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The editing practices of professional technical editors

Hart, G. 2010. Interview responses: The editing practices of professional technical editors. (Input for a paper being prepared by Angela Eaton and colleagues.)

The interview questions in this article are from from a study being performed by Angela Eaton, Liz Pohland, Cynthia McPherson, and Sharba Roy Chowdhury. I've included my responses here because they're useful for other editors to know. I'll post bibliographic details once the paper is published.

Questions for editing interviews

We are studying the editing practices of professional technical editors. We define a professional technical editor as anyone whose primary work responsibilities include editing the work of others, whether or not the position title contains the word “editor.” The following questions are asked within the context of editing someone else’s work, whether or not you edit your own work.

You may notice that many of the questions relate to advice that is typically given in the editing literature. Our goal with this study is to move past individual recommendations to empirical knowledge. We are asking you these questions so we can begin to build an accurate picture of what professional technical editors do. We are only interviewing 20 editors; we are conducting the interview on paper so that we are accurate in recording your responses. After this interview portion of the study is complete, we will use your answers to build a reliable survey that we can distribute to more editors.

The results of this study will be presented at the Society for Technical Communication’s International Summit, will be submitted for publication in Technical Communication, and may appear in the 6th edition of Carolyn Rude’s best-selling textbook, Technical Editing.

How do you define editing?

Working with an author to ensure that the text clearly communicates their intended meaning, while respecting both the author's need to communicate in their own voice and the audience's need to understand.

When do you usually enter the editing process? Please highlight one.
before the author writes anything
during the first draft
after the first draft
after the second draft
after the author has completed all of the writing he or she can do
other: __X ____________

All of the above, depending on the manuscript and when the author asks for help

When you edit a document, what do you do? Do you read it through entirely and then edit? Do you edit on your first read-through or make multiple passes, each for different items? Do you set it aside at any time? Please describe your typical editing process.

I rarely have time to read fully through a manuscript before beginning my work, even though I work almost exclusively on shorter manuscripts (shorter than 10K words; all are journal articles or scientific and technical monographs). I always perform two passes through a manuscript: In the first pass, I fix all the substantive problems (logic, organization, clarity) and most of the minor copyediting details along the way. During that pass, I also insert many comments and questions asking for clarification. I then set the manuscript aside overnight so I can return to it with a different perspective for a second pass. If I don't have that much time (rush jobs are common), I still try to set it aside for at least an hour to accomplish the same effect. During that second pass, I tidy up my initial work and fix any errors I missed or introduced during the first pass. This approach (at least two passes) is standard for all experienced editors (of which I know a great many). I sometimes do an additional pass if my initial edits require considerable work by the author; that final pass ensures that the author has responded correctly and adequately to all my queries and gives the results a final polish.

Does your company have a set editing procedure, such as a set of defined levels of edit?

No. _________
Yes. If yes, please describe your company’s procedure:

I work as a freelancer, so my procedure is my own. Even when I was a wage slave, I didn't use any levels of edit approach because I believe (and teach, when I teach editing) that as an editor, it's my responsibility to do whatever is required to produce a manuscript the author can be proud of and that the audience will understand. When time is constrained, I use triage as the basis for my levels of edit: I focus on the crucial problems (the ones that will kill understanding) before working on the merely important ones (the ones that will only impede understanding), and lastly I remove the blemishes (things worth fixing but that won't impede or kill understanding) if time permits. Most "levels of edit" systems I'm familiar with don't understand the importance of triage.

When you begin working with a new author, do you do anything specific? If so, please describe what you do.

I have a set of standard terms for my clients that describes what I'll do. I start my relationship by providing much more explanation of what I've done and why than I will do for long-term clients, with the goal of helping the new client learn to trust my judgment (i.e., that I have reasons for what I'm doing rather than being arbitrary) and feel that they're in good hands. I explicitly remind them that editing is a cooperative and consensual process, and that the goal is to work together, not to play power games over who gets to make the final decision on whether a change is necessary. I emphasize that as the reader's advocate, anything I failed to understand is likely something other readers will also fail to understand; thus, it's better to work together to find a solution we both like than to leave a problem for readers to solve.

Do you provide a cover letter/cover memo/cover email for your author when you return a document? If so, what does it contain?

_____No, I don’t provide a cover letter/cover memo/cover email.
__X___Yes, I do. It typically contains (select all that apply):
______A reminder of which document I worked on
______One or more compliments
______A prioritized list of what the author needs to do
______My contact information

The first time I return a manuscript to an editor (exclusively by e-mail these days), I practice expectations management: I remind them that I edit heavily for all my authors, and that we must work together to produce the final result. I don't remind them what document I worked on, other than in the subject line of an e-mail message; this is obvious when they open the Word file. I don't generally provide direct compliments, since after seeing a page drenched in red ink (or the track changes equivalent), that would seem deceptive at best. My comments are always designed to be helpful rather than critical, and the extent of my engagement with the authors thoughts (as made tangible in the document) makes it clear that I enjoyed reading it and spent time thinking about it. Authors really do appreciate that. My comments embedded in the manuscript explain what the author needs to do; I don't provide any additional advice on priorities unless something truly merits special attention and requires repetition to reinforce that need. Contact information is always there at the bottom of the e-mail as standardized boilerplate.

When you are finished editing a version of a document, do you prioritize the changes to be made for your author?

_____Yes, always.
_____Yes, usually but not always.
_____Sometimes, 50/50.
_____Yes, occasionally.
__X___No, never.

Rarely to never. My philosophy is that I won't make a change unless it's necessary, and that it's the author's job to make those changes; if they disagree, they must decide whether I was simply wrong (that happens) or whether I'm right but they don't like the proposed solution. In the latter case, we work together to find a mutually satisfactory compromise.

Do you compliment your writers when editing? Or do you comment only on what needs to be improved?

_____Yes, I always compliment authors.
_____Yes, I usually compliment authors, but not always.
_____Sometimes I compliment authors and sometimes I comment only on what needs to be improved (50/50).
_____Yes, I occasionally compliment authors, but more often I only comment on what needs to be improved.
___X__No, I never compliment authors; I only comment on what needs to be improved.

As noted above, I rarely compliment authors. However, I will often insert suggestions on points of interest that I feel would be worthy of additional exploration, whether in the present manuscript or a future one. It's always a pleasure to see that future manuscript written, though it's not always because of my advice. As an author myself, I appreciate kind words from an editor (Avon Murphy is a master of the art), but given how heavily I edit, I find it hard to write an overt compliment that would not seem deceptive or pro forma. The risk of jeopardizing my relationship with an author by being seen as untrustworthy is too high for me to scatter random compliments just to ease the sting of being edited.

How would you characterize your working relationship with your authors (please check all that apply)?

Good, very good, excellent, and/or positive _______
Cooperative, collaborative, and/or helpful ______
Respectful and/or professional _______
Good and bad _____

All of the above. I aim for respectful and collaborative, and go out of my way to help, but some authors don't like to be edited and the relationship becomes at best professional, and sometimes strained. But on the whole, most of my 300+ clients are very pleased with how hard I work to help them get published, and return time and again for more of my work. Some are enthusiastically friendly after we've worked together for a while; one tries to teach me Spanish, another Italian, several Chinese. Some even keep me posted about life events and how they spent their holidays.

Please describe a positive experience you have had editing.

I've had many such experiences. I've had one author enthusiastically accept my suggestion for naming a concept he had misnamed; my proposed name will has entered the research literature and may become standard jargon in his field. It's always satisfying when I can identify problems with an author's research, propose a solution, and see that solution adopted in their future writing; that happens fairly often. I always try to teach authors how to do things better, and the ones who learn from my teaching and become better writers are an ongoing source of pleasure. Word of mouth referrals to friends and colleagues are the highest possible compliment.

Probably my most positive experience came with my first professional edit, which unfortunately proved to be of a manuscript by an always-difficult author who was going through disastrous levels of stress in his life; he just about literally exploded when he saw what I'd done to his paper, and complained at great length to my manager. She calmed him down, supported me, and over time, the author came to see how hard I was working to help him. After a year or so, he started coming to me for editing even when this wasn't required by our corporate policy. We even became workplace friends.

Please describe a negative experience you have had editing.

I once warned an author that something he planned to do was unacceptable according to standard conventions in the scientific publishing business, and that he would inevitably be caught by his peers and lose considerable face as a result. He ignored my advice, and when my predictions proved to be correct, his anger (redirected at me) poisoned our relationship for many years afterwards.

If you edit non-native speakers of English, do you change any of your practices for them? If so, how?

My work is almost exclusively with ESL writers these days, most in Japan and China but from pretty much all continents except Antarctica. To cooperate effectively with them, I've worked hard to learn about their culture and language, and always keep that in mind as I work. In addition, I work hard to revise and simplify my explanations, questions, and comments so that they will be easier to understand, explain more about what I've done, and go the extra mile to avoid embarrassing anyone; "face" is far more important in Japan and China than it is in the West, so avoiding direct criticism is very important indeed. I once spent half an hour trying to come up with wording that would tell the author he'd missed something that any reasonably educated undergraduate should have known without communicating the message "you're an idiot". I succeeded well enough in sparing him this embarrassment before his colleagues that he subsequently included my suggestions on this topic in his future research.

How do you deal with difficult authors?

I'm more stubborn than any three mules you care to combine. As a result, I am relentlessly patient, polite and diplomatic, and respectful. Eventually, even the most difficult author admits defeat and accepts that I truly have their best interests at heart and that it's better to work with me than against me. On the other hand, I've also fired a few clients who simply weren't worth the hassle. Best thing about being a freelancer!

Do you or have you offered any of the following to the authors you work with? Select all that apply.

Reference books ________yes _______no
Websites explaining topics ________yes _______no
Workshops ________yes _______no
One-on-one instruction ________yes _______no

All of the above. I also create my own reference material, available on my Web site, to help them with certain tasks. I refer them to those of my articles (e.g., on effective outlining) that are relevant to their work. I provide personal coaching and advice whenever possible; I'm hoping to spend a week teaching science writing in Beijing this fall.

What modes do you prefer to use to interact with your author? Please choose all that apply.

Meet face-to-face_____
Talk on the phone_______
Talk via electronic meeting, such as Skype ____
Insert electronic comments____
Insert audio (voice recorded) comments_____
Provide handwritten comments on paper____

I've used all of these except audio comments at different times. Nowadays, because my clients live on the opposite side of the world, most of my dialogue is via e-mail and comments embedded in a manuscript file. Time zone issues, combined with the fact that most of my clients are far more comfortable with asynchronous written communication than real-time written or oral communication, is at the root of this choice.

What modes do you most often use when interacting with authors? Please choose all that apply.

Meet face-to-face_____
Talk on the phone_______
Talk via electronic meeting, such as Skype ____
Insert electronic comments____
Insert audio (voice recorded) comments_____
Provide handwritten comments on paper____

Formerly, I used all but audio. Nowadays, it's almost exclusively written comments.

What affects how you interact with authors? Please select all that apply.

____Company policy dictates how we interact
____Distance dictates how we interact
____Cost dictates how we interact
____Author preferences dictate how we interact
____My preferences dictate how we interact
Other: _______X__________________________________________

All of the above: I try to be as flexible as possible to accommodate an author's needs, and each author is at least somewhat different from the others despite certain recurring themes. In terms of company policy, I'm a freelancer, so policy is replaced by my personal editing philosophy: to be the best possible helpmate I can be, in any way the author requests and (when the author isn't aware they need help) in ways that I suggest. I have strong personal preferences gained over more than two decades of doing this work, and try to impose these preferences on authors when I know that they would save the author time, effort, cost, or frustration when dealing with publishers. But I can't force any of my clients to do anything, so I have to rely heavily on persuasion and negotiation.

If you have ever experienced an ethical dilemma while editing, please give an example of one and how you dealt with it (please remember, your identifying information is protected)?

Ethical dilemmas come up surprisingly often. Things such as inadvertent plagiarism are to be expected when you deal with authors writing in a second language because they often borrow the words of others when they don't know the correct words themselves; these phrases usually stand out because they may be the only correctly written phrases in the entire manuscript. Ensuring that they are properly attributed and paraphrasing are good ways to solve this problem.

This problem also arises sometimes with authors from "collective" cultures such as China, where Western concepts of intellectual property are not always clear. This is exacerbated by the fact that I work in the sciences, where knowledge is clearly seen as a collective resource, and authors incorrectly assume that this extends to the words of their colleagues. Explaining the problem and proposing a solution usually resolves it.

The biggest dilemma I've recently experienced is an author who has no clear understanding of how science works (despite his PhD!!!), and who I've had to spend a lot of time teaching this understanding to spare him public humiliation. He has sent me several papers in which he is making speculative claims that are wholly unsupported by evidence (data) or previous reports in the literature; they're interesting ideas, but he is trying to re-explain well-understood scientific phenomena in new ways that challenge the prevailing understanding without providing any evidence that understanding is flawed or that his explanation is better. Rather than making him pay for editing of papers that will be soundly and rudely rejected by the journals he wants to publish in, I've instead explained what he needs to do to meet the scientific standard of proof, and rather than editing his papers, I've suggested he not pay for editing before he's prepared an argument that will meet that standard. In some cases, I've introduced him to experts in his field that can provide the necessary peer review. I could simply shut up, accept his money, and do the work, but in my view, it's unethical to take money for work I know will be wasted.

In the table below, which comment is most like the comments you make on your authors’ documents? (Please choose one by putting an X in the right-hand column).

Your Choice (X)

I would reorganize this paragraph.

You should probably reorganize this paragraph.

Reorganize this paragraph. That will make it easier for the reader to understand your main point.

You could reorganize this paragraph. That’s just a suggestion.

Could you reorganize this paragraph?

This paragraph should be reorganized.

This paragraph could be reorganized.

Organized paragraphs aid the reader’s comprehension.

[X] Readers can understand your argument much better in organized paragraphs. Consider removing “overall” from the last sentence and using it to begin the paragraph.

What advice can you provide editors, both new and established?

That advice would take a book, not one or two pithy phrases. If I had to pick one word of advice, it would be this: Work hard to be as helpful and non-adversarial as you can, thereby making it clear from your actions (not your words) that you are there to help the author communicate.

What advice can you provide authors, to make their editorial experiences maximally useful and smooth?

Again, that would take a book. First and foremost, writing is a profession like any other, and requires study and practice even if it's an annoying chore for you rather than your primary job. Writing is not something you can do just by blindly emulating the many examples you read daily; it requires careful thought. Second, you must recognize that editing is always a painful process, since it implicitly tells you that your writing sucks. Move past that initial reaction! Good editors will exert heroic efforts to help you look good in print, and you should recognize that this (not proving their superiority as writers) is the goal of editing.

What advice can you provide editing managers, to help them be better managers of the editorial process?

Encourage and protect relationships, and make sure your author clients treat your editor employees as colleagues, not "the enemy". Editing always works best when authors and editors see their work as collaboration designed to make the author look good in writing, not just another step in a seemingly endless series of barriers to getting published.

Editing students often learn proofreading and copyediting before comprehensive editing, and then they have trouble pulling back from editing phrases and sentences to look for content, organization, completeness, and coherence. What advice can you provide students who are trying to learn comprehensive editing?

Edit first with the goal of understanding what the author is trying to say and helping them to say it clearly. In the end, that's the only really important thing we do. All the rest (grammar, punctuation, formatting) is nothing more than the details that make understanding easier. It must be done, but it's second or third in the list of priorities.

How do you think editing is conceptualized in your company? Is that conception accurate?

Formerly, when I was a wage slave, it was seen as a crucial and indispensible form of quality control, and nobody (not even managers) was immune to being edited. Now, as a freelancer, it's seen as indispensible because most of my authors write in a second language and their papers are often rejected without review by journals until someone like me edits them. Given that I'm a necessary evil in that context, I try to turn that "evil" into a way to get through the publication process with as little pain as possible. Ideally, I want to make it a pleasant and fun experience. Based on the responses I get from my authors, that message seems to be getting through.

[Demographic questions and responses deleted]

Do you manage writers or other editors? If so, how many?

Although I've worked as a manager in the past, and could earn more money if I hired subcontractors to do preliminary editing or handle my overload, I decided long ago that I no longer want to manage the work of others; I'd far rather spend my time editing. I do, however, provide referrals to a group of editors when I'm overloaded, not interested in a particular job, or too inexpert to do the job well.

Of the documents you edit, what percentage receive the following types from you? Documents may receive more than one type of editing and therefore may be included in more than one answer.

proofreading: correction of typing mistakes and misspellings. 0-100%__100____
copyediting: correction of minor problems, such as awkward sentences, grammatical mistakes, and inconsistencies. 0-100%__100____
comprehensive editing: suggestions about considering readers, content, organization, visual design, style, and use of illustrations. 0-100%___100____

Not sure how to provide a number here (i.e., whether you wanted to divide up the 100% among the three categories). I do all three, to the fullest possible extent, for every manuscript that I edit. The amount of each type of work that is required for any given manuscript varies wildly.

How many years have you been editing?

Close to 24 at this point.

What materials do you regularly edit (materials are anything you might edit—documents, web pages, video)?

You name it, I edit it. No, really. <g> About 90% of my work is scientific manuscripts that will undergo peer review by a journal or technical/scientific reports published by a research institute, but I also edit Web pages, video and instructional design scripts, advertising and marketing, online help, etc. etc. The only unifying theme is that it all relates to science or technology transfer in some way.

What is your editing training/education? How did you learn how to edit?

__X_on-the-job training
___conference sessions
_X__read articles and books
_X__other:__Practice, practice, and more practice.____________________

How many items do you typically edit in one week?

Typically about 5 (one per day, most days; sometimes a couple short papers in the same day). To quantify that, a typical manuscript is about 8000 words, and requires comprehensive (substantive, developmental, grammatical, copyediting, proofing) work. Most of these are ESL papers in complex areas of science, so the writing is often challenging to understand.

How many items do you typically work on concurrently?

Usually no more than 1 or 2; the work I do requires intense focus, so I can't afford to dilute that focus among too many jobs simultaneously. As a result, I juggle my schedule to let me concentrate on one thing at a time whenever possible.

What percentage of the documents you edit is single-sourced?


What percentage of the documents you edit involve structural coding (XML, etc.)?

0-100% ___<5%____

What percentage of authors do you edit in the same location versus at a distance (for example, 90/10, 50/50)?

100% at a distance.

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