Some Thoughts about Writing
I just noticed Thomas Sowell's essay about writing. Some humorous segments:
In an essay that I wrote for The Weekly Standard about Cornell University in the 1960s, I referred to people there who “had entree to Perkins,” the university president at that time. An editor changed that to “had entry to Perkins.” In the last essay I wrote for the Wall Street Journal—I do not mean my most recent essay—some anonymous copy-editor changed “omissions” to “admissions,” even though the previous sentence referred to things that had been omitted and this sentence then referred to “these omissions.” For reasons unknown, some copy-editors seem to think that words with similar sounds are substitutes for one another. But there is a big difference between Londonderry air and London derriere.
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But these are just two kinds of absurdities from the rich spectrum of the absurdities of copy-editors. Where Shakespeare wrote, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” a copy-editor would substitute: “The issue is one of existence versus non-existence.” Where Lincoln said, “Fourscore and seven years ago,” a copy-editor would change that to: “It has been 87 years since . . .” Where the Bible said, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” a copy-editor would run a blue pencil through the first three words as redundant.
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British editors aren’t supposed to be as officious as American editors, but some bold genius at the well-known British publishing house Allen & Unwin changed “capitalists” to “workers” at one point in the British version of a book of mine—and published it that way, without even bothering to check with me. That’s not a small change, especially in a book on Marxism.
Despite airs of father-knows-best that seem to go with the job, many editors not only happen to be ignorant, but are necessarily ignorant, of many of the things that they tinker with. Not all are as grossly ignorant as the editor who changed “earnings” to “income” on some of my statistical tables to make them uniform with the headings on the other tables. But an editor for a major publishing house or a general magazine is certain to be editing material on a range of subjects far beyond anyone’s personal competence.
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Obviously, if a copy-editor could be a successful writer, he would not be a copy-editor. This is not an occupation that can be accused of attracting more than its fair share of literary talent.
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[He describes a struggle with refusing to accept the suggestions of an over-zealous editor.] Years after this episode, the editor of a nationally prominent newspaper very tentatively offered one or two editorial suggestions on an article of mine, saying, “Your reputation has preceded you.” That’s what a reputation is supposed to do.
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Of all the reasons for intrusive editing, imposing a book publisher’s standard “house style” is the silliest. For a newspaper or a magazine, a case might be made that it is advisable to avoid jarring the reader with abrupt changes in writing styles. But for a book publisher? It is hard to believe that any reader knows or cares what their house style is. Can you imagine someone going browsing in a bookstore, thinking: “I’m in the mood for a book from Random House” or “This is my Prentice-Hall day”? Maybe the reader is in the mood for a book by John Kenneth Galbraith (I never am) or Saul Bellow or Danielle Steel. But it is hard to imagine that anyone goes looking for a book written in the “house style” of Doubleday or Macmillan or Alfred A. Knopf. What then is the point of having a “house style,” if nobody else really gives a damn?
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The longest review any of my books ever received—several thousand words, spread over two consecutive issues of The New York Review of Books—contained not one word referring to anything past the first chapter of Ethnic America. The reviewer’s painful attempts to puzzle out the possible implications of this book would have been unnecessary if he had followed the more usual practice of reading the first and last chapters. The last chapter was titled, “Implications.” Ideological differences were involved in that case, but such differences are neither necessary nor sufficient to produce a non-reviewing review. An even worse example was a review in The Public Interest, with which I am usually in agreement and in which I have published articles of my own. This time the book was Migrations and Cultures, a history of migrations to countries around the world. Although this book covered everything from the Jews dispersing from Israel in ancient times to Germans migrating to Russia during the reign of Catherine the Great to people migrating from China to Southeast Asia during the era of European imperialism, the reviewer chose to represent it as a book about current immigration policy in the United States—a subject not even occupying ten pages in a 500-page book.
According to this non-reviewing review, American immigration history and contemporary policy were central to my concerns, though he noted in passing that the subtitle (“A World View”) suggests that my “focus is broader than the United States.” The fact that there were fourteen other countries covered in the book might also have suggested that—if he had read the book, though there was not a speck of evidence that he had. It so happens that contemporary American immigration policy was a subject that the reviewer had written about before—and apparently wanted to write about again, even if that meant making up a fictitious account of the book that he was supposedly reviewing.
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In the broadcast version of the non-reviewing review, the talk-show host conceals his non-reading of the book by keeping the author on the defensive with a steady stream of cutting accusations, based on the author’s general reputation or previous writings. The writer may be accused of anything from political bias to personal dishonesty, or any other charge that will lead to a heated, time-filling discussion. The natural tendency to defend yourself against a low blow is what gets authors sucked into this game. . . .
Only after several talk-show hosts had played this game on me did I finally realize what was happening, and why. I counter-attacked on one of those long, night-time radio talk shows, when it became obvious that neither the host nor the critic on with me had read the book. At the end of the first hour, I announced to the listeners that we had now been on the air for one hour—and that neither of my questioners had yet mentioned a single thing that was actually in the book. Moreover, I predicted that neither of them would say anything in the second hour that would refer to anything in the book, because it was apparent that neither of them had read it.
Their indignant denials were followed by their addressing a new and more heated stream of general accusations at me, to all of which I replied serenely: “That’s not in the book, either.”