A hindering hierarchy?

All editors aspiring to work in book publishing know what it takes to climb up the ladder: start off checking inputting and possibly proofreading, and once you’ve proven yourself, you can progress to copy editing. Only after mastering that will more substantive work come and then, if so desired, experience with acquisition.

The advantages of this system are many. First, you get a well-rounded understanding of all steps in the editorial process. Second, by checking corrections and inputting, you get into the heads of more senior editors and learn the tricks of the trade. Third, you develop an appreciation for the roles of all editorial, design, and production team members—an empathy that will serve you well as a mentor or project manager overseeing the copy editing or proofreading work of a more junior editor.

But how valid is this tacit hierarchy? It implies that acquiring and substantive editors are somehow better than copy editors, who themselves have a leg up on proofreaders. This stratification has real consequences: freelance proofreaders typically charge lower rates than copy editors, and substantive editors command the most. Editorial recognition like the Editors’ Association of Canada’s annual Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence generally (by which I mean the overwhelming majority of the time) goes to a substantive editor rather than a copy editor or proofreader.

Although I would agree that no amount of proofreading will ever salvage a poorly structured and awkwardly written piece, I am concerned about the limitations of this rather firmly entrenched paradigm. The fact is that proofreading, copy editing, and substantive editing (the EAC goes as far as to split up the latter into stylistic editing and structural editing) each requires its own unique skill set. Whereas some editors work well with the big-picture stuff, others are adept at the details, and it’s time to stop seeing those editors who devote themselves to copy editing as failed substantive editors. And publishers that adopt this classic “substantive reigns supreme” model may miss out on hiring someone who hasn’t yet “proven herself” at copy editing but may be an astute developmental and structural editor.

One could argue that those who wish to focus on a specific skill would be better off as freelancers and that in-house positions are better suited to generalists who are willing to learn all facets of the editorial—and publishing—process. Many freelancers eschew the hierarchy by charging a flat rate regardless of the type of work they do. And those who hope to do substantive work without having to first perfect proofreading may have better luck finding opportunities at smaller presses, where, owing to a lack of human resources, structural and stylistic editing can often be assigned to whomever is available.

I, for one, am grateful that I did get the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of editing from the ground up. But to me, the ground doesn’t correspond to checking inputting or proofreading—it corresponds to a solid foundation of amazing mentors, high standards, and a drive to keep learning and improving, no matter what kind of editing I’m doing.

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