Inside the Deep, Dark, Mysterious Brain of an Editor
Most of you know that I have been editing books and journals for over thirty years. One of the several books I’m editing at this time is actually my husband‘s. This is his fourth book, and the fourth one of his that I’ve edited, and I am pleased to report that we are still married. He gets to make things difficult for me by writing about ideas that are hard to understand, and I get to enjoy myself by writing nasty comments in the margins. A great time is had by all.
I thought it would be instructive to show you exactly what goes into editing a book. I am of the strong opinion that an editor is a better writing instructor than another writer. An editor sees things from above, and from a much broader perspective. And it’s easier for an editor to be objective.
When working on anything, a good editor will constantly be thinking two things:
- What exactly is the author trying to say?
- Will the reader be able to understand it?
I’d like to take you behind the scenes with my husband’s (nonfiction) book, and show you how I am editing it. I believe that you, as a writer, will be able to glean some important writing techniques from this exercise. And I might even show you one of my nasty comments.
Don’t use a lot of adverbs and connective words
A lot of writers want to pad their ideas with adverbs and other boring words. Trust me: you don’t need to introduce every thought and every sentence with one. Just write. I know every teacher you’ve ever had told you to use “transitions” at the beginning and/or end of every paragraph/new thought/word (just kidding about word). Let the sentences themselves move your prose along, not a bunch of I-am-a-lazy-writer words.
Here are a few naughty words hubs has begun his sentences with, sometimes three or four times in a paragraph. I have deleted most of them. And yes, of course you can use them sometimes. In fact, I’m using one now. They are listed in increasing order of pompousness.
- of course
- in any event
- on some level
- in fact
Don’t take 47 words to say something that can be said with 3
Many non-fiction writers – not my husband, I might add – enjoy hearing themselves talk; I mean, write. They would do well to abide by Stephen King’s wonderful piece of advice, which goes like this: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, kill your darlings.” The King of Horror knows about killing things, whether darling or not.
Here’s my favorite excess verbiage from yesterday’s editing session:
“It is true that the above notwithstanding, this event may have been one of the most important…”
I fixed this by chopping off that first, unnecessary clause and simply beginning the sentence with “This event may have been one of the most important…”
Here’s another one:
“The book gives several answers to try to explain the connection”
Any time you come across “to try to” or “to try and,” you are in trouble. There is usually no reason for these three words. Get rid of them. And while you’re at it, get rid of a couple more as well.
Here is how I edited the sentence: “The book offers several explanations for the connection.” Everyone knows that the job of answers is to try to explain, so why do you need to remind your readers?
Say it loud and say it proud, but say it only once
This is the bane of an academic editor’s existence. Scholars generally spend the first third of their book/essay/chapter – usually all three – telling you what they’re going to say, the next third saying it, and the last third telling you what they said. Do not do this.
Here are some danger signs that you are repeating yourself, or at least suffering from diarrhea of the keyboard:
- As mentioned above
- Before we conclude our discussion, we should note that
- Let us now return to
- As noted
- In several of the preceding chapters
- We just mentioned that
- We are now ready to go back and better understand the idea
- But first we need to
- Before we go further
- But even before looking at
- In order to answer the question, we need to first
- There are two answers to this question. The first is that
If you are guilty of using a loquacious-laden phrase, you can either delete it and just get on with your point, or you can use it as a cue that you might be starting (or continuing) to repeat yourself.
Here’s the nasty comment I promised
You’ve been so attentive that I feel compelled to share one of my especially pungent notes to hubs. In fact, I’ll give you two:
“Can you stop with all the double negatives when you want to say something positive?”
“Can you say this in three words or less?”
Special thanks to hubs for allowing me to share his book with my tribe.
And one more thing: I’m much nicer to my non-spousal clients. 🙂 Check out my Work with Me page.
Okay, now I want to hear from you. Do you think editors make better writing teachers than writers? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments below.