Anonymity And The Copy Editor: Is It Time To Be Recognised?

hidden, anonymous, sculpture, book, editor, copy editor

As an editor I often like to remain anonymous.

As a copy editor I feel that I’m just polishing the author’s intentions and getting their ‘real’ story out there. We all know what it’s like to be tongue-tied, that feeling that you know what you want to say but you just can’t get it out. That’s what I’m helping with. As a copy editor I know the constructions, the words and the layout. I know how to help. As that’s my job I usually don’t see the need for acknowledgement in a book I’ve worked on.

Sometimes this is because I feel I’ve done my job, been of help to a lovely author or publisher, and I prefer the anonymity.

Sometimes it’s because so little had to be done to the text that I feel an acknowledgement isn’t necessary.

Sometimes it’s because the book isn’t in my normal scope so professionally I don’t need the acknowledgement (it might dilute my public professional goals).

Sometimes, very rarely, it’s because the job was a nightmare and I don’t want to be acknowledged for fear it will impact negatively on my professional standing. Examples are when the budget or timescale was so tight that only triage editing was possible and left behind a lot that I felt needed addressing. Or perhaps the author decided to ignore my suggestions. Or even added stuff to the final edited version after my input was finished (oh yes, it happens). It’s very easy for an editor to be ignored and yet have their name on a final product that falls way beyond their normal standard.

And yet, most of the time, acknowledgements are not needed because I’m an editor, that’s my job and as long as I have done a job well I am happy with my lot.

anonymous copy editor

But I’m beginning to wonder if the anonymity of editors is becoming a problem.

I’ve seen this with my base profession. I trained as a librarian and information specialist. I spent my professional working life as an academic librarian explaining to people that no, I didn’t just stamp books. A librarian is so much more: we train; we handle budgets; we collate, curate and keep vast collections; we deal with the public, students and academics; we disseminate information; we are academics, counsellors, psychologists, analysts, shopkeepers, managers, lifelong learners and gatekeepers of the world’s knowledge. No, we don’t just stamp books.

And yet, librarians are a dying breed. Due to their anonymous nature, and the belief that now the world has Google anyone can be an information professional, librarians are no longer seen as vital. Library assistants are now running libraries. The librarian as we know it is endangered, as are the libraries they once ran and cherished.

library, books, reading room

And the same thing could soon be happening to editors. Because many of us don’t feel the need for acknowledgement, either through author acks or being noted for our role somewhere in the book, the world is beginning to forget why we exist.

The market is saturated with books. How many of those publications are self-published without editorial help? We’ll never know because copy editors are barely mentioned. The editor thanked profusely by the author in a traditionally published book is usually the publication editor who steers the project, the copy editor remains largely invisible.

I decided to pick ten random books from my shelf, to see if I was perhaps barking up the wrong tree. They are a mix of factual non-fiction, biography and fiction:

Two had no acknowledgements at all.

One praised an editor for meticulous and insightful editing.

One, a massive historical tome, mentions everyone except the editor and indexer, both of whom must have worked their fingers to the bone.

In one the proofreader was thanked, but not the copy editor.

A design book gave thanks to designers but not the editorial staff.

One thanked the publishing team as a whole, so that’s ok.

The last three gave no mention of the editorial staff at all.

 

That’s 1/10 giving acknowledgement to the editor, two if we’re feeling generous.

blank books on a shelf

 

But how much of that is down to the copy editor saying no to being acknowledged, or not having any relationship with the author at all? And is it really cause for concern? Are book acknowledgements that important anyway?

Just like the internet quietly brought down librarians, it is potentially doing the same for copy editors. I’ve come across conversations where self-publishing authors have said they don’t need to pay for editorial help when they have Hemmingway, Grammarly and spellchecks to do the job for them. Don’t get me wrong, these are wonderfully useful, but you can’t slavishly follow them, and using them instead of a professionally trained human editor is asking for trouble.

So we come back to anonymity, and we have to ask ourselves these questions:

Are copy editors anonymous because

  1. they really don’t need to be acknowledged,
  2. they don’t feel the need to be acknowledged,
  3. they’re rarely asked if they want to be acknowledged,
  4. they don’t want to be acknowledged,
  5. acknowledgements are personal for the author?

Should editors:

  1. make acknowledgement part of their contracts,
  2. broach the subject of acknowledgement with each new job,
  3. ask to be acknowledged,
  4. ask not to be acknowledged,
  5. expect to be acknowledged.

shy editor

And how should we move forward as professionals doing a job where many of us prefer to stay in the background?

I expect that as time goes by, if we are to survive as a valued profession, we need to uphold professional attitudes, become ambassadors for plain, good quality written language and champion excellence wherever possible.

We may need to step out of the shadows and shout about what we do and why it is valuable before, like librarians, we are sidelined and people settle for ‘good enough’.

 

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments whether you’re an author or editor, let’s get the dialogue started.

How To Get Away With Murder

(and romance, mystery, history, fantasy …)

 

novel writer tools

By making your book as good as it can be, of course (what else did you think I was talking about?).

Ok, now that I have your attention, you weren’t really going to publish your book without getting it edited first were you? You know, deep down, that your book deserves it.

Here’s why:

  • Readers will quickly desert you, even if you’re the best storyteller in the world, if they can’t get past the typos.
  • They will also desert you if what made perfect sense in your head fails to unravel properly on the page.
  • Readers will make you sad if they post shitty reviews on Amazon, because they really couldn’t get past the typos and spaghetti-like plot (and that’s if it even gets past Amazon’s new standards).
  • Your reputation as an author will suffer if you don’t publish the best possible version of your book.
  • Your second book, and third and fourth, will ride on the reviews of the first.
  • You’re unlikely to hit the best-seller list with a badly written book that no-one cares about.

reading a book

What you put into your book is, more often than not, commensurate with the way it will be received. And that sometimes means spending money. It’s tough, but it’s true. You can also have the best written book in the world, but if it’s hiding behind a lame cover or badly formatted text it won’t get noticed either – but that’s an article for another time.

I know what you’re probably thinking – you’re an editor so you would say that. Well, yes, obviously. But editors get their books edited too, by other editors, and they pay the going rate for it. Now why would they do that if it wasn’t worth it, especially as they edit for other people and in theory could edit their book themselves?

It all boils down to this: you’ve spent, perhaps, years writing your book, editing it yourself and getting friends, family and beta readers to read it, you believe in it and are proud of your efforts – so why the hell send it out into the world without making sure that it’s as perfect as it can be? It’s like wearing a Chanel suit and walking around with a cheap supermarket carrier bag instead of a proper handbag … eventually someone’s going to say something and it won’t be kind.

Still not convinced?

We’ll here’s what you get for your money when you hire a professional editor:

  1. Years of experience working with words.
  2. Professional knowledge of the publishing industry.
  3. An eye for detail and a flair for accuracy.
  4. Someone who will be honest with you without worrying that you’ll be upset (I say honest, not mean, we’ll tell you what friends and family won’t, but we’ll also tell you how, or help you, to fix the problems with your book).
  5. Someone who will work with you to make your book the best it can be.

It’s not just spelling mistakes. There are different types of editor. The ones most often used by self-publishers are: development editors who will help you with your big picture (make sure your story works), copy-editors who work with the spelling, grammar, punctuation and consistency of your text, and proofreaders who take that last look over to make sure everything is as good as it can be.

author writing her novel

So, down to the nitty-gritty …

Will it be expensive to hire an editor?

Well, it can be, but if you prepare your manuscript as much as you can before you send it to an editor it will be less expensive (and expensive is subjective anyway). That means formatting it properly, running it through a spellcheck and getting as many people to read it and give you feedback as possible – then, and only then, should you approach an editor.

Will it be worth it?

Hell, yes. It can mean the difference between a well-crafted, well-presented book that you are proud of and something that would end up on the slush pile. A copy-editor will help you polish your words, while a developmental editor can help you sort out those fiddly plot holes, and for crime writers that could mean helping you get away with murder (on paper only, obviously!).

Still not convinced? Take a peek at this author earnings report from Feb 2016 to see what the independent author is up against.

As a self-publishing author you are up against a LOT of competition, there are literally millions of books out there competing for the attention of the buying public, so if you want to be seen it makes sense to produce a professional standard book. Hiring an editor may not propel you to the best-seller list or make you millions, but it will give you a better chance than if you go it alone.

 

Fact Checking – Vital or a Waste of Time?

questions, choicesHmmmm.

I spend a lot of my time editing non-fiction; no matter how much I love fiction, the factual stuff takes up more of my time at the moment.

And with factual editing comes fact checking.

Now, you may have a client who says ‘all the facts are correct’ but if, as you are working through the book, or article, or brochure, a ‘fact’ jumps out at you as incorrect, what should you do as a professional wordsmith?

Do you just shrug your shoulders, flag it and move past it, or do you start checking?

What should you do if you’re only being paid for a basic edit, and fact-checking is not included?

If it’s a subject you are very familiar with, you may automatically notice an incorrect ‘fact’, but if you are new to the subject it may not be immediately obvious. And fact-checking is time consuming. VERY time consuming.

time, clocks, rush job

Take, for example, an 80,000 word manuscript that has a lot of company names and personal names.

You spot an error, stop what you are doing and hit the internet.

You need to know if a university professor’s name is correct – so you go to his university webpage and look for the staff list. Easy peasy – but you’ve lost three minutes right there.

You suspect a company name is wrong – again, you look for the company website. Bingo. Three minutes.

But then you come across a name that seems wrong, but he isn’t an academic, nor a company CEO. How do you confirm the spelling? You hit the internet and look at Wikipedia – but beware … although the site is now a LOT more believable than it was, it is still not a primary source, and errors occur. You have to conduct more of a search to pinpoint the actual name, or the one most commonly used. Ten minutes gone. If you are lucky.

There’s a scholarly paper that’s been cited, but it looks odd. Go to the publisher, institute or author. If it’s not there, hit Google Scholar and search. Bang. Ten minutes.

question mark

Say you have an average text of 80,000 words, with an industry standard of 250 words per page. That’s 320 pages.

And there are two possible errors every five pages. That’s a very generous 128 facts to check (I have worked on documents where there have been four or five (or more) facts to check per page!).

Say each fact check takes you on average three minutes – that’s 384 minutes taken over the whole book. Have you done the maths yet? If I’m right, and admittedly I’m rubbish at maths, that means that throughout the course of the edit, you will add on around SIX AND A HALF HOURS for fact checking. SIX AND A HALF HOURS!

Makes you think doesn’t it.

Bet you’ve never looked at it like that have you? It certainly opened my eyes.

worry shock stepping out of comfort zone

So now, with this information, what do you do when you come across a factual error in the work you’re editing?

Ideally fact-checking should be done before the manuscript reaches the copy-editing stage but, if you are required to fact check, get it in writing exactly how much checking you will do, and what types of information will be checked. No matter what you are required to check, be aware of potentially libellous or damaging statements, and flag them up.

You may decide that you can’t live with moving past potential errors – consistency and accuracy are part of a copy-editor’s brief after all. As a professional it’s something you have to be aware of and address.

But errors can creep in in all kinds of ways:

names – personal, place, business.

dates – of anything and everything.

addresses – includes email addresses and websites as well as physical addresses. Addresses are important, especially with company documentation; an incorrect address can be devastating for business.

titles – personal and published. Think nobility, governmental and honorary titles as well as titles of books, periodicals and anything physical, published or not.

instructions and directions – I was taught to write down instructions by breaking them down to the smallest action, something that comes in very handy for checking instructions. Break them down, people, and see if they really make sense.

Remember if you do fact-check – never take the first answer you find, always verify facts with at least two independent sources, and primary sources are your friend.

clock, time, watch

There are a number of ways to deal with fact-checking, and it’s best to lay it down right at the start:

  1. Make it quite clear to the client that fact checking is not included in the negotiated price, but consistency will be attempted and obvious errors flagged for checking.
  2. Allow for a certain, small, amount of fact-checking in your time working on the manuscript. Encompass this in your base rate and don’t charge any extra for it. Flag up any time-consuming searches that may appear – the ones where you know it’s going to be difficult to check them.
  3. Negotiate with the client for an additional flat-fee charge for fact-checking, or an increase of hours quoted for, if it becomes apparent from the editorial sample that there may be an issue with factual information (you do get a sample to look at before agreeing to take on a job, don’t you?).
  4. Negotiate with the client for an additional charge for fact-checking, with a proviso that only XX number of minutes will be spent per manuscript and if work exceeds that, you will return to the client to negotiate further.
  5. Say hell, yes! Dive in, correct all the facts, take as much time as you like, and watch your profits slowly slide away.

It may seem a difficult subject, but some people make a living from fact checking and nothing more. Don’t shy away from talking about this with your client, and don’t take it for granted that you have to fact-check as standard. Negotiate, get it in writing and remember that although a copy-editor’s job can be fascinating, you are a business owner, and must think like one.