An American Editor

July 16, 2014

The Business of Editing: I Got Rhythm!

To put us in the proper frame of mind, here are The Happenings, a 1960s rock group, singing George Gershwin’s Depression-era song “I Got Rhythm”:

Life is a river of rhythm. Everything is to some kind of beat. I’ve heard musicians say they are inspired by nature’s rhythms; I know painters certainly are. And so are editors, albeit in perhaps a different manner.

Years ago I edited journal articles as well as books. What I found was that, for me, individual journal articles were a money-losing proposition. The reason was that I no sooner found the “rhythm” of the article than it was finished and I had to go to a new article and master a new rhythm. Books, I found, were different.

I know that you will point out that many books are written by multiple authors or are collections of articles. True. I work on large books, often running thousands of manuscript pages (e.g., I am currently working on a book that has 720 chapters, each written by a different author or group of authors, that when finished will have run more than 20,000 manuscript pages). But that book has an overall rhythm.

I have found that a key to improving my effective hourly rate is the ability to find and work with a book’s rhythm. In the case of the collaborative book, that rhythm may be that of the book editor(s), such as the editor’s preference for certain types of phrasing. It is also found in the style, such as the publisher’s preferences.

Most importantly, every author has a rhythm and most of the books I work on have long chapters (one chapter in a current project, for example, runs nearly 350 manuscript pages; more typically, chapters run 50 to 75 manuscript pages), which gives me an opportunity to join with the author’s rhythm as I edit. The rhythm of a project lets me discover the language choices that the author makes. For example, some authors always use “due to,” almost as if they are afraid to commit to a more specific alternative such as “caused by”; some authors consistently misspell a word (e.g., “casual” when they mean “causal”); some authors consistently fail to define necessary comparative measures (e.g., always write “1 in 100” but never define 100 what); some authors clearly have a gender bias in their writing; some authors regularly mix singular and plural, present and past in the same sentence; and the list goes on.

Every author, like every editor, has identifiable language foibles or traits that we generically call style. In editing, quickly identifying the author’s style or the style of a book, regardless of the number of contributors, is a key to getting into the manuscript’s rhythm. And when an editor can merge into the manuscript’s rhythm, the editing rises to a higher level.

Editing is an art and is no different from any other art. Successful editors have mastered not only the foundation techniques of editing, but have learned to merge into the rhythm. We all know that some editors are better editors than ourselves. As in all art endeavors, there is always someone the artist admires as being better than they. It is because we recognize a higher skill level. From my observations, I think that higher skill level comes about from being faster at finding, understanding, and mastering the rhythm.

Rhythm is important at several levels, not least of which is that finding it enables us to preserve the author’s voice while editing. When I read author complaints about how an editor destroyed the author’s voice, my first thought is that the editor didn’t find the rhythm. We speak in rhythm, we play music in rhythm, we dance in rhythm, we walk in rhythm — we do virtually everything in rhythm. Consequently, we need to be aware of competing rhythms.

When we think of editing in terms of rhythm, we recognize that our rhythm competes with the author’s rhythm. If we let the rhythms compete, we distort the author’s tone and message because our rhythm will dominate. But if we make an effort to discover the author’s rhythm, we can adopt it as our own for the editing process.

Rhythm doesn’t only refer to beat, which is often how we think of rhythm in music. Rhythm refers also to flow. We think of certain books as masterpieces, literary classics. That is because we can identify and flow with the rhythm of the book. The language choices and arrangements make up the rhythm and when an editor can identify that rhythm, the editor can maintain and even improve it; when the editor cannot identify the rhythm, the editor is more likely to destroy it.

All of this is important to an editor because it is a reason why an editor’s education concerning words and language should be ongoing. I know editors who last bought and read a book on language decades ago. Consequently, when they edit today, they apply the thoughts and concepts they learned decades ago; they are unable to compare yesterday with today to determine which better serves their client because there is only yesterday.

I am currently reading The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham. What is relevant to our discussion is that Joyce’s brilliance (although I admit I do not particularly like or think highly of Ulysses) was recognized by only a handful of his contemporaries, primarily Ezra Pound and Margaret Anderson. Those who saw Joyce’s brilliance as a writer were themselves trying to move literary thinking from the early 19th century to the 20th century. They were obstructed by those who believed that the golden age of literature was the late 18th–early 19th century and were determined to make Joyce’s writing conform to that “golden age.”

Editors and publishers who saw Joyce’s writing insisted on rewriting and cutting because what he wrote they couldn’t understand (or accept).

Whether one likes where language is going or not does not matter. What does matter is that we editors need to grasp and understand the rhythm of the manuscripts we work on and we need to continually educate ourselves as to where our language is going so that we help the author rather than hinder the author. We need to be able to say, “I got rhythm!”

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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