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Writing Right: The Blog

SAVING YOUR BOOK'S LIFE

When I began writing five decades ago, I found editing my own work a painfully difficult experience. I agonized over what to change and why, mostly because I didn't know a dangling particple from a split infinitive. After taking a few college journalism courses, I picked up a book on etymology and studied several classic works on how to write better. I began stringing for a local newspaper before landing an entry-level job as an editorial assistant for a national magazine. And, do you know what? Editing suddenly got easier.

 

Thank goodness, too, because even the most poorly written books can be improved with effective editing. Unfortunately, not all editing is "effective."

 

A case in point: I wrote a nearly perfect book a few years ago. No surprise. I'm a perfectionist. I've worked as a professional editor for most of my life; I've taught analytic grammar and creative writing workshop at the college level, and I ghostwrite, book-doctor, and edit for other authors. And, I'm a perfectionist. (I know, I know. I just wanted to hear it again).

 

My publisher assigned my manuscript to an editor who introduced herself in an e-mail. Not having worked with her before, I told her I was looking forward to any substantive suggestions she might make but that I didn't want her editing my work to change the book's voice or style to meet her own literary preconceptions and preferences. She said she understood.

 

She was wrong.

 

When she sent back her edited markup, I nearly died. She did exactly what I asked her not to do, changing wording that suited her comfort zone and ignoring the fact that the style, syntax, word choice, and voice I chose were there for a reason. I had to reject more than ninety percent of her edits, including those in which she took grammatically correct sentences and turned them into grammatically unintelligible junk. Most importantly, I ennumerated the rules explaining why her edits were flawed, and I admonished her for having made such sophomoric mistakes. She was, after all, the "pro."

 

She wrote back in tears. She was literally devastated. She apologized and reinstated all of my original material. Six months later, I received a thank you note from her. She said she'd been wrong in her editing, allowing her ego to get in the way of her professional responsibilities, and she apologized. She thanked me for waking her up. Only then had she realized she had no business working as a professional editor. She told me she left book editing and went on to do something for which she was better suited.

 

So, there you have it. But, here's the rub: If you, as an author, don't know what on earth you're doing with grammar, punctuation, and syntax, good luck in determining whether or not an editor has improved your work or not. He or she probably has, but you won't ever know, will you?

 

If you do know all those things--or you hire a professional who does--then you'll be better prepared to counter an incompetent editor's changes on those rare occasions when you should.

 

Thankfully, I've come across only a handful of bad editors in more than half a century of book publishing with more than twenty different publishers and ninety books, including some with the Big Five. That's in addition to thousands of magazine and newspaper articles and shorter pieces I've written for more than a thousand different publications. Everything considered, your work will be better off for knowing the rules of your craft and not simply hunting-and-pecking your way to the finish line. Otherwise, you really are at the mercy of some publisher's editors who may not be qualified to improve your manuscript at all. And possibly make it worse.

 

Just my take on the matter. Hope it helps.

 

D. J. Herda is author of the new eBook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.

 

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