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.)

10 Comments »

  1. When I teach writing workshops, I constantly warn would-be authors away from both self-publishing and possible vanity presses for the very reason that little to no editing is available. A good editor is able to guide a writer who has become overly comfortable with his or her words through the blindspots of the work. A good editor can fix not only grammar issues, but can also offer advice to make a work more enjoyable for potential readers. When a person is thoroughly committed to self-publishing, I advise them to at least hire a free-lance editor to help correct potential mistakes and add a level of polish to the work. There is nothing worse than struggling through a book which has seen little to no editing. There just isn’t enough ibuprofin in the world for that.

    Kim Williams-Justesen

    Comment by Kim Justesen — January 13, 2010 @ 4:30 pm | Reply

  2. [...] that consumers are currently rebelling against? I guess I’m back to my original suggestion: improve quality. A poorly edited ebook, an ebook rife with typographical errors, an ebook with unreadable [...]

    Pingback by The eBook Wars: Adding “Extras” to Shore Up Price « An American Editor — January 15, 2010 @ 2:31 pm | Reply

  3. [...] that consumers are currently rebelling against? I guess I’m back to my original suggestion: improve quality. A poorly edited ebook, an ebook rife with typographical errors, an ebook with unreadable [...]

    Pingback by The eBook Wars: Adding “Extras” to Shore Up Price | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home — January 15, 2010 @ 2:53 pm | Reply

  4. [...] Just because you published your book and are now discovering the errors is no reason to expect a professional editor to do any less work on your book than had you given the manuscript to the editor before publication. Isn’t it an advantage of ebooks that they can be updated and corrected? (See eBooks and the Never-Ending Rewrite.) It is never too late, with an ebook, to get it right. It certainly is better to get it right than to suffer the embarrassment of being noted for poor editing (see Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important). [...]

    Pingback by I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors « An American Editor — June 28, 2010 @ 8:35 am | Reply

  5. [...] of course, that the book itself isn’t one of those that falls into the Give Me a Brake! or Truman & MacArthur & Why a Good Editor is Important category, which, sadly, an increasing number of pbooks are doing these days. Additionally, what [...]

    Pingback by The Lure of eBooks: Gotcha! « An American Editor — September 10, 2010 @ 4:38 am | Reply

  6. “A good editor insures that a book is readable.” Let’s not dwell on the typo. Beyond that, the assertion is not true without qualification. A good editor ensures that a book is readable by its intended audience. A book intended for an academic readership should not be edited in the same way as a book for general readers. What you call “confusing” may not be something an academic would be confused by.

    Comment by Dean — September 10, 2010 @ 9:05 am | Reply

    • Oops, missed that typo, but it has been fixed.

      Yes, a good editor does ensure that a book is readable by its intended audience, but also ensures that it is readable. Good sentence structure is good sentence structure regardless of the audience. To say that an academic might not be confused assures no audience that confusion will not reign. If the audience is a single person, then one edits for that single person. But once the audience expands beyond one person, a good editor ensures that most, if not all, audiences will not be confused because there is no way to tell who makes up the audience, intended or otherwise.

      Comment by americaneditor — September 10, 2010 @ 9:53 am | Reply

  7. I stumbled across this article by accident and it’s really great because many people just don’t realise how important the editor is in the book writing process!

    I’ve written a blog about the traits of a good editor called “What every author needs…” You can check it out here: http://milbiz.blogspot.com/2010/10/what-every-author-needs.html and if you’re an editor I’d love you to add anything I may have missed out.

    Together we can keep poor spelling, grammar and inconsistencies out of our books! :-)

    Comment by Mildred Talabi — October 26, 2010 @ 3:30 am | Reply

  8. I an tempted to write a reply but fear it would be so badly written that it would take the book reviewer several months to slog through it.
    Michael Pearlman

    Comment by Michael Pearlman — August 10, 2012 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

    • The reviewer does not say “badly written” but rather “poorly edited.” There’s a big difference. I have been a freelance editor for almost 20 years and would never call myself an author. I have saved many an author and publisher from embarrassing mistakes, however (like the author who said a ship reversed direction by turning 360 degrees, or the contemporary author who wrote that the war in Iraq would end soon, although in fact it ended 18 months ago). I believe the reviewer praises your research and book, but faults the editing, or lack thereof. Once readers start to notice errors, they do tend to doubt the book’s integrity, s’truth.

      Comment by Alison Hope — February 28, 2013 @ 11:53 am | Reply


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