According to Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching (or Way of Ways), inaction can be as powerful as action. Experienced editors know this to be true. Copyeditors asked to give a manuscript a “light edit” must notice all of the language problems that they would if assigned a “heavy edit.” When encountering a infelicity of diction, for example, the editor asks herself, Is this really a problem worth fixing? Her considered decision to leave alone, or “stet,” the author’s phrase may be as much an exercise of editorial skill as a deft rewrite.
Many editors resist “light edit” assignments, arguing that it takes longer to decide not to make a change than simply to go ahead and make it. This stance seems sensible if one considers only the initial editing pass. But it doesn’t take into account subsequent stages of editing: a proposed change may prompt a further authorial revision, which itself may need editing, which in turn requires further review by the author. This iterative tying up of loose ends can fatten a cleanup budget and cause schedule delays. Often, these complications are unseen by the freelance copyeditor because an inhouse production editor handles the mopping up.
Therefore, the most experienced copyeditors are those who are mindful of the cascade of events that each delete mark and insertion can unleash. This principle is all the more true for developmental editors. We must “pick our battles” sentence by sentence, page by page. This restraint can mean replacing an elaborate reorganization plan with a simpler one, or developing only the opening and closing chapters, or developing only opening passages of each chapter. In an age of shrinking freelance budgets, DEs must be ever more strategic in their interventions, doing what is necessary, avoiding what is not. And knowing that they are better editors for their discretion.