A small title on the cover of the June 2009 Quill & Quire magazine laying on the table jumped out at me: THE DECLINE OF IN-HOUSE EDITING.
In every book I’ve reviewed lately, I’ve noticed at least one typo (and in the case of one author, published by a major publishing house, a lot of dangling modifiers). I’ve wondered about that trend—is it because I’m more aware of these things as I do more editing or because of something happening in the publishing houses? I picked up the magazine and quickly read the two-page article.
Writer Stuart Woods talks about the reality that today’s editors “are increasingly overtaxed—squeezed by a barrage of submissions on one side and a lack of time and resources on the other side.” I don’t think the news has gotten any better in the two years since he wrote his article; more publishers have faced cut-backs or bankruptcies and more bookstores have closed. It’s thus a sad fact of the times that many editors can’t work with writers as they did in the past, but are now just “glorified project managers.”
What does that mean for writers? Submissions must be really good to catch the attention of the editor. Not just really good in terms of story, but also really good in terms of spelling and grammar, because “editors at practically every house are looking for manuscripts that need as little work as possible.” Or, as freelance editor Meg Taylor told Woods, “The news is out that you have to have a more polished submission, that you can’t risk it just ending up in the slush pile.”
Writers must have an excellent grasp of the mechanics of writing, and for the most part, they must learn this themselves—schools (at least in Canada) are no longer teaching grammar. I was lucky to have a grammar-heavy English curriculum from the States, which pounded prepositions and gerunds and proper use of semi-colons into my head until I was ready to scream. Now, I’m grateful for that education, as those things come second-nature to me.
In all the reading and critiquing I’ve been doing lately for my workshops, I’ve come to appreciate editors more. Many of my classmates are fantastic writers—they have amazing life experiences to draw on or a poetic voice that brings their subjects alive—but that is sometimes lost beneath bad grammar. I don’t want to read a sentence three times to figure out what it means. It’s one thing to have deep writing which encourages multiple readings for greater revelation; it’s quite another thing to have sloppy writing that requires multiple readings (if your reader is that patient) because the writer didn’t know about dialogue punctuation or comma splices.
If you are a writer, buy a good style guide (such as The Canadian Press Stylebook or The Little, Brown Handbook) and use it. Find some good critique partners who can tell you “this is confusing” or “this is out of place” and learn from your mistakes. Take a grammar or editing course (look online or try your local university). Hire an editor who can coach you through your manuscript, telling you what things you need to work on. Writers need to be editors too now.