March 19, 2013
Good Prose 4: Being Edited
Once I was harassing (in a good-natured way, of course) an editor I knew well from another publisher about a book she had put out. It was a biography that was overwritten and frequently lapsed into a sentimentalized caricature of the main subject. How could she have let that go through? "Oh," she said, smiling. "You should have seen it before we edited it!" I knew exactly what she was talking about.
I had fallen into the trap so many reviewers do when they bemoan how poorly edited a book is. As editor Richard Todd says in Good Prose, "I always wince when a reviewer says, 'This book needed an editor.' Often it had an editor, but the writer prevailed."
Certainly copyeditors and proofreaders have a responsibility to clean up spelling and grammatical errors. And the job of an editor goes farther: keep the author focused on the audience and the topic, help shape a structure that is compelling, encourage an author to show not tell, cut out anything that distracts, rework awkward or confusing sentences, show what needs to be added and more. Sometimes an editor isn't up to the job. Sometimes, however, the author doesn't agree with the editor.
Authors may not appreciate that an editor has successfully developed dozens, even hundreds of books, and has something worthwhile to offer an author who may have written two or three. An author, however, needs more than respect for the expertise of an editor. As Todd writes:
The author must set aside that natural self-protectiveness that any work in its early stages inspires. A 'thick skin' doesn't begin to describe the necessary virtue. [Accepting editing] is essentially an act of generosity. The editor needs only some tact and the willingness to read things repeatedly. (p. 165)
In addition, authors at times don't appreciate how close they are to their own work and don't have the distance, the perspective needed to see it objectively. That's why, after an author turns in a draft, I will say, "Don't look at the manuscript for the next two months. Don't revise. Don't work on it at all. Take a break and take some well-deserved satisfaction in finishing. We'll read it here and get back to you on the next steps."
It takes distance and perspective to follow the advice of Stephen King to writers: "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart, kill your darlings."
Finally, Todd raises a further difficulty facing authors and editors. "Sometimes a book arrives at an editor's desk too late for the editor to make a substantial difference. The writer is exhausted and committed to his errors, the publishing schedule is set, it is simply too late all around. To repeat: a writer should try to involve the editor early in the process" (p. 166).
Different publishing houses work differently. I believe most would want an author to interact with an editor at key junctures so a course correction is possible long before a complete 300-page manuscript arrives that has, unfortunately, taken a wrong turn into a sentimental journey.
For the first installment in this series, see: Good Prose 1: Talking to Strangers