R. R. Saucier, Editor, Writer, Observer
No matter what you edit or write—fiction or non-fiction--this story has something for you, since it seems unlikely you’ll ever get more than 200 highly-educated editors to submit edits on your work.
What happened. I have the dubious distinction of having been the main author and editor of a College Self-Study report* for accreditation. Dubious distinction, because this sizable document is definitely not a barn-burning best seller, never going to be a gripping read--but it is a critical document for any college.
To get employees to read the document, we incentivized** editing drafts of the chapters. Over 200 employees of the college submitted edits, several submitting more than one chapter. That’s a lot of viewpoints from a lot of intelligent, educated people.
The results turned out to be fascinating.
There were almost no duplicate edits (less than 1%). Think about that. No matter what kind of edit—content, fact-checking, grammar, punctuation, style, word usage, spelling, formatting, consistency, citations—there were virtually no two people finding the same errors, making the same suggestions, offering up the same solutions to the same problems. The people behind the edits were college faculty, staff, and administrators. Nearly all of them held college degrees, everything from an associate’s to Ph.D.s—with bachelor’s and master’s degrees predominating. Not a slouch in the bunch, as my mother would have observed.
We’re not talking mistakes here. Sure, some of the submissions were either wrong or not consistent with our publication style sheets. And let’s face it, take a look at the over 1,000 pages of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s enough to intimidate the hardiest grammar nerd, so mistakes are going to happen. But we’re not talking about whether they got it right or wrong. The edits were for different issues…each hopeful editor was finding unique problems according to their own understanding of language and editing.
Brain maps. The edits submitted were consistent (i.e., the same people submitted the same kind of edits). Unique brains make for unique editing. If you have a big-picture, organization-oriented brain, you submitted edits that had to do with content, organization, and structure. You rarely touched a misplaced comma. These big thinkers were our developmental editors; they were rare, but we cherished anything they caught.
The middle-ground folks submitted grammar, style, usage, or logic issues. Occasionally they dipped into the minute details of a proofreader, but mostly they stuck to copy editing level issues.
And then there were the proofreaders. Heaven preserve them, because every little bitty error, every missed period or extra space, was theirs to pounce on and eradicate. While they crossed over into usage or grammar on occasion, they almost always caught the myriads of little things the copy editors overlooked.
When it came to overall editing, though, there were five or so of the 200+ who were really good at it; five born-again editors…and they weren’t always professors. They were administrative assistants and other staff who were excellent editors with skill sets that ranged more widely across the three kinds of editing and eyes that saw much more than all the rest.
After all that we had a pretty darn good draft. But then we hired a technical writer to go through it again, and guess what? After every chapter had been read by at least 20 people, she submitted even more edits than any of the five amateur born-again editors.
Conclusions. Some random deductions in pursuit of an answer to How Much Editing You Need:
1. You need more than one editor. You need a lot of them, unless you’re really good to start with and you hire one or more really good professional editors on top of that. People with a penchant for editing and a skill set to match are rare beings. So just having Mom read your stuff like she read your 8th grade report on Venezuela isn’t going to cut it.
2. You need editors with different brains than yours—ones that see issues you don’t. There are three types of editing largely acknowledged by the writing world [developmental, copy editing, proofreading], and there’s good reason for that. Circumstantial evidence from this experience says your brain is going to be good at one of the three and maybe okay at a second. You need good editing brains from all three categories–because no matter how good you are at [pick one], you need someone to double check your work. So just because you hired a pro who is a really good editor, doesn’t mean that pro is the best editor for you.
3. Education doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good editor. While colleges have long acknowledged the need to teach writing across the curriculum, just because your history teacher grades your paper on grammar, doesn’t mean she’s as good at it as your English teacher. Your degree in geology, geography, philosophy, or foreign cultures doesn’t always mean you can write, much less edit. Even English teachers come in flavors, some specializing in literature, some in language. You need people who have the skills and temperament to be excellent editors, and that isn’t necessarily a function of college degree…so your uncle the brilliant biologist who publishes groundbreaking research may be the family prodigy, but it doesn’t make him a great editor.
4. You need to polish your own skills. Why? If you’re hiring a pro, shouldn’t they get it done? Think about how many times the accreditation manuscript was edited. Every time new eyes brought different refinements and error corrections. The adage about seeing the forest for the trees (or vice versa) applies here. The cleaner the manuscript, the more chance an editor has of getting all the remaining issues right. Even editors are human, and if they are faced with a barrage of errors, some are going to slip through. Ask your editor(s) to suggest common problems for you to unlearn. They will thank you for it, you will get a better result, and you might just save on editing costs down the road! AND,
5. You’re in charge if you’re publishing your own stuff. So when one of your many editors says, “This is wrong,” you need to take their word for it if you haven’t polished your own skills. As the ultimate judge of what needs to happen in your manuscript, you are a little like that gifted basketball player who decides he doesn’t need to know math or contract negotiation or physical therapy, he’ll just hire help. But that only works if you know enough to figure out who to trust, who is good at their job, and who to hire.
In summation. Buy your own copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and learn how to use it. Figure out the mystery behind apostrophes (please!) and use the Oxford comma (or I will hurt you). Solicit a group of readers to give you feedback and keep the ones that are useful. Find a good editor [or two] who knows what you need. Polish your own skills--because dammit, Jim, you’re a writer!***
* The self-study is an exhausting and exhaustive document that describes how well a college fulfills strict standards. Self-Study reports are mandatory if your institution wants to be accredited [judged worthwhile]. Regional accrediting organizations [that are, in turn, certified by the U.S. Department of Education] examine your report and visit the college to verify the college’s claims. And yes, colleges have been ordered to change or be closed if they don’t pass inspection. So why do colleges go through this process? If they want to award federal financial aid, they need to be accredited—and you should never give a college your money if they can’t prove their accreditation by a regional association certified by the US Department of Education. If you’re suffering from insomnia, feel free to try the report at this website: Olympic College-Accreditation Report Go to “Reports and Self Studies” and click on the link for 2013 Year Three self-evaluation.
** In order to involve the college personnel—to incentivize them to read and review the report before it was submitted—we asked our Foundation for some prizes. Why? Because everybody at the school has a full-time job and helping edit the report was not on the top of anyone’s urgent list (except, of course, mine). If you read and edited a section of the report, you were entered in a drawing for a $700 Apple gift card. That got a lot of attention. There were multiple sections, so you could have multiple entries.
*** Dr. Leonard McCoy, Various, the original Star Trek.