Editorial midwifery: why a love of language is not enough

Last updated 15 November 2022

It’s not uncommon to hear editors alluding to what they do as a kind of midwifery. Editors (for which read ‘copyeditors’ and ‘proofreaders’ throughout) help clients to ‘birth’ books – to bring them into the world in the healthiest and best-prepared state they can, with the minimum possible fuss, mess and pain. They support clients (parents), listening carefully to their desires for their book (birth plan) and doing their utmost to make those desires a reality. And they work diligently with other editorial professionals (doctors, nurses and other specialists) to ensure the service (care) they give to the client is comprehensive, appropriate and respectful. Wikipedia even says that part of the role of a copyeditor is ‘to midwife content’.

In contrast, my cousin Bryony is a real midwife – as in, she helps small humans into the world. A while back we were talking about her work, and she said this:

When you apply to a midwifery course at university, one of the worst things you can say is that you ‘love babies’.

Her words struck me, as they put a new perspective on a sense of unease I’ve always felt whenever anybody describes a ‘love of language’ as a motivation for becoming a professional editor or proofreader, as if this is somehow enough.

What’s wrong with a love of language?

Nothing whatsoever.

There is nothing inherently bad or damaging or undesirable about loving language. Although I don’t personally use the phrase to describe how I feel about language because I’m uncomfortable with its imprecision, I frequently feel a frisson of satisfaction at a clever turn of phrase, quiet appreciation of an instruction parsimoniously and unambiguously expressed, or a sense of yearning in a phrase elegantly curled around a hollow of truth.

The ability to be moved by language is one of the great transcendental experiences of being human, and nobody should try to take that away from anybody else.

But a ‘love of language’ comes up short as a basis for working as a professional editor, because it fails to get at the heart of what the author–editor relationship is all about. Here’s something else Bryony said:

Midwife means ‘with woman’ – it refers to being with women. Saying you ‘love babies’ is basically saying you’ve completely missed the point of midwifery.

In the same way, a professional editor needs to be ‘with’ their author – they cannot focus on the language (baby) to the exclusion of the author’s goals. This applies whether the ‘author’ is a poet, an academic writer, a business, an organisation that produces informational content, or anyone else who has strung some words together for the sake of communicating with others. In all these cases, the author’s goals, their style or brand, and what they want to communicate should be the editor’s focus.

Love is blind

They say that love is blind, and what author would want an editor who is blind to the flaws in their manuscript? This can work in two ways:

  1. A manuscript may be beautifully written, but it may also have poor structuring, inappropriate tone, language that is too complex for the readership, broken cross-references, inconsistent capitalisation, missing references, plagiarism or any one of a host of other potential issues.
  2. A manuscript may have all of these problems and not even be well written.

In case 1, an editor who simply noticed the beautiful writing and missed the manuscript’s flaws would be missing the entire point of working as a professional editor.

In case 2, an editor whose raison d’éditer* was a ‘love of language’ might simply tut over the language issues, make the text read more ‘beautifully’ and miss all of the other problems. They might even hyper-focus on the language flaws in the manuscript and end up making pedantic or unnecessary interventions in the text.

Both of these editors would be failing their client.

Editors should be able to appreciate good writing and identify language in need of work, but they cannot allow either to blind them to the technical issues in a manuscript. Editors need a professional awareness of the rules, conventions and trends of language use in the client’s field, and how these can best be employed to serve the client’s goals.

Neither blind appreciation nor unregulated scrutiny is appropriate.

‘Undisciplined love is disastrous’ (Gillian Flynn)

Setting aside the complex psychological motivations at the heart of Gone Girl, I believe this quote has a point: love without discipline, without self-improvement, without a drive to understand and be understood is likely to lead to disaster.

A professional editor knows that being the best possible editorial partner to their clients involves working on themselves as an editor – attending training courses, keeping up to date with how language and editorial practice are changing, and keeping a rigorously critical eye on their day-to-day editorial decisions (could I justify this change if questioned or is it based on a personal preference, and what reference could I cite?).

Professional editors also hone their business skillset so that they can offer an efficient and reliable service to their clients. They schedule appropriately and practise good communication, so they can deliver on time and enable their clients to trust them. They turn down work they aren’t qualified to do (even if it looks incredibly interesting). They invest in editorial tools to improve their accuracy. And they do all of the other million things anybody else has to do when they’re CEO, IT department, marketing director and admin assistant of their own company.

All of this takes time, effort and disciplined focus, and it can mean spending a large proportion of your working week on tasks that are essential to providing a good service to your clients but have little if anything to do with loving language.

‘If you love someone, set them free’ (anon.)

For me, this phrase has always been about letting go of our ego (our desires) in order to allow our loved ones to be themselves. It means respecting their autonomy and encouraging them to choose their own course.

In the editorial world, then, editors must not allow their love of language to make them forget that it is never, ever their language that they’re working on. It is always the client’s ‘baby’, and the editor’s job is to support the client and facilitate their wishes as far as possible, not fuss over the baby. Whether an editor is proofreading, copyediting, substantially overhauling structure, rewriting passages or even offering a complete ghostwriting service, their feelings and desires are only relevant to the extent that they contribute to the client reaching their goals.

This isn’t to say that editors can’t find deep enjoyment in their contributions to a manuscript. Editorial work often involves inhabiting a text almost to the same degree as the author – getting to know it inside out; feeling around for its themes and strands so as find the best way of ordering and organising them; and even suggesting or writing entirely new parts. It can be draining, and it’s easier to do such work when we are enthusiastic and perhaps even emotionally invested in what we are doing.

But ultimately every decision is the client’s.

So, a professional editor might have a brilliant idea that they know (from considerable industry experience) would enhance readers’ experience of the manuscript and make the client’s ideas more accessible. The editor might then spend considerable effort clearly explaining their idea to the client. However, if the client doesn’t want to use it, the only thing to do is to shrug and remind yourself that it’s their decision.

‘We are most alive when we’re in love’ (John Updike)

Having a love of language (however you define that for yourself) can be a huge asset for an editor. It can enhance our enjoyment of our work, and an editor who is enjoying themselves is likely to have better focus and more creative ideas. It can also make us more willing to invest in our skills and development, because we want to understand this thing that we love better, and thus become better able to work on it with others.

But love of language on its own is not enough to work as a professional editor. We must love working with authors on language, and that requires a broad arsenal of skills and resources. For example, a professional editor must have:

  • professional accountability (e.g. the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which I am an Advanced Professional Member, has a code of practice that is binding on members)
  • technical training from industry-recognised bodies
  • knowledge of appropriate sources of information (e.g. style guides, reference works)
  • the ability to provide objective and constructive criticism (and to communicate this criticism kindly)
  • a desire to support clients’ goals and help them to achieve their vision – regardless of whether the publication’s language is aesthetically beautiful or of a more functional kind
  • an ability to adapt to different specifications, publication types and writing styles, and to offer a choice of approaches to editing
  • knowledge of publishing processes
  • the ability to spot patterns, gaps and consistency issues
  • creative problem-solving skills
  • the ability to explain the reasons behind suggested changes
  • tenacity – the will to track down an answer to an obscure or tricky issue
  • clear knowledge of their own professional limits (i.e. they turn down projects they are not qualified for)

A love of language and being an excellent editor can happily coincide and will often bring out the best in one another. But one does not automatically lead to the other.

It’s never our baby.

* French speakers, please forgive the licence I’ve taken with your language here! (go back)

About Hazel Bird

Hazel delivers editorial services that empower non-profits, charities, businesses and authors to confidently share their expertise and impact. An editor since 2009, she aims to see the big picture while pinpointing every detail. She has been described as ‘superhuman’ and a ‘secret weapon', but until Tony Stark comes calling she's dedicating her superpowers to text-based endeavours.

1 Comment

  1. Alex on 26 January 2021 at 09:13

    I enjoyed this, and reread it today for reference.

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