Via SFSignal’s daily links dump, Lilith Saintcrow has a terrific post about the relationship between authors and editors:
YOUR EDITOR IS NOT THE ENEMY.
I don’t lose sight of the fact that I am the content creator. For the characters, I know what’s best. It’s my job to tell the damn story and produce enough raw material that we can trim it into reasonable shape. (Which means I am responsible for my deadlines, but we knew that.) I’m also way too close to the work to be able to see it objectively. So, 99% of the time, the editor is right.
Read it. It’s good, and very true.
“Yeah, but that’s talking about fiction,” you say. “Science is Serious Business, and not to be mucked about by people with English degrees. They make you dumb things down and get all the details wrong!”
I was going to save this for the Special Edition DVD Release of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, but I’ve been informed that it isn’t actually a blockbuster movie and thus won’t be out on DVD, so I can share this with you, my valued readers. Thus, I present the top secret, never before revealed, writing process for my popular audience physics book:
- Read a whole bunch of stuff about quantum physics, and decide what to write about.
- Bang out a manuscript explaining everything in full, with all the details correct and qualifying notes and references and all that sort of thing.
- Send manuscript off to my editor
- Get back an edit letter saying “AAAAAAAHHHH!!! Much too difficult! Make it simpler!”
- Spend a day or so ranting at length to Kate about how this is totally unreasonable, and I can’t possibly make the changes being demanded, and this is incredibly insulting to my deathless prose, etc., etc.
- Sit down, make the requested changes.
- End up with a vastly better book than the previous draft..
(Repeat as necessary.)
What’s the conclusion to draw from this, other than “Kate is a saint for putting up with an enormous lout like you?” The conclusion is 99% of the time the editor is right.
My drafts weren’t terrible– they were better than a bunch of other pop-science books I’ve read. But they’re nowhere near as good as the final text. The end product is vastly more readable, and more comprehensible for the target audience (which is to say, people who are not physicists).
Were there details left out? Absolutely. I cut out a number of things I think are absolutely fascinating. But they were fascinating to me, and a bunch of other people with physics degrees, and that’s about it. Those people aren’t the audience for this book– they already know that quantum physics is pretty darn cool, and don’t need to hear it from my dog.
Doesn’t that mean the book is dumbed down? Absolutely not. One of the things that I’m tremendously happy about with the book is the list of blurb quotes, which includes a bunch of novelists and writers, and also Bill Phillips, one of the 1997 Nobel laureates in physics. Yeah, he was my Ph.D. thesis advisor, but that wouldn’t get him to blurb a book that he didn’t think was sound. Believe me, if the book was “dumbed down” in a way that introduced significant errors, he would’ve let me know– I know that, because he did correct me on a couple of points. They were subtle mis-statements, and very few people would’ve noticed them, but he did, and I fixed them.
So, when an author tells you that the editor is probably right, believe them. It was unpleasant at times (steps 3-5, say), but the final product is a whole lot better than it started out.
I think the reviews bear that out, too, both the Amazon customer reviews and the more traditional media reviews. They’re not 100% glowing, but there are about as many people saying the book was fantastic as there are people saying it was too hard. That suggests to me that we got it about right– it’s not going to completely overwhelm physics novices, but it’s not fluff by any stretch.
This is why I’m deeply skeptical of the people who proclaim the triumph of the web, and the overthrow of traditional publishing models. Yeah, it’s great that the web lets everyone with a keyboard publish whatever they want, but there’s a lot to be said for the traditional publishing process. Specifically: It produces better books than you would get otherwise.