What Happens When 800 Editors Assemble for 3 Days

The annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing is about so much more than the words and the work.

Name tag for ACES featuring Andy Hollandbeck's name

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When I told people I was going to Providence, Rhode Island, to attend ACES 2019, the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editors, the most common response was some version of “What do you do there?” — often followed by lighthearted guesses at an answer:

  • “Glue split infinitives back together?”
  • “Decide which words we’re all going to overuse in the next year?”
  • “Get out the measuring tape and see who has the longest dangling participle?”

As often as I was asked, my answer to that seemingly simple question never felt complete, and it wasn’t until I arrived at the conference last week and read through the schedule that I understood why. Editor is such a broad term, and growing ever broader as technology rushes on. Just as the title driver might take in school bus drivers, truckers, chauffeurs, and race car drivers, the title editor encompasses a wide and multifaceted world of wordsmithing. Which means a simple question like “what do editors talk about” isn’t so simple after all.

So what follows is just an overview of what goes on when more than 800 editors converge on a single city to talk shop for three days.

Every type of writing requires editing, and each type comes with its own nuances and expectations. You might think of them as genres of editing, but they aren’t quite like the fiction genres the word might bring to mind. For example, there were sessions on editing recipes, marketing copy, romance fiction, translations, legal documents, and children’s books, and even a session — hosted by two government editors, one working for the CIA and one for the FBI — called “Copy Editing in the Government During a Crisis.”

And there’s more to a career in editing than just, well, editing. As print magazines are closing up shop and newspapers are laying off their editorial staffs in record numbers, many editors find themselves on their own. Freelance editors are a huge and growing chunk of the more than 3,000 member of ACES, and so conference attendees had opportunities to learn about building an editorial business, hunting down clients, and getting paid, as well as a session on other career possibilities for someone with copy editing skills.

We also talked about our tools and how best to use them in sessions about fact-checking; tricks and hacks in Microsoft Word, Slack, and PerfectIt; social media; and, for those who love to swim in data, corpus linguistics. There was even a session on ergonomics that, as the soreness in my lower back grows, I now wish I had found the time to attend.

But underlying the multifarious nature of editing lies the lexical heart of the discipline. Editing is fundamentally about the words — choosing the best ones, eliminating the unnecessary ones, and giving text that shine that makes it worth reading. And there was plenty of talk about words.

A centerpiece of the ACES conference each year is the announcement by the editors of the Associated Press of upcoming changes to the AP Stylebook, the primary style and usage manual of journalists and a handy reference for many of us. This year’s updates include the following:

  • We are now encouraged to use accent marks in the names of people who prefer them and when quoting from a language that uses them. (Technology has finally caught up.)
  • Except in scientific and academic papers, the use of a singular verb with data (“This data is whack” instead of “These data are whack.”) is acceptable.
  • We should avoid using the phrase racially charged as a euphemism for racist. (This announcement won some cheers.)
  • We should avoid using the word casualties because of its ambiguity — it includes both deaths and injuries — and try to be as specific as possible.
  • AP style now prefers use of the percent symbol rather than the word percent when paired with a numeral. (We aren’t strict adherents to AP style here at the Post, and we won’t be implementing this change anytime soon.)

New this year was an open discussion with Paula Froke and Colleen Newvine, respectively the AP Stylebook’s lead editor and product manager, about possible future changes to their guidance on numbers — specifically on whether a number should be written as numerals (3 mugwumps) or spelled out (three mugwumps). They are considering recommending that journalists use numerals in practically every situation, and the editors attending that session were pretty evenly split on the idea. (The Post won’t be doing this, either.)

There were also sessions on editing for readability; on being sensitive to racial, religious, and gender biases in language; on writing about death; on crafting good headlines; on etymology; on editing footnotes; and on when to use “bad English.” (There are literally a bajillion ways that breaking the “rules” of “good English” can transform text from boring to da bomb.)

And there was even a session about grammar. Go figure.

Does it seem like a lot to take in? Because it was a lot to take in. And because these sessions were run seven or eight at a time, sadly, I couldn’t take it all in.

That’s probably for the best, because the sessions I was able to attend could get pretty intense. (While freelance editor Heather Saunders’ presentation on vicarious trauma and editing distressing content was extremely valuable, it wasn’t the pleasantest way to start a Friday morning.) Not to worry, though; we editors also know how to have fun.

My conference experience began on Wednesday, March 27, the night before the official conference kickoff. I competed in the spelling bee, a fundraiser for the ACES scholarship fund. This isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but I had a blast … at least until about six rounds in, when our pronouncer, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large Peter Sokolowski, announced that the next round would consist entirely of Scottish words. (Seriously. Harnpan? Bum-clock? Fliskmahoy? I went out on freity.)

Books from the ACESWe also had Mary Norris and Benjamin Dreyer on hand to chat about their recent books Greek to Me and Dreyer’s English (and yes, I got autographs, as well as Kory Stamper’s in Word by Word). We had mixers and networking lunches, and we had a nice banquet. We had a silent auction fundraiser involving some of the word-nerdiest things you’ve ever seen. We had Bananagrams and we had Scrabble.

We had a good time.

Good editing is invisible, and a career in editing — not exactly a team sport — can be very isolating. For me, a gathering like ACES 2019 is not only an educational experience, it’s a rejuvenating one. It’s a chance for me to be among My People, as awkward and introverted as we generally are, to shine a spotlight on all the hard work we do that no one else ever sees, and to share our experiences so that we might grow both personally and professionally. It’s a chance to recharge.

It lasts only three days a year, but it’s the best three days.

Photos courtesy Andy Hollandbeck

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  1. It sounds like you got a lot out of the annual editor’s conference, even though it was overwhelming. I can only imagine what the Bananagrams were like. Did anyone bring up the word “issues” as the most overused and meaningless non-word used today as the complete denial word for problems?

    It’s not just nowadays either. It’s been over the past 20+ years or so. The more problems we have, the more “issues” is used, completely inappropriately. Up to a few years ago the word “amazing” was being used to describe the most mundane things, but finally died down. Hopefully this will happen to “issues” too, but I doubt it.

    I think you did great on the spelling bee portion, going 6 rounds without a problem/being eliminated. Scottish words (or any foreign language) can be tricky and tough. I’m a good speller, but can still get tripped up on the words ‘occasionally’ and ‘accommodate’. Just now it was the latter!


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