‘You think the UK should leave the EU?!! OMG!!!’
‘Andy Murray is the greatest tennis player to have ever lived?!! That’s ridiculous, it’s obviously Serena Williams!!!’
‘What’s with calling it Israel–Palestine?!! It should say Palestine–Israel!!!’
We’ve all had moments when we’ve read something that we really didn’t agree with and our mental exclamation marks have suddenly started multiplying. We’ve all had times where we’ve lost a bit more hair, gone a bit greyer, ground down our teeth a bit more. Well, I find myself having rather a lot of those moments in my work. As I specialise in the Middle East, I inevitably find myself working on a number of politically or religiously charged texts, most recently two books dealing with the question of Israel–Palestine – or Palestine–Israel, depending on your point of view.
One of the authors of those two books asked me an interesting question: how do I, as a copy-editor, manage to disconnect from controversial topics about which everyone has strong opinions (after all, is anyone free of bias when it comes to Israel–Palestine/Palestine–Israel?), and how do I maintain an objective stance? This was a question about editorial neutrality, something that I have always instinctively tried to uphold professionally, but not something I’ve ever actually quantified in terms of dos and don’ts or best practice. After all, it goes without saying that a copy-editor should maintain objectivity, right? Well, editing can be a veritable minefield at times, if we let it.
Nevertheless, my author got me thinking (cue lots of rhetorical questions). What exactly do we mean by ‘editorial neutrality’? How far do we go with it? Which alarm bells should be ringing when editing a text, and in our own attitudes towards a subject? How should editors query potentially offensive or libellous remarks without imposing our own opinions? Is it even a copy-editor’s job to worry about whether the author has presented a balanced argument? And is there additional stress involved in editing a text the content of which you might strongly disagree with? Should we ever turn down such a project?
Well, I’ve been starting to mull over a few of those questions and have tried to identify how I would approach the surprisingly thorny subject of editorial neutrality. No doubt it will need more fine-tuning …
What actually is editorial neutrality? *
I think editorial neutrality can be defined as the task or, sometimes, challenge of editing a text objectively and in such a way that will not alter the author’s argument regardless of whether it’s something an editor actually agrees with. By this, I’m not so much referring to one of the copy-editor’s usual tasks of eliminating any offensive language from a text, applying gender-neutral language (he/she, etc.) as much as possible, ensuring nothing in the manuscript is potentially libellous, and so on. While that is obviously an important aspect of this, what I want to think about more is how an editor’s personal reaction or attitude towards a text might affect their ability to edit it.
And, when it comes to an author’s opinion on a topic – especially a topic that is deemed controversial – and when the whole text has been written from that point of view, things can get a bit murky in terms of how to handle it, or of how much to handle it.
In blunt terms, we’re not paid to take a particular position on a subject.
How far do we go with it?
As copy-editors, our main task is to tidy up the guts and bones of the language, not to question or challenge the finer points of the subject matter itself. In blunt terms, we’re not paid to take a particular position on a subject. However, we are also there to do the following: (1) protect the integrity of the text, and by extension the author, as much as possible; (2) protect the publisher from possible legal action or reputational damage; (3) protect our own professional reputation. All of these things might be jeopardised by making a bad judgement call.
For example, going back to what I know, texts that might refer to Israel as an ‘apartheid state’ should raise an editorial eyebrow. Now, while that might well be the author’s opinion and the whole book might even be an attempt to prove that specific point, and regardless of whether or not I might agree with the author, I also have to recognise that that is a statement that could seriously offend and that could also get the publisher, author and editor into hot water. I have to be aware that I am editing a book that at least has the potential to be highly controversial. But, should I necessarily then replace ‘apartheid’ with a less controversial adjective like ‘divided’, for example?
One important skill for us to adopt as editors is to train our brains to somehow account for our own opinions and prejudices and to work around them.
Interestingly, such situations are actually easier to deal with when you disagree with the author, because statements that you deem to be ridiculous are more likely to stand out to you as an editor. The difficulty is actually found in when you might agree with something, as potentially biased opinions or offensive statements might not be as obvious to you. You can read a statement that is hugely offensive to some people, but, if the grammar and spelling are correct and you happen to agree with what is being said, then your brain is less likely to spot any problems with it. Alarm bells should be ringing, but you might not hear them if you’re operating at a different frequency. So, one important skill for us to adopt as editors is to train our brains to somehow account for our own opinions and prejudices and to work around them.
The Satanic Verses saga was a long time ago now, but it still raises pertinent questions regarding editorial neutrality. The copy-editor for that book, one would hope or imagine, probably raised quite a few queries during the editing process. I would certainly like to see their notes! However, this was a case where the publisher actually wanted to publish a controversial book, and where the author wanted to make bold, blanket statements, so there is also another side to this: are there times when upholding neutrality might even be inappropriate? Well, authorial neutrality is not the same as editorial neutrality. The author gets to write what they like and the editor has to preserve that message, to enhance it even. And The Satanic Verses is an example of how this can all go horribly wrong, or horribly right, depending on your point of view.
Is it even your job to worry about a balanced argument?
In short, no. By the copy-editing stage, that ship has already sailed. You’re not there to advise on the finer points of the author’s argument, especially not if that argument amounts to the theme for the entire book. It’s probably safe to assume that the publisher has already put the book through a vetting process, involving peer review as well as a developmental edit. Obviously, if they specifically ask you to look out for possible factual or consistency errors, then that’s a different matter. Ultimately, if you do feel strongly about something, then query it with the publisher. After all, it is usually better to query than not to. However, it’s too late, for example, to ask the author to start rewriting chapters because they’ve only devoted one paragraph to New Zealand while giving Australia a whole section, with pictures!
Should we ever turn down such a project?
This is an interesting quandary for copy-editors. Recently, I was asked if I would edit a book about the Scottish independence question, something everyone in Scotland is still seething over regardless of their perspective. It transpired that I was not able to take it on anyway, but it did make me stop and think about whether I’d have wanted to work on it. This one falls into the raised stress levels camp. While I’d like to think that, regardless of my own opinions on such a hot topic, I would still have been able to put my views to one side and get on with the practical task of correcting spelling and grammar, tidying up references and looking for inconsistencies, I’m fairly sure it would have been difficult for me to work on this from an emotional point of view. So whether I would take on such a challenge might depend on how much I needed the work, how emotionally strong I was feeling at the time, how much cake I had on tap.
On such occasions, it is important to be honest with yourself and about your own limitations. What are your tolerance levels and what is your breaking point? I know from past experience that I am more likely to be invested in a project and to go the extra mile for the author when I am interested in the topic, when I somehow believe in what the author is trying to achieve or in the book’s potential. That’s not to say I have to be passionate about a book to do a good job, but I do have to ask myself, if I were pissed off with the author or really hated the text, would I put in the same effort? Would I be as attentive to the text? I think if the answer is ‘no’, then I probably shouldn’t be taking on the job. If my answer is ‘I don’t like it, but I won’t let it cramp my style,’ or if my reaction is not to feel particularly strongly one way or the other, then I’ll probably accept the project.
5 thoughts on staying neutral while handling controversial subjects:
Ideally, any potential crises of conscience over a text should be picked up on before you start working on it, at the initial review stage, but in reality the finer details of the language might not be spotted until you’re combing through it sentence by sentence.
I try to think about the following when working through a text:
(1) Try to examine your own possible prejudices; try to be honest about them, if only with yourself, and do not then impose those views either onto the text itself or in your dealings with the author. Sometimes, I will even make a list of possible key words or themes that might be problematic for me, or possible opinions from both ‘sides’ to look out for, and over which I will therefore need to take extra care. The last thing to do in such situations is to avoid or skim through the difficult bits.
It often helps to step back for a while and then take a fresh look at a section if you’re not sure whether you might actually be doing either of these things (i.e. imposing your own opinions onto a text or otherwise trying to avoid doing that by rushing through the problem areas). Read it again carefully to recognise any statements that might offend, even if it’s something that wouldn’t normally offend you personally; if you’re still not sure, ask a fellow editor to review it for you, or someone who has a personal investment in the topic – preferably someone who has a different perspective on it from you – and who might potentially be offended by it. Editors’ forums are a godsend for sharing ideas on things like this.
The other side of the coin, of course, is don’t assume just because you are personally offended by something that it necessarily warrants deletion.
You are the executioner, perhaps, but not the judge and jury!
(2) If in doubt, query it (and then query it again): If you are presented with a controversial text that you feel particularly uneasy about, and if, having passed the self-analysis test described above in (1), you still feel that something is not right about the text, then by all means send the author a polite (and professionally phrased) query about it.
Don’t write to the author in emotive language. Don’t tell them their argument is full of crap. Don’t try to make them ‘see the light’ or challenge their opinions. That is not your job. You are the executioner, perhaps, but not the judge and jury! The most I’ve done is send an author an email saying, ‘Some readers may find such and such offensive. Is it perhaps worth rephrasing the sentence in this way… [include a suggested, more balanced, rephrasing]?’
Failing that, alert the publisher to a potentially problematic sentence or argument on page 92 and then explain why it might cause issues or why they might like to consider reviewing a section. And then, close the proverbial book on the matter in the knowledge that you have done everything you possibly could have done within the scope of your role. See also point (4).
If nothing else, writing queries to authors/publishers helps you to externalise the problem and to think about why you think it’s a problem. Sometimes in the act of writing queries I realise I’m being a bit ridiculous and end up not sending some of them. But, especially if you do feel strongly about a topic, asking someone else to make the decision on something for you can be a good way of taking a step back from a problem and therefore of retaining neutrality.
(3) Keep mindful of the task at hand: If, after querying, you’ve established that the content is OK (i.e. that the publisher definitely wants to go ahead with it), then it’s time to get back to the task at hand. Remind yourself about the scope of your role for this particular topic; reread the editorial brief if necessary; that is, spend some time taking stock. Simply focus on how something is being said, and if it’s technically correct, and not so much on what is being said. Yeah, it gets a bit murky.
Does this mean putting your principles to one side? Sometimes, perhaps, but such situations come up in every line of work and in every walk of life. The advantage of freelancing is that you could always have just said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to the project. Remind yourself that, having agreed to take it on, you are obliged, if not actually contractually then at least professionally, to see the project through.
(4) Cover your backside: As a general rule, which is actually just good practice, it is always advisable to keep written (well, electronic) records of any correspondence you might have had with the author and publisher regarding your queries, and of any notes you might have taken, especially regarding anything particularly controversial or that could come back to bite you. You’ve covered your backside. Job done.
Once the project is over, archive those files somewhere, but don’t delete them. My affliction is that I’m reluctant to get rid of anything, ever, so don’t be like me. But, given that a book might not actually be published for up to a year after you’ve finished working on it – and that it will take even more time before the public reaction to it has revealed itself – I personally think it would be wise to keep those written records for two to three years.
Moreover, do also proactively cover your backside, so to speak. If there is something you’re uneasy about, don’t just let it go and hope for the best. Do query it, if only to make sure that you have a paper trail on that matter. I’ll wager the copy-editor for The Satanic Verses still has their notes and correspondence filed in a safe place to this day in a folder marked ‘It wasn’t my fault!’.
(5) Take up yoga: Recognise that sometimes working on such texts can be fairly stressful, not just in terms of the copy-editing itself, or our own emotional reactions to it, but anxiety over how the public might react to a controversial book (and how much of that might be our fault) can also become overwhelming if we start to dwell on that.
Instead of worrying about the wider existential implications of what you’re doing, why not take up yoga? Sometimes with editing you need to take a deep breath, sometimes you need to just step away and go for a walk, make a fresh cup of tea, eat more cake, squeeze that stress squeezer, or take the healthier alternative and cuddle a kitten or do some yoga stretches.
In other words, try not to let it get to you so much. And I’ve got news for you: it’s very rarely going to be your fault. If an author had said something stupid and the publisher had decided to let it go, then it’s really not down to you.
Remember we’re editors, not censors.
So what do we know? When editing, we need to uphold a neutral stance ourselves, not just in the language that is applied in the text, as much as is possible and appropriate. That does not mean ensuring that the author has offered a balanced argument, but rather not being judgemental in our own approach to the text. We need to watch out for alarm bells whether obvious or hidden. We need to do our best – as we always do – regardless, while also recognising that what amounts to ‘our best’ might fluctuate depending on how much love or hate we have for a manuscript. Is our best just the ability to physically get from the beginning to the end of a manuscript, or is it going to be much more than that? One might question whether a copy-editor should take on a project at all if the answer is the former.
There will always be texts that you don’t like as much as others, but rise above it. Pretend you love it if it helps! Find a way to become in some way invested in the project, if only for the sake of your own sense of professionalism. Focus on the less annoying bits. Focus on an aspect of the text that you can get your teeth stuck into and build a positive relationship with the text from there. You still need to get the job done and to do it well, otherwise why bother?
Remember we’re editors, not censors. Most manuscripts before they reach the copy-editor will have gone through a rigorous review process by the publisher; therefore, it’s a fair assumption that they do want it to be published, even if it seems wholly controversial. One of our duties as an editor, and perhaps our most important goal, is to maintain the integrity of the author’s voice and of his/her argument. We have an editorial Hippocratic oath, if you will; we have a duty of care over the texts that are presented to us; to save them, even resuscitate them, to not do them harm. What that ‘harm’ might be will depend on the project and the brief, but with controversial texts, as with anything else in editing, our main starting point must always be to proceed with caution and to take it from there one step at a time.
Of course, we could get seriously philosophical about all of this. Can you ever catch everything? Isn’t something always going to offend someone? Can we ever be truly objective, and does it even matter? But there is never enough cake for that.
* I’m talking here about academic copy-editing, and more specifically about my own relationship with it. No doubt some things will be different or more or less flexible in other genres of editing. Ultimately, do remember that a lot of what you can or can’t do will depend on the brief that you’ve been given. As always, if in doubt about something, query it!