An American Editor

January 6, 2010

Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important

I recently finished reading two books about the Truman and MacArthur dispute. The first, The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War by John W. Spanier (1959; available in print only) is a well-written and well-edited book about the problems between a president and a general with an oversized ego.

The second book, Truman & MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown by Michael Pearlman (2008; available in both print and ebook), is a well-researched book that offers greater insight into the controversy between Truman and MacArthur, but is so poorly edited that it was a struggle to get through. Rather than being able to read the book within a matter of a couple of weeks, it took me many months of struggling.

Aside from author style and amount of detail, the two books illustrate the difference between good editing and not-so-good editing. A bad editor does not improve a book: at best, a bad editor leaves the book quality where it was, at worst makes the book a poor book. Conversely, a good editor always improves a book.

A good editor ensures that a book is readable. To my mind, that is the number 1 job of an editor: make sure that a reader can follow the story. After all, what good is a well-researched book or a well-plotted novel if the audience can’t follow the story? A good editor also ensures that the author’s language communicates well. All languages have rules of grammar and syntax and the reason for these rules (besides keeping the rule writers in work) is to create a common ground for understanding among all speakers and readers of the language; that is, to facilitate communication of ideas. That’s why it is important to know when to use since and when to use because, the difference between affect and effect, and to understand the implications of “the brief case is closed” and “the briefcase is closed.”

Sadly, publishers, as they seek to increase their quarterly returns are devaluing the work of editors. Whereas a decade ago the effort was made to hire experienced, qualified editors at a reasonable price so as to minimize the number of editorial errors in a book, today the effort is find the absolute lowest priced editor, regardless of skill level or qualification, and without regard to the number of errors that such an editor lets slip by. Sometimes I think that the only reason some publishers still hire editors at all is that they want to be able to at least claim they (the publisher) has provided added value to a book to justify their share of the revenue.

Unfortunately, Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur suffers from poor editing. The writing is confusing, repetitive, and not well-organized, all things a good editor would have addressed, although the book is a plethora of facts. For anyone particularly interested in the Truman-MacArthur controversy, which was a very important one in American history, this book is a must slog because of the detail provided. (For those who don’t know, the bottom-line issue was who was in charge of the military: the president or the general. Truman was widely unpopular at the time and MacArthur, through his manipulation of the press, was perceived by Americans as the war hero, the man who should have been president. MacArthur knowingly, flagrantly, and intentionally disobeyed his commander-in-chief, causing a showdown. Fortunately for America, Truman prevailed or the precedent of military over civilian control would have been established.)

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