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Crafting an editor’s elevator speech

elevator signI help authors develop and finish draft manuscripts, making their meaning clear and concise in ways that appeal to
intended readers.

These services include editing, index compilation, and styling and verification of data-intensive material.

There you have it. My newly minted, long-time-in-the-devising elevator speech (or statement).

Of business-speak’s most often encountered terms, elevator speech is near the top, climbing through all strata of net worth, employment type, and favorite watering hole. For years, I’d blink nervously and nod dumbly as a new acquaintance described the thrust of his managerial position as “attaining predictable six sigma quality with a long-term defect level hovering near 3.17 since inception.” Somewhere I’d gotten the notion I was supposed to understand it, and my near-autonomic insertion of “fascinating” into such moments is now a handy tip-off that I’ve somehow stumbled into this person’s elevator.

That said, I still need a short-form way to describe my own work that, ideally, is jargon-free. For too long, I’ve resorted to winging it, changing the subject, or mumbling that “it’s, um, too complicated to explain briefly.” (How’s that for making a positive initial impression?)

I continually postponed the intensive work of self-scrutiny and word-by-word parsing required to compose a couple of understandable, memorable statements that both provide useful information as well as intrigue whomever is listening enough to elicit a question or two. When I recently launched into the process in earnest, I aped the chef’s mise en place, a little like this:

container: largish bowl     contents: one concise chunk of meaning for the term editor
ramekins     small amounts of spice to add flavor
medium-sized saucer     ground-up (i.e., simplified) services I offer

In my bowl, I dropped a few cogent dictionary definitions. Although Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (M-WU) allots seven definitions for editor, it’s my guess that I have less than a 50/50 chance of sharing an elevator with somebody who already knows what the term entails as it relates to my work. I’ve never cut and spliced film, for example, nor do I “direct or supervise the expressive policies or the preparation of a publication such as a newspaper” (M-WU). I certainly never have been entrusted with “the contextual supervision of a section, special department, or feature of a publication” (e.g., sports editor; again, MW-U).

In fact Webster’s defines the person providing the services that do fall within my purview as:

One who alters or revises another’s work to make it conform to some standard or serve a particular purpose
<Some editor had bowdlerized the letter before publishing it.>

Hardly complimentary, barely accurate, and badly in need of explanation. I take particular exception to the use-it-in-a-sentence example. An editor like me would never find himself in a position to bowdlerize anything. (Besides, we would never be able to wrench that kind of effort loose from a publisher’s marketing, PR, and legal departments.)

It was clear I needed to take a whisk to this definition and add a dollop or two from other dictionaries to develop a palatable and useful product. First, grasping at the accurate bits from M-WU, I certainly do “alter or revise another’s” writing—but not their “work,” per se. As for making “it conform to some standard,” that’s an important aspect of my service—but said “standard” is set by the author and publisher, not some whim I decide to impose.

Except for the snootiness, I can embrace “[to] serve a particular purpose,” just so long as it is clear that said purpose is: to communicate information and/or a story in such a way that the author’s targeted audience will (1) want to read it all; and (2) these readers will come away with a firm understanding of what the author has described and explained.

Now then, where does that leave my nascent elevator statement?

I work with written text to make sure it conveys its author’s meaning in a clear, concise, and eloquent way that appeals to the targeted audience.

Jargon-free, albeit a little stuffy.

And that’s when and why those ramekin-borne ingredients come into play. The term written text is risky—mention of text may shift what follows into a mental full-stop for some elevator denizens. Besides, what is “text” if not “written”? Perhaps manuscript works better; except for rare-book curators and musicologists, people tend to understand that word as I intend it. Also crucial is inclusion of the sense that the manuscripts I work on are not yet polished, much less publication ready. Maybe changing written text to draft manuscript softens and refines the term? And how about revising eloquent way to engaging language and targeted audience could become intended readers. Once I moved authors back so that I don’t risk misrepresenting them as afterthoughts or unimportant, I’ve arrived at:

I help authors develop and finish draft manuscripts, making their meaning clear and concise in ways that appeal to intended readers.

Ayellow elevator pulleynd what work do I actually do in this process? Here’s where I tend to stumble, so the ingredients on my saucer must be carefully considered. As the practitioner, each type of service I offer is clearly differentiated from all the others in my mind. Editing alone can be parsed into at least three distinct phases, but does the person in the elevator give a damn? Not likely. So I’ve boiled down the ingredients to “editing” and “compiling indexes,” with just a quick mention of the specialité de la maison—”styling and verification of data-intensive material.”

I realize that last bit is a risk—so much for aspiring to a jargon-free elevator statement—but it will be the last thing out of my mouth, and if I haven’t already lost the my fellow ascenders, I’ve just handed them a tasty opportunity to interject “Huh?” or some other, more elegant interrogative. If the work I do has some possibility of being useful to this person, a bejargoned closing shouldn’t preempt our talking further. Who knows? It may even be exactly that aspect of my work they’re looking for, even if they don’t yet know it.

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Editorial consistency—hardly foolish

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Whenever I reread this sentence from Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” I remain amazed by its prescience. I have heard it attributed to writers as diverse as Emerson’s boon companion Thoreau, their near contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe, and even Oscar Wilde. But only Emerson deployed such lacerating wisdom that keeps it as appropriate and true today as when he wrote it.

It was, perhaps, inevitable, that this quotation and the essay it is taken from entered some kind of distinctively American collective consciousness, but it baffles me that its evil cousin—a misquoted, misunderstood nugget—gained ascendency over the original quotation. How many times have you heard someone “quote” it as—consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds?

Granted, thus trimmed-down it could be said to sound almost Wildean, momentarily. A second or two later you’re bound to note that the great Irish wit would neither say something so blunt nor posit something so witless. Attribution aside, however, its real damage arises from an unquestioning acceptance of the misquote and the inept decisions and bad behavior—many of which fall within the realm of publishing practices—it is used to excuse.

Returning to what Emerson actually wrote, it is clear that the particular consistency about which he warns is a person’s tendency to continue walking in one direction, thinking the same thoughts, simply because he’s been told that’s his “path” and those ideas are what he’s expected to hold. Emerson equates this consistency with conformity, and were he writing today, I feel fairly sure the word compliance would crop up a few times as well.

When we shift attention to consistency in writing and editing, Emerson no doubt would approve for the simple reason that it enables us to become deeply engaged by what we read, and that fosters our questioning our earlier pathbound ideas. When well observed, this sort of consistency actually frees readers from stumbling blocks that otherwise would interfere with their becoming engrossed by what they read.

But beware! Editorial consistency sometimes dates its own evil relative. For example, I admit to having personal bugaboos—widely practiced, often accepted writing conventions that set my teeth on edge. Split infinitives usually just sound wrong. Most nouns, when treated like verbs, make me want to sob. (You won’t catch me “journaling” anytime soon.) And for some unknowable reason that probably stems from genetic predisposition, the word towards hurts my eyes, and as I edit a manuscript I always knock off its terminal “s.

consistency speed bumpLike any editor, I’ve had my share of contretemps over this kind of quibble, but one agreement always reigns during such arguments: the necessity for factual and editorial consistency within any given manuscript. It is dismaying, then, to read contemporary nonfiction that was published without the benefit of a “disinterested,” trained third party’s review.

The need for factual consistency is self-evident. The author owes it to her readers to get data-driven information right and to cite it consistently. For example, in editing an academic essay I came across a passage quoted from a highly influential recent tome. Within the space of this one short paragraph, war was declared both in 1876 and 1867. I assumed my author had made a simple typo and asked her to verify the source’s wording and fix whichever year was typed in wrong. She discovered, however, that her transcription of the passage was 100 percent accurate; it wasn’t her typo, but that of the original author. We considered simply correcting the errant year or using an ellipsis to remove the troublesome date, but finally settled on the old (and old-fashioned) standby “[sic].”

Any editor worth her salt (and some writers, too) recognize the importance of editorial consistency, even if it isn’t immediately apparent to the layperson. Lapses are the readerly equivalent of speed bumps: they don’t keep you from reaching your destination, but they certainly slow you down and interrupt your concentration.

I don’t think it is too great a generalization to say that all authors seek and rely on their readers’ trust, and one sure way to squander your chance of earning it is to put forth information inconsistently. Gaffes in this area can foster doubts about the text’s veracity and diminish its literary worth. For example, in a novel I was proofreading, a pivotal character’s hair color caused me to query the author. She started out as a blonde (chapter 1), but in chapter 7 was a brunette, and shortly thereafter blazed forth as a redhead (chapter 8). We weren’t told how or why these changes occurred. Reportedly the author was both shocked and appreciative, because her character’s coif of many colors would have called into question her ability to notice an important clue that later helps her determine the reason for the murders she witnessed.

But how can an editor maintain such consistency? A certain kind of nit-picky mind (one Emerson possibly would treat with disdain) and attention to detail help, as does a sharp memory. Before I had much experience with editing or writing, I was blithely unaware of the booby traps that surely were present in the things I read. By the time I had developed my word-worker’s chops, however, I was forever deprived of that former innocence. Now I am blessed-cursed with the kind of critical faculty that brings me to a full stop whenever I encounter inconsistent spelling or hair color or word usage (not to mention towards).

sample style sheet maintains consistencyThere is also the once-standard, now too-often-neglected tool that I consider a critical component of good editing: a well-designed, carefully maintained style sheet. When I first became a freelance editor, I was required to compile a thorough style sheet for every project. (Certain in-house editors actually refused to accept a manuscript turned in without one.) Today, however, many editors with whom I’ve worked have no idea what this tool is; some even asked me to define the term. Others, although they claimed they prepared style sheets routinely turned in puny single-pagers that were little better than nothing. They always ran aground when tricky style issues didn’t fit neatly into their self-developed templates, the response to which was simply to ignore the ill-fitting detail. Predictably, that practice resulted in glaring instances of inconsistent usage.

Just to bring things up to now, an editor recently swore he was well acquainted with preparing style sheets, but he thought my question indicated that the manuscript I was assigning was going directly to digital. His impeccable style sheet was of the “cascading” variety, exclusively devoted to formalizing all the code he had laboriously (and counterproductively) incorporated into the text and had to be weeded out in order to create setting copy. Meanwhile, it offered nothing in the way of being the authority for spelling, punctuation, and usage I needed.

A useful style sheet—even for a multiauthor book—is not difficult to develop or keep current, and using and updating it soon becomes second nature. Once you recognize how far this tool can take you toward assuring editorial consistency, the small amount of additional effort doesn’t seem foolish at all.

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Editing the multiauthor book: Some tips

As I unpacked books from my previous office, I came across a 14-chapter, 23-author nonfiction tome I hadn’t looked at since editing it a few years back. It is not the most complicated project with which I have dealt; in fact, many of the authors of this particular volume were skilled writers. But it is something of a paradigm for this type of editorial work.

Why, I kept wondering, do books involving essays by several different writers require so much more time and care than single-author works?

The obvious answer is consistency. All by itself, that one word explains perhaps as much as two thirds of the difficulty. On a macro level, the editor must take in and comprehend issues addressed by each so he can recognize when one contributor contradicts another. For instance, perhaps a table in chapter 2 establishes that a particular dollar value is attributed to forest conservation. In chapter 10, however, another writer explains that “monetarism cannot suffice as an attempt to quantify forest-preservation benefits.” In other words, two writers in the same book have come to a conclusion completely at odds with that of the other.

In cases like this, you must determine whether such a disagreement arises from an apples/oranges situation: Are both authors really writing about the same thing? Was Author A’s point limited to a specific aspect of the table, while Author B’s goal is to lay down some ground rules? In that case, it’s crucial to query both writers in ways that will unearth how to rephrase their arguments so that it is immediately clear to the reader how they each came to their particular perspective. If they are dealing with the same basic concept, however, it’s up to the editor to find a way to question both writers in ways that help them arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution.

Before querying the authors—and risking an unpleasant dust up between them—an editor has to know whether the purpose of this particular collection is to present a unified approach to the subject. Perhaps the compiler’s intention is to ferret out just such controversies and air multiple sides between two covers? If so, call upon all the diplomacy you can muster when querying the authors. Disagreement, in itself, need not be avoided, but you have to find a way to communicate with each author that he has presented an idea counter to the other writer’s theory and it behooves both of them to agree on how they will disagree.

T.Robinson ICAD 1631

“ICAD 13/61” by Teresa Robinson

Those are the broad strokes—line editing concerns, if you will. But the second third of this puzzle—maintaining consistency on a micro level resides more in the domain of copy editing, and it opens up even more opportunities for trouble. Although these kinds of conflict typically are simpler and quicker to resolve, they tend to crop up multiple times per page.

For example, making sure every author spells toward without the s (or with it, if you prefer) is practically autonomic, and making sure all writers refer identically (and accurately) to people, places, things soon becomes reflexive. In the book in hand I was paging through, I came across mention of British Columbia’s “Great Bear Rainforest.” That made me recall that, a couple of chapters later, another author discusses the “Great Bear’s Rain Forest.” Yet a third included a multiple mentions of the “Great Bear rain forest.” Since the Province of British Columbia’s website cites the “Great Bear Rainforest,” I took that as the closest to definitive I was likely to get, and over the course of the 14 essays, I adjusted this name seven times as a result.

Now, factor in that half of the articles in this book were written in English by Spanish- (and in one case Portuguese-) speaking writers about regions in South America. Throw in, too, that the publisher instructed me to make sure all acronyms for Spanish corporate names were cited based on their English-language counterparts, and you begin to see how time consuming such verification becomes. It also should be little surprise that the proper-name spelling section on my style sheet accounted for 18 pages, clarifying why publishers often refer to that tool as a style authority.

But what about the remaining one-third? I came to realize that this final portion is spent coping with the opposite of consistency—the balancing act of maintaining personal approaches and tone(s). In this regard, editing a single-author book is usually fairly straightforward: I become aware of, then comfortable with the writer’s voice and approach to her subject so I can be aware of instances where she may inadvertently stray from one or both.

Each of the writers in a compilation of articles will have her or his own distinctive voice. I always consider to what extent one essay reflects and/or differs from all the others—it is important to guard against putting readers off by abrupt changes in style or voice from one chapter to the next. But simultaneously I must permit each essay to maintain its own distinctive character. (This definitely isn’t true of a fiction collection, where tonal differences are likely to be part of the point.)

As I shelved this bound trip down memory lane, I began to tote up the multiauthor books I’ve edited. (Pretty much anything is more appealing than unpacking at around 4:00 pm.) When I passed 20, I thought better of the whole process—both unpacking and notching my multiauthor-book belt.

But I do wish I could recall the first such book I edited. What must I have done?

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Finding editorial services via the internet: 5 pointers

If you found this blog via organic search, my guess is that you waded through dozens of other editorial-service providers’ attempts at grabbing your attention, so you’ll know that there are scads of professional editors, writers, proofreaders, indexers, etc., all of whom want your business.

That wasn’t always so. My earliest freelance experience dates to the late 1970s/early 1980s and was centered in New York City, the hub of publishing’s universe. Finding new clients was hard work at first, but once I’d established myself with one or two regulars, word of mouth filled in the rest, because trade publishing editors were constantly on the lookout for reliable editorial services providers.

Is the editorial services arena really a “buyer’s market”?

Some 15 years later, however, when I was in a position to outsource this kind of work myself, I suffered no such shortage. Once Vern Associates launched its first website, I received multiple inquiries each day from writers, editors, proofreaders, and indexers.

For us, hanging out a glossy new e-shingle and trawling for clients is the easy part, but distinguishing our work and capabilities from thousands of other options is trickier. Which raises the questions: Is the editorial services arena really the “buyer’s market” it’s purported to be? and How do you sort out quality work from cleverly hyped and technologically savvy presentations?

How do you sort out the quality work from the cleverly hyped?

Even if writing and editing is part of your job description, that’s not all that instructive for knowing how to hire somebody else to do one or both. And, if wheat-chaff sifting isn’t well-trod ground for you, it seems almost cruel to expect you to sort through the mess. With that difficulty in mind, then, here are some pointers that helped me when I was looking for help.

1. Consider the source
Much as I’ve benefitted from Craigslist—when giving away a vintage Mac or buying a lateral file—those broad-based websites aren’t the best places to look for a writer or editor. Would you use one to find a dentist or tax attorney? Then what makes you think you’ll find highly experienced word workers there? It takes little skill, attention to detail, or perseverance to post a work search on these sites, so there goes an inherent demonstration of an editorial professional’s abilities or standards.

2. It will cost how much?
This is a particular thorn in my, um, writing hand. In the mid-1990s, when I sought reliable editorial help for my then-new business, I was gobsmacked by the huge jump hourly rates had taken from the time when I was a freelance editor. Once the shock wore off, however, I could see that it was about time that quality writers and editors were paid decently.

That realization quickly faded, however, when it became obvious that many of the new breed of freelancers were simply making it up as they went along. Their thinking sometimes seems to be along the lines of: “My cost of living = x, and I can expect to complete y jobs a year, therefore I must charge (x/y) x 200% to make it worthwhile.” If you can afford to pay on this basis—and the result is terrific—fine. If you cannot—or it isn’t—keep looking.

3. Experience? or expertise?
A few years ago I did an informal survey of 23 colleagues, each of whom had been a freelance editor for at least 10 years, to see how much they charged for their work. Predictably, responses varied widely, from a low of $35/hour to a high of $90, and the differences seemed to peg to things like cost of living in differing regions, specialized knowledge they offered, how many authors were involved in a single book, and so forth.

No correlation between length of freelance experience and price was evident, but what surprised me was a seeming direct correlation between length of time as a freelance and the degree of detail in how they described pricing policies. The longer people had been working for themselves, the more apt they were to provide a straightforward answer: “My hourly rate is $XX.” Those who’d been doing it the least long used elaborate scales and calculations they were convinced would wring every last cent out of a job. From that time on, when a candidate told me he had been editing for 20 years and would propose a fee once he had run the job through his spreadsheet, misgivings were piqued.

4. Try the samplestext editing with word-processor
Time was when it was impossible to get a freelance foot in the door at a publishing house without first taking an editing test. The best of these tests were riddled with traps that only a truly canny and experienced editor could set. I may have learned more about potential editorial pitfalls from those tests than from editing actual manuscripts.

Well, those were the days. At Vern Associates, when I broached the subject to aspiring freelances, the usual response was, “not unless I’m paid.” A few candidates were outraged that I’d even suggest such a thing, and they typically were brand new to their trade. To be fair, the old hands were surprised, too, but only because so few potential clients asked them to take tests any longer.

At the very least, then, I advise you to contact at least two references, but even more important is scrutinizing examples of past work. Ideally the candidate will provide edited manuscript that shows changes and queries. In its absence, make certain the sample is error free, reads smoothly and comfortably, and conveys a sense of confidence. It still shocks me to read something by an author known for good writing that is less than polished. Where was the editor on that job?

5. Insist on candidates trying the samples, too
If a potential writer or editor gives you a price based solely on your description of the job, or on just a press kit or book proposal, a loud warning gong should sound. If she does not ask to see sample manuscript before bidding, you may face serious trouble down the line, especially if you pay by the hour. If you haven’t got a sample to show, send something representative for the freelance to consider.

Twice, when I assigned a job to an editor based on an uninformed estimate, I ended up paying roughly twice what I’d budgeted (and both times for substandard work). I then instituted a policy of never formalizing a work agreement with a new editor until their bid was based on the actual assignment.

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Using the right words, breaching the wall

Anyone who works with text day in and out is likely to devote more than a little time to pondering the nature of words and how they are selected. Some have been rendered meaningless by over- and misuse (“awesome”; “fascinating”), and others that remain viable in certain circumstances are endangered for the same reasons (“literal”; “tsunami”). The most gratifying to me are words that I believe deserve rehabilitation. Giving audience to words can also bring in issues of etymology or idiomatic usage, but simply mulling over the word itself—its appearance, its variety, how much it shows off or plays the wallflower—is its own reward. Once that pastime takes hold, it ushers in all sorts of interesting ways to approach writing and editing.

For several years, I wrote poems. Not often. Not well. But considering my inactivity in that realm over the past three-plus decades, it’s now a marvel to me. In particular, I’m aghast at the intrusive assumptions I let put a stop to it: a sense that I was not “entitled” to construct these word puzzles; that I was being presumptuous in the extreme to think I had any right to make use of words in ways that pleased me and communicated something I hadn’t known I wanted to say.

But there was another deterrent, probably contributed by my subconscious, which understood it was the easier to acknowledge than the previous two. Somehow I got the idea that “good writing”—poetry in particular, but prose, too—required a kind of certainty and clarity about word selection and placement that I could never possess. This image of a poem being constructed, much like a well-wrought wall, continually sounded in my head. It dictated that each word was like a stone or brick, and I was the mason tasked with placing it in mortar just so.

An unfortunate image, to be sure, for I had no illusion that, had I put my hand to masonry, it would result in anything more than a messy, unreliable waste of materials serving a single purpose: obstacle. But I had it in mind that poems would be my masonry, which I would erect with rigorous attention to detail: a word for everything and every word irrevocably in its place.

This metaphorical idée fixe went so far as to dictate metre, and I manipulated each word, forcing it into place to the beat of the mason’s shuck-chunk-clack-clink:

  • Shuck: the jab of the trowel into wet cement = determination of which word to use
  • Chunk: slapping that mortar onto the settled brick beneath = honing the bed of words as preparation for introduction of the new one
  • Clack: slamming the brick with pinpoint precision into the waiting mortar = forcing the chosen word into its new-made setting
  • Clink: tapping the new-laid brick with the trowel handle to set it = making sure the word stays put.

You can imagine how difficult it was when my head was filled with a rhythmic, unrelenting shuck-chunk-clack-clink. And, all it took was missing one shuck to throw off the entire process. There is a word that belongs there, but since it did not come to me with the shuck, I can’t have been meant to persist with this poem. Better stop.

Looking back, I’m amazed I ever completed any of them, but sometimes, when I allowed myself simply to fall in step, sticking in whatever shuck/word came to me as long as it had the right number of syllables and, on a really good day, the stress that permitted the final clink.

Roman masonry, brick and mortar wall

Roman wall at Ostia Antica, near Rome, 2008. © Brian Hotchkiss

And now? 35-some years later?

Although poetry is something I love to read, I have not attempted to write it since. I’m much more involved with prose, both its writing and editing. I enjoy playing with the words, letting them tell me where they belong. Then, once every word is in its place, I get to step back, survey the site, view how some words are just where they belong, some belong overall but in a different place, and still others, which either stumbled into the composition accidentally or stormed in like bullies, must be shown the exit.

Choosing the right words has come to be less a game or puzzle or building exercise and more like paying intimate attention to something that is, in the best way, inevitable. If you are prepared to write the piece, whatever it may be, the words will arise, often seemingly on their own. That still doesn’t mean they all belong there, and as a writer or editor you certainly will be called upon to make determinations about which to oust, but the worst thing you can do is force them into places and positions in which they clearly should not be.

I find great (and, some might say, perverse) pleasure in reading contemporary brick-wall writing—and sometimes it seems like that’s most of what’s published—then waiting to hear the crash. With opinion and provocation flitting about the internet faster than anybody can comprehend, the wait is seldom long. I’ve observed, in fact, that the neater the mortar, tighter the bricks, and more plumb the wall, the quicker and harder it falls and the more noise it makes doing so.

But lately it seems that a momentum is starting to build toward relinquishing that neat, tight, rectilinear certainty imposed on just about everything during the 1950s and 1960s, not to mention the fraudulent 1980s. Currently, some writing demonstrates a nascent move toward reckoning with just how vast our options are in just about everything we attempt. Having witnessed the tumbling of walls once deemed mighty and important, why devote effort to erecting new, but similar, bastions against the writing (and ideas) that frighten us?

Knowing they’re destined to fall apart, why waste time, energy, and materials on these tired structures, when we could be conjuring elegant solutions to the difficulties and trials so many of those old walls set up and held in place?

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