When writing a pop-sci book, your editor is your friend


A few weeks ago the first packet of edits for Written in Stone was slipped under my door. I did not know exactly what to expect. As I opened the mailing sleeve I started having flashbacks of returned elementary school writing assignments, the pages cut and bleeding from the merciless slashes of the teacher’s terrible red pen. Had my editor also cut my prose to ribbons?

I took the sheaf of papers, covering the first two chapters of my book, and sat down with my laptop to start making corrections. Nothing on page one. So far, so good. A typo on page two, marked in black (thank god) ink. Not so bad. A few minor corrections on page three. By this point I felt more embarrassed that I had made the mistakes than frustrated by the edits.

There had been no reason for me to feel so anxious. I knew that my editor was just as committed as I was to making my book the best it could possibly be. Rather than mangling my prose, the edits corrected various typos and eliminated a few repetitive sections, leaving the book intact and, in fact, enhanced. All the corrections made sense to me, and despite my initial trepidation I felt better for having made the necessary changes.

Even though edits can sting sometimes, in the course of writing a popular science book (or really any book) working with an experienced editor is essential. As recently pointed out by Chad and Lilith, an editor does much more than check that you have not dotted your t’s and crossed your i’s. As much as anything else, an editor is an advocate for your book. While you are busy with writing the damned thing your editor will be thinking of how to best present it to distributors, who might agree to blurb it, and otherwise how to make readers pay attention to the pulp-derived product that you are creating. A good editor is just as invested in seeing your book realize its full potential (both creatively and economically) as you are, if not moreso. As Lilith wrote in her post;

I see a lot of new writers (and a lot of unpublished writers) operating under the unconscious assumption that the editor is an enemy at worst, a suspect ally at best, and someone to be on guard against. I’ve had one or two nasty revenge-editors, but those are the exceptions. The overwhelming rule is that editors are your friend. They believe in your book. They fight for it in acquisition meetings, they twist arms to get marketing money, they work and agonize over polishing it until it’s as good as it can be. The editor wants what you want: a successful book that earns money. Their energies are concentrated to that end. You are a fool if you don’t realize that and make it as easy as possible for them to be your advocate.

Granted, you and your editor are not going to agree about everything. That is only to be expected. But how a writer approaches these differences will determine whether the editor-writer relationship is a productive one that will improve the book or a battle for control. In the latest batch of edits for my book, for example, my editor crossed out some quotes I really liked by Richard Owen and from John Phillips. My first thought was “Aw, come on! Those are good quotes that help explain the reaction to On the Origin of Species.” For a moment I considered fighting for them, but then I realized why they were crossed out. They were too long and came too close to the conclusion of the chapter, shifting the focus away from what I was trying to explain by making readers wade through superfluous Victorian prose. I would have loved to keep the quotes, but my editor was right. They had to be sacrificed to keep the story moving forward.

This was not the only time in the manuscript I made this mistake. As pointed out by my editor, I sometimes have a tendency to overuse primary source quotes. I love digging through the literature to find quotes that allow long-dead scientists to speak for themselves, but not every quote that I like is necessary for the book. When I am introducing the ideas of a peripheral personage, for example, it is better for me to briefly explain their position rather than quote them at length. I am not entirely gutting my manuscript of primary source quotes, but my editor helped me realize that I should be more judicious in their employment. It is one of several minor tics I have which I have to watch out for in my own writing.

And all this effusive praise for my editor follows up on a question that was raised during the “Blog to Book” session at ScienceOnline a few weeks ago. Someone asked if Tom, Rebecca, or I had ever considered self-publishing. I said that I had, but only if I could not find an established publisher. I had put too much work into Written in Stone to “give up on it” by publishing it myself (especially since I would have to do all the heavy lifting traditionally done by a publishing house to make sure my book was noticed outside my little corner of the blogohedron). But a more important point, which was thankfully brought up by my co-panelists, is that an editor can greatly improve the quality of a book. If I self-published Written in Stone my book would suffer from the weaknesses that my editor has helped me to root out, and I am not nearly as good at catching typos as someone trained to do so. True, I could have hired an editor on my own dime, but if I did so I would run the risk of employing a proofreader rather than a true advocate of the book I was trying to write.

As for the state of Written in Stone right now, I am going back to the manuscript for another round of self-editing. My editor has been very helpful in getting me to develop search images of things to watch out for. I should be able to pull out most of the weeds. Once I am satisfied with what I have been able to do on my own I will send the manuscript back for more comments, and I am hoping to have the whole thing finished by my 27th birthday at the end of next month. The writing process has taken a little bit longer than expected, but I am glad that I am working with an editor that values quality over deadlines. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the book will be published on November 1, 2010.

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