Thursday, October 31, 2019

H. G. Wells on Editing

Australia outlaws Editing Student Work

I've just read that Australia has passed a law with fines of $250,000 and/or two years in jail for anyone editing a student paper. This makes my brain hurt.

I completely understand that one wants to stop rich students from hiring someone to write their papers for them, and I understand that there is a thin line between 'editing' and 'rewriting'. But the law banning editing is stunningly stupid for several reasons:

First, it's not going to slow cheaters at all. It just means they have to outsource their papers to paper factories outside of Australia--you can't fine or jail a guy in India or Philippines, so how is banning local editors addressing the problem?

Second, besides being unenforceable, the law is fundamentally discriminatory. The ability to write academically is a learned skill, but some students are disadvantaged by speaking a different dialect even if 'native speakers'. Undergraduates from impoverished, ethnic minority, immigrant, etc household are clearly discriminated against by the demand that students write in a certain style with which they have not been raised.

Third, the fiction that students are taught these skills in undergraduate courses is rubbish. I do have colleagues who spend time developing their students' writing skills, but these individuals are few and far between. The vast majority of the professoriate have little training in pedagogy let alone in the subtle and difficult skill of teaching writing. Although some take some interest in learning how to teach their particular discipline, most have little interest and take no responsibility for teaching writing, not even the writing skills specific to their discipline. When I challenge these individuals they inevitably say, "The students should have those skills when they show up in my class, it's not my job to teach them how to write." For the flaw in the argument that these skills are a pre-requisite for which the professorate has no responsibility, see #2 above.

Fourth, since few professors are prepared by training or motivation to teach writing skills, how exactly are students supposed to learn them? If it is proposed that helping students learn how to write by editing their papers with them be made illegal, what you are really saying is that it is illegal to help students from the working classes, ethnic minorities, and so on, succeed. Whatever the initial intent (which may have been to stop cheating) the actual impact of such legislation is the suppression of social mobility.

Fifth, as a former prof and now editor, I do a lot of thesis rescue work. Supervisors approach me to help their students with the writing process, saying that their student's research is fine, but they are struggling with the writing process. When I was a prof, they would bring me on as a committee member to help the students learn how to write, like other committee members contributed their expertise in methodology or stats or whatever. Now that I'm retired, they send the students to me as an editor, trusting me not to write the paper for the student, but rather to tutor them on how to do it. I'm very good at teaching graduate students how to manage the writing process, whereas their supervisors often are not. Why should it be illegal to delegate a task the supervisor does not want to do, and is not trained for, to another professional who is trained and is prepared to do it? Ideally, such instructors should be provided by the university, but generally, they are not. I would, therefore, argue that any legislation regulating editing has to allow for tutoring, and specify the permission process/documentation to ensure this doesn't devolve into cheating. The Editors Association of Canada, for example, has a set of guidelines for the ethical editing of student texts that clearly sets out the limits of what can be done and the process for obtaining instructor/advisor permission and transparency.

Sixth,(in North America, at least, though I assume it's the same in Australia) roughly 50% of graduate students fail out of their thesis and dissertations programs—in some programs, it's as high as 75% of thesis-route students. That figure has remained stable since the 1950s. If people failed out in their first two semesters, then fine, the program wasn't for them. But 85% of these failures come after 8 and 9 semesters--i.e., as the student sits down to do their thesis. Withdrawing after sometimes 7 or 8 years of paying tuition, of foregone earnings, of investing their self-image in academe, such failures are personally traumatic and an economic drain on the system. So--either the professoriate is spectacularly bad at recruitment and selection of grad students, or there is a systematic failure to teach students how to successfully manage the thesis-writing process. Making it ILLEGAL to help students learn the skills that would allow them to complete their masters or dissertation is either insane or part of a deliberate policy of labour market manipulation and subsidizing university costs. I always prefer to assume incompetence rather than conspiracy, but the fact that legislators and university administrators continue to ignore 40 years of research on this topic does make me wonder.

More and more Canadian universities are adopting anti-editing policies. Most have based their policies on the Editor Canada guidelines, but others are more restrictive. I hope the trend doesn't continue so far as provincial legislation. Such laws are unenforceable and would only have the effect of maintaining or increasing the suppression of able members of discriminated against populations, particularly the working class.

(My paper on thesis writing strategies which--based on the work of Howard Becker--explains why 50% of graduate students fail, is here: http://www.essentialedits.ca/ThesisStrategies.pdf The appendix lays out the research on failure rates.)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Common Errors #22: Mistakes When Submitting to a Publisher: Cover Letters and Synopses

Great interview with Sandra Kasturi, Co-Publisher, ChiZine Publications, on Jim Harrington's excellent Six Questions for..." blog. I particularly loved the discussion of cover letters and synopses (answer to question #3) which is the clearest statement of the typical errors people make and the clearest direction for how to do them properly I have yet read. http://sixquestionsfor.blogspot.com/2010/07/six-questions-for-sandra-kasturi-co.html

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Common Errors #21 - Thinking the Editor is Your Enemy: Copy Editing

Once the final draft of the manuscript is approved, it goes for copy-editing. There would be little point copy-editing the initial draft, as whole sections are likely to disappear and entirely new sections appear during developmental edits, so no one is going to pay $60 an hour to keep re-copy editing the same manuscript. Copy editors catch typos, spelling and grammar errors, inconsistencies, and so on.  It is a highly technical skill, takes a certain personality, and is often underrated. A typical example: I used 'global change' to change a character in one of my stories, but unknowingly had Word set to "changes from here down" rather than "all document" so that a minor character was one name in the first scene, and a different name four scenes later. Which, understandably, caused some confusion until caught by the copy editor.

The need for copy-editing is obvious; less obvious is that copyediting is not a substitute for development editing. Beginning authors who arrange to have their manuscripts 'edited' before submitting to a publisher, or self-publishing, need to be clear on whether they are hiring a copy editor or a development/structural editor.  Freelance development editors (often marketing themselves as "writing coaches") can often be very helpful in identifying problem areas; over-coming writer's block; pushing authors to go deeper, to up their game; and turning initial drafts into submission-ready drafts. Copy editors can help authors avoid embarrassing typos and inconsistencies, but it is not their job to tamper with the manuscript's content.

Knowing which service one is contracting for is therefore crucial. When I was an acquisition editor at a small press, I several times had authors telling me they had paid thousands to have their manuscript edited before submission, but when I looked at it, the manuscript made no sense. Of course, the "editor" they had hired was a copy editor, who therefore hadn't pointed out that giant ants, say, are a non-starter, but simply tidied up whatever they had been handed. Heartbreaking, but it happens a lot. To educate yourself on the different types of editors and what each does, read the Editor's Canada definitions of professional skills here: https://www.editors.ca/hire/definitions-editorial-skills

Trends

Finally, there are a couple of trends in publishing that should be noted here. First, publishers at all levels are doing a lot less editing than they used to. Most of the major players let go between 30-40% of their remaining editorial staff during the 2008 recession, and there is no reason to expect any of them to rehire to the same levels in the future. The heavy concentration of publishing into a very few houses has created a situation where there are so many authors submitting to the same six surviving SF imprints, for example, that the majors can simply take the top 1% that need almost no development and reject the rest. Indeed, very few publishers these days have the patience to develop new talent, and simply do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Instead, the slush pile has largely been outsourced to agents, who perforce have taken on the role of development editor. That even makes a kind of sense, given that most of the new agents on the market (and therefore the ones willing to accept new clients) are the very editors laid off from the major publishing houses. Same people doing the same job, the difference being that now their salaries are being paid by the writers, rather than by the publishers....

Second, copy-editing and proofreading have been partially eliminated as steps in the process by the change from hot lead typesetting to digital. Certainly, many small presses (and almost all self-publishers) simply take the author's digital submission and run it through a software package to turn it into the printed book. Given the expectation that authors will have already run spell and grammar checks on the document, the need to pay someone $60 an hour to go through checking for minor glitches is now sometimes seen as redundant. This is a wrong idea, of course, as is obvious whenever one runs across a book that hasn't benefitted from the attention of a good copy editor.

This column originally appeared in Writer-in-Residence: Common Sense Guidance for Writers by Writers, curated by Krista D. Ball http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy-part-2.html

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

On Writing Collaborations with Family Members

EssentialEdits.ca editor Halli Lilburn has an article on collaborating with her daughter, Eartha, on a novel. Halli talks about how the project was a way to bond and to produce a unique manuscript which is greater than the sum of their singular contributions. The article was published in the Dec-Oct, 2019 issue of WestWord, the magazine of the Writers Guild of Alberta.