Book Editing: Corsetting Elephants

8 Jun

I’m not sure I’d ever try putting a corset on an elephant. But, I’ve read that was a dilemma faced when editing the huge manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe, author of the American literary classic Look Homeward, Angel.

As an editor here, I don’t have to face mounds of manuscript pages, but editing anything from a great novel to a textbook to a daily newspaper section can be as challenging as putting a corset on an elephant. Each form, I’m discovering, has its own scale.

One project I’m working on is a line-by-line copyedit of a hand tools book by Tom Dutton, an instructor in TSTC Waco’s Biomedical Technology department. It’s my first text-heavy book to work on, much different from Diana Gafford’s Quick Math Review, a developmental math text for TSTC Harlingen.

Text-heavy works are familiar territory for me, especially coming from a daily newspaper background. When I first thought of working in book publishing, I couldn’t imagine much difference existed between copy editing a newspaper piece and copy editing a book-length work.

For the most part there isn’t; it’s a matter of scale. I still have to tighten the prose, keeping in mind Strunk and White’s advice in The Elements of Style: “Omit needless words.” I still have to look up style guidelines in the AP Stylebook, and figure out when for practical purposes it’s better to bend the style instead of breaking a page’s or sentence’s readability.

But there are other copy editing concerns and “rules” that I have to weigh. In a book, generally, I don’t have narrow columns of type to work in. With books, the text flows page to page, instead of column by column.

At the newspaper, when I wrote my own copy or edited rewrites, I tried to stick to William Zinsser’s advice in On Writing Well about writing in columns — try to have no more than three sentences per paragraph. Think about the text-thick columns in The New Yorker. White space can be good, a break for the reader’s eye.

In a newspaper column (in many papers columns are narrower because the broadsheets aren’t so broad—it saves on printing, I’m told) one sentence, even a tightly edited one, can take up three lines of space. A bunch of unbroken text can be intimidating to a reader.

While I still try to follow Zinsser’s advice, it doesn’t always work well with a book, even one in which sections of text are broken up by illustrations. The three-sentence “rule” can break up paragraph coherence, or just look funky when compared to the rest of the text. White space is nice, but a readable paragraph is better.

So it seems editing isn’t a one-size-fits-all clothes rack. It’s about finding the corset on the rack that fits the elephant comfortably.


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