Scholars Talk Writing: Advice From an Editor

Full coffee editing

Image by Yevgenia Nayberg for The Chronicle

You know how you can be listening to someone talk, nodding and thinking, "Yes. Yes. I agree. I know. Duh." — and then they say something that stops you cold? That happened to me when I chaired a panel on writing at the American Historical Association last month. Timothy Bent, executive editor of Oxford University Press and one of the panelists, mentioned that many writers have "‘But’ issues." I realized I’m one of them.

His punishment for saying so many smart and interesting things during that discussion was that I peppered him with more questions afterward about writing, editing, and, yes, "‘But’ issues."

I think everyone in publishing knows this, but most academics don’t: Trade books are made, not born. You’re in the rare position of being a dedicated trade editor at an academic press. What makes you realize that an academic-ish book has trade potential?

Bent: Start with a hard look at the topic, which has to feature elements that general readers would seek in any book they would consider purchasing — some centripetal pull, something that generates and elicits a sense of excitement, mystery, fascination, discovery, even awe. Some kind of reaction before the book is even opened.

Trade books deliver on a different level — that of enlightenment and entertainment — than scholarly works, which favor argument and endeavor to carve out a philosophical place for themselves in the scholarly universe. Every book has to have a driving argument, but in a trade book that argument has to be subsumed into and framed by narrative as well as the human drama at the core of narrative.

Some topics lend themselves to this more than others. Transformative events — pivotal moments — naturally have that kind of five-act drama. Everything changed after Midway, Brown v. Board of Education, Altamont, and so forth, though by themselves the events aren’t enough. Ultimately the human interaction, the play of biography, feels critical to me. So naturally I would look for anyone who can bring people — and not just events — to life, engaging the interplay of the two.

In the end, however, it is the writing on which everything hinges. I try to gauge as quickly as I can (all editors have their ways and means) whether an academic writer shows some (or even any) capacity for creativity, a willingness to be experimental and push limits. Even if writers balk at some forms of authorial omniscience — giving voice and even words to people beyond what is purely and demonstrably archival — they need to court it and risk it.

With authors who have previously published scholarly books, what do you have to help them unlearn? Is there anything you wish dissertation advisers would do differently to make your job easier?

Bent: That panel we were on together offered very sound advice: Read. Read anything that gets you out of the secondary material and into a larger frame of reference. One panelist argued that reading poetry was effective for conveying concision and weight, the play of ideas and imagery. Another panelist said that scholars should read more fiction. Novelists and short-story writers know how to plot. They have plenty to teach.

Academics are primarily teachers, and teaching — done well, the toughest profession there is, in my view — encourages oratorical habits that can sometimes be killing in a trade book: repetition, overemphasis, an artificial and archly rhetorical relationship with the audience that is based on pedagogical ploys ("To be sure …," and "True, …," and "Now let us …"). They tend to come from a sense of height and detachment. Teachers tend to talk down; they lecture. They are accustomed to being heard, and to make a point stick hard they reiterate, cranking up the volume of their thought and expression.

All of this falls flat in a trade book: pomposity, over-mastery, interpretative strategies mainly intended to wow students and impress upon them how far they have to go, how far less clever and wise they are than the lecturer. Worst sin of all in writing: repetition. It immediately earns a reader’s mistrust.

Reading isn’t at all the same as listening, and good writing creates complicity with the reader. That is why the early portion of a trade book is so critical — it’s where a compact between author and reader gets established and, once established, requires respect and care. Perhaps "compact" isn’t the right word, but it’s something that conveys the notion that the writer and reader are in on something together, some kind of journey.

One thing advisers would do well to tell graduate students — aside from reading widely and in other disciplines — is that the overuse of quotation deadens. Block quotes should be limited to the Gettysburg Address or a Keats ode — something containing rich ores of meaning to be mined over and over, rather than just filled space. Quote only that which cannot be paraphrased; offer the jewel of a quote and jettison the setting. You can’t tell the story through quotation and citation. Readers want it in your voice.

You and I and Jim Kloppenberg of Harvard University had a lively conversation about the editing process of his book Toward Democracy. You each said you learned a lot from each other. Can you talk about that process?

Bent: Jim spent 20 years writing Toward Democracy and had a highly evolved notion of what he wanted to accomplish — where he would start and where he would end. I didn’t try to argue him into altering anything. I mainly tried to point out places where, in between, he might be exhausting the reader’s patience a little. I encouraged paraphrase (see above) and highlighted portions that I felt didn’t further, and if anything diluted, the central point. For such a long book, it boils down to a very firm set of notions he believes define democracy — where they were found and where they were lost — and I tried to keep my eye on them, and keep his on them as well.

Mainly this is common sense and a general reader’s informed reaction. The best thing — sometimes the only thing — I can be for any author is a stand-in for the general reader. I did push him pretty hard to change his original title, which was "Tragic Irony." My argument was that it was apt but also a pronouncement; he was giving it all away without involving readers in the process of getting there, particularly in an 800-page book. The title we settled on, happily, suggests that sense of process. It was also true to this magnificent book.

While you come off as a gentle man, it’s clear that there are writerly tics that drive you bonkers. What are they?

Bent: An editor’s life is inherently wheel reinvention. I’ve learned to be patient, to cajole writers away from tics and crutches and repetitive urges — we all have them and need to be aware of them. I highlight plenty — no comment, merely highlight — as a means of pointing out a few things, such as, say, how often "But" is being used to lead a sentence or even a paragraph, or the sudden proliferation of "is" clauses. But if the writer is still doing them after a few hundred pages, my comments can become more clipped: "You’ve said this." Once or twice I’ve used Molly Bloom’s "O rocks!" — meaning that things have become rather vapory and ungrounded; put it plainly. I’m particularly tough, eventually merciless, on unacknowledged repetition.

This all probably stems (he says, settling comfortably on the analyst’s couch) from my own academic background in literature, and its evil/troublesome stepchild literary theory, which, while exciting and engaging for me as a college senior or graduate student, pretty much killed clarity of expression. I developed an allergic reaction to "discourse" — much of it bad translation from a foreign language — soon after I went in to commercial publishing.

My own doctoral thesis was guilty of nearly every sin of which I often accuse others, starting with turgidity and smug obfuscation of the evident. My adviser read a draft at one point and told me to stop writing and to read several issues of The New York Review of Books before revising. His point was that I needed to lighten things up. Of course lightening up to the level of a NYROB article, well. …

On the panel you made me squirm because I realized I have a big fat "But" problem. Can you elaborate?

Bent: "But" is like any other part of speech. Meaning: If it gets overused it starts to call attention to itself. Readers begin to take notice, as they do of any repetition. Generally, like all conjunctions, "but" is used within a sentence, joining one part to another. And of course a conjunction can be used to begin a sentence. I just did.

To my mind, however, such use of "But" should be reserved for something genuinely dramatic, an abrupt turn of events. "But it was not to be." I don’t object to its use, but to its overuse. When I pointed out what I felt were too many sentence-leading (and paragraph-leading) "buts" in his manuscript to an author, he replied that he thought "But" conferred momentum. It kept things moving. My sense is the opposite: It stops the reader. Use it too much and the reader feels jerked around. You wanted a pet peeve. There’s one.

A term that academics don’t use enough is "narrative arc." Can you please define this for readers and say why it’s important that a book have one?

Bent: It’s essentially story. Beginning, middle, end. Dramatic structure. A "plot" is even better. I’ve always referred to E.M. Forster’s comparison of story and plot (in Aspects of the Novel) and it still serves. Both story and plot involve chronology but the latter uses causality. "‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story," Forster wrote. However, as he noted, if the queen dies from grief, or guilt, or elation, you’ve got a plot — a sense of the relation between king and queen. History is a story, a chronology in its barest sense. Sometimes you can find a plot, and if you do, you will engage and involve the reader to a far greater degree.

You said you work with scholars, not writers, and I said it should be both/and rather than either/or. Of course I know my position is unrealistic but that doesn’t stop me from continuing to flog that dead pony. How can we help scholars become better writers?

Bent: Here is the hard truth about working at an academic press. Most authors have truly humbling levels of expertise and knowledge — and impressive academic credentials — but few have the tools with which to convey them effectively.

There’s no natural correlation between being a scholar and being a writer. Fiction writers have to be writers; otherwise there’s no starting point. Nonfiction writers don’t. I’ve pointed out above some of the strategies I would suggest to translate knowledge to the page. In end, though, either you know how to play the piano or you don’t. Sounds cryptic, I realize. The point is that you can’t fake it. You can, however, learn it. Practice, practice, practice.

During every talk I’ve given on writing, and every publishing panel I’ve attended, audience members really only want to know one thing: How do I get published? Response?

Bent: Imitate as slavishly as you can a published work you admire.

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