As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, for two solid years exactly Sam wrote a series of essays called The Rambler, which he published twice a week, one on Tuesday and one on Saturday. He started on March 20, 1750, and ended with number 208 on March 14, 1752. These were also not brief little things or the equivalent of Huffington Post listicles. An average Rambler essay was about 1,500 words, which is about six double-spaced pages from a modern printer. They had range like the HuffPost listicles, but Sam covered morals and the arts, and not so much “23 Things Women Are Tired of Hearing” and “Explaining The Logic Behind Candy Corn Hatred.”
His Rambler essays were enormously popular during the latter 18th century and are still viewed by scholars – and general readers who tackle the excellent but sometimes difficult prose – as great literary works. Boswell offered to bet that it was impossible for Sam to improve them, to which Sam replied that
I shall make the best of them you shall pick out, better. There are three ways: putting out, adding, or correcting.James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (Penguin Classics, 2008), p. 997.
Deleting, adding, or revising. That’s not a bad succinct summary of what a professional editor does. There’s a narrow-minded myth shared by some people that you just need an editor to correct the typos in your writing and make sure your grammar is right. Sure, yes, they can do that, but there are at least two other ways in which editors can save any piece of writing. I couldn’t find a listicle about this, but they are providing advice to the writer about the entire structure of the work, and ensuring that the sentences are well written and make easy, intuitive sense to the reader, and are not just a brilliant toss-off from the writer’s imagination that the poor reader is left to struggle with, translate, or ignore and move on to the next paragraph. As in everything from advertising slogans to articles to standup comedy to short stories and big tomes of professedly literary novels, everything, everything depends on the quality of the writing.
I am writing not only my Sam bio but also co-writing with my financial planner a book about retirement planning. Some people assume that because I’m a professional freelance editor, at least one stage and expense I can save in those books is the hiring of an editor. That is definitely not true and the plan is to hire an editor (or two) before the books are published. Part of it is for the reasons I just cited, but another part is just having another person look at writing that seems fine to you. Yes, you can get your friends to read it or parts of it and tell you what they think, and that input is valuable, but they are not professionals and frankly in some cases they might not be objective (“This is great, Wayne!”).
I always imagine a book in layers. There’s the grand structure, the way you choose which chapters are going to be included in the book and in what order they are going to flow out in the table of contents. It’s similar within each chapter: choose your paragraphs and make sure they are in a logical order in order to encourage easy comprehension on the part of your reader. A paragraph or section that is out of place – too soon or early in the chapter, or not belonging to this chapter, or not belonging in the book at all – can stop the reader, throw them off, confuse them, and if it happens too frequently make them put the book away and look for better reading (and writing).
Well-crafted sentences are extremely important and within each sentence the words should be carefully chosen. A writer shouldn’t just spew out the first thing that comes from their head, call it imagination or inspiration, and consider it finished. That’s a recipe for the reader quickly dumping your book and going to their computer to search online for more listicles.
And it’s kind of then where we come to the typos and the grammar and syntax and the rest of it, the stuff that many people think are the only things that editors do. Please don’t misunderstand me: those things are very important. A book littered with typos or ungrammatical sentences will not inspire confidence in readers that the writer is someone whose thoughts are worth considering. They discourage the faith of the reader.
One of my favourite stories about editing – yes, people who are editors and have majored in English have favourite stories about editing – is by the textual editor, G. Blakemore Evans, of one of the authoritative modern editions of the works of Shakespeare. In the acknowledgments, his final thanks is to his wife, “who with truly Spartan endurance read aloud to me the complete text (including all the punctuation marks!).” * That’s true love.
Editing overall is one of those undervalued arts and sciences. It requires a pretty solid and comprehensive knowledge of the English language, from the basics to the niceties. And English being the messy beast that it is, editing requires a lot of judgment as well. Especially as the attitude toward the language has grown less prescriptive and more descriptive over the centuries, partly led by that impressive work of scholarship, the Oxford English Dictionary, there are often choices that an editor has to make, and those choices need to be made consistently and for a reason, keeping in mind both the reader and the writer. The editor has to play diplomat or prodder as well, convincing a categorical writer, for example, that this choice of word or this way of writing the sentence is just not conducive to being seamlessly understood by the reader.
And that, in a sense, is the main goal. The biography I’m writing of Samuel Johnson is explicitly aimed at the general reader, and so at every point where I make a choice about this or that, I always have that in mind. Is this episode minutia that the general reader won’t care about? Is this minutia, yes, but important to understanding Sam, so I have to write it in a way that makes it compelling? I may not always make the right call in my “final” draft, so I will rely on a good editor to help me a little.
* William Shakespeare, The Riverside Shakespeare (Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. vi.