Straightforward explanation

by Heath Sledge

Authors are such lucid and beautiful writers when they don't realize they are writing.

One of the great joys of editing work in fields I know nothing about is asking questions of my clients. The answers, over email or over Skype, are unfailingly clear, logical, and fascinating. 

There is something about explaining deeply understood concepts to someone smart but without expertise that brings out the best in writers. Their prose becomes so clear and so verb driven (see Lanham's Revising Prose for more on verb-driven prose). I think this is probably what lies behind the academic tradition of having researchers teach, in fact--explaining complex concepts to neophytes is a fantastic way to distill your own understanding down to perfect clarity.

Wordsmiths and storysmiths

by Heath Sledge

I read two great articles this morning (Steven Pressfield's "Wordsmiths and Storysmiths" and John McPhee's "Omission (What to Leave Out)"—go read them, I'll wait).


I realized that the best editors of fiction and creative nonfiction (the ones who helped McPhee see what to leave out) are those who are not only talented wordsmiths, but talented storysmiths. 


I need to pay more attention to my own "lunatic elf" and develop this skill. It might not seem relevant to academic writing, but we also must trust our readers enough to give them elbow room, to give them the pleasure of discovery. It's a fine line.

Writing outsourced?

by Heath Sledge

Today I'm reading John McWhorter's article about Kim Kardashian and the decline of oral culture, "Why Kim Kardashian can't write good."  

I'm not sure what to think about this. I think McWhorter is right that the definition of communication is expanding far beyond the confines of the written word; internet access, phones in every pocket, constantly-available video technology that's easily shareable (vines and snapchats) all contribute to the rise in forms of non-text-based communication. 

But as a long-time teacher of writing, I cling to the idea that everyone can and should learn to write at least competently. Writing is still the best form of communication for many situations; while oral culture may trump writing in leisure time, writing certainly is going nowhere when it comes to work. As Edward Tufte has shown us, technologies like PowerPoint and the types of thinking they engender are not sufficient for communicating complicated scientific ideas and key facts to decision-makers. (Now I'm imagining the NASA scientists trying to communicate the Challenger's problems using 6-second Vines.) Well-written, clear, information-dense reports are still the best way to convey a lot of complex information and nuance. And the Internet is made of written content; if things like text-based blogs are in decline (and I'm not sure that they are), the net is still at its heart a textual beast (including all the code that runs it). Gifs and Vines and Youtube videos aren't the engine that keeps things going; written text is.

Perhaps this means that people like me--professional writers and editors who have spent (in my case) decades studying language--will profit. Perhaps writing will be outsourced to a class of professional scribes. Part of me wants to say "yay! Somebody values the intense labor and effort that went into my skills and wants to pay me for it IN ACTUAL MONEY!" But another part of me--the deeply humanist part--says that everyone should be able to express their ideas and make themselves clear to others, and that this ability is at the core of a democratic society. Words and language should not become a tool of the few, at the service only of those willing or able to pay the few. (And I have a funny feeling that somehow the compartmentalization of writing and the consequent demand won't lead to higher wages for writing workers.) 

Perhaps this is why I'm drawn to the particular type of editing I love best: coaching. It's easier for both me and my authors if I just fix the problems with manuscripts. But I love teaching, and I know that most authors who pay for my help want to lbecome better writers. And while I hope that I am not planting the seeds of my own career destruction by coaching ( although it's always important to get multiple sets of eyes on any important document), there's little more thrilling than receiving a very good end-stage manuscript from an author whose writing has improved from our work together.