Notes from an editor: Great books aren’t written, they’re re-written

—Ilene Kalish

All editors love books. At some point in our lives we fell in love with words, sentences, and stories. It happened early for me. In elementary school I never wanted to leave the library; I hid between the stacks. If you don’t like to think about the wellchosen word or the lyrical power of language, then you probably wouldn’t make a good editor.

And that’s okay. But as a scholar looking to write a book, you should take a moment to think about the craft of writing. For here is a secret that editors know: great books aren’t written, they’re re-written. Many authors have done impressive research and spent years (even decades) interviewing, transcribing, and culling data. But if that scholarship is going to make an impact, then there is more work to do. You have to transform your findings into a well-told narrative. You have to draw your reader in.

You must be inventive, creative, and lively with your prose. Introduce us to new ideas, new phrases, new ways of thinking. This is what great writers do. This is what you, the author, must do.

Professors are expected to research, teach, and write. The writing may be last on the list, and there may not be any love for it. Great writing is hard. Great writers make reading easy. The words sing, the sentences flow, the pages turn. That’s hard work. Most great writers are talented, but the process of creating a worthwhile book is laborious. Words can be elusive, awkward, tripped over, clunky, monotonous, pedantic, and clichéd. To paraphrase, words don’t bore people, writers bore people.

Revision, editing, and re-writing must happen in order for a great book to get written. This is what editors do. We poke, we pick, we pluck. We move the words around in the sentence. We move the sentences around in the paragraph. We move the chapters around in the book. We re-phrase, we ask for more, for less, for a different direction. There is an art to editing. I like to think that as the years have passed and hundreds of manuscripts have now crossed my desk (or gone through my computer), I have gotten pretty good at editing. I have never seen a case where a manuscript has not been improved through editing—either from my comments or from the academic reviewers kind enough to take a publisher’s modest sum in exchange for their priceless feedback. A thoughtful and challenging review can transform a book.

I suppose I can be tough on authors sometimes. I still edit by hand, on paper with a pencil. I know that receiving these marked up pages with words circled, crossed out, and underlined, with the margins full of questions and comments like, “say more,” “slow down,” and “repeating,” is perhaps not always the most pleasant experience. But it does make for a better book.

Most of the authors I publish say the same thing, “I want to reach a wide audience with my book.” This is often quickly followed up by, “How can I do that?” The answer is easy: Write. Edit. Revise. Re-write.

Here are a few tips: Start with a good title. Pick one that is intriguing, short, and clear—as opposed to vague, long, and complicated. For example, “Parenting Out of Control,” instead of “The Complexities of Family Dynamics in Risk Culture.” Guess which gets a higher Amazon ranking? The same goes for your chapter titles. Always use deliberate, compelling phrasing. Avoid jargon. Accessibility is not the enemy of complexity; in fact, I would argue that easily read prose is more difficult to produce and more likely to convey meaning accurately. Next, pull your reader in from the start by using vivid chapter-openers: begin with a story, an event, a counterintuitive fact, a staggering statistic. Describe. Do not begin a chapter with, “In this chapter I will show….” Please, don’t do that. Say something new and don’t be shy about highlighting your unique perspective. Be able to answer the question, “So what?” I sometimes ask this after a scholar has spent ten uninterrupted minutes earnestly explaining her project. “So what? Why should anyone care? Why is this important?” Map out the stakes for what or how or why your research is significant. Only you can tell us—that is, after all, why you are writing the book.

Just don’t forget to re-write it, too.

Ilene Kalish is Executive Editor for the Social Sciences at NYU Press. Read her bio here.

[This article appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Contexts, a publication of the American Sociological Association.]
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