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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7 Responses to “A Writer’s Best Friend”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    I think it also has something to do with the way society is today. There is a lot of affirmation of how fantastic people are without teaching them the harsh reality that life is tough and things get harder if you want to do it right.

    Then again, with how many people read after high school, it is sad as it is. Sure, they read small articles and maybe one or two books a year, that pales to what it was in the 80’s (when the book was released).

    It seems like a bleak landscape, doesn’t it?

    Thanks for sharing this article though, it has a good point to it. I try to be gracious when people deep edit, but there is a very protective side as well. It is hard to let go, you know?

  • Rachel Cooper

    Thanks, Mark. I have sometimes felt let down by a publisher – and felt the publisher let down the author – when I’ve read a badly written book. When the book is also by a popular author, I wonder if the publisher has become lazy with this particular author or is afraid to suggest the major changes needed to make the book readable.

    For me, though, the worst are the self-published authors who think they write well enough not to need editing. When they present me with a free sample chapter, and I can’t make it past the first half-page, they’ve wasted their time and mine. Whatever they want to say, they won’t be saying it to me or to anyone else who appreciates decent writing.

    I share your opinion that there’s a strong correlation between good writers and good grace in receiving an editor’s suggestions. My favourite client is the one who recognizes and appreciates good writing.

  • Genevieve Graham

    I agree 100%, Mark (as usual), and am right there with you, too, Rachel. The whole point of editing is not to “change” a book but to smooth it out, get rid of redundancies and obvious errors, make it something compelling enough that a reader won’t put it down with disgust after a couple of paragraphs. Yes, hiring an editor can be relatively expensive, but what’s an author’s reputation worth? Putting out a piece of literary garbage means the author will be the only one hanging in long enough to find out the ending.

  • Cathy

    I am an editor (for the government) and a novel-writer-wannabe in my personal life and truly appreciate this article from both prospectives. When I do take time to read a novel or work on my own, I want each sentence, each word, carefully crafted. To me, reading is like viewing art. I pray there are still folks who desire to create that art. How horrible life would be without it.

    Is there some type of quality assurance seal of approval for artfully crafted novels? Also needed, is a rating system like the one for movies and video games. Violence and porn are everywhere in everyday life. Most of us try to protect ourselves from seeing or experiencing it. I certainly don’t want to pay for it. And I especially resent having to purchase a package without knowing the contents.

  • Mark MacKay

    When is a writer not a writer? When he or she is an editor. I’ve worked on projects that rejected up to 70 percent of the writing our paid writers delivered. That rejected writing was “edited” by the in-house editors. The 30% we accepted was eventually heavily “edited.” Our language and job descriptions are often far too imprecise.

  • Ken K

    I suffer daily reading poorly written e-mails, and, therefore, l will only read books made with care. … There are plenty of them.

  • Suzanne Williams

    This is the truth. I always say the sign of a poor writer is one who doesn’t want to be edited. Part of being mature is realizing that everyone needs to help of a good editor. I love mine.

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