The (un)Glamorous World of Editing

Jeffrey D. Shaffer

There really isn’t all that much interesting to relate about the “glamorous” world of professional editing, and to be honest, I never thought there was. Perhaps the most interesting story to tell about my own part in the publishing industry is about how I completely unexpectedly fell into it.

Just about seven years ago was working full-time as staff at a university in Osaka, going to night school to earn my master’s degree, and doing my best as a husband and father. It was during that time that a colleague of mine (that I really didn’t know very well) stopped by my department one day and told me that a friend of his had just started working on a publishing project, a TOEIC study book for a rather well-know publishing company, and they were looking for a native English speaker to join them.

Well, I’d never considered editing or publishing before, and to be honest I had no idea who Taishukan was nor did I know they were connected to the extremely popular series of “Genius” dictionaries.

I really had no idea what I was getting into. I only knew that I was supposed to meet my friend’s friend, N-san, at Kyoto Station late one afternoon and have a little chat. Then see what happens from there.

Well what happened is 7+ years of working with two well-known companies in the Japanese publishing industry and most of it all connected with my (now) friend N-san. The whole thing has been like some kind of dream where N-san keeps pulling me along from one exciting adventure to the next!

Our first book was “TOEIC 730” which then led to me being invited to work on the Genius English-Japanese Dictionary, Version 4 — affectionately known has the “G4”. It was while working on the G4 that I discovered, much to my own surprise, that I had a knack for proofreading and the publisher loved me. I was quick, I was accurate, and I was thorough. I somehow caught the smallest mistakes even amidst a largest jumble of details and explanations and alternate endings. And, I seemed to have an uncanny ability to quickly find alternate examples that were simpler and clearer. By the end of my time working on the G4 I had personally checked over 60% of the English example sentences.

Since then I’ve worked on many High School English textbooks (a few as co-author and many as proofreader), I have worked on yet another dictionary (the GJE3), and more recently on a few novels and a 500-page non-fiction book with more on the distant horizon.


Now, first, please let me make it clear — I’m not trying to toot my own horn. To be honest, I almost NEVER talk to anyone about my publishing work or my publishing experience PRECISELY because I don’t want them to think I’m trying to show off. My own success in publishing was and still is a great surprise to me, and the best I can figure is that it’s what most people would call “luck”, but what I call “blessing.”

I just so happen to have the perfect collection of experience, skills, knowledge, and abilities that suits publishing and proofreading to the tee. None of these, in their own right, are particularly difficult or interesting, but when combined together they allow me to make short work of proofreading and line editing tasks.

Some of the skills that I have picked up over the years and that all good English proofreaders should have are

(1) be a voracious reader (across history, across genres, and across styles)
(2) have a love for writing (across genres and styles)
(3) have an eye for details
(4) have an eye for the big picture
(5) have the ability to speak directly
(6) have the ability to speak politely
(7) have the ability to accept rejection
(8) have a deep understanding of grammar, word usage, society, culture, etc. (across history and across the globe)

This looks like a very eclectic list, and it’s certainly not something you would acquire in four years of college. As for myself, part of these came to me out of my own natural interests (reading and writing), part came from my own personality (an eye for details, an ability to speak directly, etc.), and part came from my formal education (grammar, word usage, etc., learned during my studies at Graduate School). Some other skills were learned quite by accident.

For example, “the ability to accept rejection.” I never really had this skill on my own. I never really liked being asked my opinion and then having the other person then ignore it. However, when I was High School I was reading a most excellent book called “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” which is a collection of amusing anecdotes from the famous physicist Richard Feynman. And one of the story he told was about the time he was invited as a young scientist to join all the “big boys” on an important meeting about atomic physics and the creation of the atomic bomb. I mean ALL the geniuses were there — Oppenheimer, Bohr, Einstein… And what Feynman noticed was that each man would state his opinion once and only once. Once all of the scientists around the tables had given their opinion the chairman would announce, “Well, it’s obvious to everyone that Mr. A has the best idea. Now, let’s move on to the next item on our agenda…”

WOW! I was just as flabbergasted as Feynman was! These gentlemen didn’t feel like they needed to defend their ideas, they simply trusted that the truth or the power of their idea would speak for itself — if it was a good idea, it would stick. If it was a bad idea, a better idea would be selected — no big deal.

Well, during my first textbook publishing meeting I decided to take the same approach as these famous scientist. I decided that the publishers knew what they were doing and knew what they wanted and that I, the new guy with no experience, should simply give my opinion when asked and leave it up to them whether they liked my ideas or not. To my great surprise, after the meeting I was complimented by N-san who said, “It was a real pleasure working with you, and I think the publishers really like you, too! You don’t argue and try to make everyone do things your way.”

*blink, blink*

I was in shock! A chance book with a chance story and a chance decision to try it in a change meeting has now led me to many years of a solid, enjoyable working relationship with Tokyo Shoseki.

So, when I say many of my traits as a good proofreader just happened by chance, I most sincerely mean it!


The workflow of a proofreader (aka, an editor) is very streamlined, and yet it also has several built-in redundancies. The simplest, though, is with dictionaries because unlike a textbook, dictionaries are too large to go over more than just two or three times – you must get things right the first time through and leave room to catch mistakes the second time through, and then it’s out the door for ever office worker, housewife, and academic to point out the things you missed! (And that does happen, often.)

The first phase of editing a dictionary typically involves a small committee of high-level editors going through the previous edition and looking for entries they feel should be updated or edited. Once enough of this stage is finished, they begin to pass along lists of “target corrections” to two-man teams comprised of a Japanese editor and a Native-English editors (I’m one of the latter, if you haven’t guessed). The Japanese editor will look at the target word, the target usage, and the original example and then make a revised example sentence. When enough of these corrections have been made they are passed along to the Native-English editor for corrections and comments. Hopefully most new sentences will not need any corrections, and in this case a simple OK is returned. However, most sentences need some kind of revision in order to make clearer or more natural. In such a case a new sentence is written by the Native-English editor along with an explanation of the changes made. The whole thing is then send back to the Japanese editor for finalization.

It’s interesting to note that most of the changes made to example sentences have to do with social usage — something that is very difficult for Japanese editors to learn outside of reading hundreds and hundreds of books or having lived abroad for many years. While vocabulary and grammar are some somewhat easy to acquire, social usage through the years (as well as the varying nuances of each word) is very difficult to get correct, and not only that, it changes over time! (This is where my love for reading comes in extremely handy! I love reading old and new, works ranging from the King James Bible and Shakespeare, through Dickens and Doyle, and on up to more modern works — European and American, alike.)

After this second phase of re-writing is complete, the publisher begins sending out printed “samples” of finished dictionary pages called “galleys”. These are the same type of printouts that will later be used for the completed dictionary, only it’s printed on cheaper paper and the edges haven’t been cut down to size.

The galleys are only sent to Native-English speakers to check. Changes at this level must be made on the galley pages themselves with red pen, and when a set number of pages are completed, they’re sent back through the mail. I can’t quite recall what an “average” packet of galleys would look like as I work fast and the publishers send me quite a large stack of packets all at once — perhaps hundreds of pages at a time. I tend to work through one packet of galleys (perhaps 25-30 pages) in about 2 hours, though I used to average one hour a packet when I was a bit younger!

After all of the galleys have been checked and returned to the publisher, the final touches are made and the finished data is sent of to the printer. At this point no more editing is done.


To be honest, I would be surprised if anyone thought that the entire editing process was interesting as from a native English speaker’s point of view it’s mostly all about looking at sample sentences and making them simpler, clearer, or more natural. Sometimes it’s about creating new examples based on a target grammar point or a target phrase. Most of the results simply come from instinct, which then must be backed up with academic knowledge.

Despite all this, though, I hope to continue working on dictionaries and textbooks far into the future, not because it’s so thrilling, but because it makes me so very happy to know that somewhere out there is using a book that I helped create, and hopefully, just hopefully, that book makes their job a little easier and their future a little brighter.


Just recently, yet another unexpected publishing adventure has befallen me. I have a friend who has written several unpublished novels. He passed them along to me to enjoy, but I couldn’t help myself — I started editing them as I read! Luckily, it turns out that he really likes my suggestions and input, so much so that I’m editing two of his full-length fantasy novels. But not only that, now I’m editing a revised version of a 500-page book on modern-day miracles and the love of God for my friend’s father!

It seems like I just can’t get away from editing. But despite some of it being a little dry and repetitive, it’s still wonderful and rewarding. And I can’t help but wonder just where this road might lead me next.