Oct16

The Editor Is Always… Wrong?

Jeff Ryan thumbnailEveryone who’s handled a routing job has probably seen a bizarre editorial request. Removing the word “the” from a reference, switching the order of the asterisk and the colon, adding a spelling mistake back into the prescribing information.

Editorial usually has reasons for these changes—we should, at least! But often the copywriter/art director/account exec who sees a puzzling change will simply shrug and say, “Well, I guess we have to fix it,” and make the change. They’ll hold back their STET, because they don’t know enough about what in the world the editor’s talking about to make an informed stet.

Holding off from a knee-jerk stet is laudable…but maybe editorial should be stetted a little more than we currently are.

One common view of editors is that we’re referees or umpires, calling out mistakes when we see them. The art director is responsible for the art, the copywriter is responsible for the copy, and the editor is responsible for combing through the job with a fine-toothed comb. I may be in a minority here, and I may be giving away a large swath of intellectual territory claimed for the land of Editorial by my predecessors, but I think we have too much power.

Instead of thinking of us as the judges, I think of us as advisors. “I would recommend that we change than hyphen to an em dash, to match the usage on the previous page.” “Let’s think about rephrasing this, since it could be interpreted two different ways.” “At this point you may want to spell the name of the generic correctly.” Nothing we say has the force of law: we’re merely recommending changes.

The job we editors do is the same whether we’re seen as advisors or judges, but it casts everyone else’s jobs in a new light. An art director told to swap a five-pointed asterisk for a six-pointed one isn’t forced to make this change. She can make her own decision: editorial is one of many advisors she has. The style guide, past printed pieces, the account execs, and the client themselves may all have differing views. If the collective decision is five-pointed asterisks throughout, or to live with both five- and six-pointed asterisks in this piece, then editorial’s suggestion gets stetted.

Similarly, a copywriter “told” to rebreak a line, or swap a word for another word, or soften a claim or italicize a foreign phrase, or put the brand name in all caps, or whatever odd thing we ask them to do—they get to make the decision to do that or not. We know the brand style better than they do, but they know the brand better than we do. It should be their call. (It’s our job to add that change to the style guide and carry it forward from now on.)

We editors have never sat in on a PRC call. We’ve never met a single client, ever. The clients don’t know our names. We’ve only read the parts of the references copywriters highlighted as defense of their claims, not the whole piece. For the introverted among us, it’s a bit of a blessing. For the extroverted, it’s a bit of a curse. But it’s how the invisible art of copy editing should work; done right, no one knows what exactly we did.

It’s not that we don’t care: we could talk your ear off for four hours about a single serial comma. It’s that we don’t need to know all the stuff that you do to generate the copy. Our job of polishing the copy is done faster and maybe even better if we’re unaware of how many hand-wringing phone calls went into solidifying a wording choice.

Those who are entrenched in the day-to-day tug-of-war about if we’ll be able to make claim A, if we can get claim B in print before the new CDC report comes out with new data to be worked in—they’re the ones who should make the ultimate decisions about style. Our job is to be a consigliore to these decision-makers. We’re all working in accord, on the same side, but we shouldn’t be the ones making decisions that are going to affect the whole team. Especially not those who have to face an unhappy client.

That’s why the editor may always be wrong: we make the best decisions we can, but sometimes what we say can’t go. We’re not the ones who ultimately have to face the heat if a client doesn’t agree with our decisions. We may act like the king or queen sometimes, but we’re not the ones wearing the crown.

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