Christina Vasilevski

Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience

4 Myths About Editors

An example of text with editorial markup.What editors do is often kept hidden. In fact, a good editor is supposed to remain invisible by giving the text enough care and polish that it shines brightly and speaks for itself.

The thing is, when your goal is to be invisible, people get a distorted image of what you actually do. Myths about editors exist, and they’re pernicious. So what is editing, and what myths about editors are there? Here are four examples.

Myth #1: Editors are just glorified spell-checkers

When most people think of editing, they think of fixing typos and grammatical errors, or what editors call “copy editing.” (This is what others often call “proofreading” — proofreading and copy editing are actually two different things.)

However, even in a typical copy edit, there’s far more going on than just spell-checking. For instance, copy editors are frequently on the lookout for:

  • continuity errors
  • incorrect information or anachronisms
  • inconsistent formatting of elements like tables, graphs, and captions

Let’s say you’re writing a novel set in 1981 and you mention that a character is wearing a pastel shirt like the ones on Miami Vice. MS Word won’t double-check when the show started airing, but an editor will – and they’ll flag it, since the show started in 1984, three years after your story takes place.

Another example: you say your character’s eyes are blue in chapter one, but brown in chapter six. Would a spell-checker catch that?

I doubt it.

Of course, that’s assuming you’re working with a copy editor. A lot of editors don’t copy edit. Instead, they look at the text from a 50,000-foot view, examining the terrain and figuring out the deeper-level issues in your text that need fixing.

These people are known as structural or substantive editors. When reading your text, they ask themselves things like:

  • Are you keeping your audience in mind, or are you using too much technical jargon?
  • Should your conclusion really be the text’s introduction or first chapter?
  • Do your readers need to know about Topic X when the rest of the chapter discusses Topic Y?

That’s more than just being a glorified spell-checker. Editing like that involves being a bloodhound on the trail for gaps, unclear thinking, and logical fallacies. I bet Clippy can’t do all that.

Myth #2: Editors are just waiting to pounce on every mistake you make

People often think of editors as know-it-alls wielding red pens, waiting to call you out on your misuse of a comma. Granted, there are people out there like that, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction in pointing out the spelling and grammar mistakes of others.

But honestly? Getting into a tizzy over every single error is pedantic. More than that, it’s exhausting. People make mistakes. The whole reason editors exist is to keep those mistakes to a minimum and make you look better.

More importantly, ridiculing you for every mistake is counterproductive to an editor’s aim, which is a positive working relationship. As an editor, it’s in my best interest to keep you as happy as possible about the small things, like fixing spelling mistakes, so I can create enough trust to bring up more serious problems, like bad transitions and inconsistent referencing.

Myth #3: Editors will change your writing so much it won’t sound like “you” anymore

Bad editors may do this. Overzealous editors who feel like they have something to prove may do this. I know there are horror stories out there.

But unless your writing is so bad that such heavy rewriting is necessary — and if it is, that’s something that a managing editor or project manager should discuss with you in detail — editors like that are the exception, not the rule.

It all goes back to fostering a good working relationship, like I mentioned in the second point above. Trust is both important and scarce, and the wholesale rewriting of text without consultation burns through a lot of trust quickly with no obvious benefit. Why would we shoot ourselves in the foot like that?

Fellow editor Antonia Morton has a clever saying:

George Orwell wrote: “Good prose is like a window pane.”

Editor Antonia Morton says: “Good editing is like a squirt of Windex.”

Wholesale rewriting is not good editing — that’s just shattering the window entirely.

Update: I delve into this myth more in my follow-up post “How Crutch Words Weaken Your Writing

Myth #4: Editors don’t make mistakes

Remember that bit above about people making mistakes? It applies to editors too.

Embarrassing confession time: there are a lot of errors I haven’t caught when editing something. Usually they occur when the turnaround time for a project is very short. (A lesson to the wise: don’t underestimate the amount of time that good editing takes.)

Hell, I’ll admit to something even worse: I’ve committed the cardinal sin of introducing errors. This is a huge no-no. One time earlier this year, I was doing a rush job (remember what I just said about needing enough time to do good work?) for a client whose company included a bed and breakfast facility. During the process, I wrote the phrase “bread and breakfast” rather than “bed and breakfast”. This happened not once but twice. Once the client informed me of this, I made sure to fix the error as soon as possible and — after doing a quick scan in MS Word to make sure this error didn’t appear anywhere else in the document — sent back a cleaned-up copy.

The point is that no one is perfect. In fact, academics have studied error rates in various contexts. Fellow editor Adrienne Montgomerie discussed last year both on Copyediting.com and subsequently on her own site that no editor catches every single mistake. At best, estimates about error detection rates range from 95% to 99% among professional editors.

So what are editors like?

They’re like anyone else, really. They’re fallible, but they care about doing a good job. The difference here is that this job is an intensely personal one because many people see their writing as an extension of themselves — and if your writing is bad, what does that say about you as a person?

You are not a bad person. Your thoughts are worthy of expression.

All editors do is make that worthiness more apparent to the wider world.

Resources for Editors

resources_for_editorsIn September I wrote a blog post about my experience with Ryerson’s publishing program. At the end of the post, I said I would provide more info for people who want to learn more about editing or who want to be editors. So here’s a huge list of resources for editors!

These links aren’t organized in any particular order. Some links may be repeated as they apply to multiple sections.

Please note that these links focus on freelance editing. If you’re an in-house editor, or if you’re a designer, bookseller, or marketer, I would love to hear about your recommended resources in the comments.

What does it take to be an editor?

Many people think that editing involves primly marking up errors in red pen. However, it requires more than that. You have to be curious, thoughtful, and aware of your own biases. Here are some excellent pages about what it means to be a good editor.

Professional associations for editors

Joining a professional association will allow you to connect with other editors, and that is extremely important. Depending on the organization, you can also benefit from mediation services, group insurance plans, group discounts, and more. Some organizations also offer discounted membership if you’re still a student.

Mailing lists for editors

Individual editors who tell it like it is

Sometimes you need to hear that other editors are going through the same thing as you. These people offer great info and advice.

Business resources for editors

Tools and technology

Learning about and loving the language

Editing involves more than knowing grammar. You also have to understand the ways that language changes. These people provide varying perspectives on this process.

All-in-one resources for editors

Short on time? These sites provide a concentrated dose of helpful info.

Are there any websites that you think I should add? Let me know in the comments.

Ryerson Publishing: What Other Students Thought

I last wrote about the Ryerson publishing program when I answered some FAQs from prospective students. But what do other publishing students have to say about their experience?

I found out — and I hope you get as much out of their comments as I did.

Note: all quotes below have been lightly edited for grammar or clarity.

J’s thoughts on the Ryerson publishing program

J is finishing up the Ryerson program this fall, and currently works as an in-house editor with a publisher:

The program and the EAC have both been vital in me furthering my editing career. But I’m not sure how much of that was just the timing of when I entered the industry. I think it will be much harder for current students.

J elaborated on this in another email:

The Ryerson courses, as well as the EAC [Editors’ Association of Canada] courses, improved my editing skills immensely. Not to mention the networking opportunities from both.

However, when I started there were many more in-house opportunities than there are now. Many of those in-house positions have been outsourced off-shore. So there is more competition for the freelance, and in-house, jobs available.

I did do an internship and would recommend it to anyone who wants to be an editor, or be in publishing. Just don’t fall into the trap of moving from one internship to another in the hopes of gaining full-time work: it rarely, if ever, happens.

Lea Kaplan, graphic designer

Lea Kaplan is a writer and graphic designer who now lives in Toronto. After completing the publishing program, she studied graphic design in New York. Here’s what she had to say:

I did graduate from the program, though I know plenty of people who did not.  I’m not actually working in publishing right now (though I do still hope to end up in the industry). I went back to school and got another degree, and am now job hunting once again.

Her thoughts on whether the program offers transferable skills:

To be honest… I don’t know if there really were any transferrable skills. At least, not in regards to the direction I’ve gone.

The degree I received was in graphic design, and I am hoping to end up back in the publishing industry as a designer. I suppose that some of the skills learned in the book design course I took were transferable, but otherwise…

I suppose some of the tricks and tips learned in the marketing and/or publicity classes could be transferable, because being able to sell things is an important skill set regardless of what you’re selling. And I’m of the firm belief that everyone should have the skills to be able to copy edit text.

What I loved about the program was that it was specific. It was targeted to books, it gave the student a remarkable overview of all aspects of the publishing industry, and allowed us to connect to professionals who actively worked in that world. For someone trying to break into the publishing industry, that was invaluable. The things learned in the classroom were only half of the strength of the program.

An anonymous editor

This editor and I took classes together at Ryerson, and we reconnected after seeing each other at the 2014 EAC conference. Here’s what she had to say:

I fell into publishing in my third year of my undergraduate degree while fulfilling a voluntary placement. At the time, I was studying to be a teacher and was very unhappy. As a publishing intern, I realized that I could use my best skills – research, editing, and writing – and that teaching wasn’t my only option as a literature student.

I studied publishing at Ryerson in 2009 and then at the graduate level in 2012. I interned in editorial, marketing, and for a literary agency. I currently read for an agency, intern for a magazine publisher, and take on freelance editing projects wherever I can.

I believe that studying publishing is useful for an overview of the industry and to have access to internships and jobs you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get, but I would advise any aspiring publisher to work in the industry rather than studying it. Work in a bookstore, help with a literary festival, assist with digital platforms, freelance, and attend as many conferences and events as possible. If I could go back and tell my younger self anything, it would be to start working in publishing immediately upon finishing my undergraduate degree rather than going on to do graduate work. If I had known then what I know now, things would be very different.

Last spring, I interned for a wonderful company and was under the direction of a woman whose career trajectory I wish I could emulate. She started as a freelancer, worked as an assistant across different publishing sectors, and now – at the age of twenty five – is an assistant editor for a well-respected literary imprint. I would give anything to have what she has and do what she did, but I’m not her and she’s not me (and I didn’t know then what I know now).

I would also advise any aspiring publisher to work across as many sectors as possible. Don’t be picky and don’t limit yourself. You might find something you love that you never thought you would, and you will learn things you never dreamed you could if you step out of your comfort zone and you are open to new possibilities. Also: learn InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, and as many other publishing-related systems as you can. Strong administrative skills, attention to detail, efficiency, and a willingness to handle and apply criticism are essential.

A second anonymous editor

This is another person who studied at Ryerson at the same time that I did. She says some pretty strong stuff here — I can’t resist quoting someone who’s stirring the pot. Here are her thoughts:

When anyone asks me about working in publishing, I tell them “don’t do it!” I’ve had at least six friends this year alone lose their job at Random House. And several at other publishers too — or friends in magazines have their company go under. It’s a depressing time. Most internships are keeping things afloat these days. So I’m kinda negative about the whole thing. Ryerson accepts unlimited amounts of people to train for jobs that just don’t exist. The newer courses, such as the one on rights and the eBook production course, are the good ones, though I haven’t taken the digital production one yet, so I can’t really comment on it. I didn’t finish the diploma, mainly because I had a job in publishing and I didn’t think it was really worth it. So maybe I’m not the best person to talk to!

These days, the bigger publishers are more concerned than ever about their bottom lines. This affects the people working in publishing through cutbacks, but it also affects the types or quality of books they’re looking to publish. But maybe this will be a more exciting time for the mid-size or smaller Canadian publishers; they will get those authors usually snapped up by the larger corporations. Still, the point is that people getting into publishing because of a love of books need to choose their passion wisely because the industry has changed a lot.

You start classes and the first thing you hear is that there is NO MONEY in publishing. Well, that’s okay, you think, because I love books! But what you don’t hear (or maybe you do now) is the climate at these larger publishers: what drives them is a need to see return on their investments, not “good books.”

This makes sense, since business is business. But those doing it for a love of books are both out of pocket and lost in the bureaucracy of a larger publisher. And that’s where so many end up because of internships. A job at a smaller/mid-size publisher is really what you want, but those are few and far between.

What are your thoughts?

These are the thoughts of only a few people, and I recognize that far more comprehensive surveys could be made given the right resources. However, I feel it’s a start.

What are your thoughts? Are you a Ryerson publishing graduate who wants to weigh in? Are you a current or prospective student looking for more info? Submit a comment or send me an email.

Publishing links roundup #1

The publishing world is always full of new and interesting announcements. Here are some articles that have caught my eye recently:

Update, 11:30 AM: The CBC has just announced its longlist for this year’s Canada Reads competition.

This year the gimmick is a “turf war” between the various regions of Canada – what are the best books originating from each of 5 regions (BC & the Yukon, the Prairies & North, Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic), and which region’s book will be the ultimate winner?

Here are a few thing’s I’ve noticed about this year’s selection:

  • Although the Quebec longlist contains The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (a crime/detective novel), I don’t any other genre books in the running – just staid, “serious” books from the CanLit monolith. If I’m wrong, let me know in the comments.
  • The Ontario longlist incudes books by Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, and Michael Ondaatje, 2 of which I had to read in high school. How adventurous!
  • The Quebec longlist contains only 3 novels originally published in French. Fittingly, one of the English novels on Quebec’s longlist is Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes.
So, what are your thoughts on this year’s crop of Canada Reads selections?