Reality bites!

It’s an international phenomenon that I’ve done my best to ignore—for a couple of years. But, I am finally forced to face reality: The world of professional editing is in a state of transition. And, I can easily identify three causes for this phenomenon.

The first cause is a continuation of the desktop publishing transition that began in the late 1980s. Only at that time, the so-called desktop publishers (who believed themselves to be “designers,” even though they seldom knew anything about publication design, graphic design, or instructional design, by the way) still acknowledged that they needed editors. Today’s desktop publishers—indeed, I can dare say all publishers—do not see the importance of calculating proper word choice, creating a logical arrangement for the flow of ideas, applying rules of consistency, or adhering to traditional grammatical constructions; nor do they even acknowledge the many other minor and major flaws that a trained, professional editor strives to identify and correct. Read practically any magazine or newspaper; visit nearly any Web site; scan almost any book—and I bet you’ll find an error of some sort.

Just as people have come to think they can put together a brochure, a Web site, or a newsletter without the need of a trained, professional designer, now the presumption is that they can complete the task by clicking on the spell-check button and eliminate the need for an editor.

The second cause is related to the recent demise of the publishing industry. Book publishers started this trend nearly a decade ago with the closing of imprints and the eventual merging of entire houses. But more recently, magazines and newspapers have been forced to lay off whole departments, expand their Web presences, and in several cases cease print production. These closures have led to a glut of editors who, granted, know their specialized aspects of the publication world but who are not trained or experienced in seeing, analyzing, deconstructing, and re-stitching the proverbial big picture, the whole scope of a project.

A sad tangent of this phenomenon is that a majority of readers no longer even expect properly edited copy. They take in written text, mistakes and all, viewing it without acknowledging or analyzing what message is conveyed or how the message is conveyed.

The third cause is another sad facet of the current world economy. Every person (at least some days, it seems like every person) who is out of a job and has a computer at home thinks he or she can edit. After all, these folks were “pretty good at spelling” in grade school; they got straight A’s in high school English; they had a dissertation published. These amateurs are now marketing themselves as “editors”—and, while I’ll admit that some might be able to do a passing job, they will never equal a trained professional who has read histories of the English language, who has analyzed word etymologies, who has studied the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, and who can organize intellectual jargon or unorganized thought into understandable strings of words and textual images.

Today’s writers have unfortunately not learned to appreciate the value of a good editor. Yes, I still believe anyone can write, but no one’s writing is automatically readable, unquestionably logical, inherently grammatical, or necessarily even clear—and making it so is not a writer’s job. A writer’s job is to write; worrying about the technicalities is just another distraction to his or her creativity.

Other causes underly the problems of today’s professional editors, but these are the three that are forcing me to wander from my passion for the time being. I ignored the initial exodus from American clients that I saw in the fall of 2007; I could do so because I still had international clients (who were primarily based in Australia and Europe) to keep me busy. However, when those clients—and, some of those relationships went back many, many years—fell away for lower bids, I had to think about the writing on the wall. I still managed to ignore the inevitable until just a couple of weeks ago . . . until I was forced to take on a full-time position in an unrelated field, because it’s all I could find to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.

If writers don’t want my help to make their work the best it can be and if readers don’t demand quality material, what’s left for me to do?

Am I bitter? Well, okay, yes—maybe a little. But for the most part, I’m disappointed that I won’t be practicing the profession I’ve trained for and practiced in for more than thirty years; and I’m saddened that I’ll not be able “to help writers say what they want to say to the audience they want to reach” (that’s been my slogan for several years, in case you don’t know me) or to protect the readers that make up those audiences from having to stumble over confusing sections of unedited text. On the other hand, as the eternal optimist, I’m also expectant, because I know I’ll be back when the dust settles and the economy improves and respect for the English language returns.

Until then, don’t rely entirely on your word processor’s spelling checker and be wary of misleading, inexperienced “editors”—they may be cheap, but you might get exactly what you pay for!

Stephen Evans,
www.the-freelance-editor.com