Monday, October 28, 2013

A Query of Editors

Wondering what editors do for other authors? How about what recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro's three editors do for her? Sometimes, the minimal:

“We don’t have to do much,” laughs Close, the hint of a southern drawl in her voice. “With many of Alice’s stories, they come in and none of us touches a word. But every now and then there are stories she’s a little stuck on and one of us will give a suggestion that proves helpful.”
But that's not to say that not taking action should be equivocated with not doing anything. In Munro's case, it's a given that the stories being submitted to these three editors (Anne Close, Douglas Gibson, and Deborah Treisman) are good. At that point, the assessment that needs to be made is whether there's any improving to be done. If they're already in top form, the editor's responsibility is to convince the author to leave it alone, which, given the infinite possible combinations of words an author can consider at any time, can be quite the chore.

Books aren't pragmatic in the way that car engines or bridges are. The only purpose they need to accomplish functionally is to sufficiently convey information. But even a scattering of random letters on a page conveys information (yes, the information may be entirely subjective); dissimilarly, a heap of stone and steel does not a bridge make, nor will a scattering of tubes and gears propel a vehicle.

Assembling letters into words creates meaning. Assembling words into sentences compounds the inherent meanings, and assembling sentences into paragraphs multiplies the meanings and their potential interpretations. A whole book is full of potential interpretations; writing and editing those requires a lot of cerebral work. Cerebral work isn't very quantifiable. The feedback an editor provides may have unmeasurable effects on the content of the book, unlike more evident changes like fixes to grammar and punctuation.

The joke of the title comes from an enjoyable 2008 post on Logophilius.

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