Publishing Should Be About Prose, Not Product

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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.

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13 thoughts on “Publishing Should Be About Prose, Not Product”

  1. Thank you for that post. My first novel just came out and I was surprised how little editing it went through. I was expecting more. As a result, I’m sending future manuscripts through a lot more people. It might not get all the gammar nuts and bolts, but it will help me craft a better story. (The grammar was the one part that really did get hashed in the current process, so… yay?)

  2. I am working in Latin America as a translator and copyeditor of scientific articles, and you just described my daily job. My problem is that, besides working on texts that are not objective, not clear, and not concise, they were originally not written in English, and I have a hard time turning them into something that English-native scientific editors may not refuse at a first glance. It is difficult to get my work recognized – and even understood – and it is difficult for people to get what the actual problem is, when they get their manuscript refused by international journals.
    Thanks for giving me new arguments (and strong ones) for my discussions with my clients.

  3. I felt so intensely sympathetic through this whole read. Editing is a mostly invisible work. As a matter of fact, the more invisible it is, the higher the proficiency of the editor–which is why appreciation is hard to come by sometimes. It’s a blessed position for an editor to be able to turn down work.

  4. I just finished reading a book, by a well respected and much praised biographer, which was full of muddled constructions and sloppy prose. (Pronoun confusion was a favorite – e.g., “Edith had offered to introduce Mary to George, but she was not available.” The surrounding context offered no clue as to which woman was meant by “she.” This kind of error was common, but I forged ahead and continued reading because the material was so interesting.) The book will sell and probably the author will once again be praised for a fine piece of writing, but only because her reputation has already been established. It could have been a much better book if the publisher had recognized a responsibility to have the manuscript carefully edited, and paid for it.

  5. Thank you Mr. Nichol for your article today. I find all your writing delightful to read. When someone can make grammar interesting, there is hope for the world.

    I am a therapist but in the last few years have started to write. The article resonated with me because I am working in an area of mental health (mental health rehab) that sounds like what you were talking about. Crudely put, the owners care as much about mental health as Genghis Khan cared about setting up a world peace council. The goal for them is to make as much money while not making any egregious errors.

    Thanks for letting me vent. So, in my writing journey, I know I will come up against what you talk about. I can say I’ve “been there and done that” but “don’t want to go there and do that again.”

    And thanks again for your writing.

  6. “notoriously atrocious for their leaden prose and their ignorance of the fundamentals of capitalization, punctuation, and other basic elements of writing…. their publishers seem not to expect or require anything better….”

    The expectation is that anyone who survived such a lengthy education process, received a PhD, and has been anointed “Professor” knows better than everyone else. I have actually tried to edit documents given to me by the Professors I work for, only to be told my “suggestions” are not helpful. A PhD trumps an MA degree.

  7. For many years I prepared documents of one kind or another for academics, including chairs of departments, who could not write coherently or spell consistently to save their souls. Most assumed that I would make corrections or mark questionable passages, but there was one I wanted to strangle: he insisted I just couldn’t read his handwriting.

    A Ph.D just ain’t what it used to be.

  8. Interesting perspective on freelance copyediting. I’m not at all surprised that the academic manuscript had so many grammatical and stylistic errors in it. Many college students, even at the graduate level, are still unable to string a coherent, grammatically correct sentence together properly. With the advent of computers and spell check, people don’t bother to do anything to their writing unless there’s a word underlined in squiggly red or green line. It’s very unfortunate.

  9. “…applying Band-aids to someone who’s been shot or stabbed or mauled”? One of the funniest things I’ve read in an awfully long time, but – sadly – something I’ve done on too many occasions.

    Thanks for letting me laugh about it.

  10. Hmm, yes a most valid comment thank-you Mark. I am not a writing professional but as a person with a Science-based background but with an interest in, and an aspiration for, good writing I certainly sympathise.

    With no knowledge of how far I can go or what I might get sued for I will make this careful comment.

    I am reading a novel by a very well credentialed writer that has been in print (and re-printed and re-edited many, many times since its original publication. It has more errors than I remember in any book I have ever read. I’m about half way through the prose and I’ve seen at least 10 typos and several instances of fairly inept grammar (I’m being kind here).

    I feel both disappointed and encouraged. I’m disappointed that a writer of quite some fame and following can’t get better copyediting – as you call it. But, I feel encouraged to think I might be able to make it as a writer (at least in some capacity, if not a writer of novels) as I can at least edit my prose to a better level than the novel I’m currently reading.

  11. Academics, eh? You might just as well say “humans”.

    There are all kinds of academics, for every kind of human endeavor, from small engine repair to genetics. They do not all write poorly.

    I am a historian. Yes there are poor writers in my discipline, but most of them do manage to know how to construct a sentence, and many of them write lively prose.

    One of the things academics in my field (there are few historians who are not academics!) know well is this: easy generalizations are not just wrong but mislead the reader.

  12. Skip:

    Good point: Many scholars are excellent writers. I’ve read many well-written nonfiction books by scholarly authors — though how much this is due to the author as opposed to other members of the editorial team is virtually impossible to discern — and journal articles are often highly readable, but frequently, in their raw form, the latter are riddled with clumsy writing.

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