Words Mean Things: Editing

Words Mean Things: Editing

Quick: What’s the difference between “editing” and “proofreading”?

As we’ve gone over before, most people tend to use these two terms interchangeably. Think about it. How often have you been asked to proofread something in a Word document? Probably just as frequently as you’ve been asked to edit a document.

What does the word “edit” actually mean though?

Dictionary Definitions

A picture of Merriam-Webster's dictionary.

Ah, M-W, we meet again.

Merriam-Webster’s is the first stop on our exploration of editing. What’s the dictionary got to say about this word?

1 a : to prepare (something, such as literary material) for publication or public presentation

  • edit a manuscript

b : to assemble (something, such as a moving picture or tape recording) by cutting and rearranging

  • edit a film

c : to alter, adapt, or refine especially to bring about conformity to a standard or to suit a particular purpose

  • carefully edited the speech
  • edit a data file

2 : to direct the publication of

  • edits the daily newspaper
3 : delete usually used with out

What Do You Mean?

Part of the problem when it comes to asking someone to “edit” something, then, stems from the fact the word actually has a few different meanings! You could ask someone to direct the publication of your publication (you could, in theory, call me the editor of this blog). Or you could mean assembling something like a picture or a movie or even a mixtape. You might mean putting together a manuscript for publication.

When most people talk about editing, however, they’re using sense 1c of the word: to alter, adapt, or refine especially to bring about conformity.

Why Does It Matter?

One of the biggest problems I run into in the editorial world is no one really knows what they’re asking for when it comes to hiring editors or book editing jobs. I’ve seen acquiring editors do the jobs of developmental editors, and copy editors doing the work of substantive editors.

Clearly, it begins to matter how we’re using the word. If someone asks me to “do a little editing,” I need to know more specifically what they mean.

It also gets confusing when you start applying for jobs. I can search “editor” or key skills like “editing,” and I might get a lot of hits for video editing.

The Sinister Connotation

Picture of a book page with some text censored with black bars.

The technical term for editing something as a form of censorship is “redacting.” This page shows redacted text, although some might call it editing.

Another reason to care about what people really mean when they talk about editing is the more sinister underlying connotation the word has taken on. Especially in the era of social media, “edited” can mean something was censored.

This has caused me some discomfort on a few occasions. I’ve become increasingly aware that, out of context, even the simple act of “editing” could appear to be more politicized than it was. A statement like “I edited that” could mean “I went back and removed inflammatory content” or “I’ve culled comments I didn’t like.”

Are Editors Censors?

I’ve seen this argument before and, in a sense, yes we are. We impose a particular (often academic) idea of what’s right and wrong on a text. Indeed, there are many instances where editors might be accused of censoring something.

Let’s take, for example, a text with a clear political leaning. An editor might be tasked with removing (or toning down) this very clear “political bias.” In a sense, then, the task is to censor the author to some extent. In some cases, we’re trying to be benevolent–most of us don’t really want our authors to get sued– but this act is also bound up in our own ideas about objectivity and subjectivity, about appropriate messages to convey to particular audiences.

In a sense then, yes, editors are always exercising censorship. We’re also exercising censorship over what’s considered “correct” or “standard” English. Someone who writes a novel in Ebonics is likely to be told their work is grammatically incorrect, in need of some serious editing, etc. (unless, of course, you get the right editor and publisher — but it will likely be derided by the mainstream literary community.)

Issues of Standards

When we begin to talk about editing, we’re opening up a larger conversation about how deep censorship runs. Editors say they impose standards on manuscripts. Whose standards? Whose politics?

These are all questions we need to ask when we talk about editing. Readers should be aware of it too. Always question the source. Question who worked on a project. And keep that in mind each time you pick up a book.

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