When to Get an Editor

vintage typewriter

Do you need an editor? A proofreader?

You tell me.

  • Do you spell sleight of hand correctly?
  • Do you properly use an en dash rather than a hyphen in phrases such as “pre–World War II”?
  • Do you know when to set off an explanatory phrase with commas (as in “Claude Monet, the celebrated French Impressionist, was born in 1840”) and when not to (as in “Celebrated French Impressionist Claude Monet was born in 1840”)?
  • Do you know whether to insert quotation marks before or after semicolons?
  • Do you know what’s wrong with the sentence “I only had chicken for dinner”?
  • Do you know the difference between a podium and a lectern?
  • Are you aware that if you have two sisters and one of them is named Susie you can refer to her as your “sister Susie” and no comma is needed, but if you have only one sister she’s your “sister, Susie”?

Do you even care?

Hardly anybody does, but there are self-confessed nerds in this world who care far too much. They lurk like trolls under bridges, waiting for a misplaced modifier or a sentence fragment to clump along so they can leap out of the gloom and exclaim, “Gotcha!” They are a miserable lot because they can hardly listen to a commercial without cringing, what with spokespersons’ announcing a sale on “select merchandise only” and “a savings of 50 percent.”

These nerds are called “proofreaders,” and their focus is on spelling, punctuation, typographical errors, and other mechanical problems with a manuscript. A good editor can do all that and more. His or her higher calling is to improve the style, tone, flow, and vocabulary of the piece. Editors also look for “fake facts” and inconsistent diction. They assess whether the work is appropriate for its intended audience, and they edit accordingly.

Even editors need editors. Serious writers put a lot of work into their manuscripts, and when they finish them, they don’t like people messing with them. They become wedded to every word, and an editor’s intrusion feels like betrayal. I speak from experience. I get cross with my spellchecker when it suggests a change, even when it’s right and I’m wrong—which is rare, but it happens.

A lot of writing goes on in this world, and most of it probably does well enough. Who really cares, or even notices, if someone mistakenly uses a hyphen instead of an en dash? I’d venture to say that en dash and em dash aren’t in the general public’s vocabulary. And that’s fine. They’re tools of the proofreader’s and editor’s trade. In fact, some editor probably made them up so that she’d have a reason to say, “You need an editor!”

So who does need an editor? You do, if you’re writing something…

  • that’s going to be widely read
  • that represents your company or organization
  • that you hope to have published
  • that for whatever reason needs to be perfect.

Your memoir, your annual report, your article on packrat middens, your speech to the alumni association—these are endeavors worth paying an editor to correct and polish.

P.S. One thing an editor probably can’t help you with is pronunciation, so if you’re giving a speech, read it to someone else first. Taking that step would have saved my good friend Tom McDonald from a lot of embarrassment. It was his job to introduce an emeritus professor to a large gathering of faculty and students at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Tom was a smart guy—top of his class—but he pronounced emeritus as if it rhymed with hepatitis. I had to be the one to tell him. I still blush when I think of it.

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