Confessions of a Retiring Book Editor—Three Things I Wish I’d Known at the Start

work5I’ve been writing and editing books as a freelancer for almost 30 years. When I started, I made a lot of mistakes. Over the years my mistakes improved: I made better ones that led to deeper insights.

I’ll spare you a complete list of my mistakes and what I learned from them. Instead, I’ll just offer the top three. If this saves even one of you from a little suffering, then my career will not have been in vain.

A book is not a “product”

Most of my work has been for corporate clients. They tend to approach a book project as an exercise in product development. Their assumption is that creating a book is essentially the same as creating a car, kitchen sink, air conditioner, or some other thing: You start with standard parts, assemble them with a standard process, and schedule the results. BAM. You’re done.

This is profoundly mistaken. A book—especially a new book—is a unique entity. Nothing like it has ever existed before. Nothing the same will ever exist again. It cannot be mass produced. If I had to compare a book manuscript to anything, it would be a human being who starts as an infant and develops in ways that cannot be predicted.

In fact, a book is sui generis—one of a kind, peculiar. Perhaps it will become profound, or at least useful. But there is no way to know, especially when the writing starts. And failure is an ever present possibility.

One reason for this is that ideas are not things. Ideas are nuanced, complex, and messy. In fact, ideas don’t exist until we articulate them in words, numbers, and images. They are shape-shifters that morph into different entities, hide, and even die if you discover that you have nothing to say.

What’s more, there is no standard way to write a book. The whole enterprise is template-resistant. We not only invent ideas—we also invent the process for creating those ideas. And this must be done over and over again. After all, every writer is different. Every editor is different. Every client is different. Their process of working together is unique and is recreated for every new book project and new set of players.

Corporate clients don’t like this. They issue contracts with due dates for individual chapters and complete manuscripts. I don’t blame them. But the fact is that such deadlines are meaningless until you’re well into the writing process. You have to be willing to rethink and revise and reschedule. And that’s a hassle.

Writing is iterative

Writing instruction in schools and universities has improved since I left formal education. Teachers are now encouraged to present writing as a process of discovery. This means being willing to write a rough draft and revise it many times.

In the corporate world, no one buys this. Clients might allow you a couple of drafts. But even this can be regarded as a sign of failure. Instead, you’re rewarded if you “nail it” the first time with only one draft—as if that’s a virtue instead of a path to superficial thinking and shoddy results.

The smallest meaningful unit of revision is the entire manuscript

From a practical standpoint, this is my biggest headache. Many clients want me to produce a table of contents for a book and then submit individual chapters—in order, in final form—that will immediately go into production.

This is crazy-making. It denies me the chance to delete chapters, add new chapters, rearrange existing chapters, and revise earlier chapters in light of what I learned while writing later chapters. The ability to do these things is essential to my work. Taking them away from me is like asking me to play baseball without a bat and glove.

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I wish I had sure-fire solutions to the above problems. The best you can do is take the time to develop a book proposal before committing to due dates and results. This won’t eliminate headaches, but it will lessen them. And that means a lot.

4 thoughts on “Confessions of a Retiring Book Editor—Three Things I Wish I’d Known at the Start

  1. And please keep this web site up and running for the future. There are dozens of great posts here on writing and editing that I’d love to have available all the time.

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