I’m currently reading The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller, an outstanding book for editors and copy editors. This is the book’s second edition, which came out last month – what editor can resist a revision?
Besides containing updated material, this edition has a couple of new chapters, including one for writers. I highly recommend this well-written, humorous book for any writer who wants a backstage glimpse into the editing process and/or who wants to better understand the author/editor relationship.
The seminal takeaway from the book, however, which informs its every paragraph, is this:
“Your ultimate boss is the reader….You, your boss, and your boss’s boss all work for the same person, and you all have the same goal of making that person’s reading experience the best it can be.”
Writers, take heed.
Whom are you writing for?
When I’m sent a manuscript to either evaluate or edit, one of the first questions I (am usually forced to) ask the author is the following:
Who is your audience?
This can include, among other factors, age, gender, and educational level. In non-fiction it can also include level of technical knowledge of the subject. Even in fiction this is important; go ahead and read a John Grisham novel and immediately afterward one by William Brodrick. Defining your audience will inform word choice, length, style, amount of explanation, complexity…in fact, it will affect almost everything.
Keep a picture of your ideal reader constantly in mind as you write. This will help you stay consistent. If you find yourself stuck with regard to, say, phrasing, or how much detail to add, ask yourself, “What does my reader need?” or “What does my reader know?”
Stay consistent, and tailor your prose for your ideal reader. Uneven writing, an example of which is using highfalutin’ language in one paragraph and high school vocabulary in another, will render your work unapproachable to everyone.
Keep it convenient
Saller further warns us not to distract, confuse, or inconvenience readers. Be consistent also with regard to technicalities such as American English versus British English, or punctuation inside quotation marks versus punctuation outside quotation marks – but don’t be so rigid that you find yourself serving the style manual instead of your reader.
In other words, don’t leave your brain at the door; if it feels wrong, it probably is.
Saller gives the example of a bibliography that lists city only and not state or country, but which includes a book published in London, Ohio. It would be foolish to simply write “London: X Publishing Co., 1985.” In Saller’s words, “For many writers and editors, our work is all about the rules. It’s what we do – we take a chunk of writing and we grind it through the style-guide mill and we never once stop to ask whether logic and reason and the reader are served.”
Here’s another example of rigidity at the expense of your readers: In Hebrew, the name Ruth is pronounced either Root or Roos. I can’t think of anything more unsightly than those two transliterations, and besides, they make me think of plants and Australian animals.How about Rut or Rus? Would that be “rut,” as in “I’m stuck in a rut,” or a variation of the man’s name Russ? Better to leave it Ruth and call it a day, even if you’ve transliterated all the other names.
Don’t be a slob
As a veteran editor, I cannot emphasize this enough.
Writing that is riddled with errors not only borders on the rude, it destroys your credibility with readers. (Now I’m panicked that this post will have typos in it.) If a writer cannot take the time to make sure his or her copy is free of even the most obvious technical errors, how can the reader completely trust the information itself?
I encourage writers to make their first draft a “brain dump,” or stream of consciousness. However, the operative word here is “first”: we number drafts because there is supposed to be more than one.
Finish your piece and put it aside. Then reread, revise, and redo.
Make the dictionary your best friend.
You can find many useful things in a dictionary in addition to how to spell a word. Dictionaries give nuanced definitions and synonyms, and can be invaluable for usage. For instance, a dictionary might show you how to use the word in a sentence or tell you which preposition to pair a verb with (think “prohibition against” versus “prohibition of”). For more on this, see two earlier posts of mine, here and here.
Saller couches this in business terms:
“Reassuring and impressing readers keeps them coming back. It persuades them to believe, to invest, to buy.”
Don’t just vomit out your prose and expect others to clean up after you. Yes, editors are essential, but only after you have gone over your own piece several times, checking it for technical as well as content issues. In Saller’s words, “Inaccuracies and inconsistencies undermine a writer’s authority, distract and confuse the reader, and reflect poorly on the company.”
Respect your audience. Keep Ideal Reader in front of you at all times, and make friends with him or her. Do unto Ideal Reader as you would want other authors to do unto you.