Monday, September 17, 2007

Deadlines, Line Editing and the Death of the Author

By "editor" I suppose you mean proofreader.
Vladimir Nabokov

The habit of sequential reading, which unifies the act of reading a chapter or paper in a single sitting, fosters the illusion of sequential writing. One imagines that writing a paper is a single act, a sweeping gesture, carried out by a unified consciousness with "something in mind".

The romantic poets sometimes claimed that a poem comes into being through a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings", a single flow of ideas onto the tranquility of a blank page. The truth is of course very different. Writing is a fragmentary process that binds words, phrases and paragraphs more or less seamlessly together. It is rarely done in a single sitting. It consists in drafting, revising and discarding, not whole texts, but delimitable passages of prose.

Romantics have in fact been caught editing their texts. Indeed, even the writing of essays and monographs is a social process. That is, writing for publication is writing for someone else. You are investing your time in a product that is only meaningful if someone else takes the time to read it. In some cases, you are producing something that is a demand on someone else's time.

I've talked before about how academic writing depends on the arrangement of facts, which indicates a spatial dimension to research texts. The facts that your text refers to impinge on it all at the same time. But there is also a temporal dimension to writing. It simply takes time to produce a text. What I want to do here is both to defend the virtue of organizing the writing process and to provide an indication of how detailed one can be about it.

The familiar (if ominously named) phenomenon of the deadline is often the most well-defined threshold in this process. But it is a mistake to think that the rest of the process is infinitely maleable. Writers, whose experience will teach them each to draw their lines in different places, must all develop a sense of what sorts of textual operations they should be engaged in during the hour, the half day, the day, the week and the month before their deadline arrives.

You need to feel no guilt about your editor because it is his job to read what you write. He therefore constitutes an excellent opportunity to practice your time management skills.

Consider two very different kinds of editing (which may be carried out by the same person): line editing and copy editing. The first provides a comprehensive critique of how the argument is made, what elements work and what elements do not work, whether the tone of the paper you are writing is appropriate, how the argument flows, and so forth. Ideally, it involves a line-by-line commentary that includes concrete suggestions for how to address the editor's concerns. The effects of line editing on a text can be quite dramatic. Copy editing, meanwhile, simply corrects grammar and punctuation when the manuscript has found its final form.

Researchers working with English as a second language should not think that the defects of their text can be fixed by mere copy editing. (Actually, no one should.) I often find that work that begins as "just fixing the language" leads to substantial revisions that go well beyond grammar and punctuation. This is often because the writer becomes more conscious of what he or she is trying to say. It becomes clearer what the sentences in the text are capable of meaning. For this reason, I suggest that one always plan for the first round of editing to consist of line-editing—of reading a text with the assumption of a rather wide range of possible improvements.

This act of editing, then, must occur well in advance of the ultimate deadline. The author must have time to make a great many decisions about the text in the wake of the editor's intervention. What the editor thinks the text ought to be doing may not be what the author had hoped it suggested.

Although it is important to present an editor in the first instance with an open site for intervention, it is no less important to at some point present an editor with a text that is largely finished. This means that the writer has read it through many times to ensure that everything is order and, especially, that the references have been completed and double-checked (it is always a sign of trouble when a writer leaves this to the "very" end and gives me a paper to edit where this has not been done). A copy-editor is looking mainly for misplaced words and pieces of punctuation. This does not mean that the sense of the text is ignored in favour of its syntax, it just means that any recovery of that sense must be accomplished with very limited means.

It is easy to see how the occasions for line editing and copy editing might structure a writing process. The act of producing a text fit for line-editing is not the same as the act of producing a text that is fit for copy-editing. They ought to be superficially similar (both should have section headings, references, fully formed prose sentences, and be free of typographical errors) but the writer should have a very different opinion of them (and therefore a very different reaction to receiving criticism).

While this does mean that the writer will also feel differently about them, emotions are not my concern here. What is important is how the time before and after the editor's work is done is spent.

Before the first encounter with the editor, a text of roughly the right length must be produced. It must include all the relevant empirical and theoretical material and, of course, the field of references that the text emerges on the background of. What I am trying to suggest is that even after the bulk of the prose is written, i.e., even after you've written a sufficient amount of sentences covering enough aspects of your research, there is a lot of activity still left to be done.

The editor will respond by suggesting a new text that, so the editor claims, better accomplishes what you "had in mind". But he only has the allegedly "inferior" text to base his opinion on. So it is important to clear some time in your calendar for when you get the text back. You have to keep an eye on these people.

Editors are behaviorists about textual meaning by (second) nature. They don't know what you mean except through what you actually say. Thus, the encounter with the editor is a terribly unromantic one. The "spontaneous overflow" of powerful ideas onto the blank page is hardly respected at all. Each word is asked to account for its place in the paper not in the larger whole of your "intellectual tradition".

One important part of your textual behaviour lies in your responses to their suggestions. Your editor tries to push the text in a particular direction and you either let it happen or push back. These acts are important indications of what you mean, and may often surprise you.

Roland Barthes famously proposed "the death of the author" as a point of departure for reading texts. "The death of the author is the birth of the reader," he said. Well, your editor is among your first readers. He is there to produce a text that will say what you mean, without further help from you—a text that can take care of itself after your role as its writer is over.

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