by Lesley-Anne Longo
Published at 2023-09-27
I must admit that I was pretty excited to read Editors on Editing: What Writers Need to Know about What Editors Do. The book is a collection of essays on the practice and theory of editing and includes topics such as what editors look for in a query letter/proposal, developmental editing, editing true crime, editing for religious markets, and the relationship between copy editor and author. I was excited to read about the practice of editing, but framed through the lens of what an author would want to know about how editing works, what editors do, and what’s expected from both author and editor.
However, I didn’t find myself loving the book as I worked my way through it. In this blog, I’ll talk about a few of the things I didn’t like, but I also want to include some of my favourite tidbits of wisdom that I flagged as I read through the essays.
The third edition of this book was published in 1994, but the original edition came out in 1962. Yes, the essays have been updated and switched out through the book’s editions and as editing practices have changed, but there’s no denying that editing has come leaps and bounds since 1994, which at this point is almost 30 years ago! Ways in which this was most apparent was the book’s references to “word processing” and computers. In the essay “What Is an Editor?” by Alan D. Williams, he writes, “The word processor itself is an inarguable blessing when it comes to writing or rewriting one’s own copy…but until economical and user-friendly hardware and software for marginal comment, visible deletions, and the like are invented, the Post-It will remain a more significant aid to working editors than the computer” (p. 9).
Reading that quote as an editor today makes me laugh a little, because I’m sure editors everywhere don’t want to imagine editing without Microsoft Word’s Track Changes function, which fulfills all of Mr. Williams’s requests (and more!). I’ve had experience working on manuscripts much as editors would have 30 years ago—with markup in margins, Post-It notes, and rewrites clipped to existing pages, and I can tell you that I much prefer the simplicity and tidiness of working in Microsoft Word! It’s hard to imagine editors of decades past working without the ease of the computer, but indeed, many of the essays cover exactly this topic, explaining, for example, the best way to add notes to a print manuscript and how to include rewritten pages or excerpts.
While the age of the book means that a lot of this such advice is no longer really necessary or current, it does provide an interesting thought experiment when you consider how much the advent of the digital era has really changed the practices of editing.
A more immediate disappointment came once I got past the first few pages. I was, admittedly, excited about having chosen this book to review for our Book Review Series, but right away I noticed I was struggling to remain engaged, and I believe this was due to the style of prose used in this book.
Maybe it’s just a style I don’t particularly enjoy, but I found the writing of this book, the text itself, to be quite dense and hard to get through. I think that can just be chalked up to the fact that yes, the book is an older title, but also that the way we write has changed over the years, and the writers and editors who contributed these essays are an example of a different style of writing that perhaps has fallen out of favour. Especially with the explosion of digital content, nowadays, “plain language” is what we’re all supposed to aim for, and this book is an example of how styles of writing change as time goes on.
I want to emphasize that by no means is the writing “bad”—that’s not what I mean at all. As you’d expect from a collection of essays written by people who edit for a living, the writing is elegant and well-composed. I just found the text more difficult to get through, and perhaps that’s simply because it’s not what I’m used to, and that’s okay! We all like different things.
Though the book is a bit outdated, that’s not to say that there aren’t valuable bits of information contained within it. I think that if an author were to read this book, they would be comforted by the number of times editors reference the importance of author consent, that is, the author consenting to edits because in the end, it’s their work. The book’s editor, Gerald Gross, puts it best early on in the manuscript: “The editor must remember that the work in question is the author’s book and that the author’s decision must prevail” (p. xvi).
One of my favourite essays was “The Copy Editor and the Author” by Gypsy da Silva. I think that authors who aren’t familiar with the editing process can sometimes become confused about what exactly copy editing entails—what is a copy editor looking for when they work, what things are they looking to catch, for example. This essay gives an in-depth description of what the copy editor does, and how they do it.
One of the best examples given (in my opinion) is when Ms. da Silva references copy editors “twist[ing] themselves into pretzels to see if an exercise can be followed” (p. 147). I have definitely done this when copy editing books—imagining myself going through the actions that a character in the book does, to see if the sequence of action makes sense. I’ve found this exercise especially helpful when working on romance books—the protagonist’s hand was just on the heroine’s waist, but now it’s tangled in her hair? The hero walks through a door, but then, two paragraphs later…walks through the same door again?
Ms. da Silva also makes a somewhat poignant point when she says, “An author going through the process for the first time may be somewhat startled at first to see anywhere from a few to many dozens of query flyers [or in today’s terms, electronic markup] attached to the manuscript…. But as any author who has had good past experiences with copy editors will be quick to point out, there is reason to feel reassured…. They are a sign that the manuscript has been read closely and with care” (p. 148).
It can certainly be overwhelming for an author when they open their document only to be faced with a sea of red markup, but I love that this perspective switches things around. Yes, there’s a lot of markup, but it’s a sign that someone read your manuscript very, very closely, with great care, and with the aim of making it the best book possible.
Yes, this book is an older title, but that’s not to say that it no longer is relevant. There’s an essay for every type of writer: editing for fiction, for nonfiction, for true crime, for crime fiction, for children’s books, for science fiction and fantasy! And every author could learn valuable things from this book, whether that’s the perspective their editor brings when they pick up the manuscript for the first time, how a copy editor approaches a manuscript, or what an editor looks for in a query letter or proposal. On that topic, the essay on proposal writing by Jane von Mehren was a treasure trove of advice that I would highly recommend.
Even though editing has changed over the years, so much about how editors approach their work has comfortingly stayed just the same, and that’s the advice that authors will be treated to when they pick up this book.
So, do I recommend this book? If you’re an author, then yes. I think there are a few essays in Editors on Editing that could really enlighten you to the art and practice of editing, and how all the moving parts come together! Just go in knowing that not all of the essays may be relevant to you personally.
Lesley-Anne Longo is TEC’s non-fiction editor and a regular contributor to TEC’s blogs. In her freelance practice she edits mainly romance and self-help/motivational. She can be reached at , and her website is www.lesleyannelongo.com.
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