On Being Edited image

On Being Edited

Editors, with whom I've interacted a fair bit in the last ten years or so, come in a number of different forms. Here's a list of the sorts I've encountered, with the most difficult (and valuable) varieties at the end.

1.  Jobsworth editing. Irritating changes that make no difference. So, in my history A-level, my dissertation was entitled “Why did the Colloquy of Marburg fail?”, and the board made no adjustments other than changing the title to “Account for the failure of the Colloquy of Marburg.” Thoroughly ridiculous and annoying.

2.  House style editing. Retaining all the features of the original, but conforming it to the style and format of the publication by changing preferred terms, punctuation, spelling, footnoting and so on. Necessary but tedious.

3.  Transatlantic translation. Turning English prose into American prose when the English language is incomprehensible to Americans; thus, in my book Incomparable, “I put my hand on the hob” becomes “I put my hand on the stove.” The phrase “small enough to fit in the boot of a mini”, from GodStories, was (rather tragically) so baffling to the colonies that it had to be removed completely. Necessary but occasionally heartbreaking.

4.  Content removal. Taking out bits of the text that might bother people, based on an awareness of the intended audience. So my inerrancy post for The Gospel Coalition appeared almost exactly as I had written it - but with all the hints that I was a theistic evolutionist removed. Presumably the intended audience would be troubled by the idea, so it was reworked with that in mind. Legitimate but sometimes frustrating.

5.  Faux pas avoidance. Applying practical wisdom to potentially inflammatory remarks, as when Jennie Pollock told me that I should probably call a review article “The Pink Pamphlet” rather than, as I was tempted to do for comic effect and contemporary impact, “Fifty Shades of Graham Cray.” Life saving.

6.  Contextualised adaptation. Adjusting the form of the text to make it more appropriate to its intended audience, while retaining all of its content. An early draft of a forthcoming article of mine in Christianity Today prompted a remarkable example of this from the editor, Mark Galli: “I’d work at getting the passive constructions to below 5% - they are at 9% now. Words per sentence is 23.4, but readers generally start losing comprehension in a sentence after 14 words. I’m not asking you to get it down to 14, but certainly into the high teens.” Difficult and impressive.

7.  Fact checking. Going through all the author’s statements and checking them individually for factual accuracy. I will always be grateful to Wayne Grudem for rescuing me from a complete howler in GodStories, and that only happens when people read books carefully. Vital, reputation-preserving work.

8.  Academic peer review. Meticulously assessing the viability of the proposal being made, from a scholarly point of view, and making corrections, suggestions or outright rejections accordingly. I’ve had peer review articles accepted and rejected, and seen the astonishing detail and expertise that goes into the process, and it makes me very thankful for the very hardworking journal and series editors who keep scholarship at high standards. Intense, and very valuable.

9.  Content enhancement. Working out how to say what the author wants to say better than s/he can. This is the holy grail of editing, and often involves many of the elements above. All four of my books have been written with an editor, Richard Herkes, who makes my sentences, books and chapters better. The trick is that editors themselves have to be excellent writers for this to work; otherwise, it quickly degenerates into #1. Gold dust.

Any I’ve missed?

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