The prevailing orthodoxy in online editors’ groups, I have noticed, is one of huge respect for, and empathy with, the author. The author is king/queen. We, as editors, primarily serve the author’s vision, the author’s voice.
However, in my own work (both in-house and freelance, primarily as a copyeditor of non-fiction), the emphasis has generally been different. I work for, and serve, the publisher. I hope the author will ultimately be happy, but the publisher pays me. In fact, I worked as an editor for many years before I was even fully aware of the concept of “the author’s voice,” and it still doesn’t impinge much on what I do.
For example, it appears to me that many (most?) copyeditors work to a system whereby the revised version of a manuscript is sent to the author, with changes tracked, before typesetting. The author may reject some or all of the changes (this is why “Stet happens” appears in the banner of a couple of Facebook editors’ groups).
In my in-house jobs (for science/engineering publishers), queries (if any) would be sent to the author and responses incorporated: that was all. The book or paper was sent for typesetting; in due course the author would receive proofs and see the editorial changes for the first time. This has mostly been the practice in my freelance work as well. One fewer stage means a shorter production cycle, less time expended by the editor and less money expended by the publisher.
This system is emblematic of a publisher-centred rather than author-centred philosophy of publishing. It says to the author: “You do your job — we’ll do ours.” Of course it is highly desirable that the author be happy, but it’s essential that the journal or book be up to standard and the publisher’s reputation maintained.
Non-fiction authors (certainly the ones I deal with) tend to be primarily subject-matter experts rather than professional writers. They need help, but may not know that they need it. And serving the author doesn’t mean indulging the author.
Very rarely, in my experience, has an author objected strongly to copyediting changes (of course it’s harder to do this when they are a fait accompli, and the publisher insists that changes at proof stage be minimal). The temptation to try to reinstate errors or poor writing (wordiness, repetition, lack of clarity, inconsistency, cliché) is largely taken away.
The system depends on the standard of copyediting being reliably high. It’s essential that copyeditors make the work better rather than worse, and that they can justify their changes.
I expect that some editors will see this mentality as heresy: they regard themselves primarily as enablers of the author. But might excessive “respect” for the author sometimes compromise the quality of the published work? Saving authors from themselves, after all, is part of the editor’s role.
It takes all kinds of editors to make a world. For this freelancer, it’s not really all about the author. It’s all about doing a good job and getting paid.
Previous post from Brendan O’Brien: Beginnings.
The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.