Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A fool for a client

In Last Friday’s post, I used an old conceit, that of a wooden barrel as a metaphor for a process dependent on many inputs, to describe book publishing, with the volume of water in the barrel representing sales. If you are just catching up, the notion is that the level of the water is limited by the shortest stave. On Friday I discussed the initial question I ask when an author comes to me with a manuscript: Is there, in fact, a market for a work of this type? If not, why do you want to spend your money with me?

Today I want to talk about another stave in the barrel—editing your manuscript.

It’s hard out there for an author. Authors wander into my virtual parlor for one reason or another, vaguely understanding their manuscripts need editing, probably because someone, somewhere, told them so, but not knowing why, not knowing what editing entails, and not knowing how to select an editor.

Why does your manuscript need to be edited at all?
Because everyone needs an editor. Authors editing their own work are like attorneys representing themselves in lawsuits: An attorney who does that is said to have an ass for counsel and a fool for a client. As an author you are too close to the words you have written. You need someone who looks afresh at your manuscript, someone who represents the reader in your audience, someone who does not already know what it is you want to say and who can look at your words and wonder what on earth you are rattling on about. You already know what you meant to write and are unlikely to realize that you did not write that.

What does editing entail? Editing consists of several distinct activities, not all of which apply to every manuscript. If you are a writer—that is, if you are self-conscious and careful about your use of language—the editing process is a consultation with a peer about ways to improve the text, often in small ways. If you are an author who is not a writer—that is, if your focus is on your knowledge of your subject and not on the use of language—the editing process can be a brutal and total rewrite of everything you have sweated over for the last five years. The editor’s job is to help you convey your thoughts to the reader in the clearest and most direct way possible. This may involve radical surgery to rearrange large blocks of text, eliminate irrelevant excursions, tighten up paragraphs, rewrite sentences (maybe every sentence), and delete, delete, delete unneeded modifiers.

The editor also has a responsibility to warn you about potential liabilities. Most editors are not lawyers, but we are supposed to have a good enough lay understanding of the law to know when you are skating close to the edge in terms of libel, copyright infringement, or plagiarism and to steer you away from that edge.

A good editor will challenge you to clarify your argument, to find a better example, to rethink a conclusion, to confront your own prejudices.

In the end, the editing process should result in a better manuscript, a taller stave for the barrel than it started out.

How do you select an editor? Pretty much the same way you select a pair of shoes. Is the fit comfortable? Do you like the style? Is the quality good enough? Can you afford the price?

Different editors have different styles. Some prefer to mark up a paper manuscript in ink and send it back to you for inputting the corrections. Some—I’m one—prefer to work in an electronic file and hardly ever print out a page. Others prefer some combination of electronic and paper editing. Some editors are exceedingly deferential to the author and make only the most minimal changes, those absolutely necessary for clarity. Others—I’m one—slash and burn at will, taking no prisoners. Most fall somewhere between those extremes. And a good editor adapts the style of work to the nature of the manuscript, of course.

Some editors see a manuscript as a one-dimensional string of words and let other people, further down the publishing chain, worry about tagging the words according to their functions. Others see a manuscript as having both a text dimension and a structure dimension. As an author, you can start Microsoft Word and just begin typing. You do not need to pay attention to paragraph styles, a feature of Word that lets you label different paragraphs according to their function in the document. As an editor, though, I know that a chapter title or a subhead or a numbered list is going to be typeset in a style that is different from the regular body text. So I tag every paragraph in a manuscript to help ensure correct typesetting later. It does not matter what visual form those different styles take in the manuscript; what is important is that they are all labeled consistently.

Some editors—like some readers—read with their eyes; others read with their ears. The difference is apparent when you examine texts closely for grammatically optional elements. Editors who read with their eyes are assiduous in eliminating what they see as unnecessary repetition. Editors who read with their ears are just as assiduous in putting all that unnecessary repetition back in. A few paragraphs back, I wrote, “A good editor will challenge you to clarify your argument, to find a better example, to rethink a conclusion, to confront your own prejudices.” An editor who reads with eyes instead of ears would change it to read, “A good editor will challenge you to clarify your argument, find a better example, rethink a conclusion, and confront your own prejudices.” Deciding which you prefer can help you select an editor.

It is not up to you, as the author, to dictate how the editor should work; it is incumbent upon you, instead, to find an editor who is a comfortable fit and whose style you can accommodate to.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Excellent explanation, Dick. It's always a pleasure to read your writing.

Dick Margulis said...

Thank you. I enjoy your blog, as well.

Completely changing the subject, now I have to—g-r-r-r-r—print out two versions of a manuscript because my author doesn't understand how to use Track Changes <see steam rising from Dick's ears />

Anonymous said...

This is indeed well-said. I'm going to bookmark it to send to the next person who asks me about what exactly I do.