An American Editor

September 23, 2015

Two Books Every Author (& Editor & Publisher) Should Read!

I won’t keep you in suspense. The two books are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman.

I was reading Diane Johnson’s review of Go Set a Watchman (“Daddy’s Girl,” The New York Review of Books, September 24, 2015, pp. 22–26) when I realized that Harper Lee’s two novels should be read by everyone who touches — no matter how peripherally — on the editing process. The two books provide a stark contrast of the value of editing. Johnson wrote:

According to its editors and Harper Lee herself, To Kill a Mockingbird had profited from extensive editing at R.B. Lippincott by the late Tay Hohoff, who said she and Lee worked for two years on the project. (p. 22)

The result was the production of a classic that continues, 50-plus years later, to sell 1 million copies each year.

Contrast that with Go Set a Watchman, which was published as written — without editorial input. Although Watchman has sold a phenomenal number of copies, those will be one-time sales and they came about because of the high expectations readers of Mockingbird had. The consensus seems to be that Watchman is a disaster and a blight on the reputation of Mockingbird; its primary value is to demonstrate what should not be done if one values one’s writing and reputation as an author.

Authors & Wannabe Authors

Watchman was the parent from which Mockingbird was spawned. Yet it is as different from Mockingbird as night is from day. What it demonstrates, however, is how a good editor can help an author.

Too many authors on too many lists promote self-editing or no editing or friend editing. The complaint is that a good editor costs too much and there is no reason to hire one when the author can do it herself. Too many authors also say that they would like to hire an editor but editors are too expensive; they cannot afford an editor.

If you believe you really have a good story to tell and that people will buy it, then shouldn’t you figure out a way to get that editorial help? Your book will not sell like Watchman has sold because you do not have the reputation that Harper Lee has been trading on for 50 years. And it is expected that sales of Watchman will fall precipitously now that the book has been seen. What Watchman does demonstrate, however, is that the editorial investment made in Mockingbird has paid off doubly: first, by creating a phenomenal bestseller that keeps on selling, and second, by creating a reputation that allowed the author to sell drivel, which is what Watchman amounts to. Watchman would not have sold except for Lee’s reputation built on Mockingbird.

It is hard to convince authors (and readers) of the value of good editing because editing is an invisible hand — but these two books, a before and after, should clearly demonstrate what a good editor brings to the table and why authors need editors.

The two books also offer one other insight that I think authors need: They graphically demonstrate the difference between — and value of — developmental editing and copyediting, as well as the value of each. Watchman was neither developmentally edited nor copyedited; Mockingbird was both. Could you self-edit both developmental editing and copyediting?

Skilled and professional authors know that it is almost impossible to edit one’s own work because we see only what we meant to say; we cannot be objective enough to see where our work might be unclear, clunky, disorganized, or simply grammatically lacking (suffering from misspellings, wrong or missing punctuation, close-but-not-quite-right word choices, missing or doubled words, poor transitions, and more).

It is true that a very few authors have the skills to self-edit, but those are the rare authors. Most, if not all, of the most successful authors did not self-edit. Either they or their publisher hired a professional editor. As an author, you may have spent years writing your book. You know every word, every nuance, but you do not know where you are going wrong, because your book is “perfect” — you have said so.

As did Harper Lee when she originally submitted Watchman. What a difference a skilled, professional editor made for Harper Lee — and could make for authors and wannabe authors today.

Editors

Editors should read these two books to see what a skilled editor can do. This is not to suggest that you are not a skilled editor, but to suggest that rarely are we given the opportunity to see a before and after of such radical dimension as in the case of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Even more importantly, however, these books give us the opportunity to create an explanation of the value of our services. They also give us the opportunity to graphically demonstrate the differences between developmental editing and copyediting, and what each does for a manuscript. How many of us would reread Watchman or call it a classic or even want it taught in our schools? I know I struggle to envision a movie based on Watchman or caring about the characters or the storyline.

But Mockingbird remains a highly praised novel, 50 years after its publication. It is still discussed in schools and in conversations about race relations. The movie is considered a classic that is still shown. The novel still sells a million copies each year with no advertising to speak of. And all of this is because the original version, Watchman, was developmentally edited and then copyedited by professional editors to become Mockingbird.

Editors should use these books as teaching experiences for clients. They illustrate the benefit of not creating an artificial schedule and of taking the time needed to properly develop the story and to do the editing the story requires.

Editors have looked for years for a way to clearly illustrate why they are worth what they are asking and why editing is a valuable service that is ignored or avoided at an author’s and a publisher’s peril. Watchman and Mockingbird graphically demonstrate the value of editing and editors.

Publishers (& Packagers)

Today, publishing is run largely from the accounting perspective, not the art perspective. Schedules are artificially imposed without regard for the true needs of a manuscript. Editors are asked to do more of the mechanical work and less of the judgmental work; in my earliest years as an editor, for example, the emphasis was on language editing, not on applying styling codes. We did macro-level styling at most, and left micro-level styling to designers and typesetters. But in today’s editing world, the emphasis has switched 180 degrees to emphasize micro-level styling and a deemphasize language editing.

Yet Watchman and Mockingbird can provide a useful lesson for publishers, too. Sure, HarperCollins reaped a quick influx of cash with the publication of Watchman, but if I were the publisher, I would rather have the year-after-year sales of Mockingbird than the one-time sales of Watchman. Watchman will have no lasting value in the marketplace except as an illustration of what publishers used to provide authors versus what they no longer provide authors.

Today, the mantra is “how low can I go”; that is, how little can I, the publisher, spend to take a book from manuscript to bookstore? And the first services publishers squeeze are those that are deemed “invisible” — editorial services. Instead of two years of developmental editing, as was done for Mockingbird, two weeks of copyediting may be provided today (even if the book requires two months of copyediting, let alone additional months of developmental editing).

Watchman and Mockingbird, however, demonstrate the value of the editorial process. Good editing changed a book with no potential into a classic that sells 1 million copies each year and has done so for more than 50 years, with no end in sight. Whatever the editing cost for Mockingbird, it was recouped decades ago, yet keeps on giving. Quality editing is the Timex of publishing — it is the service that keeps on giving.

Publishers and packagers should read these books and use them as guides and reasons why changes to the current editorial and production methods need to be revamped and more attention and money needs to be given to editing. Editing has to be seen today as it was in the early days of publishing. Isn’t it a shame that the books that we treat as classics and must-reads, decade after decade, were nearly all published several decades or longer ago — before accounting supplanted editorial as the decision makers?

Perhaps it is time to rethink the current model. Certainly, Watchman and Mockingbird make that point.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

Selected related An American Editor essays:

September 22, 2014

On the Basics: A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

You don’t have to be a Girl or Boy Scout for “Be prepared” to matter. It’s also an excellent rule of business for a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, or other publishing/editorial professional.

For any freelancer (and most in-house editorial professionals as well), “be prepared” means some, if not all, of the following.

  • Create and maintain a stash of cash or a credit-card balance to cover emergencies — a computer crash, printer breakdown, phone foul-up, even e-mail outage (you might have to rent time at a cyber café to stay in touch with or send assignments to clients), not to mention family crises.
  • Have the right tools at hand — equipment (computer, software, printer), reference books, style manuals (both print and online), paper, pens and pencils (some of us do still write in long-hand, or get asked to edit or proofread on paper), fax capability (either a machine and phone line or an e-version) — whatever is essential to get your work done.
  • Put together a backup system so you’re ready to cope in an emergency. Have a laptop if you usually work on a desktop machine, and a second laptop, tablet, or other device if you do all your work on a laptop and it conks out; extra printer cartridges or toner; both disk and download versions of essential software so you can power back up after a crash; places to go — cybercafé, public library, co-working site — in a power outage or equipment breakdown; trusted colleagues in case you (or a spouse, child, or parent) get sick when you’re on deadline. Think about what could go wrong, and try to have mechanism in place ahead of time to respond.
  • Have a website, and keep it updated. It’s an invaluable tool for promoting and building your business. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extensive, but it has to exist these days for a freelancer to succeed.
  • Update your résumé, promotional brochure, website, and online profiles regularly. Every time you have a new client (or job) or publish a new project, add it where appropriate. If you read about new trends in résumés, revamp yours accordingly. Keep current versions as Word documents and PDFs on every computer or device you use, so you can dash it off in response to every new opportunity you might see or receive and update whenever the need arises. Make sure you never have to make excuses for not being ready to respond promptly or simply miss out on the chance to be considered; timing can be everything.
  • Have a good photo of yourself. You probably will want one for your website, and you might need it for a bio to go along with an assignment, or if you’re asked to make a speech somewhere. It doesn’t have to be an expensive studio portrait; an informal, well-composed, flattering snapshot will do.
  • Have a business card; get a lot of ’em printed up and carry them with you always, including to social events, the store, wherever. You never know when it might come in handy and lead to a new client.
  • Be ready to take on assignments with little or no notice. That might mean beating instead of meeting deadlines so you have time available to accept something new with little warning, or organizing your projects so you always have some wiggle room to add something new and appealing when the opportunity shows up.
  • For when you can’t or don’t want to be available for new projects, practice ways of saying “No” (or “Thanks, but not now” if that’s more appropriate). Plan ahead to know what you prefer not to cover or work on — topics, types, or lengths of projects; kinds of clients, etc. If you think about these things ahead of time, saying no will be less intimidating and you’ll be less likely to let someone badger you into saying yes to projects you don’t want to do.
  • Develop a personal script to use with difficult, demanding clients and ones you’d rather not work with, so you don’t have to respond to them off the cuff. You’ll be more likely to protect yourself against such situations if you don’t face every one of them as new and distinct.
  • Have a template for contracts and letters of agreement, so you never forget to include important details or clauses in assignments.
  • Have a template for invoices, so it’s as easy as possible to do the billing that’s part of every independent editorial business.
  • Develop a strong network of colleagues so you have someone to turn to when you’re sick, want to take a vacation, are offered a project that doesn’t interest you or you’re too busy to accept, or want to subcontract.
  • Read, read, read! The more you read, the better prepared you will be to cope with assignments. Read newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else for both business and pleasure — they all inform and expand your skills and ability to handle assignments.
  • Have health insurance, so you and your family are protected against the costs of health emergencies.

In addition, for writers, “be prepared” means:

  • Develop an ongoing, ever-growing network of sources and contacts, so you always have someone or somewhere as a starting point for a new assignment or project. Some editors and clients will tell you whom to contact, or at least a couple of sources to include, but even the ones who give you all the names you’ll need will be impressed if you can add a couple more. If you’re writing fiction, that network might be the starting point for character names or sources of background information and other research.
  • Know the market for your kind of writing. Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace are great starting points, but look for writers’ groups — either in-person or online — to build up your knowledge base and stay tuned to news about publications that are right for your work. Conferences are also a good resource for market knowledge (and expanding your network).
  • Follow trends in publishing so you know what new ones might be best for your work and when to adopt them.

For editors and proofreaders, “be prepared” means:

  • Invest in training every year — either refresher courses or classes with new information — because trends in language, usage, tools, and technology are constantly changing, and we have to keep up with them to do our work at our best.
  • Consider learning new style manuals to be prepared to work with new types of clients or publications, just in case your current niche dries up.

Essentially, being prepared means being ready to cope with work and life emergencies, and up to date on anything that affects the work we do — or might do. Being prepared means being a better businessperson, better employee, and better freelancer.

Therefore, the commandment:

Thou shall be prepared.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: