Monday, May 24, 2010

Whatever Happened to Editors at Publishing Houses?

Doesn't anybody edit books before they're published anymore?

I've been spending a few weeks polishing up my technical skills, and so I've been reading a series of books on a particular subject. One of the books is A Baker's Dozen: Real Analog Solutions for Digital Designers. The book is a beautiful compilation of knowledge, wisdom and tips on the subject of analog circuit design. It's written by one of today's leading experts on the subject: Bonnie Baker, currently vice president or director of something important at Microchip. Baker is great, and I have a soft spot in my engineering heart for Microchip, and so I'm enjoying reading the book and digesting its contents.

There's just one problem with the book. It is very poorly edited.

I'm only into the third chapter, but it seems like I've had to add a handwritten correction to every other page of the book. Only one correction so far is a technical error (she got the two's complement notation for -2 wrong). All the rest are errors involving:

  • spelling errors
  • typographical errors
  • homonyms and homologues
  • word usage and sentence structure problems
  • grammar mistakes
  • awkward phrasing or misuse of common idioms
  • noun-verb disagreement ("is/are", for example)

This is not the only technical book I've encountered with an editing problem. It seems like most, if not all, of today's technical books have serious editing problems. Sometimes they're total disasters, like those written by Myke Predko (don't take my word for it; go read the reviews on and, but more often they're books like this one, where the technical content is (mostly) accurate, but the writing appears ... um ... "sloppy" isn't fair to the writer ... more like poorly edited.

It simply looks as though the editor wasn't doing his/her job. If I had to guess at what happened, I'd say that the publisher assigned a non-technical editor to Baker's book, and the editor was so bamboozled by the technical content that she completely forgot about her own ability to manage the basic mechanics of writing.

It's also possible that Baker told her publisher she wanted to edit the book herself. In a world of word processors and automated spell checkers, I feel that this is becoming increasingly common, especially among engineers who think that with the right manual or tutorial and a week to study it, they can become an expert on any subject. (This is the "any engineer can become a ..." syndrome. You read it here first, folks.)

But folkloric wisdom points out the problems with being your own expert: The taunt "Physician, heal thyself" shows up in the Bible, and a more modern proverb asserts that "Any lawyer who chooses to represent himself has a fool for a client." Authors shouldn't be their own editors.

Or maybe Baker's publisher, tight on cash (or just plain tight), had laid off too many editors and assigned this book and five others to a junior editor or intern with a one-week deadline. The junior editor had to let something slide, and this was it.

Or maybe Baker's editor was a raging incompetent, whose own literary skills are not very far above those required for modern high-school newspapers and yearbooks.

Good editors, like good schoolteachers, are worth their weight in gold. They're an overworked and underpaid bunch, and they may feel like we expect too much of them, but a good editor can make the difference between a "good read" and a waste of paper. My editors have always done a fantastic job, making a huge difference in the finished product.

You can't just jack into a port on the matrix and download the skills necessary to become an editor. It doesn't work like that. Every author should have a competent professional editor. Lacking a competent professional editor, every technical author should have an author whose writing they admire, and who is not a member of their technical profession, to go through their manuscript and fix their writing.

(If you want a more mainstream example of the difference a good editor can make, then look at the quality of language in Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October and compare it with the quality of language in the Tom Clancy's Op Center books. Clancy didn't write the Op Center books; he just lent them his name. He should have lent them his editors. The Op Center series is overburdened with horrendous language errors, which repeatedly bring the story to a screeching halt and ultimately cause the reader to throw down the book in frustration.)

I would further suggest that every technical author should ask a colleague whom they view as a competitor, or with whom they share a mild animosity, to review their manuscript for technical errors. Who is better qualified to find errors in your work, than someone who doesn't like you in the first place? Asking esteemed colleagues and best friends to check your work is great, but your greatest asset as an author will be someone who will root like a truffle hound for your mistakes.

It helps to have a good example. In this exercise in personal improvement, I'm saving the best book for last. Horowitz and Hill's The Art of Electronics is not only a technical treasure and a bible among electrical engineers, but it's also beautifully written, an example of how well English prose can be turned to instruct in even the most technical subjects. It's always worth reading and rereading, not just for the technical education, but for the exquisite turns of phrase.


jodi (bloomingwriter) said...

Nicely written, Mr. Depew! A good editor is worth her (or his) weight in gold. I don't say that because I do some editing, but because I cherish MY editors as pearls of great worth. They make my work look much better, usually in terms of changing a phrase slightly so that it has more oomph. It's dangerous to edit one's own work--after a while, you simply can't see it any more.

I like your point about a possible non-technical editor maybe having worked on this particular book. I got tripped up during my brief and horrific job as an editor of four rural magazines, including one on forestry, a language in which I am not fluent. It's easy to assume something is correct and ordinary when you don't speak the lingo, or conversely to trip over every second phrase checking things out because you don't know if something is correct or not. In my case, it was an extremely minor error in terminology--most people, including most foresters, wouldn't have noticed or cared--but the micromanager above me freaked out because I assumed something was correct. (that person had control and bullying issues, however...)

We'll see what happens when it comes time for MY book to be edited! I'm correcting botanical nomenclature as I write each profile, but still, there will be awk phrases and errata now and again. Here's hoping the editor who works on the book doesn't hesitate to contact me about any questions she has!

mama izatt said...

I have to send this along to my mom. She will enjoy your insights into her profession and smile at the compliments.