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 decided 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?