Book review: Editor-Proof Your Writing

If you fireproof your home, you protect it from the ravages of flames and heat, right? I wondered if that was the connotation Don McNair had in mind when he titled his book Editor-Proof Your Writing: 21 Steps to the Clear Prose Publishers and Agents Crave. Was he implying that editors will muck up your text if you don’t take steps to protect it? Too often authors enter into a relationship with an editor thinking exactly that, and they expect the editing process to be adversarial.

Fortunately, McNair—an editor himself—is quick to emphasize the value of good editing to writers, including (perhaps especially) those thinking of self-publishing. McNair unapologetically writes, “That treasured manuscript of yours came back from publishers and agents several times, right? Well, maybe—just maybe—they knew what they were doing.” (p. xii) Far from claiming that his book is the only thing writers need to get themselves published, McNair acknowledges that his advice is just one piece of the puzzle and suggests writers “have that manuscript edited professionally before sending it out. Have experienced eyes look it over and tell you what the problems are, and perhaps help you solve them.” (p. xii)

Editor-Proof Your Writing focuses primarily on stylistic editing for fiction (a point I don’t think was as clear as it should have been in the book’s cover copy and marketing materials). Structural work—making sure the narrative has a strong arc and that there are no problems with continuity—is not covered, nor is the detailed nitpicking (a term I use affectionately here, of course) of copy editing. Further, McNair’s expertise lies in romance and mystery novels, so writers of less commercial genres, such as literary fiction, may not find his examples as helpful. Still, McNair offers some useful reminders of writing pitfalls that can prevent an otherwise good story from engaging the reader. In particular, his book looks at the sins of what he calls “information dumping,” “author intrusion,” and “foggy writing” (often in the form of verbosity that slows the reader down).

“Information dumping” is a technique that inexperienced writers often use to convey details they think readers will need; in essence, it’s telling rather than showing. McNair writes

Readers do need certain information so they can follow the story. Some fiction writers provide it, in part, by having two people discuss the information in an early scene. Often, this takes place in the heroine’s apartment (or its equivalent). Nothing else usually—or ever—happens in the scene.

This approach is deadly. Readers sometimes feel they’re forced to sit on a couch in this cramped apartment and listen as the heroine and her sidekick discuss these must-have acts, perhaps glancing at the readers occasionally to see if they are picking up what the author is trying to impart… A much better approach is to provide that information as part of some other action or event. (p. 33)

That “glancing at the readers” is an example of author intrusion, when authors, who “should stay invisible,… unwittingly leave clues to their presence,” says McNair. And when that happens, readers “are pulled out of fiction’s magic spell.” (p. 35)

Author intrusion can manifest in several ways—for example, when a writer uses ‑ly adverbs or dialogue tags other than “said” (such as “countered,” “mumbled,” “volunteered,” etc.). The action is interpreted via the author, which plucks the reader out of an immersive experience.

Eliminating these kinds of telltale traces of the author is only part of McNair’s twenty-one-step process to “lift the fog” on writing and make it more engaging. These steps include changing passive voice to active, taking out expletive constructions like “there are,” and eliminating clichés and superficials (his term for some types of metadiscourse, including phrases like, “It goes without saying that…”). He also gives specific suggestions for how to deal with dialogue, and I particularly like this point, which he repeats a couple of times in the book:

Some may say, “But that’s the way people talk!” Perhaps. But dialogue isn’t supposed to be an exact copy of conversations. We don’t include all the “uh’s,” belches, and repetitive chit-chat, do we? The writer’s job is to make conversations sound real in as few words as possible. Present the meaning without the mess. (p. 63)

The main problem with McNair’s steps, though, is that many of them overlap, which means that systematically applying them from beginning to end (as “steps” would imply) would lead to some duplicated work in some places and missed stylistic infelicities in others. For instance, some of his steps are “Eliminate double verbs” (like “sat and watched television”—step 7), “Eliminate double nouns, adjectives, and adverbs” (like “complete and utter”—step 8), “Watch for foggy phrases,” (changing “make a stop” to “stop,” for example—step 9), “Eliminate redundancies” (step 15), and “Get rid of throwaway words” (step 17).” To me, all of these are variations of “Edit for conciseness” (step 18), and some of them are variations of one another.

In contrast, McNair’s final step is to “Stop those wandering eyes,” meaning that writers should take out tired expressions like “her eyes were glued to the TV set.” That metaphor, says McNair, is laughable, and so it will break the reader’s concentration. A fair point, but why is that particular metaphor the focus of its own step—at the same level as “Edit for conciseness”? A better approach might have been to talk about metaphor use in general, explaining the pitfalls of  mixed metaphors and overused metaphors that have lost their meaning. As it stands, this step in McNair’s book comes off as one of his personal bugbears.

Despite its problems, Editor-Proof Your Writing is a quick, easy read, thanks to McNair’s casual and conversational writing style. His advice is sensible and digestible, although it is by no means comprehensive, even for stylistic issues alone, so consider this book a starting point rather than an authoritative reference. Editors who work primarily on non-fiction or literary fiction might not get as much out of this book as editors of commercial fiction.

What we can all appreciate, however, is that McNair, is a champion for the professional editor. Now that anyone can self-publish, he says, “we’ve killed off the gatekeepers, and now both our great and our garbled manuscripts go freely through those gates into the readers’ hands. If readers find garbage instead of a well-crafted story, they spread the word.” Not only can quality editors prevent this kind of bad publicity, says McNair, but they may also help an author “turn a stream of rejections into a writing career.” (p. 169)

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