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I am an editor at the University of California Press and author of the first full-length handbook ever published on the subject of developmental editing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Perfect Editor

I once had an author who railed at me for not finding an “appropriate” copyeditor for her manuscript. Her book explored how to interpret Latin American political history using game theory. She expressed dismay that her copyeditor was not an expert in these two fields, and moreover had no Portuguese and only rudimentary Spanish. I explained to her, as tactfully as possible, that a person with mastery of those four domains was not likely to choose freelance copyediting as a career.

Authors, the perfect editor is not necessarily one who shares all of your interests and enthusiasms. An editor who is a carbon copy of yourself is useful if you are interested in preaching only to the converted. If you hope to change minds about your subject, or to reach an audience unfamiliar with it, a generalist editor will be of greater service. The perfect editor is not the closest colleague in your field but a person who keeps in mind the concerns of the full breadth of your potential readership.


  1. I really do not understand this comment: "I explained to her, as tactfully as possible, that a person with mastery of those four domains was not likely to choose freelance copyediting as a career." Sure sounds like a putdown to me! Perhaps your client was right and you did not look hard enough.

    There are many copyeditors who are highly educated. Many of them have foreign-language capacity in on or more languages. Those who are linguistically gifted can pick up a lot along the way. I am fluent in German, pretty good in French, OK in Spanish (havnign copyedited by now about five books dealing with Latin America. Because of my German fluency I was hired as the English-language editor/copyeditor for the Auschwitz Calendarium. In the course of that job I had to learn a lot about Polish names and spot missing diacriticals. Etc. As you certainly know, the line between copyediting, line editing substantive editing, and dedvelopmental editing can be a pretty fuzzy one. I think you need to rethink this assumption of yours re copyeditors and foreign languages. You should have found a copyeditor who was familiar with at least one of the languages in question. Yours, K. Scott

  2. Regarding the previous comment, I was unable to find an "edit" function after I hit "preview," so was unable to fix the typos in the post. K. Scott

  3. K. Scott--

    You're right, of course, that many freelance editors are highly educated and speak multiple languages. It was not my intention to put down freelancers, but I can see that my poorly chosen words do just that. My sincere apologies. I have worked with many freelance editors who are much better educated and smarter than me and who know that I occasionally put my foot in my mouth.

    Please allow me to try again. My point is that authors should not expect their editors' experience bases to match their own perfectly. The editor I chose for the book did in fact have some grasp of Spanish, and had (like you) already copyedited a number of titles about Latin America. But this level of experience did not satisfy the author: she wanted a level of mastery in all areas commensurate with her own, with the political applications of game theory being the most exotic. While freelancers may have been available who had mastery in one or more of the areas she required, the chances of a freelancer having all of them were quite slim. She was expecting, I think, a copyeditor as steeped in her particular area of endeavor as one of her few closest colleagues would be.

    While her case was extreme (in my experience), I have found that some authors honestly labor under the misconception that an editor chosen for them by a publisher will be a professional colleague who happens to also moonlight as an editor. What I encourage authors to realize is that we editors have expertise that is distinct from subject knowledge (though not precluding it!): the ability to step back and read the text as others will read it.

    Thanks for taking me to task--I deserved it.


    P.S. I'm new to this blogging thing and am not sure how to fix the typos, either.

  4. Scott, thanks for your wonderful blog! I'm interested in doing more developmental editing in addition to the copy editing I already do.

    I see myself as an educated generalist. I have a BA in English but have what I call an "educated layperson's" grasp of many subjects, certainly enough to query an author on fishy-sounding words or concepts! (My favorite is a recent manuscript on astrophysics that included "half-time" instead of "half-life". The author responded that he must have written that paragraph while watching football!)

    Your comment about reading the text as others will is exactly the point. I can see why authors, especially those in academia (which is my editing niche), know that their future readers will for the most part be fellow academics, and so they might prefer a subject expert to edit their work. But in general it seems a bit too much to ask.

    As for blog comment typos, as the blog owner there should be a function for you to edit comments (there is in WordPress). Also the commenter can choose the "Preview" button to see their comment as it will appear, before posting it.

  5. anthromama--

    Thanks for the encouraging words about the blog. My gaffes aside, I am enjoying the process and learning a lot from this new form of communication, which I've come to so belatedly.

    My last post displayed a bias toward editing by generalists. I do value subject expertise--as a project editor, I have many times been saved from embarrassment by the knowledge of freelance editors. My particular enthusiasm, though, is for editing that broadens the audience of a scholarly work. And the editors I've seen work those sorts of wonders have usually been generalists.

    About the typos: I can indeed go back and fix errors in my own comments, even after I've posted them. But I don't see a way to edit visitors' comments, other than deleting the entire comment. Which makes sense, I think--we shouldn't be able to put words into each other's mouths, should we?!


  6. Scott, thank you for an informative blog. I spent 5 years writing a serious non-fiction overlaping the meaning of cosmic and biological evolution with cosmic and biological proclamations in the six great religions of the world. I have just finished. I am currently looking for a developmental editor (with best seller record), and a minimum of relevant knowledge to developmentally edit my book, and advise further (on publishing). Where do you think I should head to find the best editors that could help me in such direction?