By Sharon Lapkin
If you think you don’t need a professional editor then you should keep reading.
I’ll demonstrate why a good editor is indispensable.
To start with, editors save you money, time, energy and embarrassment – and they provide bang for your buck, confidence and peace of mind.
An editorial review doesn’t mean asking a colleague to proofread your work. Peer reviewing is better than zero feedback, but it’s not a review by a professional editor and there’s a difference.
In some situations you may have no choice but to edit your own or a colleague’s work – but if you can, hire a professional editor because you’ll be rewarded in spades.
Professional editors are trained to multitask as they review content, and checking for typos, grammar and punctuation is just the tip of the editorial iceberg.
The Australian Standards for Editing Practice set out the responsibilities of professional editors. These include legal and ethical responsibilities, as well as substance and structural tasks.
Legal and ethical matters
Editors review content that appears to be written or created by another person because if it is, it is covered by copyright law. They will know if permission should be sought to reproduce any text, tables or graphics by reviewing the way they are used.
It’s usually a straightforward process to apply for copyright permission. This should not be avoided because copyright breaches can land you in court, and getting out of there can be an expensive exercise.
Permission may not always be needed, and this can be confirmed by checking the terms and conditions on the website where the content is published.
Sometimes you are free to reproduce copyrighted content on condition you place a particular acknowledgement with the content. In these cases, failing to publish the acknowledgement is a breach of copyright.
If content is covered by a Creative Commons (CC) licence, then the editor will advise on what type of CC attribution needs to accompany the content. You can read more about how CC works in my post What’s wrong with using free photos.
It’s also the role of an editor to check whether content has been copied. While plagiarism software is available and useful, experienced editors can generally identify copied content by a change in tone and voice, and by inconsistencies in grammar and punctuation.
Google has strong words to say about copied content. In the 2017 Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines it is referred to as the practice of ‘scraping’ and is penalised by the ‘lowest rating’. Surprisingly, Google does this even if the source of the copied content is cited. This is likely due to a judgement about lack of originality.
Editors also check for digital rights, trademarks and content that may be parliamentary privilege.
Defamation, cultural sensitivity, discriminatory language
Cultural sensitivity is being aware and not making judgements about people’s cultural differences and similarities. Context is important when looking at this type of content and common sense is usually applied. If in doubt, an editor would ask for a lawyer to review the text.
Discriminatory language can sometimes appear in content unintentionally. As a general rule, this entails irrelevant references to age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, accent, disability or any other characteristic a person cannot control. An editor would identify any issues they encountered and suggest alternative text.
The Law Handbook describes defamation law as ‘protecting reputations’. It serves to protect people from having their reputations ‘wrongfully attacked’ and provides a way for them to take legal action against those who were responsible.
The material containing the defamation must have been published—either by being written, spoken or illustrated. This includes on the internet.
It’s important to note that the publisher’s intention in a defamation case is irrelevant. The case is decided by examining what an ‘ordinary, reasonable person would understand from the publication’.
Words can be very powerful, and flagging potential defamatory content, as well as fact-checking, is an integral part of an editor’s role. Once this risk is identified in content destined for publication, it should be removed or examined carefully by a lawyer.
Design and formatting
Experienced editors are accustomed to marking up corrections for graphic designers who, in turn, are trained to interpret and implement the editorial mark-up.
Editors do not design pages, but they look at all the elements on a page and identify any parts of it that are not working optimally.
The headings, for example, may be different weights or sizes. There may be words dangling at the end of paragraphs that need moving over, or content may be missing all together.
When I was training to be an editor I would imagine a page to be the room of a house and the headings, graphics, images and other elements of the text design to be furniture in that room. All of these elements needed to come together in a cohesive, aesthetic way for the page to work. The design needed to support the text and not inhibit its meaning.
‘I use a spellchecker so I’m okay.’
No, you’re not.
Spellcheckers are known for getting things wrong.
To start with, you may be checking UK (Australian) English in a US spellchecker. So ‘specialisation’ will be marked up as an error because the spellchecker thinks it should be ‘specialization’.
Spellcheckers check if words are spelled correctly, not whether they are used correctly. So a sentence such as ‘Witch one was rite?’ could be assessed as correct.
Similarly, homophones are troublesome for spellcheckers. So ‘heir’ and ‘air’ could be substituted and missed. So could ‘bare’ and ‘bear’.
According to Oxford Dictionaries, a spellchecker might not know the difference between ‘socialite’ and ‘socialist’, or ‘definitely’ and ‘defiantly’. It may also confuse ‘public’ with ‘pubic’. Imagine that.
Grammar and punctuation
If you’re a subject matter expert you’ll be focusing on imparting your expertise, not relative pronouns and commas.
It’s difficult enough to explain complex concepts or review academic research while trying to be word perfect. In these situations, an editor can be a writer’s best friend. A good writer/editor relationship is invaluable.
Have you noticed how best-selling authors often talk about their editors in glowing terms? That’s because they understand each other and are, pun intended, always on the same page. Effortlessly so.
Grammar usage is always evolving. With every new edition of a dictionary words become extinct and words are invented. Words begin to be used as compounds and hyphens are inserted between them. Other compounds lose their hyphens and become singular words. An editor keeps track of all these evolutionary changes.
It’s a hell of a job knowing a dictionary back to front, but an editor will generally know common usage without referring to the dictionary – and probably has a shortcut on their screen to locate a current usage within seconds.
An editor will know when to use ‘which’ and ‘that’ – and this small interchange is the difference between amateur and professional content.
Some people avoid punctuation because they’d rather have an absence of it than an error. However, consider this sentence:
‘Let’s eat Evelyn,’ versus ‘Let’s eat, Evelyn.’
If you want to be clearly understood there’s no way around it. You need to learn punctuation rules or hire an editor.
The importance of editorial style
Style is closely related to consistency. If a medical college upper cases ‘College’ in every instance, then that style needs to be consistent throughout the content, or the readers become confused and distracted.
It’s also about saying the same thing in the same way throughout a document. For example, Jacaranda University shouldn’t be shortened to ‘Jacaranda uni’ in the same piece of content.
You also wouldn’t use ‘and’ and an ampersand ‘&’ in the same document (unless it was in a company name)—and you wouldn’t punctuate lists differently in the same document.
Consistency is important because it builds reader confidence and reduces distractions in the text. It also demonstrates clearly that the content has been created by professionals, which is exactly what you want. It’s difficult for readers to trust content when it has errors and inconsistencies.
Even if the writer is highly qualified in their field, errors can devalue their authority and make them look like amateurs.
A style guide also clearly defines a brand’s tone and voice. It lets us know the differences between the brand’s usage and common usage – and there are often idiosyncrasies based on the preferences of the people in charge. There’s nothing wrong with this, but knowing upfront is a gift that keeps giving.
The ‘Textshop Editorial Style Guide’ is available as a free ebook download on our home page.
Following are some other good examples of editorial style guides.