Going to college in St Andrews, Scotland, was a privilege in so many ways, but one of the things I'm most grateful for is that I learned how to mop floors.
Every spring cleaning season, I reminisce about my days spent cleaning the Aslar Guest House. On Saturday mornings, I cleared out breakfast dishes, cleaned the dining room and dusted/vacuumed/mopped the six bedrooms. Except it's called hoovering, not vacuuming, in the wee island I called home for four years.
Mary, who owned the B&B with her husband Stan, taught me an intolerance for dust and dirt. Leading by kind example, paired with a fear-inducing wrath when it came to ignorant guests who slept in past the breakfast hour, she passed her high standards for cleanliness onto me.
After leaving that dear green country, I exchanged dusters for dictionaries, and mops for Microsoft Word. I quickly learned about all types of editorial housework. Here are some secrets I've learned along the way that I hope will help editors ranging from the eager to the eagle-eyed.
- Prep your tools. Every editor has their tools, just like every cleaner has theirs. In addition to Microsoft Word's track changes function, I usually have my client's style guide pulled up on screen, as well as an online dictionary and thesaurus. In hard copy, I often refer to "Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay: Practical Advice for the Grammatically Challenged" for quick reminders about further vs. farther, or to justify my decision to change "comprised of" to "comprising." There are many smaller tools I also use, such as sticky notes on my laptop reminding me of the alt codes needed to create an em dash, or whether it's now Daylight Time or Standard Time. As Stephen King explains in his "On Writing," it is best to have your tools ready before the job starts, as you never know what you'll need and could easily get frustrated if you've left the right tool behind. He was speaking about writing, but editorially speaking, I think this means ensuring your tools are up to date and readily accessible — from your AP stylebook subscription down to your software.
- Deep-clean or dicht? Before you can begin editing, you must clearly define the level of editing with your client. There are some clients who let me have my way with their "darlings," which I do gladly with soap bucket and rag in hand. This type of full copyedit has me fact-checking, rewriting and finessing prose. On the other end of the spectrum are clients requesting that I look for "glaring errors only" (i.e., a proofread), which means I look only for mistakes, rather than ways to improve the piece. When clients aren't quite sure what they want, it usually means a “wee dicht” is in order (Scottish translation: a light dusting or wiping). At the guest house, when a room had only lain vacant for a night or so, all that was called for was a quick dust, hoover and mop. It didn't require any furniture moving or looking under the bed for stray tissues. The room had already been cleaned; this was just to lend it that sparkly welcome that the guest house was known for. Often, by the time something comes to me for editing, it has already been scoured by many. I'm simply there to lend a fresh eye to the piece and make sure its messages are squeaky clean.
- Pick your battles. Using editorial restraint is hard. Most writers don't want to see their baby come back covered in track changes and comment boxes. I try to start out by first correcting any blatant errors I see in spelling, grammar or punctuation. Next, I look for any style inconsistencies — such as usage of serial commas, capitalization of words in a title or the appearance of "health care" vs. "healthcare." Style is not a matter of right and wrong the way grammar is. It's a matter of preference, and some would argue that edits to style have no place in a "glaring errors only" type of edit. If the client has agreed to have me edit in a particular style, then I'll follow that for instruction on these gray areas. If not, then I really have to pick my battles. I usually follow two guiding principles here: 1) if I don't make this edit, can the reader still understand the point just as clearly? and 2) do I have clear justification for making this edit, or is it just a matter of my preference? Sometimes an edit is a matter of preference, but I really do think it will make the sentence flow more smoothly. If a client has given me free rein, I'll make it, but in a strictly proofreading job, I'll hold back.
- Inspect your work. I don't have Mary standing behind me anymore to make sure my dusting is up to par. It's just me. I once shocked someone by telling them that I didn't ever use the spell-checker function. I often find that I spend more time hitting "ignore change" than accepting any changes, and of course the tool doesn't pick up on typos like "their" vs. "there." Recently, however, I've begun to spell check as an extra safeguard. After I've edited something, I'll use spell check before I re-read the entire document again, often out loud. That's usually where I end up finding anything that I missed the first time around.
- Hone your craft. Working as an editor at a small PR firm for five years, not a day went by when I didn't receive a phone call from a colleague asking me some grammar question. I was flattered that my coworkers expected me to know the answer off the top of my head, but I rarely did. Solving the problem usually involved delving into Merriam-Webster, the AP stylebook or, when those failed, Google. We would figure the answer out together or make our best educated guess. I still keep a running tab of grammar questions that I want to investigate when I have a spare moment. Listening to Grammar Girl's podcast and talking with other editors is another excellent type of training. With stylebooks changing regularly, editorial conversation around issues like serial commas or the singular "they" are crucial to the editing craft. Other editors keep me accountable when I'm tempted to take the easy route instead of the correct one, just like Mary held me to those high standards of housekeeping every Saturday morning.
I hope that some of these tricks come in handy for my fellow editors out there. It's hard work and requires a lot of elbow grease, but I've found the rewards are sweet. Like Scottish tea time after a morning of mopping floors.