– Devarati Banerjee
A sip of wine, a filling lunch, and a smoke-filled rendezvous over editing and publishing a book, has now long become a part of book publishing’s glitzy past. In those days, when technical writing was just changing the face of the IT industry, editing was still ruling the book publishing world. And the layout for most of these book editing packages would be similar – the editors would be mooning over every word to its last syllable, and editing with full gusto. But now the question arises that with the zeitgeist of the IT era setting in, and technical writing selling out new profiles, has editing in the technical writing world become a little wobbly in its intensity than in those earlier ‘book publishing’ days? Has the rigorous word-by-word editing process paled in recent years? And is it merely a casualty of the demands of meeting strict deadlines and catering to customers’ wishes of delivering the edited documents at the end of day?
Reach for the latest document that you have edited recently, and you might find yourself piling up the mistakes you missed last time. Could you find out the true reason for missing all those errors during the previous edit? Could the answer lie in the changing role of an editor, in the turning wheel of the IT industry and expectations of our esoteric corporate clients? I firmly believe that editing a piece of work is a balancing act between understanding the context of the topic and sentiment of your target audience, grammar and words, client requirements and understanding products and services. When we set forth on an editing job, the first question that arises is – where do we begin? This article discusses some questions we can ask ourselves or guidelines we can follow.
Abridging just for the sake of abridging does not constitute editing. Neither does it constitute replacement of words with synonyms. I am personally opposed to abridging unless when absolutely necessary. At times the job of an editor is tricky, because English can be tricky. Know the difference between words that sound similar, for instance accept/except, effective/efficient, exceedingly/excessively, further/farther, hyper-/hypo-, insure/ensure and so on.
Also, know the differences of which vs. that, who vs. whom, compared to vs. compared with, speak to vs. speak with, et al. Yes, grammar is open to interpretation, but these mistakes result in a Manichaean choice between right or wrong. Most often, people wouldn’t take the trouble to analyze the subtle differences that underline these words. And they would be left tossing a coin to decide on the usage or simply overlook some aspects. When faced with such a dilemma, resort to the next best thing to knowing, judicious tools like the Oxford/Cambridge English lexicons, may be even Word Web, to write the right way.
Just the other day, I was perusing an article on a novel, Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. It transpired that on the evening of his book release, Franzen discovered that a series of errors existed in the UK edition of his novels. But a million copies of the novel were already enroute to the renowned bookstores. A highly shaken but phlegmatic Franzen, apologized to his audiences and asked them to refrain from buying the books. To pile up on ironies, the article concluded that one section of Freedom is presently dedicated to the heading “Mistakes were Made”.
Authors are meant to write. But what should an editor do? The editor brings in clarity and consistency to thoughts and ensures coherency in the flow of content. Clarity does not involve changing every word. For example, the sentence “There is much data available on the ills of using plastic, but not many people take it seriously”. If given a chance to edit, there’s a redundant word ‘people’ in this sentence, which is screaming to be removed. It’s almost similar to a statement – “The sky is grey in color”. Such extracts solve no useful purpose apart from suggesting that a novice is at work.
Also, checking your spellings entails a good job by an editor. Ensure clarity between its/it’s, their/there, and with words ending with –able/-ible, -ae/-oe, -ative/-ive, -ce/-se, -ant/-ent, -cede/-ceed, -efy/-ify, -ei/-ie/y, -for/-fore, -or/-er, -in/-un, -ize/-ise, and -ified/-yfied. Use spell check to catch errors, but do acknowledge the limits of an electronic spell checker.
Mastery of editing also rests in enlivening your verbs, taking the steam out of transitive and intransitive verbs, and understanding the differences of countable and uncountable nouns. Look out for different forms of ‘be’ verb such as am, were, is, been etc. This sleepy ‘be’ verb along with words like ‘done’ suggest inactivity. For example, “A review of the documents was done by the editors”, can be rephrased “The editors reviewed the documents”. Also, note the subtle nuances of ending with transitive and intransitive verbs, and understand how countable nouns such as book, fruit, etc. can form plurals, while uncountable verbs such as feedback, experience etc. remain decidedly single.
Finally, to scale great heights in the editing profession, one must invest heavily in reading. Many of the greatest editors, who own a ‘feel’ for grammar, have developed their special skill through extensive reading. Read for knowledge, and to notice the writing style, read to distinguish words and their particular usage, and to catch on with prepositions and wake your verbs, read to learn how to eliminate a redundant conjunction or dodge a verbose construction, to stop the modifiers from dangling in mid-air, and ease out clichés, to place correct antecedents for pronouns, or grab the typographical slips, the stylistic infelicities, and the freak glitches that often clog a piece of writing.
Perfection in writing is impossible, but editing is taking a whole new dimension in the form of a new generation of young and brilliant editors, who at the end of the day, would not only clean up the rough edges, but also elevate the experience of reading to a new level that would tease the minds and touch the hearts of readers.
About the author:
Devarati Banerjee is a member of the Technical Communication (TechCom) team in Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). With over six years of experience, she is highly passionate about reading, writing and editing.