Monday, November 5, 2012

A Writer’s Best Friend

by Mark Nichol

I was bemused recently to read in the acknowledgments section of a book the author’s expression of gratitude toward someone who had read the manuscript before publication. The writer thanked the other person for “doing great proofreading,” but he followed that comment with “Not copy editing [sic]; we were both cautious about that, as our strongly held opinions don’t often match.”

My first impression was that the book’s author has — or had at the time — a fundamental misunderstanding of copyediting (since the book was published, the closed-compound version of that term has come to prevail), as he implied that such a process would interfere with his expression of his views. (The person who assisted him is an expert in the book’s subject matter.)

That’s absurd, because no editing role — certainly not copyediting — involves revisions of writers’ expressions of their beliefs or judgments. A developmental editor for a book publisher, or an assigning editor of a periodical, might discuss this issue with a writer but generally does not impose on the author’s convictions; presumably, the opportunity for the author to express these ideas is the reason the content is being published in the first place.

But then I considered that perhaps, by “strongly held opinions,” the writer meant his notions of what constitutes good writing. Perhaps he was referring to the fact that his ideas about how to construct prose conflicts with those of the person who reviewed the manuscript for him. This possibility led me to reflect on my long-held opinion, acquired through decades of painful experience, that there’s a strong correlation between good writers and good grace when it comes to responding to grammatical and syntactical revisions, concomitant with the disturbing degree to which many poor writers protest such improvements.
For in this case, the book suffered greatly not only from the fact it, at least before it was submitted to the publisher, was proofread but not copyedited. It also was compromised by the apparent lack of copyediting (or any editing) during the production phase of publication. The writing is verbose, repetitive, poorly organized, and clumsy — (barely) competent, but dull and tiring to read, and in dire need of attention from both a developmental editor and a copy editor. This mediocrity was all the more disappointing because of the anticipation with which I had approached the book, which covers a topic of great interest to me.

I was especially puzzled about the writing quality because the book dates to the early 1980s, the last period in which a reader could count on well-edited books before, for many but fortunately not all publishing companies, the bottom line became more important than the line edit. Ultimately, though, that this book is an exception to the rule is not the writer’s fault; the publisher let him — and me and other readers of this book — down.

But writers aren’t helpless in the face of this trend; if they lack a partner or other close associate qualified and willing to review a manuscript (or even if such an ally is put to work), they can resort to pre-editing. That’s the now-widespread practice of preempting a publishing company’s possible neglect or short-changing of the editing process, and/or improving the chance of the manuscript’s acceptance, by hiring a freelance developmental editor and/or a freelance copy editor to polish it before submitting it to publishers.

It’s unfortunate that the assembly-line model that now prevails in the publishing industry necessitates this step for one or both reasons stated, but though it requires a financial investment by the writer, it’s a wise strategy that enhances the likelihood both that the manuscript will be published and that the book will succeed.

Another wise strategy is to have a little humility about one’s writing ability and the value of one or more objective second opinions. I’m a good writer, though not a great one, but even if I did claim (and perhaps actually have) more talent, I would, as I do in reality, welcome both substantial and mechanical revisions that make me look even better. For me — and many good and great writers — it’s a no-brainer, but that indirect reference to my earlier comment about the correlation of writing talent to amenability to editing reminds me of another observation: Common sense isn’t as common as it should be.

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