15 lessons on editing and proofreading, from Benjamin Franklin

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I was joking with an indexer friend that there are three certainties in life – death, taxes and typos – and that got me thinking.

Benjamin Franklin advice on editing and proofreading

Image by Brodie Mosher from Pixabay

What else did Benjamin Franklin have to say? All these are from Poor Richard’s Almanack, apart from the first one.

On editing

#1 ‘An investment in knowledge pays the best interest’ (The Way to Wealth, or “Poor Richard Improved”, 1758)

Editors and proofreaders need to train, have excellent general knowledge, realise that continuing professional development is the only sensible option (no resting on faded laurels, please) and know what they don’t know.

#2 ‘Pardoning the Bad, is injuring the Good’ (1748)

What a pithy definition of the value of copyediting and proofreading!

People find that bad writing or careless typing gets in the way of the message. In scholarly texts, bad writing means that the author will be less read and correspondingly less cited.

Authors: If you want your research, your theory, your ideas to be read and truly add to the literature, that means clearing out the dodgy referencing, stiff and puffed up language, tangled sentences and straightforward typos. Your friendly neighbourhood copyeditors and proofreaders are here to serve.

#3 ‘Well done is better than well said’ (1737)

Keep your promises to your client and to the author (they can be different folks, of course).

#4 ‘A right Heart exceeds all’ (1739)

Go about your editing knowing that it’s the author’s text, not yours; you’re there to help, not to take over.

#5 ‘Search others for their virtues, thy self for thy vice’ (1738)

Your author knows what they meant, even if that’s not quite what they wrote. Help to bring that out and don’t impose your personal preferences. See also #4.

#6 ‘Don’t throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass’ (1736)

An early description of Muphry’s Law.

On planning

#7 ‘Look before, or you’ll find yourself behind’ (1735)

Planning! When you get a job in, assess it, work out what’s needed, how long it’s likely to take (using your trusty record of previous work), and schedule the work so that you meet the deadline without panicking and pulling all-nighters. Use a diary or planner or agenda or scheduler or something to keep you on track.

#8 ‘Haste makes Waste’ (1753)

This is a good lesson for any copyeditor or proofreader. Slow down! Reading quickly will lead nowhere good – you have a lot of things to be thinking about and you can’t edit or proofread at the speed you’d read when you’re not working. And if you have to do it all again, because you’ve been rushing, well, that’s a waste of your time, and makes the deadline tremble.

#9 ‘Lost Time is never found again’ (1747)

Procrastination? Just say no! Displacement activity? Just say no!

Know when your deadlines are, plan accordingly to meet them and build in wiggle room.

If you’re failing to meet deadlines because you find you can’t knuckle down and do the work, then maybe you’re exhausted – you need to sleep, or take a few days off, or whatever you can fit into your schedule – or you’re bored by what you’re expected to do, in which case you do really have to work out if you’re in the right job.

Other possibilities could be that there’s one element of a job that you just never like. Well, to a large degree, you’re in charge of how the tasks are designed and carried out, so experiment with doing things differently.

But at bottom, the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional gets on with it even when they’re not in the mood. They learn to swallow the frog.

Sometimes just getting started is enough – when you’re in the swing of it, things go more easily.

On author queries

#10 ‘When you’re good to others, you’re best to yourself’ (1748)

Phrase your queries clearly and receive the benefit of answers you can use.

#11 ‘It is better to take many Injuries than to give one’ (1735)

A life-lesson for author queries, if ever there was one! As I’ve said elsewhere, author queries are not a power struggle, but cooperation to produce the best text the author can, with your assistance.

On marketing

#12 ‘Hide not your Talents, they for Use were made. What’s a Sun-Dial in the shade!’ (1750)

Marketing, marketing, marketing – copyeditors and proofreaders are often on the shyer end of the scale, and marketing can seem like shouting ‘Me, me, me!!’ in a crowded room, with your clothes off.

But no! Marketing is enabling people who need you to find you. That’s all. It’s a public service announcement, nothing more. Easier now, huh?

On peeving

#13 ‘He that would live in peace & at ease, Must not speak all he knows or judge all he sees’ (1736)

Oh, goodness, yes! This especially applies if you really have no idea what you’re talking about but lurve language or think of yourself as the grammar police.

Towards the end of last year, I had an unsolicited email from someone who described themselves as a copyeditor, but who, amongst much else:

  • was sure I would agree with them that copyeditors hold the right use of English to be ‘sacred’;
  • proceeded to list a selection of their own pet peeves, and why they are unerringly right about them;
  • gushingly claimed to be ‘OCD’ about language; and
  • strongly recommended that I follow some dude on LinkedIn who has barely a year’s experience and no apparent training, but it seems he lurves copyediting…

So. Many. Red. Flags.

Such folks do not make good copyeditors.

On being edited

#14 ‘Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults’ (1756)

Being edited can be nerve-wracking, but a good editor will do it sympathetically and with the intention only of making your writing the best version of itself.

Bonus quotation

#15 ‘No gains without pains’ (1745)

Huh – not Jane Fonda after all.

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