Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.
C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces
Finding that perfect word that says the thing I mean, what I really mean, is a struggle for the writer — and I know all writers experience it constantly.
But it’s not just a writing problem; it’s also an editing problem
As an editor, my job (especially at the copyediting phase) is to make a manuscript sing. If I read your story or essay or article or devotional, I’m looking closely at the sentences and the words — and I’m asking if the words I see are the best words. Sometimes something I read makes me stumble. I have to go back and understand the sentence, or visualize the scene, or simply try to comprehend what the author means to say. I stumble because something isn’t working.
And if it isn’t working for me — the editor — then it isn’t going to work for the readers either.
Maybe I need to replace a blah verb with a stronger verb — or better yet, an adverb and verb with a strong verb. “He slowly walked across the street.” Ugh. Adverb. Not helpful. Many strong verbs can picture a slow walker, but the verb needs to be the best verb for the scene. Does he amble? trudge? shuffle? Amble sounds like he’s carefree . . . trudge sounds like he’s sad . . . shuffle sounds like he’s elderly or injured perhaps . . . I have to study the scene and suggest a strong verb, the right strong verb.
Or maybe the descriptor isn’t quite there. A “shiny” item might better be described as shimmering or glittering or glistening or gleaming or glossy (wow, lots of “g” words there).
At times, I look for a word that will add some alliteration — if it works with the tone of the piece.
It takes a writer, a reader, a word lover to be a good copy editor, to massage the message, to tame the tome (see what I did there?).
Some sentences just make me stop in wonder. Some words string together like the notes of a beautiful melody. They take my breath away. (I gave a few examples in this post called “Word Power.”)
It’s hard work, this writing, editing, and trying to say what we want to say or trying to help authors say what they want to say.
But when a sentence sings, when we “say the very thing [we] really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what [we] really mean” as C. S. Lewis writes, it’s all worth it.
We live for those moments.
Ever have one of those times when it all came together?
The manuscript for Word by Word is nearing completion . . . but it hasn’t been easy sailing.
That first draft looked perfect! I felt an overabundance of self-confidence as I emailed those 49,000 hard-won words to the publisher.
After several weeks, I received a loooooooooong email with the editor’s comments — some positive, some negative, lots of suggestions. I cried a bit and fell into a funk for about five days. Then I thought about how I would want my author to react if I, as editor, had sent such a letter (and I have sent a few in my day). Finally, when I got into the right frame of mind, I printed off the editor’s letter and dove in. Among other things, she wrote:
There are a number of issues in this manuscript that need focus and clarity. As I read your table of contents, my first thought was that you had nailed the content that needs to be in the project. But then I discovered that the actual content doesn’t quite deliver in some cases.
I had my work cut out for me. The biggest issue my editor pointed out was that my audience wasn’t clear. As I reread the manuscript, I discovered that she was right. Sometimes I was writing the book as a textbook for my students; sometimes I was writing to the person who already has a manuscript at a publishing house and is working with an editor; sometimes I was writing to people who are critiquing others’ manuscripts; sometimes I was writing to people who want to become editors. Only sometimes was I writing to the true audience of this book. I realized I had done more of an information dump about everything I know than staying true to my audience.
Other issues included some random items that made me think, I know better! Why didn’t I see that?
But then this:
Thank you for your hard work on this project. You are obviously knowledgeable and have a broad background of experience to enable you to write this book. . . .
I trust you will take the critiques as constructive and that you will be challenged to take it up with renewed enthusiasm. . . . You are a wealth of knowledge, Linda, and your voice is needed in this arena. I really really want this book from you.
Yes, indeed. And I really really want it published! So yes, I can and will do this.
My editor listed a number of fixes.
1) Identify a clear picture of the audience.
2) Set definite goals about the type of material you want to write.
3) Prepare an outline (extensive) of each chapter and what will be covered in that chapter, as well as the primary target audience for that chapter.
4) Rewrite the manuscript using these tools and suggestions.
I pictured my audience and knew what I wanted to write. My target audience is that pajama-clad and coffee-fueled author who has just pressed the key for the period at the end of the stunning final sentence on the first draft of his manuscript. He’s finished! But in the back of his mind he knows he isn’t really finished. He knows that no first draft is perfect; he knows he needs to edit.
But he doesn’t know how to do that or where to begin.
My goal is to help that writer understand both the publishing process and the steps and keys to self-editing.
Probably most helpful was my editor’s suggestion to create a revised extensive outline. Internally, I balked a little. Why do I need an outline at this point? But forcing each section of my manuscript to prove why it was there, where it fit best, and how it helped my target audience caused me to be very focused and brutal. Doing the big-picture editing with a revised outline proved invaluable.
I set to work with scissors, tape, and a red pen. Cutting, moving sections, taping pieces together — following my new outline. After a complete restructure on hard copy, I made the necessary changes on the electronic document. I let it sit for about two weeks. Then, I printed it out again. . . .
. . . and read word by word.
That’s where I am now. Reading and marking with my red pen. Suffice it to say that my manuscript is very red.
It will be better for it.
I am doing what I said everyone should do — in my book. The lesson is, of course, that no matter how much you go over your own manuscript, no matter how many critique readers you have, editors will still make marks and offer suggestions. They come at the manuscript completely objective. While an author sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees, the editor comes in like a surveyor and see the trees and how to create a clearing.
I’m thankful to have been on this side of the desk with an excellent editor who saw exactly what my book needs.
What about you? If you’ve worked with a professional editor, what has been the best advice he or she gave you in feedback on your work?
We’re at it again. Last year, I taught a class in our Professional Writing program that exposed our students to the entire publishing process, “from manuscript to book.” We read and edited real manuscripts written by real people; the students took them through the content editing phase, the copyediting phase, and the typesetting and proofreading phase. We also worked with the layout and design class, which created cover designs for us.
This semester, we again have five manuscripts and four authors.
You can read about the actual process on last year’s manuscripts through the hyperlinks above. This time around, we have three fantasy manuscripts and two nonfiction.
I want to tell you about this experience from the viewpoint of an author. One group of this class gamely took on my MFA thesis and my new editing book for Bold Vision Books, titled Word by Word, coming out this summer.
I had this group work on both of my manuscripts because the word count added up to roughly the same as the manuscripts in the other groups (about 100K), spreading the work evenly.
Here’s what happened from my perspective as an author. I had sent in the first draft of my thesis for review in my program. My MFA mentor wrote back with some excellent advice and good questions. One thing had to do with the entire premise. My thesis is about my life as an editor — it is more memoir-ish with research and other nonfiction elements. At first, I had the title “Superhero Editor.” My mentor challenged that, sensing that the metaphor didn’t really work. The editor doesn’t swoop in and “save the day”; no, it’s much more collaborative and intimate than that. He challenged me to try another metaphor.
I thought and thought and thought, coming up dry. Then, when I decided to give the project to my students, I offered them the challenge. And they came through.
They thought that the friendship angle would work better. They gave me the title “Friends with Words.” Then I realized that for the last month I’ve been playing on my phone every night with my mom — the Scrabble game “Words with Friends” (and, by the way, she usually smokes me!). We moved their words around, and I titled the thesis “Words with Friends” and went back and recast the entire thing to reflect the new tone of that kind of relationship between editors and authors.
I couldn’t have done it without my student editors!
After they finished my thesis, they gamely moved on to my contracted book, which is more of a textbook style (a book I will use in my editing classes moving forward). The full manuscript for this was due to the publisher on March 1, so I asked what I needed to do to improve this first draft.
I told them to put me through my paces and do what I’ve trained them to do . . . and they did. They pointed out my overuse of the word “So.” (When I checked it, Microsoft Word said, “There are too many instances to check. You use this word a lot!” Yikes!) They mentioned that I needed to watch for passive voice. They told me when I got long-winded (read: “boring”) and need to cut or revise some lengthy sections.
AND, they let me know what they liked, what was engaging, and what was helpful.
All the editing groups put together their editorial letters with suggestions and advice to their authors, who will do what they can with their manuscripts by our March 28 due date.
It’s 1976. I have just been dropped off by my parents to this place in the middle of nowhere. Houghton College, Houghton, New York. The town doesn’t even have a stoplight. Go too fast on Route 19 and you will go right on by without realizing there’s a really wonderful college just up that two-lane paved road part-way up the hill. In the years since I was there, the college astutely placed a large brick entrance sign and widened that road so that it’s a little more difficult to slide on by. However, there is still no stoplight.
I’m trying America back on again after spending my four high school years in Europe. We didn’t have American television so all these guys are going “Ehhhhhhh!” flashing a thumbs up and the explanation I get is that they’re imitating Fonzie.
“What’s a fonzie?”
Clearly, I am way behind the times.
My first writing instructor in college is a man named Dr. John Leax (pronounced “Lex.” He was fond of telling everyone not to make him more exotic with some sort of pronunciation like the French word for water, l’eau. It was just “Lex”). After we get that he’s pronounced “Lex,” I learn that although he’s John, his colleagues call him Jack. Sort of that “John Kennedy–Jack Kennedy” thing going on that I never understood. How does “John” become “Jack”? Well, it really didn’t matter anyway since I would never have called him by his first name.
It’s the required 101 basic writing class with whatever department call letters are used at the time. I am terrified. I’m in a new place in, basically, a new country; all of my high school friends are scattered (literally) all over the world; I’m hoping I can hack this whole college thing; I’m eight hours away from my parents and sister.
Here’s what I remember about Dr. Leax’s class:
Our papers are turned in and then mimeographed (I don’t think we yet had photocopiers in the world) onto clear plastic sheets. Our names are blacked out, and each paper is placed on the overhead projector so that all of its electric-typewriter-typed glory appears on the screen so we can read through it as a class. Not everyone gets this treatment. I think he picks out the especially good or especially bad papers.
One day my paper is being projected onto the screen, and I sit as nonchalantly as possible to make sure no one can possibly think it’s mine. Dr. Leax is underlining sections, discussing them. At one point, he draws a line through a paragraph and sketches a little trash can in the margin. It looks something like this–much more simple and crude, of course.
That’s what he did for everyone when something just was . . . well . . . trash. Trash cans in the margins. Sometimes, if the writing was especially bad, he’d do this:
The squiggly lines above the trash can signifying the especially pungent odor of said writing . . . er . . . bad writing. I don’t recall ever getting the squiggles on my papers, although I know I got more than one trash can.*
Since I eventually declare a double major in English and Writing, I will have the privilege of studying under Dr. Leax for other classes. He’s a poet and an inspiration. From Dr. Leax, I learn about the value of good writing and how to spot poor writing. And he teaches me how to make bad writing better. He teaches me the value of words and of finding just the right word.
Thank you, Dr. Leax. You gave me the tools I still use today.
Who’s your inspiration? Is there a person in your past who helped inspire you to be the person you are today?
* Update on 12/21/19. I just finished reading John Leax’s book, In Season and Out (Zondervan, 1985). There, he writes, “When I started teaching, I was all for kicking. My students may have been bruised, but I was sure they were tough. After about five years in the classroom, I began to have my doubts. Perhaps they were merely bruised. I stopped drawing garbage cans beside their bad sentences and started making ambiguous little arrows that mean ‘something is not quite right here, but I think you might have the idea.’ Lately I’ve been tempted to write, ‘Come on. Please don’t break my heart by writing so badly I can’t ignore your errors. Don’t you realize how much I want to pass you?’ I’m growing soft and wishy-washy” (99).
This past summer at the Write-to-Publish Conference, I pitched a book to a publishing company called Bold Vision Books. For several years I’ve wanted to write a book about editing–a book that combines much of my work for the past three decades along with the research I’ve been doing about the great editors (some of which I’ve been sharing here on my blog) and turning it into a book I can use in my future editing classes at Taylor University.
And I hope it’s a book many writers and aspiring editors will want to read.
And the publisher accepted it! So now, in addition to writing my thesis (about editing), I’m also writing a book (about editing).
Needless to say, this is exciting and exhausting. There are several great books about editing already out there (as I discussed in this post), so I feel both humbled and honored as I take on this task.
The publisher has asked that my book help writers with self-editing, so my audience is writers who are trying to make their manuscripts the best they can be before sending them off to agents or acquisitions editors or before self-publishing on Kindle or CreateSpace.
If you’re interested, here’s what it looks like so far:
Introduction—Take This Quiz! A Bird’s Eye View of the Publishing World This is a publishing quiz that pulls from numbers in the publishing world (number of books published in a year, number of returns, general number of each title sold, etc.). Multiple choice.
Chapter 1—Let’s Start at the Very Beginning Takes you through all of the steps in the publishing process—from manuscript idea to bound book. Helps the reader understand how many people touch the book, how many decisions must be made along the way.
Chapter 2—A Passion for Words What editing is all about, what makes a good editor, why everyone needs to self-edit and have others edit their work. I explore the stories of two great editors—Tay Hohoff and Maxwell Perkins—and their work with Harper Lee and F. Scott Fitzgerald respectively.
Chapter 3—First Impressions The supreme importance of a manuscript’s first pages. Explanation of how agents and acquisitions editors only have a few moments at a conference or busy schedules at their offices and if the writer doesn’t grab them in the first few pages, they won’t read any further. How can you edit those first pages to make them intriguing?
Chapter 4—Content Editing (The 10,000-foot View) This chapter focuses on what content (or developmental) editing is and how it takes a different mind-set from both writing and copyediting. It explores ways to content edit yourself and others, and the questions to ask as you’re editing (separating fiction and nonfiction).
Chapter 5—Copyediting (The 1,000-foot View) This chapter has several functions just as a copy editor also has several jobs in addition to just reading the manuscript. I will help those who are putting together their manuscripts to understand how to build the front matter and back matter for their books (such as what they should go ahead and put on their copyright page and TOC), how to use templates and create style tags (which will make the editor at the publishing house want to kiss them)—in short, how to deliver a clean and consistent manuscript.
From there, we’ll cover some basic grammar and punctuation rules and guidelines—keying in on the errors I tend to see all the time (hello! No double spacing between sentences!) and how to fix them. I will advise on some of the Microsoft Word tools that will be most useful (not everything in all detail, but the key tools).
We’ll also learn about the bible—The Chicago Manual of Style—along with style guides and style sheets. They will have exercises to do to try to find various items in CMS and with a style sheet from a fake publisher. I will include some exercises for them to practice grammar and punctuation, along with some very funny dangling modifiers to fix (“We saw a dead deer driving down the road.”).
Chapter 6—Proofreading (The 10-foot View) We talk about proofreading in a couple of ways. First, we can proofread a manuscript on hard copy—and this is where we’ll learn about proofreader marks. I will show the readers what these are and provide some practice pages to work with proofreader marks.
Second, we’ll talk about proofreading on pdfs of typeset pages and how to use the markup tools in Adobe. In this phase, there’s more than just proofreading the text; proofreaders have to check the layout of pages, page numbers for the TOC, placement of elements on pages, etc. I will provide a checklist of items to look for in this proofreading phase along with a practice page.
Chapter 7—Working with Bible Text Even though this is not necessarily a Christian publishing book, that has been the major part of my experience so I will include advice on working with Bible text. This will also include practice exercises. As much as we Christians love and use the Bible, it’s amazing how authors so often are not careful when they quote from it or refer to its stories in their writing. In this chapter, I give some personal experiences with thirty years of Bible publishing and several tips on working with the Bible text.
Chapter 8—If You Want to Try to Self-Publish . . . We’ll talk about the world of vanity publishing—pros, cons, and things to look out for. For example, if they decide to build a book for Kindle or use CreateSpace, what do they need to know, and how they should format and price their books. However, I would always advice all of those editorial steps above.
Chapter 9—Child’s Play: The Special World of Children’s Editing Editing children’s books is a very different skill. In this chapter, I discuss the kind of mind-set needed to edit children’s books, with a discussion of Ursula Nordstrom, editor of such books as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Where the Wild Things Are, and Harriet the Spy. I also will interview some children’s editors for further insights into this special world.
Chapter 10—If You Want to Try an Editing Career . . . Here I talk about how to prepare for an editing career, how to build a portfolio of work and where to find that work, how to practice, what to charge if you freelance.
Thoughts? Am I missing anything? You writers out there, what would you want to read in a book about self-editing? Let me know in the comments below! And thanks in advance for your help.
She went shopping with Amy Tan and Amy’s mother in Manhattan. She loved bargains, just as Amy does. When it came to finding the cheap deal, she and Amy were joined at the hip.
Her name was Faith Sale and she was Amy’s editor—the one who first saw the potential in a young business writer who began to write novels as a creative release from the doldrums of writing for corporate executives. Sale said in an interview that finding the novel about Chinese mothers and American-raised Chinese daughters was “the biggest thrill an editor can have.” Before she passed away in 1999, Sale had an editing career that spanned four decades, working with, in addition to Amy Tan, authors such as Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Alice Hoffman, and Joseph Heller.
Whenever I gave Faith something to read, she’d ask me what I wanted from her as an editor. “Keep me from embarrassing myself in public,” was my usual answer. And she did keep me from exposing the glitches in my prose, but she also prodded me to go deeper, to be more generous in the story I had to tell, to not hold back, to show what was most important in my life and on the page. She had an unerring sense of what mattered—to me. She could help me find it, though there were many ways in which we differed in taste and opinions. (63)
Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, published in 1989, hit The New York Times bestseller list and remained there for several months, winning both the National Book Award and the L.A. Times Book Award.
I appreciate that Sale paid her dues—working her way up through the levels of editing as she moved to various publishing companies. Beginning as a secretary at Knopf, she moved on to Lippincott in 1959 where she was an editorial assistant, then moved up to assistant editor. In 1963, she moved over to Macmillan as associate editor. After living out of the country briefly, she did freelance work upon her return—working for publishing companies, literary agents, and authors. In 1977, she was named senior editor at E. P. Dutton, and then joined Putnam where she was vice president and senior executive editor.
In an essay she wrote for Editors on Editing, Sale emoted about her love of being an editor. She saw good writing as “the highest form of art” (268), and she knew that she wasn’t someone who could accomplish it. Like Maxwell Perkins, she had no visions of being a writer; she was an editor through and through. She saw herself in service of the art by helping the writers.
What I try to be for an author is the smartest, most sympathetic reader of the manuscript. . . . This means I must earn the author’s trust, make the author feel comfortable with me and my perceptions. . . .
When I’m hooked, I’m unshakably committed for the long haul, regardless of obstacles. But I can’t fake it: my devotion to fiction is born more out of instinct than intellect, based more on emotional response than calculated judgment. The moment of connection is the moment I become a book’s (or an author’s) advocate—its nurturer, defender, supporter, mouthpiece, bodyguard. . . .
Having made the decision to take a book on, I must figure out how to convey to the author what I think could or should be done to make the book the best it can be. It never is—because I think it never should be—making the book into anything other than what the author has envisioned. In my role of the author’s best reader . . . what I mean to do is help the author to realize the author’s intention. (269)
She saw the editorial process as organic, working back and forth with the author, with both trying to take the raw manuscript, deepen and enrich what exists, sharpening the book and the plot arc and the characters. Then she shepherded the manuscript through copyediting, answering questions the copy editor may have that she knew she could answer on behalf of the author, discussing with the author if she didn’t. She wanted to “make sure that nothing is being done to harm the work in any way. I also look over the proofreader’s markings to ensure that the author’s style has not fallen victim to a by-the-book grammarian. And I follow along through the further stages of production so that neither the author nor I will discover any surprises in the printed book” (271-72).
A good editor doesn’t stop when the book gets sent to copyediting and then to proofreading. There has been so much communication with the author that the editor knows the book through and through. Authors may want particular things that go against the rules of grammar—and a copyeditor may make changes that the author would not want. The editor will know this . . . and keep it from happening.
Great editors know that the book belongs to the author, and they fight for it every step of the way. Faith Sale understood that. In The Opposite of Fate, Amy adds this:
[Sale] was . . . wrong in one thing about me as a writer. She believed for some reason that writing came easily to me, that words poured onto the page with the ease of turning on a faucet, and that her role was mostly to help me adjust the outpouring toward the right balance. That belief had so much to do with her confidence in me. And I guess that is the role of both an editor and a friend—to have that confidence in another person, that the person’s best is natural and always possible, forthcoming after an occasional kick in the butt. (64)
Confidence and a kick in the butt. And bargain shopping. Sounds like a perfect match.
So I’m writing a book. Yes indeed. A couple actually. One is for my MFA program; the other is for a small publisher. Both are about editing–one more in a memoir-esque fashion, the other more like a textbook, something I want to use in my future editing classes.
In the process of putting together my proposal, I needed to check out books similar to mine. As I ordered books online and checked them out from the local library, I fell in love with some of them–the voice, the humor, the helps, the advice, the exercises. So I thought I’d pass along to you some of my favorites. If you want to learn about editing or want to work more on being your own self-editor, you might check into some of these excellent resources. The great thing about reading books about editing is that you really get a double-whammy–you are also studying how to be a better writer, the kind of writer editors dream about!
I’ve used this book in my editing class since 2010 when I first began teaching. The book does an excellent job of being very introductory, has exercises for practice, and incorporates vocabulary. It’s also the only book I could find that gives a clear delineation between copyediting and proofreading. It includes practice exercises, proofreading marks, and publishing vocabulary.
I wrote more about this book in this post, so you can check it out there. Suffice it to say that this is one of those books that really will help you ask the right questions as you work on your own writing. He also offers advice to both fiction and nonfiction writers.
Bell takes on the topic of editing yourself (and, by extension, others). She covers what she calls Macro-Editing and Micro-Editing. I love that she uses several pages working from information in Scott Berg’s book about Maxwell Perkins to discuss the editing process—and how Fitzgerald edited The Great Gatsby from Perkins’s advice. In between are testimonies from various authors about their editors. She discusses the history of editing–which is quite fascinating.
Morrell talks about her experience as a developmental editor, includes chapters that focus on the various elements of good writing (plot, suspense, characterization, stories, etc.), and teaches with anecdotes and examples. Her focus is on helping writers write better so that they can avoid getting rejected for the most common reasons that manuscripts get rejected.
If you’re interested in more than just book editing, this one is a great resource. Dunham includes a level of content editing, copyediting, and proofreading. There are chapters on “Editing for Content,” “Editing for Focus,” “Editing for Precise Language,” “Editing for Grammar,” “Typography,” and some tips about word usage, words that are often misused, etc. He includes some checklists and examples. There is information about magazines, online publications, “and more.”
I also wrote about this one in a blog post. Lerner describes some general types of writers and then peeks behind the editor’s desk and into the publishing world. If you want an idea of what goes on in the editing world at a publishing house, this is a great book.
No list of books would be complete without this little gem. If you often write nonfiction, this little guide offers everything you need to “write well.” We lost Zinsser in 2015, but his legacy lives on. I wrote more about this book in this post.
Of course, every copy editor should have style manuals (Chicago Manual of Style or an AP Style Guide). I’m sure I’m missing a few. If you’re an editor or interested in editing, what books have you read that you’ve found most helpful?
One thing (among many) that I love about our Professional Writing program at Taylor University is that the students get such a thorough and well-rounded education in the world of publishing.
Here’s what I mean: After the students in my “Manuscript to Book: How It Happens” class finished their copyediting passes on their manuscripts (which included style tags, along with general language and punctuation cleanup), they then took those manuscripts to the layout and design lab.
As part of the Professional Writing major, students are required to take classes in “Digital Tools: Photoshop” and “Digital Tools: InDesign.” This makes them quadruple threats for any job in publishing because they know what it means to work with the words, but they also know what goes on in the design and typesetting phase where the books are created from the manuscript.
So each took one of the styled manuscripts, flowed it onto a template, and typeset a book. For three class periods we met in the layout and design lab and they worked on the manuscripts–deciding on fonts, chapter starts (recto only or recto/verso), leading, kerning, watching for widows and orphans (those random single words or lines at the top or bottom of a page), placing folios and running heads, and generally working to lay out a pleasing book within the page count target.
After they completed laying out the typeset pages, the teams chose one to turn into a PDF, and the PDF then moved on to the next team to do the proofreading pass.
In proofreading, the students work with the PDF tools to mark errors that either were missed in the copyediting phase or showed up in typesetting. They first do a visual check of all the pages — looking that the margins are even, that the folios and running heads are placed correctly, that everything looks right. Only then do they go back and begin to read every letter on every page.
After a few days of this proofreading practice, we met together, looked at the PDFs on the screen, and talked about what they had noted as errors.
Again, this is one of the phases that takes a different kind of skill. At this point, no one wants the proofreader’s opinion of the book or the arc of the story. And really the proofreader should not be revising sentences. Instead, he or she should really only fix true errors (which can, indeed, happen at the sentence level; for instance, if there’s a dangling modifier, the proofreader should fix it).
Proofreaders need to enjoy the hunt – searching for and correcting errors. It takes a special “eye” to do this, one that can be trained with practice. (I recall many years ago when I was doing freelance proofreading on galleys, the editor at the publishing house would often say, “I can’t believe you found those errors!” I took this as a compliment.)
As our “final exam,” the students went back to the styletagged manuscripts and learned how to create ebooks.
So there we have it. My students took manuscripts and turned them into books. Now they know how it happens! They felt that actually working through the steps as would happen in a real publishing house had been extremely valuable in the learning process.
Louise Fitzhugh’s brilliant story of Harriet the Spy drew cheers from some critics and groans from others. But the children took Harriet right to their hearts, and this book is now a best seller which seems destined for literary immortality.
So says the back flap cover of the dust jacket of my copy of Harriet the Spy. I impulse purchased it on Amazon a couple years ago remembering how much I had loved the book when I read it somewhere around age eleven.
I’m not sure where I first came across Harriet. Perhaps she arrived through a kids’ book club. Maybe I checked her out from the bookmobile that arrived in our subdivision every Saturday morning. But I recall being entranced by her. Harriet wore rolled up jeans and glasses and ran a spy route and wrote in her notebook her observations about the comings and goings and private discussions of the people she spied on. Outside under an open window, she listened to the Robinson family; from a rooftop skylight she peered down at Harrison Withers; sneaking into a dumbwaiter and pulling the ropes, she listened outside old Mrs. Plumber’s bedroom. I found it all fascinating. I wanted to be Harriet. I didn’t want to spy necessarily, but I did want to observe my world and I wanted to write.
“What are you writing?” Sport asked.
“I’m taking note on all those people who are sitting over there.”
“Aw, Sport”—Harriet was exasperated—“because I’ve seen them and I want to remember them.”
After the book arrived from Amazon, I reread Harriet’s adventures. Looking through my adult eyes, the story came across as a bit weird. Really? Sneaking into someone’s dumbwaiter in order to listen to private conversations in the bedroom (well, yeah, the woman was an elderly woman alone and on her phone, but still!). Climbing onto a roof? Writing unkind things about your closest friends?
Looking at the book through an adult’s eyes, I suffered from what Ursula Nordstrom understood all too well—adults too often plastering children’s books with their own adult concerns and thus totally losing the beauty of imagination.
Nordstrom believed in children. She believed that if she could get the books past the adults who buy them into the hands of children, the adults could learn from the children how to enjoy and understand what was being done in a truly creative work.
Harriet the Spy was published in 1964. When Louise Fitzhugh arrived at the Harper & Row offices, she had a manuscript that was originally no more than the scribblings in Harriet’s notebook. Nordstrom’s senior editor, Charlotte Zolotow, wrote a report on the sample pages noting that they needed to bring Fitzhugh in to talk. Zolotow saw that it wasn’t yet a book, but it could be. Nordstrom wrote to her senior editor later, thankful that the two of them had “drawn Harriet the Spy out of Louise” (304).
The book managed to garner accolades as well as criticism. Nordstrom is credited with answering mail and constantly being willing to stand up for her authors. Regarding a complaint letter about Harriet, she wrote:
I still wonder what put you off so about Harriet the Spy. Was it the fact that she spied that disturbed you? I think most of us have forgotten the awful things we did or wanted to do when we were 10 or 11 or 12. I was brought up with the most stern drilling of what was right and wrong, kind or mean, thoughtful or inconsiderate, etc. etc., and never tell a lie no matter what. And to this day I would love to read other people’s mail and listen to their telephone conversations if it were not for this hideous conscience, well . . . But you are all for vigor in children’s books and Harriet seems to have such vigor and life. (229)
Nordstrom realized that it would sometimes take the force of her strong personality to help the publisher and the authors and then the librarians and teachers and parents read the books with a child’s eyes. To get rid of their “adult” concerns, open their imaginations, and enjoy what she called “vigorous” books. As she considered the sorry state of 1960s teen novels, she wrote, “The ‘rigid world of good and bad’ is infinitely easier to write about than the real world. Because the writer of books about the real world has to dig deep and tell the truth.”
As I reread Harriet the Spy, I fell into the trap. I found myself wondering if I’d have wanted my kids to read it. I saw the danger Harriet was putting herself in writing true observations, hurting her friends. But that was the very genius of Nordstrom—she realized that children liked books about kids who did bad things sometimes, who had to go to bed without supper, who weren’t perfect little angels.
While I read Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little and Where the Wild Things Are to my children, it never occurred to me that somewhere along the line an author had to get an editor to understand that—yes—a talking spider is a really great idea! A spider! And a kid spying on the neighbors and writing down everything they do—also a great idea!
Somehow Nordstrom and her team got it.
I’m thankful that Nordstrom and Zolotow did indeed help Fitzhugh create Harriet. Harriet became my friend. She got herself into scrapes but learned how to deal with them. She was herself—willing to be different from everyone else. I think that’s what I saw in her as I sat reading this book on a quiet evening baby-sitting my sleeping baby sister. Harriet made it okay to be alone, to be observant, to want to write.
Children’s literature is a special breed that takes special people to navigate it. It needs adult writers and editors who have enough of a child’s mind to be able to see the possibilities. To know that a talking spider can save a pig’s life. To know that a talking mouse can be born to human parents. To know that a little bespeckled girl with a notebook might just inspire another little bespeckled girl to become a writer.
You’ve probably never heard her name–I hadn’t until last night when watching a TV special about Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and her unknown and previously unpublished second book titled Go Set a Watchman.
The editor’s name was mentioned in passing, and I asked my husband to pause, replay, and help me catch it. Tay Hohoff is described in a blog post by Clarissa Atkinson, a fellow employee at J. B. Lippincott, as a “respected editor” and a “challenging presence.”
Ms. Atkinson goes on in another post to describe the To Kill a Mockingbird years at the publishing house:
J.B. Lippincott . . . was a family-owned Philadelphia firm, old-fashioned even in the 1950s. I worked in the branch office at Fifth Avenue and 43rd Street – an editorial office, in which the New York tail wagged the Philadelphia dog. My tenure at Lippincott coincided with a few of the many years during which Harper Lee was working onTo Kill a Mockingbird. According to office legend (more or less substantiated byWikipedia), Lee had arrived from Alabama with a trunk full of mixed-up parts and pages of an enormous manuscript, she lived in a garret on macaroni while she transformed the pages into a stunningly successful book, and this was accomplished through the faithful support and encouragement of her Lippincott editor.
Is anyone surprised by this “faithful support and encouragement” from an editor? Not me.
We’ve all heard the story by now. How friends of Harper Lee’s gave her a year’s worth of pay and told her to just go write for that year. The result was this astounding book published in 1960 that was an instant classic and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
And those of us who write wonder how in the world this writer crafted one book (well, now we know of two) that had this kind of success. We can only dream of that.
I think it has much to do with her upbringing–her father was a well-respected lawyer in her small hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in the deep South in the days before the Civil Rights movement. She touched a nerve by taking on the topic of racism and showing what it takes to stand up for what’s right.
Still, she also had a good editor who helped to shape the book into something readable. In 2010, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, Newsweek ran an article titled, “Who Helped Harper Lee with Mockingbird?” that discusses Tay Hohoff’s role in the book:
Lee had dropped out of college during her senior year to move to New York to become a writer—to the dismay of her father, who wanted her to be a lawyer. She spent nearly a decade doing odd jobs and scraping by before she submitted five stories to a Maurice Crain, an agent who, frankly, wasn’t overly impressed. But he and his wife liked Lee, and he encouraged her to try a novel. The result, then called Atticus, was a mess. “There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J. B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance—but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.
It’s a good thing, wouldn’t you say?
That’s the role of a great editor. Sending a writer back to keep rewriting. Being there when the writer is facing a brick wall and muddled pages. Making sure the pages tossed out the window get gathered up and worked on because the editor sees something that maybe even the author can’t yet see.
ADDENDUM 7/14/15: Reviews of Go Set a Watchman are popping up online, and most of them are not kind. This one, in particular, gives credit to Tay Hohoff for the work she did in shaping To Kill a Mockingbird, a touch clearly missing from this most recent publication. But I disagree with the sentiment that there aren’t editors like that around anymore–there are, and they work very hard to bring diamonds out of the rough.
7/25/15: Excellent commentary from The New York Times. Unfortunately, I do feel that this may have been far more about money than about the writing or the writer.