Thomas Sowell on editors and editing

Thomas Sowell on Editors and Writing which does not entirely parallel mine who has been very fortunate in the light-handed editing I have experienced, while not having had to do much of it myself. Anyway, this is from The Conversable Economist where he plucks the following from reading Sowell.

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Thomas Sowell offers some autobiography and vivid examples in his 2001 essay, “Some Thoughts about Writing.” He offers both a case for the importance of editing, and also some vivid frustrations about overly officious editors. He writes near the start: “People who want to be complimentary sometimes tell me that I have a `gift’ for writing. But it is hard for me to regard as a gift something that I worked at for more than a decade—unsuccessfully—before finally breaking into print. Nor was this a case of unrecognized talent. It was a case of quickly recognized incompetence.”

Here’s Sowell on his own experience with editing academic writers (footnote omitted): 

To say that my relationship with editors has not always been a happy one would be to completely understate the situation. To me, the fact that I have never killed an editor is proof that the death penalty deters. However, since nowadays we are all supposed to confess to shameful episodes in our past, I must admit that I was once an editor. Only once. And I didn’t inhale.

It was the most painful kind of editing—editing academic writers. Too many academics write as if plain English is beneath their dignity and some seem to regard logic as an unconstitutional infringement of their freedom of speech. Others love to document the obvious and arbitrarily assume what is crucial. A typical work of this genre might read something like this:

As surely as the world is round (Columbus, 1492), and as surely as what goes up must come down (Newton, 1687), when Ronald Reagan was elected President (Cronkite, 1980) and then re-elected (Rather, 1984), it signaled a change in the political climate (Brinkley, 1980–88). Since then, we have seen exploitation (Marx, 1867) and sexism (Steinem, 1981) on the rise.

But no attempt to parody academic writing can match an actual sample from a scholarly journal:

Transnationalization further fragmented the industrial sector. If the dominant position of immigrant enterprises is held to have reduced the political impact of an expanding industrial entrepreneurate, the arrival of multinational corporations possibly neutralized the consolidation of sectoral homogeneity anticipated in the demise of the artisanate.

You can’t make that up.

If academic writings were difficult because of the deep thoughts involved, that might be understandable, even if frustrating. Seldom is that the case, however. Jaw-breaking words often cover up very sloppy thinking. It is not uncommon in academic writings to read about people “living below subsistence.” The academic writers I edited seemed to have great difficulty accepting my novel and controversial literary doctrine that the whole purpose of writing is so that people can read the stuff later on and know what you are trying to say. These professors seemed to feel that, once they put their priceless contributions to mankind on paper, a sacred obligation fell upon the reader to do his damndest to try to figure out what they could possibly mean.  I’ve worked 34 years as an academic editor, so I enjoyed reading that passage. But I would also say that while the problems of academic writing are well-described here, my own experience is that authors are quite willing, and even grateful, to work with my editing in producing an improved draft. 

Sowell also conveys the horror of the kind of copy-editing that makes everything taste the same, or worse. He writes: 

But these are just two kinds of absurdities from the rich spectrum of the absurdities of copy-editors. Where Shakespeare wrote, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” a copy-editor would substitute: “The issue is one of existence versus non-existence.” Where Lincoln said, “Fourscore and seven years ago,” a copy-editor would change that to: “It has been 87 years since . . .” Where the Bible said, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” a copy-editor would run a blue pencil through the first three words as redundant.

Pedestrian uniformity and shriveled brevity are the holy grail of copy-editors, the bureaucrats of the publishing industry. Like other bureaucrats, copy-editors tend to have a dedication to rules and a tin ear for anything beyond the rules. Seldom is there even the pretense that their editorial tinkerings are going to make the writing easier for the reader to follow, more graceful, more enjoyable, or more memorable.

Self-justifying rules and job-justifying busy work are the only visible goals of copy-editors.

My own approach here is that in the process of hands-on editing, I try to make all the small-scale copy-editing changes that are needed. Then the author has a chance to revise, and while authors may differ with other suggestions I offer, they hardly ever care about the copy-editing details like spelling out “United States” as a noun but using “US” as an adjective, whether to use a serial comma when listing more than two authors, and the like. But as a result, when authors see galley proofs, they have already seen and digested the copy-editing changes, so there aren’t any last-minute surprises. 


Sowell’s methods may not work for everyone. For example, he describes his usual approach of working on several books at once, and putting aside the ones where he doesn’t feel inspired for years, before perhaps returning to them. 

2 thoughts on “Thomas Sowell on editors and editing

  1. Pingback: Thomas Sowell on editors and editing - The Rabbit Hole

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