Editors know a thing or two about style.
I’m not talking about the chunky cardigans, furry slippers and fingerless gloves that some of us put on when the weather turns cool.
This is about an editor’s work. Here, style is about making sure the text is appropriate for its intended audience, consistently applying a client’s style preferences, and – where possible – preserving an author’s voice.
This year’s Mediterranean Editors and Translators online conference was entitled ‘The Style Issue’, and there was plenty to interest me in the programme. In this blog post, I’ve summarised three of the sessions that I found particularly useful:
Editors’ Café: one text, two editors, endless talking points
In this session, two editors – Alan Lounds and Theresa Truax-Gischler – had a friendly discussion on how they would each tackle the same piece of text. The idea was to get ‘under the hood’ of the editing process from two different perspectives.
The text was the abstract and introduction of an article written by an author whose first language isn’t English. The paper was to be submitted to an international interdisciplinary journal on Romani studies. Alan and Theresa also had access to the full article to assist them in their editing task. Both are experienced editors who are accustomed to working with academic authors, although the article was outside their respective subject specialisms.
Points to note:
I found this discussion fascinating, as I often edit academic papers in English for multi-language authors. Here are the main points that Alan and Theresa covered.
First impressions – Both editors agreed that the paper was nowhere near ready for submission, in terms of either content or style.
Context – The author mentioned ‘securitisation’ in the abstract but didn’t define this concept or explain its relevance. This lack of context was a serious issue.
Background information – Much of the data given in the introduction was from general sources such as newspapers and non-academic websites, and lacked academic focus.
First or third person – Alan preferred first-person writing (‘I studied…’), while Theresa retained the third-person perspective. The two editors discussed the trend towards publishers accepting first-person writing, including the fact that this often depends on the academic subject. As an aside, they noted that Spanish authors (for example) sometimes resist writing in the first person in English because this doesn’t come naturally in their first language.
Following a thorough discussion of the two editors’ approaches to the text, several questions from the audience were addressed.
Q: Should the abstract be edited first or last?
A: Probably last. However, when writing an article, Theresa felt it was useful to start with the abstract because it helps the author to formulate the structure of the paper.
Q: What is the role of a developmental editor?
A: Their role is to look at ‘big picture’ issues, including the structure and argument of the text. Ideally, copyeditors and language editors should have some basic training in developmental editing so that they can see whether a text is ready to be edited.
It was so interesting to see how Alan and Theresa tackled the same piece of text. While there were similarities in their approaches, there were also differences in emphasis. It was proof, if proof were needed, that there’s often no single ‘right’ way to edit a piece of writing.
An overview of institutional styles: from excellent tips to the downright weird
Timothy Barton’s presentation was a treat for anyone who – like me – often has to switch between different organisational style guides. Timothy took us on a whistle-stop tour of various guides, including those of the United Nations, the European Commission and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The list of topics covered will be familiar to most editors:
Timothy then mentioned a few style points that seemed open to debate:
Some other great tips emerged:
I found this a fascinating presentation that highlighted the sometimes surprising differences between well-established style guides.
Research writing in English: a stylistic conundrum
In this presentation, John Bates considered advice on academic writing, drawing out similarities and potential discrepancies between the different sources.
John looked at the definitions of research writing and came up with three key characteristics. The text should be:
John considered various aspects of research writing that could in many cases be improved, in line with these three principles.
Use words with care
Nouns and noun phrases
Noun phrases can often be a source of confusion for readers. Take the example ‘infant observation’: does that mean ‘observation of infants’ or ‘observation by infants’? Longer noun strings can raise even more issues, especially if they’re used to mean different things in the same piece of writing.
Subjects and verbs
In most cases, these should be as close to the start of the sentence as possible. Long introductory phrases mean that readers have to keep a lot in their heads before they reach the subject.
Rounding off his presentation, John – referring to comments by Thomas Spratt in 1667 – pointed out that criticism of academic writing goes back a long way. From George Orwell and Michael Crichton to contemporary authors such as Michael Billig (Learn to Write Badly) and Helen Sword (Stylish Academic Writing), plenty of people have had plenty to say on how researchers should communicate their findings. Have things have improved over the years? John feels they haven’t!
An audience member asked about respecting the author’s voice when editing academic writing, especially when that voice is rather ‘flowery’. John acknowledged that this could be a problem. The editor often has more leeway if the text is written by an author whose first language isn’t English, because there’s an expectation that the editor will amend the language to make it clearer and more concise. And if the author’s first language tends towards more elaborate constructions, that could well be mirrored in the English version.
There was so much more to METM21 than I’ve summarised here, and I’ve yet to catch up with the recordings of the sessions I wasn’t able to attend in real time. The hope is that next year’s conference will take place in person, in San Sebastián, Spain. And if that’s the case, I’m hoping I won’t need to pack my fingerless gloves.