2019-02-25 – Where have all the editors gone?
I have been a paid writer and an editor for 35 years. I wrote and edited for maybe 15 years before that. So I’ve seen some of the history that answers that question. But before I get to that I want to tell you how this writer feels about editors. I love them.
If you think I’m talking about self-love, it’s not that at all. The editors that I love are, by definition, not me. You can’t edit yourself. Writers might see some of their own mistakes, but not all. You know what you meant to say and that knowledge colors what you see on the page. An editor doesn’t know what you meant to say and will cry out if your writing has errors that might interfere with your intended message.
So why am I writing about this today?
I just finished reading “The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present” by David Treuer, which came out a few weeks ago. This is an important book for it take on the arc of Native American history both before and after Wounded Knee. It tells the story of the destruction wrought on native peoples since Columbus but, more importantly, it tells the story of how native peoples have struggled to recover from that destruction.
It is the story of that recovery that was Treuer’s reason for writing the book. He talks about reading about the destruction of native culture in college and having the reaction: what about me? I’m still here.
The book has 3 mains sections (though it is formally organized in 7). The first section talks about native civilization before colonization (only a fraction of the formal first part of the book). The next section talks about various actions by the federal government, first to conquer native peoples, and then to somehow incorporate the survivors into the United States (parts 1 through 4). The last section (parts 5 through 7) talks about how, since the 1970s, native people have become activists in their own recovery from the disaster of Wounded Knee.
This is such a positive book that I felt that the editing (or lack thereof) let Treuer down. His voice was strongest in the final section about modern resistance. The guy is a good storyteller. But the storytelling is largely missing in the first two sections. They are too scattershot. A good editor could have helped him make his story more compelling. If you’re not compelling at the beginning, readers might not get to the good stuff at the end.
But it’s not just high-level editing that was missing in this book. It was missing basic proofreading. I don’t mean by this that the book was full of misspellings. Spellcheck certainly saved the book from that. But Computer spelling and grammar checks don’t catch everything.
But humans do.
Treuer’s book was published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. They are not a fly-by-night publisher. They should know about editing.
I started to work in publishing in the mid-80s. At that time, my company had editors and copyeditors and proofreaders. Each had separate functions. We were still a hot-metal shop. We had linotype machines down the hall. There were no computers in sight.
But within a couple of years we were totally transformed and the multiple layers of quality control went out the door. Executives thought that computer spelling and grammar checkers could do the job. And those who were unwilling to throw the whole quality chain out the window farmed it out to India or Singapore. Now, I have nothing against India or Singapore, but I don’t think it is improper to say that they don’t speak the same type of English as we do, and they don’t have the same cultural knowledge.
That’s where the editing has gone. To the other side of the world. Or to the bits and bytes of artificial intelligence. They are not doing the job.
Real editors can save a writer who has made a mistake or who is struggling with difficult problems. Treuer’s real problem in this book is that his audience, most of America, is pretty uninformed about the native portion of American history. Treuer had to bring us up to a basic level of understanding before he hit us with his good stuff. Sections 1 and 2 (by my divisions, not his) are basically remedial education. A good editor could have helped him make that more compelling.
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The flipside is how does a writer find a good editor? I am assuming Treuer and his imprint made a stab at editing. Writers want to hear their stuff is good, so honest and helpful suggestions can be difficult to hear. How do you find the editor who can navigate the minefield and help create a better-crafted presentation?