How to be Edited

The key to survive being edited is not to look at the edits.

There is a lot of advice available on how to edit other people’s work, and how to edit your own, but not much on how to be edited by someone else. Here’s some thoughts on how to make it a relatively less agonizing process. The key is, don’t look at the edits, look at the result.

The agony of being edited

I’m nearing the end of having my book edited. I submitted the “final” manuscript a couple of weeks back, and since then my editor and publisher, Richard Hamilton of XML Press, has been copyediting and feeding the result back to me a chapter at a time. Since one of Richard’s stated aims in the copyedit was to trim back the manuscript significantly, I was prepared to this to be a painful process.

In the past, I have reviewed edits by carefully comparing the original source with the revision and going through each and every edit. This is a tedious and painful process. And the prospect of doing it for a 300 page book was daunting. I decided instead to do something that was daunting in a different way: I decided to trust my editor.

Trusting my editor

Rather than looking at every edit, I decides to simply read the edited version of the book and to react only if something seemed wrong in the edited version.

In a word processor, this would simply mean turning show changes off. Because my book was written in DocBook, however, it meant reading the PDF that Richard produced after each round of edits. This was helpful in keeping me from checking on edits too often, because if I wanted to actually check how a passage had been edited, I had to go to SVN, the source control system that XML Press uses, and request a diff of the DocBook source. (Diff is a common file comparison utility, that shows you what has changed between two files, pretty much the same as show changes in a word processor.) That little extra step helped keep me on the straight and narrow.

Less pain, more gain

Here are the highlights of the experience:

  • A good editor knows when to point out a change they have made. In a number of places, Richard significantly rewrote passages he found confusing. He noted these with comments, asking me to check that he had got the meaning right. Usually, he had. Once or twice he had not. Clearly if he could misinterpret the meaning, so could others, so these were particularly useful edits. And I was surprise to find that it is usually pretty easy to come up with a much clearer way of saying something, once the lack of clarity is pointed out to you.
  • Most of the time I was not aware that the text had been edited. If I went by the number of times I actually noticed that the edited text was different from the original, I would have guessed that Richard had done a pretty light edit, leaving big passages of text untouched. It was only when I did do a diff between his version and mine, in order to check out the places he asked me to check, that I discovered that he had edited about every other line in one way or another, often doing significant rewrites and deleting whole paragraphs and sentences. There were major edits and major cuts in some places, and if I had not looked at the diff, I would never have known the difference. The book read just fine, and the argument unfolded just as I intended it to do, and how I remembered it. Clearly, then, those edits were for the better, and it is probably good that I did not agonize over each one individually.
  • Some things stood out like a sore thumb. Despite what I said above, there were some edits that I detected immediately. In a few places, the revised text was saying something different from what I had intended, or seemed unclear or clumsy to me. In some cases it was because the edit was too local — that is, the edited text did not work with the larger structure of the chapter. I think that’s pretty easy to do when you worry at a particular sentence or paragraph for a while — you cease to see it in context. In some of these cases I restored the original wording, but mostly I edited it differently. What this tells me is that you don’t need to be afraid of missing something when your editor gets something wrong. You won’t notice most of the correct edits, but you will notice the wrong ones.
  • Some of the things I caught had not been edited. A few of the passages that stood out like a sore thumb turned out to not be things that Richard had edited. They were my original words. Yet when I read them in the context of the revised manuscript they stood out to me as a clumsy and incorrect editorial intrusion. Nope. It was me that wrote them that way. If I had been just checking Richard’s edits, I would not have caught my own monstrosities. By the same token, those edits that I mentioned above, that did not work in their context, I might have accepted if I was just skipping from edit to edit rather than reading the book through like a reader.
  • I cut a bunch more stuff. In the course of reading, I ended up cutting a bunch more stuff, including eliminating one whole section from a chapter, as well as cutting several paragraphs, sentences, and phrases. I also ended up doing a fairly significant rewrite of one chapter, because the edit Richard had done allowed me to see past my own words and find the flaw in the argument.

Conclusion: turn off show changes

Overall, taking this approach seems to have been extremely valuable, and I recommend it as an exercise as least, to anyone whose work is being edited: turn off show changes, don’t look at the edits, read the revised document and deal with any issues you find. You will save yourself a lot of pointless ego trips over tweaks to your deathless prose, and you will probably spot a bunch of issues that otherwise you would have missed if you just reviewed the edits.

Anybody else take this same approach to being edited? If so, have you found any other benefits (or pitfalls) besides those I listed?

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15 Responses to How to be Edited

  1. David 2013/09/24 at 11:28 #

    Wonder if this is murhpry’s law in that you’re talking about editing and have a typo:

    in

    “has been copyediting and feeling the result back to me a chapter at a time”

    s/feeling/feeding/

    Or maybe murhpry’s law will bite me and I’ll have a typo in this comment?

    • Mark Baker 2013/09/24 at 13:00 #

      Thanks, David.

      Edited. 🙂

  2. Marcia Riefer Johnston 2013/09/24 at 13:55 #

    Mark, I’ve never heard of anyone taking this approach. Brilliant.

  3. Marcia Riefer Johnston 2013/09/24 at 13:57 #

    P.S. Kudos to Richard on what sounds like a thorough, insightful, respectful edit.

  4. Richard Hamilton 2013/09/24 at 15:53 #

    Thanks for the thoughtful (and nice) comments about the editing process. I like the idea of looking at the result rather than the changes. That helps avoid two problems that occur when reading text someone else has edited: 1) anxiety (why did he change *that* word) and 2) focusing too much on the details (as you saw, one of my weaknesses:).

    The thing that gives me the most anxiety as an editor is that there will always be mistakes, and some will always slide through until they are uncovered by your readers (or if you’re really lucky, your most important reviewers:). There is simply no way for a human with limited time to avoid them.

    • Mark Baker 2013/10/06 at 15:18 #

      Thanks, Richard. It has been a interesting and fruitful process.

      I know exactly what you mean about the errors. One of the more interesting parts of the edit was that you found two errors (or, at least, questionable constructs) in the quotes from other books. In both cases, the transcription was correct. The issues were in the sources.

  5. Linda Branam 2013/09/25 at 14:26 #

    I did this recently for the first time. But I’m the editor of the novel, not the writer. I had done the first, substantive edit, which meant that when the revision came back to me quite a bit of new text had been added. So I read through the manuscript as a reader, not checking against my edits. I found places where serendipitous revisions had greatly clarified and deepened the story; I also found instances where the pace was still a little bumpy. I edited accordingly.

    Then, since this review was supposed to be primarily a basic copyedit, I turned Track Changes off and read the manuscript through again. I found several places where my insertions/deletions had resulted in improper spacing or missing punctuation. But the best thing was that I got to really enjoy the read (now, I know that’s self-serving; after all my edits were included!) But I felt a bit like Mark–in very few cases was I aware of the language I’d changed. I just got lost in the story.

    • Mark Baker 2013/10/06 at 15:19 #

      Thanks for the comment Linda. You make a good point. The arguments for the writer turning off track changes apply equally to the editor.

  6. Scott Abel 2013/09/26 at 13:45 #

    The key is simple: Don’t be married to your words. Be married to the message.

    • Mark Baker 2013/10/06 at 15:21 #

      Thanks for the comment, Scott. I like that formulation. In the end, writing is about conveying the message, not about munging the words.

    • Marc Gravez 2013/10/14 at 12:37 #

      Awesome comment Scott!!!

  7. Scott Abel 2013/09/26 at 13:49 #

    Journalism uses this approach every day. The editor of a news magazine or newspaper is not asking the author for approval. They don’t care whether you turn on track changes or not. They make changes and they are final. Almost. If they do send your words back to you (a rarity) the author is expected to make the business case for their original prose (if the edits introduced an error in fact or create undue confusion) they might win.

    I’m glad Mark has experienced this and understands the value of the editor. There’s nothing worse than having a writer micromanage the editor by “accepting” or “rejecting” changes. The fact is, unless it’s wrong, chances are a good editor improved your work. And that’s something to smile about.

    Thanks for sharing Mark.

    • Mark Baker 2013/10/06 at 15:26 #

      Interesting point about Journalistic practice. Its actually interesting that tech comm does not follow this model, which would nominally seem to be even more appropriate for what tech comm is doing.

  8. Sharise 2013/10/01 at 08:03 #

    @David, there are multiple typos in this post, not just the one you mentioned.
    @Richard, you sound like a kick-ass editor.
    @Scott, great 2nd comment regarding relationship between editor and writer.
    @Mark, good idea, but I also think checking what was changed will help you learn and improve future writings. So, I wouldn’t eliminate that completely, which it seems you didn’t do since you used the Diff file, but I guess the idea is to know when to view it.

    • Mark Baker 2013/10/06 at 15:47 #

      Sharise,

      I really hesitated about accepting your comment, because I think criticizing another commentator for not criticizing all the typos in a blog post is significantly beyond the pale. I’d recommend you take a look at Alan Pringle’s post Blemished—but better—tech comm (http://www.scriptorium.com/2013/09/blemished-but-better-tech-comm/).

      Like most people I can’t see my own typos right after I write something because my brain sees what it intended, not what my fingers actually produced. A blog post is not a book. It is closer to a conversation, or perhaps a seminar, since it states an initial position and then invites discussion. Immediacy, and relevance, is what matters most in this medium.

      But you do raise an interesting question. Does looking at the edits help you learn to be a better writer?

      I think that depends on the relative experience of the writer and the editor. For a junior writer, the editor may well be playing a teaching function, and thus want the writer to understand the reason for each change.

      But editing is not, in itself, an educational activity. Great writers still need an editor. TS Eliot was a much greater poet than Ezra Pound, yet Eliot’s poetry is much greater because of Pound’s editing. A editor brings a distance from the work that allows them to see things that the writer cannot. The point of their collaboration is not for the writer to learn from the editor, but for them to combine the skills and perspectives to create a superior product.

      For that end to be accomplished, I think it is better that writer and editor not obsesses over which individual changes each has made, but to view the work whole and focus on what the work needs to make it better.