Book Review

Text Editing: A Handbook for Students and Practitioners
by Kris Van de Poel, W A M Carstens and John Linnegar
University Press Antwerp; 624 pp.

Every editor, whether practitioner, teacher or student, will find this book a treasury of useful information. It not only provides a detailed guide for everyday editing but also locates the practice in a scholarly context.  

texteditingWith one author from Belgium and two from South Africa, Text Editing has a unique international perspective on English-language editing. It ranges widely, speaking to editors working in all fields - corporate, academic and technical as well as the publishing industry - including books, newspapers, magazines, ebooks and digital media. It also covers the special problems raised by authors and editors who are not native speakers of English.

Text Editing takes an aspirational view of the role of editors: 'The occupation of text editing has not yet risen to this desired [professional] status, despite the complex, multifaceted nature and important mediating role of the editor as a language practitioner … From the point of view of the sociology of professions, language practitioners, and especially text editors, are an extreme example of a neglected, manqué professional occupation' (p. 200).

The first part of the book is theoretical, comparing editing with classical rhetoric, semiotics, communication theory and applied linguistics. It takes us right back to basics, stating that 'A text is the result of human activity' (p. 33) and pointing out more than once that 'text is central to the concept of text editing' (p. 25). These points are easy enough to grasp, but some sections are lexically dense and might intimidate students and beginners. In my opinion, the concepts would have been easier to understand if the writing were less ponderous and avoided terms like 'grammaticality' and 'informativity'.

The book presents a useful paradigm for appraising a manuscript and assessing the editorial work required. This identifies five features of a text - genre, content, structure, wording and presentation - and analyses them according to three criteria - correspondence with the aim of the publication, consistency and correctness - resulting in 15 evaluation points. The application of this paradigm is elaborated in detail in the following chapters, especially Chapter 12, which works through several sample texts. Experienced editors instinctively apply this model, or something like it, but the systematic analysis is valuable and provides an entry point for beginners to tackle a job.

"Text Editing is a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of editing and a useful addition to any editor's bookshelf."

Six of the 12 chapters are headed Text Editing in Practice and they describe methods for all aspects of the process, from project management to proofreading. The rules of good writing - grammar, usage, spelling and punctuation - are set out and illustrated with copious examples of the kinds of problems that editors face daily. Much of this is available elsewhere, but there are occasional fresh insights: it is handy to have the term 'paronym' for words that have the same stem but different meanings, such as affect, effect; farther, further.

The book has many useful tips and features: a code of ethics for editors, an explanation of how to use a spellchecker for best effect, a discussion of budgeting and print-buying, an analysis of pitfalls in the structure of an argument, a table of possible errors in paragraphing, methods of checking for plagiarism. The chapter on resources is extremely thorough, covering dictionaries of all kinds, style guides, online resources, networks, and the use of editing, referencing and proofreading tools.

Text Editing is ambitious in scope and it is not surprising to find a few defects. There is some unevenness in the chapters, which is probably inevitable with multiple authors who begin from different standpoints. At times this relates to content and can be disconcerting. For instance, after reading the confident statement on p. 171 that 'screens are harder to read than print is', one is surprised to find on p. 236 that the same information is treated as a doubtful claim, cautiously preceded by 'there are writers who say' and supported by references.

More disturbing is the faulty conceptual structure of some of the many lists. For instance, a list headed Preparing Your Work Area consists mostly of nouns - 'a well-lit surface … a good chair … computer … access to the internet' - but is interrupted by an instruction: 'Decide on which text editing symbols you will be using' (p. 218). Similarly, p. 402 lists usages to avoid, but again nouns like 'high-flown or inflated language … wordiness … subjective language' are mingled with actions - 'repeating words … the use of inappropriate synonyms … using the incorrect sense or meaning of words'.  In another case, some of the 25 clumsily named 'competencies/skills' needed in an editor seem to be personal attributes or character traits rather than either competencies or skills: 'passionate', 'creative and imaginative', 'strong powers of endurance and determination' (p. 106). In some places a list seems to be used to save the trouble of constructing a coherent exposition, as with the 33 ill-assorted bullet points, ranging in length from a four-word sentence to two paragraphs, that appear under the heading Specifics of Proofreading Practice (pp. 289-92). A textbook on editing needs rigorous thought to make sure that all the points in each list are exactly parallel and follow correctly from the lead-in sentence.

"I am not trying to be funny when I say that a list of lists in the prelims would have been helpful."

This patchiness extends to the structure of the book. The concluding sections of some chapters are headed Summary; others, Summary and Conclusion; others, In Conclusion; and one goes the whole enchilada with Overall Summary and Conclusion for Text Editing in Practice. Again, in another type of book, such variations would not be worthy of comment, but this book extols consistency and coherence. It would not have taken a great deal of work to bring the headings and contents of these concluding sections into line.

In a book that discusses document design and typography, some features are disappointing. I found the sans-serif body text discouraged continuous reading, and it contravenes the book's own recommendation that general typographical conventions include 'a serif font for text-heavy published books' (p. 448). I also regret the absence of refinements such as the distinction between square and round brackets and the indentation of turnover lines in the index. The book abounds in useful lists and I am not trying to be funny when I say that a list of lists in the prelims would have been helpful. The design decision to print the headings of the lists in small type and run them vertically makes it hard to find a particular list, and only thorough familiarity with the book would provide easy access.

A large and complex work, the book would have benefited from a more thorough index with better cross-referencing. For instance, readers seeking information about onscreen editing will find no entries for 'screen' or 'onscreen'; they might try 'digital' but the only entry there is about sources and has one page number. Persistent readers might wade through the 80 subentries under 'text editing' or the 35 subentries under 'text-editing process', but the most direct route turns out to be counter-intuitive under the entry 'hard copy vs screen'.

There is much to admire in this book and perhaps it is unkind to draw attention to these instances of Muphry's Law ('any book devoted to editing or style will be internally inconsistent'). They are the sort of blemishes that, I hope, will be remedied in a second edition. Text Editing is a valuable contribution to the theory and practice of editing and a useful addition to any editor's bookshelf.

Janet Mackenzie, DE