I've had and learned from.
One of the most useful examples of a word that saved a life is counterpart. The event in question occurred so long ago that I can't quote the exact context but the author had a sentence resembling this one: "The issue was discussed by these professionals as well as those who held similar jobs at another company." For "those . . . jobs" I substituted "their counterparts." The author was very grateful.
That said, let me add this advice: avoid the passive whenever possible (I do not set a good example in this area). One drawback, according to the Oxford University Press style guide, is that the agent of the verb becomes hidden, blurring the clarify of the expression. Compare "The deed was done" with "The heroic Odysseus accomplished the challenge masterfully." The active voice is also less cluttered. Compare "The book was written by X" to "X wrote the book."
I learned how to index from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Don't laugh. Back in the late eighties (I don't know if it still exists), the department had a correspondence school. I wanted to expand my portfolio and they were recommended to me (I forget by whom). So I sent away and began learning from a most conscientious teacher. I wondered where they had dug her up and what she was doing there is she was such a gem. Well, it turned out that she was president of the American Society of Indexers (ASI) and has since become an author and authority in the field of indexing. So I really struck gold. I never finished the course. Instead of the final exam, a sample index, one of my freelance bosses offered me an anthropology index, which I successfully completed. So I was paid for what became my final exam. A fine investment. I have done many more indexes since then, having evolved my own technique of creating rubrics onto the computer screen as I read the book.
My first editing experience occurred in an embarrassing context: I was at a prominent and prestigious university and happened to see on display the proofs of a dictionary of an exotic ancient language I happened to have studied. A typo jumped out at me and I pointed it out to the startled exhibitor. I thought to myself that I would like to do that sort of work in my special field.
A further step toward my future career occurred one day as I was teaching freshman composition and the umpteenth student walked in to my office asking for an extension. I think (horrors) I didn't grant it. To myself I thought how pleasant it would be just to grade papers and not to be bothered with the rest of it. So I got an editing job at ETS where I learned a great deal in a short time. PS: I still teach periodically. I am not so completely misanthropic.
Let's talk about it. Talk about what? It, that way-overused pronoun that often occurs twice or more in one sentence to refer to separate entities, as in "Where is the dog?" "It's a shame that it's so cold today that we can't look for it but must put it off." Clear enough? Then there's the its / it confusion found everywhere short of the New York Times. Its is a possessive. It's is a contraction for "it is." Use of a contraction can be justified in the former instance because we usually use 's to indicate possession. So the spelling it's is found often, mistakenly, to refer to the possessive form of it. Often I come across, in signs as well as menus and other forms of prose, other plurals using apostrophe inappropriately before the final -s. I wonder if they are modeled on the mistaken use of it's to mean its.
But what do we do about the first example, let alone explain to people why the plural form plane's is incorrect? "It is a shame that the weather is so cold that we can't go looking for the dog today." Is that better? Does anyone else suffer from reading the examples I've chosen today to edit?
Poof! Dragon Lady has metamorphosed into The Nice Editor (me). I see myself as, above all, the one who helps the author to achieve the most clarity. My formula is consistency + simplicity = clarity. When we lock horns, the author and I, 9 times out of 10 I will conclude, "It's your book." The tenth time I might say the usage is archaic and doesn't reflect well on the author; we are following CMS and not APA, but if the whole manuscript has been styled in APA, it is not my task to redo it, as long as there is consistency. Where an editor doesn't conform to style, she/he must at least be consistent, the second-highest step in the ladder. The Nice Editor gives the author more time if she/he needs it for good reasons or has made up a good enough reason. There was one author who, during production, had to have an operation during early pregnancy and then had to fly to California during late pregnancy due to a death in her husband's family. Then she had her baby. And she received her finished book at approximately the same time. So she received three extensions.Then there was the time that my father died and one obsessive author phoned to ask how long this event might postpone publication of his book. His wife was pregnant. The acquiring editor was horrified that he sent no condolences but was harsh and annoyed. Well, I finally received a condolence call and quoted him a verse from Horace "non ignara mali," which means "I am not unschooled in suffering," a double entendre in that malus can also mean "evil," turning the meaning to "Not unschooled in abuse," or something similar. The rest of the phrase continues, "I have learned to help out miserable wretches." The words are spoken by Virgil's Dido when Aeneas, shipwrecked, first reaches the shores of the country she rules, Carthage. Having returned after a week of intense mourning, I drowned myself in work in an attempt to forget about everything and his book received the highest priority. At one point, in my fervor, I phoned his home just at the moment when his wife had gone to sleep after bringing the new baby home. He wasn't there, but answering machines had been invented, so why didn't she use it? I felt silly but conscientious.
What was perhaps my most poignant experience was with an author with whom I disputed the most, who in turn gave me the most touching and lengthy tribute I have ever received. A comparative literature specialist and biographer, he contracted an aggressive form of cancer just after having received the Pen Award in Italy. So at the beginning of production we squabbled and squabbled, both equally convinced we were correct. Then he became too ill to work and turned over the entire project to me, in writing, expressing his utmost confidence in my work and any changes I wished to make. This I did. Even the designer gave me free rein after designing the armature of the book. Well, before the author died (we hurried through production), his book had outsold any in its esoteric genre, reaching "plus 40,000" on the amazon.com Web page. So my author died happy, his illness surrounded by two stunning achievements. He was 86 when he died.
Back to the basics, another pet peeve of mine is unnecessary personification, as in "The job needs to be quick," for example, or "Health needs to be a top priority." Inanimate nouns don't need. People do. [more on this later]
To continue the saga of the range of my assignments, this one wins the award for abstruseness and eccentricity.
I had received four fairly conventional projects from an employer when a fifth request came in. A document that had been through several incarnations was now in first layouts and required editing of internal cross-references, which were now inaccurate since for any number of reasons that sometimes do occur in the publishing world, there were several versions of not only the page proof but also of the articles within the document.
I named this assignment my Treasure Hunt, because I felt so triumphant each time I scored a correct new reference.
I would come upon a reference in the newest set of layouts. If the article was redone from a prior version, I had to go to the prior version and analyze how it had been redone, discover the relevant focus and then hunt for it. Within the section I sometimes found the material that required the cross ref. Then I would look within the same version to the area referred to and if I was lucky, it might be in an article that hadn t been rewritten or whose illustrations hadn t been renumbered.
If the files were on the computer, I could do a search and sometimes find my quarry that way.
When I was totally baffled, I was allowed to simply eliminate the cross-reference, but I would search fervently first.
The assignment required three weeks, all hours of each day. The latest manuscript was more than five hundred pages long.
I did receive an acknowledgment, even though I had worked on the project at such a late stage. So I feel privileged to be named in a long-awaited work that many professionals will eagerly read.
They will never realize all the sweat and tears devoted to the project, though they will be aware of how long it took to realize, to shrink into that condensation of such labor that we call a book, that we hold in our hands and read, that we criticize for even one typo, that we retire to the shelf to gather dust much of the time, a silent history.
If our books could talk, many, many other stories would emerge: of poignant cooperation within the day and often after hours, of clashes that breed controversy that might seem utterly trivial anywhere else but within the office if not building; in this case of the ultimate senility and then death of the author of much of the book, who will never see the fruit of his untold labors out in the field as well as within his office.
I did my best, as a necessary brick in a very large wall. There is no such thing as a scholarly book without many references and ample notes many of the references were to footnotes that had been renumbered. There were also illustrations of every description photos, charts, drawings, illustrations divied up into subunits.
So I emerged from this eccentric project sweaty but whole, hoping that my work was as close to flawless as an editor s can be our work is never done, a microcosm of the pursuit of knowledge as a whole.
I am grateful for the assignment, which expanded my portfolio as well as my realization of how many different aspects of a publication there are to edit.
Another concern of mine that may seem trivial is the use of in-text documentation as part of the syntax of the running text. To me Steele 2007 is a book while Steele (2007) is the author. Usages vary, but I will create some examples to clarify what I see as a necessary distinction between animate and inanimate. "Steele (2007) writes that peace is vital" differs from "And I agree with the idea that "peace is vital" (Steele 2007). I will not create negative examples because they tend to reproduce like unwanted pests.
My latest bete noir is personification of inanimate subjects, a burgeoning trend. A typical flaw in this category, in my opinion, is "The rug is beginning to get dirty," instead of "I need to do some vacuuming--the place is a mess!"
I also avoid periphrastic verbs that contain "get" or "be." My current concentration is editing the academic publications of writers for whom English is a second or more language. No two assignments present the same challenges. The work is most absorbing.
Another pet peeve: "could potentially" and the like. The verb forms related to "can" contain the notion of potential in themselves. This is a redundancy, needless and unnecessary (choose one of the two preceding adjectives, which are also redundancies).
And here's a rule I more or less made up myself to preserve clarity where hyphenation has not yet been allowed to connect a very frequent compound such as "decision making" or "problem solving."
When such expressions appear in a predicate context, I always hyphenate if it is modified by an adjective. For example, consider the sentence "His biggest challenge was the complex problem solving that would be part of the project." Is the meaning "the solving of complex problems" or "the complex process of problem solving"? I mean the latter and believe that hyphenating "problem solving" would help clarify this meaning. I have seen other writers resort to this form of hyphenation also--not to be red penciled. [QED :)]