“Missing In Action”

I have been reading a memoir reviewed in what I thought were trustworthy columns as “mesmerizing,” “enthralling,” “incisive,” “illuminating,” and “revelatory.” Meanwhile I have been raving to my poor husband “this book needs an editor!” I have come to expect that many self-published books could have used a good editor, but this was put out by a mainstream publishing house. The author even thanks two editors. I think they were overpaid.

I am not naming the book in question, but rather using it as an example of the importance of knowledgeable editors seriously helping authors shape and refine their work. The book’s concept did in fact promise to deliver the adjectives reviewers used to describe it. Sadly, the actual execution left much to be desired. Perhaps the reviewers read only the book jacket.

James Dickey, the late American poet, said that he “worked on poems to take the worked-on quality out of them.” The finished piece might look effortless, but much revision had taken place to achieve that effect. A good editor can wrestle a meandering book into a coherent whole. When a book has been well edited, the reader no longer has to labor to follow the narrative, but can use her mind to ponder the issues presented.

I used to tell my students that if they had to work too hard to follow an author’s work, the blame might lay with the author. My students always assumed they were deficient in some way. The next time any of you throw down a book in disgust, consider that it might have needed an editor. And that editor shouldn’t have to be the reader!

30 thoughts on ““Missing In Action”

  1. I agree, Elizabeth. I have always worked very hard on editing my books and I can see the improvement between my first book, While the Bombs Fell and my latest novel. I have read up and studied writing and read the books of writers I admire, looking specifically at how they put their descriptions and prose together. Writing is a life long learning adventure.

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  2. I don’t know that much about writing, but I do know that the failure to edit is like driving a car without a steering wheel.

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  3. It wouldn’t, by any chance, have been a celebrity biography?
    Even so, there’s no excuse for a publisher not to get it properly produced. I have heard that corners are cut now they’re having to compete with a mass of cheaper, self-published work.
    Perhaps the “mesmerizing,” “enthralling,” “illuminating,” and “revelatory” reviews were referring to the fact that it got published at all in that state.

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  4. I am always surprised when a ‘bad’ book is accepted by a major publishing house. Yes, where was the editor? Unfortunately I see this frequently in children’s books. A good editor is worth her/his weight in gold.

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        1. Yikes. My poor 13 year old granddaughter is very frustrated that all the books now are about “issues.” She told me she has enough issues to deal with with covid and just wants a good story.

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        2. I agree! It seems that publishers want to jump on the bandwagon of whatever is popular, particularly issues. I highly recommend Kate DiCamillo and her Newbery winner, “The Tale of Despereaux”. “Bob” has been the favorite of my library reading group. I guarantee she will love these two books; they’re just great stories! If you want more, let me know.

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