Publishing Should Be About Prose, Not Product
When I’m not at my mountaintop hermitage, contorting myself into a lotus position in my capacity as a grammar guru, I do freelance copyediting. I accept just about any project offered to me, but today I rejected an assignment — perhaps the first time I’ve ever done so.
What was so heinous about the project that this promiscuous peruser of prose turned it down? Well, for one thing, it was a manuscript of an academic book.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that — except that much is wrong with it. Scholars (or the grad students or ghostwriters they delegate the actual writing of scholarly content to) are notoriously atrocious for their leaden prose and their ignorance of the fundamentals of capitalization, punctuation, and other basic elements of writing.
Unfortunately, however, such inept writing is rampant in scholarly journals and academic books — usually not only because their publishers seem not to expect or require anything better but also because they either pay copy editors so little that only inexperienced ones need apply or they omit copyediting from the editorial process altogether.
In my case, I had done several projects for a company that some scholarly publishers outsource their editorial-production work to, but I was hesitant to take on another assignment. The first problem is that the company pays by the page, not by the hour, which discourages excellence in editing. The second is that the per-page rates for heavy, medium, and light editing are all much lower than the industry standard, and the expected rate of completion is higher. The third is that the company’s assigning editors generally evaluate projects as requiring light editing.
With some types of writing — much fiction, informal essays, and the like — it’s fairly easy to minimize editorial intervention without shame. But when it comes to formal writing that is ostensibly to be held to a high standard, it is painful and stressful (for me, at least) to withhold treatment: I feel like a doctor applying Band-Aids to someone who’s been shot or stabbed or mauled.
Nevertheless, I cautiously accepted another project from this company, and I almost immediately regretted it. The writing was not incoherent (as some content I’ve worked on for this client has been), but it was clumsy, and I bristled at the thought of earning half the equivalent of my normal hourly rate to dust the shelves when they needed sanding and refinishing. So I apologetically (but promptly) notified the assigning editor that I was returning the assignment unfinished.
Back in the ancient mists of time (the mid-1980s, to be more precise), my first publishing gig was an entry-level job at a San Francisco publisher of humanities books and journals (long since, of course, swallowed up by a megacorporation, but still publishing under its own imprint). In the journals division, we worked meticulously and extensively to transform often-inept writing into prose that was a pleasure to read; one freelance copy editor, in particular, should have had his name on the cover of all the journals he worked on, so extensive was his rewriting (which no writer or journal editor, to my knowledge, ever complained about).
Unfortunately, permission to indulge that pride of craft is an exception these days, and much of the trade-publishing industry has similarly compromised its integrity by valuing profit over prose. I’m fortunate to have two trade-publishing clients, one that produces mostly pop-culture titles, including a lot of movie tie-ins that are frothy and fun, and another that puts out progressive, reflective titles about making the world a better place. (And each company, in its own way, is doing great good.)
What’s fortunate, above and beyond the fact that I would actually buy and read many of these books I’m paid to edit while they’re in raw form, is that the editors I work with are allowed to take pride in shepherding their projects, and I am in turn respected for my skill and given the time and the freedom to practice my craft with care. (And though the pay is not exceptional, it’s respectable.)
Sorry you had to read through all that to get to the writing tip, but I think it’s worth your while. Here’s today’s lesson: If you are fortunate enough to be in a position to have your writing published in a professionally produced manner — a book, a magazine or journal, a newspaper, a newsletter, or even on a Web site — insist on being accorded the dignity of having it edited with due diligence.
That may not be easy to do consistently, at least early in your career, but strive to get to a place where the publisher that agrees to distribute your work is one that will take care to prepare it thoroughly. So much otherwise promising, potentially compelling writing is corrupted by careless editing, or a lack of editing at all. (You’ve all seen books and other publications with writing that could easily have been improved or with embarrassing typographical errors.) Is that how you want the work that you have labored over to be released out into the world?
Conduct research on publishers, read their output, and determine which companies take pride in what they produce. Let writers — and readers — unite to reward publishers that respect producers and consumers of the written word, and punish those that see prose as nothing more than product to move along the conveyor belt with as little expense and effort as possible.