Last summer I was asked by the Text and Academic Authors Association, a group under the umbrella of the Authors Coalition, to develop a workshop on publishing for academics from the perspective of a former editor. The organization would pay my expenses to any university that wanted to hear my talk. I was flattered, but not tempted.
It's not like me to be untempted by an opportunity. But I felt that there were plenty of other people who could give the same presentation, and I wasn't looking to travel to out-of-the-way and possibly cold places. (I live in a cold and out-of-the-way place.) When I talked it over with my friends, however, they were shocked. This was the perfect thing for me, a chance to spread my proselytizing message.
I have a message?
Yes, they said, you surely do. I knew what academics wanted to hear about publishing. What did I think they needed to hear?
Then I had an epiphany that made the gig irresistible. In Stephen King's On Writing, a bad memoir but a surprisingly useful book about writing, he describes the impetus for his project. He mentions a conversation with the novelist Amy Tan in which, after discussing the boring, predictable, and idiotic questions novelists are always asked ("Where do you get your ideas?" "When do you write?"), he wanted to know what question she most wanted to answer. Amy Tan said, "They never ask about the language."
That's when I realized that my strange career—acquisitions editor to college-admissions officer to author to columnist to teacher of creative writing—had come together to bring me to this point. When I thought about my time in academic publishing, I realized that no one ever talked about the writing. And that, I realized, was a problem.
As a cub editor at Oxford University Press, I worked for a powerful and often scary man, Sheldon Meyer, who did much to shape the scholarship of American history. He was loved by his authors and feared by his colleagues—all except Leona Capeless, a copy editor who worked only on his books, a white-bunned, belle-of-Amherst type who smelled like roses and could make Sheldon sputter and look at his feet. She was always yelling at him, usually for the same reason: He gave her manuscripts to edit that were terrible, just terrible. How could he expect her to clean up these messes? Why couldn't he give contracts to authors who could write? Why didn't he even notice how bad the writing was?
Sheldon would let Leona berate him, and then she would, indeed, clean up the messes. I'm not sure if the authors ever knew the extent of her distress over their prose, although surely some of them could hear it through her clenched-teeth phone calls. Nearly all of them thanked her in print, though hardly any of them mentioned her when their books won prizes and awards. Which they did. The books published by Sheldon and edited by Leona were nearly always successful.
Like many editors and most academics, Sheldon, a man with refined intellectual tastes and genuine curiosity, read for content. He read right over bad sentences to extract ideas, information, and arguments. That served him well in identifying books that had something new to say.
But when manuscripts rounded the corner to the marketing department, and later to the sales reps, bad writing would again become an issue. Even if Leona had made the sentences grammatically correct, she couldn't make the writing good—she couldn't revive dead prose or give the author a compelling voice. The marketing people would complain and the sales reps would either have hissy fits or simply not get excited about the book. If they weren't excited, it would be hard to ask bookstores to stock it. Sure, if the argument was important enough, the book would eventually find an audience. But it would be small and consist mostly of academics.
Before the manuscript could get to Sheldon, though, it had to pass through me, or someone like me, a brazen young entry into the editing work force with a love of books and no in-depth knowledge of anything. I would read as much of the work as I needed to be able to write a report to answer two questions: What is the book about? Should we publish it?
Sometimes I would sit at my desk and reread the same paragraph, sometimes the same sentence, until I decided I that needed glasses. Or that I had stayed out too late the night before and it was messing with my ability to concentrate. At times I believed I was just getting stupider as I reached my mid-20s. I had been able to read complex and arcane books in college; were these unpublished authors that much smarter than me—or anything I'd ever encountered—that I couldn't hope to understand them? I spent years in publishing thinking that I wasn't bright enough and had to work harder than anyone else to be able to suss out the gist of an author's argument.
Over the years, I've learned that many of us feel that way when we encounter academic prose. Our default is to assume that it's us, not them—the reader's problem, not the writer's. It must be because we haven't been trained well enough, or we can't follow complicated thoughts as readily as we would hope. Readers are often quick to doubt themselves in the face of headache-inducing pages.
It's taken me 25 years to figure out something so basic it's embarrassing: The difference was often in the prose. At Oxford Press, we never talked about the writing. The only person who ever mentioned sentences was Leona.
There were plenty of manuscripts that had rich scholarly potential but didn't make it from my office to Sheldon's because I couldn't figure out what the author was trying to say. With so many manuscripts submitted, it's easier to say no than yes.
Authors need to understand the process by which their manuscript will be evaluated and take that into account when they submit. If a smart recent college graduate can't decode what your book is about, you're in trouble.
I would stand over the credenza to choose which of the many long-ago-submitted manuscripts I was going to tackle next. I liked manuscripts with subheads that helped to signpost the argument. Some looked inviting—they got me interested at the first sentence, and I kept reading while I walked back to my office. However, the ones with paragraphs that went on forever, their page-long sentences cobbled together with semicolons, told me the authors didn't give a hoot about my experience as a reader. Giant blocks of quoted material suggested the author was unwilling or unable to think independently. If the first few sentences contained heaps of words that no one ever spoke out loud, I knew I'd need a cup of coffee. Those were the manuscripts I left for later. Sometimes it would be months before I would get to them. Many months.
Do yourself a favor before you submit your next manuscript to a publisher. Shrink it by 50 percent and scroll down the text on your computer screen. What does the visual presentation tell readers before they even start to read? Does it look like midtown Manhattan, all tall buildings and packed sidewalks with no breathing space? Does it look like a suburb, every paragraph exactly the same? Does it look like the plains, arid and vast? What are you conveying by the way you've chosen to structure your prose? Are you aware, even, that you're making such choices?
You have fewer than 50 pages to get the editors' attention. Your job is to make their job easier. What are you arguing? Why should anyone care? The editor is going to have to write copy to convince others at the press that it's worth publishing. Ideally, in doing so, he or she should be able to lift sentences and paragraphs from the manuscript. Your sentences and paragraphs. The introduction is where you bring the readers in; you have to entice them to come with you for the next 400 pages. (If your manuscript is 800 pages, I'm sorry, but you need to cut it.) Do you start with a declarative sentence, as if pronouncing from Mount Olympus, but say something obvious and bland? Do you make reference to complicated ideas in shorthand and cant? Is it clear to the reader, from the outset, why your topic warrants a book?
There are a zillion good ways to start a book well, and even more ways to do it badly. There are no rules, no secrets, no standard formats. What you have to do is make sure that no matter who picks up your manuscript for a first read, the importance of its argument will be clear. And remember, the argument is not the same as the topic. A book that is purely descriptive is unlikely to be published. Someone has to need to read it. Pointing out what is "interesting"—to you—is never enough.
Given the economics of publishing, lots of people will need to read your book. No one can afford to publish monographs for tiny scholarly niches. Increasingly, books have to reach across disciplines to warrant publication. Make sure your prose is not shutting out readers.
We don't talk about the writing unless it's surprisingly good or shockingly bad. Until recently it never occurred to me that a manuscript could be rejected on first pass simply because the prose wasn't good enough—even though I did exactly that thousands of times.
Everyone knows that you have to have a good argument, do solid research, make an important contribution to one or more fields. But you also have to think about the writing. So my big insight of late is that I never thought of my authors as writers, because most of them didn't present themselves that way. That's a problem. If you are writing a book, you should think of yourself as a writer, and write accordingly.