There is an old joke which asks how one should comfort grammar Nazis: pat them on the shoulder and say “their, they’re, there.” People who don’t know the difference between these three words, which sound the same so the joke has to be written down, won’t get it. The rest of us smile ruefully and sigh deep inside. We pedants do a lot of sighing these days.
Recently I read how guests had been served pastry’s and ham roll’s at a picnic. This person is proposing to set up a small business as an editor. Oh please … don’t. Editors have to know about editing, which means knowing about grammar, spelling, punctuation and all those nuts-and-bolts things as well as something about literature of many kinds. Editors are not necessarily required to correct a manuscript, or yank it into some kind of standard mould, or even to groom it into a shape they may think it should take. But they should know how and where to wrestle a manuscript into the kind of shape that they understand the writer wants to end up with.
And that’s the point. It’s the writer’s work to write, and the editor’s job to see that the work turns out the way the writer wants it, with guidance. So it’s important that an editor finds out before starting the job exactly what the writer wants her to do. And there are basically three ways to go.
First, does the writer simply want an honest opinion on the worthiness of the manuscript? Might a publisher take it on? Will it make a fortune? The answer to all of these questions is “who knows?” An editor can only read the manuscript, assess it against his or her knowledge of other works in roughly the same genre, and give an honest but guarded opinion. And point out that it is only an opinion, and that the publishing world is full of stories of the times when even the most trusted and reliable readers have been spectacularly wrong.
Second, does the writer want the editor to take the manuscript apart and haul it into shape? This is a structural edit; it requires careful thought and the author’s input and co-operation. It takes time and therefore can be expensive. Misunderstandings can occur, and feelings can be hurt. The language should be the writer’s language, but the editor has to ensure that it is literate, flows well, reflects the appropriate style and mood, and doesn’t make the writer seem incompetent or stupid.
Third, does the writer just want someone to check the manuscript over for spelling and grammar mistakes and make corrections? This is proof-reading, and is finicky, painstaking work – and the mistakes still get through, usually from sheer fatigue. Even grammar Nazis like me can make mistakes proof-reading and frankly, you’d have to twist my arm really hard before I’d do it anyway.