An editor’s notebook: How to help authors who get carried away
One big job of an editor is to provide a perspective from outside the confines of the writer’s head. Writers burble out all sorts of prose that made sense to them when they wrote it. The editor points out what must change for that prose to make sense to everyone else.
Today’s examples come from yet another book I edited. Once again, the author was experienced and talented and had a lot to say. (Once again, I’m grateful that they gave me permission to post their unedited text here.) For example, look at this passage:
But for us it was a watershed moment. The head of the world’s sixth most valuable company just indicated that he saw what we saw and he was driving his company in that direction and like us, he understood that what was coming rapidly down the pike was so fundamentally transformative that it would take a full decade for the tech to be full refined and for people to fully accept the changes that were already set in motion.
Keep in mind that this paragraph is in the middle of a block of prose that’s building up to something important. The author is allowed to be excited; books should have room for enthusiasm. But this paragraph is rushing headlong into the future so rapidly that it leaves the reader behind. If you’ve got to edit this, what are the clues that tell you how to fix it?
- The vagueness. “He saw what we saw and was driving his company in that direction” — it’s not clear what direction this means. (There is context from the prose that came before, but in this case, that context was insufficient to give this sentence a firm referent.)
- A run-on sentence. The second sentence is 71 words long. Dickens is allowed to do this; business books are not.
- Overenthusiastic words. “Rapidly,” “fundamentally transformative,” and “full[y] refined,” for example.
Despite these flaws, my job as editor was not to drain the enthusiasm, but to channel it. Nor was it my job to change the author’s style, which, when it’s working, sweeps you up in a series of vivid prose descriptions. Here’s are the three comments I made on the paragraph.
This paragraph is completely over the top. I learned a principle a while back, which is that the more startling something is that you want to say, the more clearly, directly, and simply you should say it. This paragraph has so many adverbs and intensifiers that it undermines its own message. It’s breathless.
This is a very long and chewy sentence, and “that direction” is vague, and we don’t know what it’s referring to. That’s why I rewrote.
Fundamentally transformative is redundant.
And here’s my rewrite:
But for us it was a watershed moment. The head of the world’s sixth most valuable company had just indicated that he saw what we saw and he was driving his company toward a new way of interacting with the world. Like us, he understood that what was coming rapidly down the pike was so transformative that it would take a decade for the tech to mature, and for people to fully accept the changes that were coming.
I wouldn’t write it this way, but this wasn’t my book. And notice that I preserved some of the powerful words, like “rapidly” and “transformative,” which were then free to stand out without competing with a bunch of other over-the-top words.
Regarding run-on sentences, they tend to exist because the author gets carried away and keeps adding thoughts. As an editor, you want to figure out where the thoughts begin and end and break things up. The thoughts in this passage are, in order:
- This was a key moment.
- An executive agrees with us that a new technology is important.
- The executive realizes the significance of the technology.
- It’s going to take a while for the transformation to happen.
- It’s going to take a while for people to get used to it.
It just made sense to me to break the sentence before the last three points. What would you have done?
How a mild rewrite can create organization, clarity, and signposts
Here’s another beefy passage in pre-edited form. (Here, “VR” means “virtual reality” and “MR” means “mixed reality.”)
We think Google has the most ambitious and diverse plans for the enhanced technologies. Ranging from Cardboard VR on the low end where millions have been distributed to their investment in Magic Leap’s high end MR glasses and much of which is in between, we see a Google presence. We expect to see MR glasses involved in their autonomous car when it comes out and, Chrome, its wildly popular web browser will soon be VR enabled—at least on Android devices.
This isn’t bad. But once again, the thoughts are rushing out headlong and risk leaving the reader behind. As on Monday, you can begin to figure out how to edit this by mapping out the subjects and verbs.
- Google has plans.
- We see a Google presence.
- We expect MR glasses in their car.
- Chrome will be VR-enabled.
Here’s how I suggested rewriting it:
We think Google has the most ambitious and diverse plans for the enhanced technologies. Ranging from the millions of low-end Cardboard VR sets they have distributed, to their investment in Magic Leap’s high end MR glasses, with much investment in between, we see a Google presence. We expect that its eventual autonomous car will interact with MR glasses. Chrome, its wildly popular web browser, will soon be VR enabled—at least on Android devices.
Here’s what I did:
- Rationalized the phrases in the second sentence, and used commas to make it easier to parse.
- Focused on the car first in the next sentence.
- Gave Chrome its own sentence, since it’s a different idea.
These are not big changes. But by breaking up and organizing the thoughts, they give the reader signposts to make it easier to understand meaning in a technology-filled set of passages. Notice that I left most of the words in place, because that’s the way this author writes, and it’s not my job to make them sound like me.
Authors need perspective
As a reader, when you encounter prose that’s rushing along without signposts or appropriate pauses, your mind tends to skitter over it. This makes meaning elusive.
As an editor, you don’t have the luxury of skittering over prose. When your mind starts to skitter, alarm bells should go off. You are standing in for the reader, and the reader is getting confused.
All authors have tendencies and habits that make them who they are — and some that make them less clear that they ought to be. Your job is not to cure them (unless they love passive voice, of course). Your job is to help them see where they are not accomplishing what they’ve hoped to accomplish, because of their blind spots. When you shine a light in those blind spots, you can figure out what changes will help the meaning come through without undermining the author’s style.
I am very hard on prose. But more often than not, authors thank me and want to work with me again. They might like me better if I had a lighter touch, but they appreciate me more because I don’t.
I appreciate your separation of clear prose and writing style. When I edit, I often struggle to keep the author’s style. It feels easier to insert my own. Thanks for defining those boundaries.
I struggle with the same thing. I suspect that we’re not alone.