Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Editor Is Your Friend. No, Really: Part 3.

Last time in this editor discussion, we'd just finished talking about what to be aware of, stay away from, or at least carefully and WARILY question when it comes to the editing biz.
So now, out of the good, the bad, and the ugly...we're gonna talk about the GOOD.

A good editor is...

1. Competent in the language.
A good editor MUST have command of the English language, at least. Some editors are multi-lingual, but I'm here to tell you that (fortunately) that's not required. (Thank heaven!) And, frankly, knowing English well is probably enough to ask of your editor, anyway...because so few of them do.

Do you doubt this? Then how many times have you seen copy that...
...has a plural formed with an apostrophe?

...has a word usage error (as in, say,  affect versus effect or metal versus mettle--among dozens of others)?

...has disagreement of subject and verb numbers (singular subject, plural verb, or vice versa)? 

Don't laugh. This happens far more often than most people realize, for a couple of reasons. 
First, sheer sloppiness. Something that's actually WRONG gets used so many times that it starts to sound correct to the ear. That's how we get sentences like "Every child should know their address and phone number."  Uh-yup. (Every child, actually, should know that that sentence is incorrect!)

Second, words that look singular and are actually plural...or plural and look singular. MEDIA, for example, is plural, while STAFF is singular. So if you say, "Our staff look after you with tender loving care," or "The media is a big problem"...guess what. (!) 

The reason you see these and multiple other egregious errors is because, in fact, so few people calling themselves "editors" nowadays actually know the language very well. This is no accident: they're products of an educational system that, some years ago, threw out grammar and phonics in favor of...well, whatever in the world they were in favor of. Spelling? Who needs it? Just spell the way you feel. Grammar? That's just dull, boring, and stifling. Word usage? That's the stuff of picky people!

So...editors many times don't know that they don't know something
Which wouldn't be so bad if they looked things up just to be SURE.
This brings us into the second thing a good editor needs to be:

2. Humble. 
I can see your jaws dropping now. "Humble? Doesn't an editor have to have confidence in her own ability? Why would I want a guy who's HUMBLE editing my stuff? I want my editors to know what they're doing and believe in themselves!"

Well, there you have it. Yet more proof positive of how little many of us know the language. Because none of those objections has anything to do with humility.

So what DO we mean by an editor being "humble"?

A humble editor isn't one who denigrates him/herself. It isn't an editor who lacks confidence, or one who's unsure about what he or she can bring to the table, skill-wise. 
What humility IS in an editor is what we might call "teachability."
It's knowing one's limits.

A humble editor, in short, knows that s/he doesn't know everything there is to know. Not about the language, to begin with--but certainly not about everything else in the world.

This is a bitter pill for many of us to swallow, for many reasons--not the least of which is, if we've paid our dues in the world, we DO pick up a cornucopia of "stuff" along the way. 
Facts. Figures. Proportions. Odds. Specific terminology and jargon. The inner workings of clocks, or radios, or cars, or amoebas, or piano actions, or tiger lilies, or welding torches. Illnesses and their symptoms. Speed and trajectory. Recipes. The proper way to do a backstroke. And so on. And so on.

Yep. We do pick up collections of all kinds of semi-useful stuff, don't we?
But in the process, we also pick up...mistakes. Or misinformation. Or misconceptions.

Some of that's not through our own fault. Especially in the case of historical information, as any student of history will tell you, sometimes what's "factual" depends on who's writing the text!

But even allowing for that gremlin now and again, in the end, one of the most valuable attributes an editor has is the insatiable urge to GET IT RIGHT.
Which means LOOKING IT UP...sometimes in several different places.
And which also means LOOKING IT UP...even if you're fairly sure about it. 
That's what we mean by editorial humility.

Let's repeat that.
A humble editor has learned just enough to know that s/he doesn't know everything. So one of the most valuable things he or she can "know" is what he or she doesn't "know"...for sure.
And one of the most valuable traits he or she can have, then, is the need to GET IT RIGHT.
No matter how small the detail may be, or how "sure" an editor is that s/he already knows it.

I'm a crackerjack speller, yet there are still words I have to look up. There are words I've only recently learned I may have been misspelling. You may wonder how that can be: it's simple. The people around me can't spell any better than I can, so they take my word for it!
:-)

All kidding aside, however, do look for an editor who is humble, in the sense that he or she knows that all editors have limitations. Look for an editor who's willing to be taught (some of us do it kicking and screaming, but we CAN do it). Look for an editor who'll query your stuff along the lines of saying, "Are you sure? What's your source for this?" rather than saying, "This is wrong. This would never happen." Because if there's one thing that good editors learn over the years, it's that pretty much anything can happen on this good earth, given the right circumstances, characters, background, and setting. If you're an expert in something I'm not, I'm more than willing to let you teach me about it.

Just don't mess with the grammar...because there, nine times out of ten, I'll getcha. :-)

We'll talk about more aspects of GOOD editing in the next installment. Don't worry; there aren't many more important than these two we've just listed: confidence and competence in the language, and enough humility to make SURE that together, the editor is  working with an author to GET IT RIGHT. 

Stay tuned for the rest of the story in part 4!

Janny

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