My son's 7th grade paper. Three drafts to an A.
The science fair is over. The classroom is cleaned and the rubber cement has been scraped off the floor. One research paper is finished and another is in the mix.
In a past life, when I worked at the Times Books imprint at Random House, Inc. in Manhattan, a young author by the name of Robert Wright had just completed his first book, Three Scientists and their Gods. If memory serves me, Bob just started, scarcely in his 30s, as the editor in chief of the Atlantic Monthly. He was tall and slender, topped with blonde hair and a boyish face. He wore a tweed jacket and a certain look of intellectual exasperation. “Bob,” I inquired, “I’m putting your book into production. Is there anything you would like to do before I send it downstairs to the production editor?” “Yeah,” he said as he ran his hands through his hair, “You can let me re-write it!” I smiled: “Why? It’s good!” His hand punched the air to make a point. “Oh, but I can make it better!”
Yes, indeedy, anything written can be made better (except the Word, of course). Now, there are a few types of editors: copyeditors read manuscripts for tiny details and make sure that all the t's are crossed and all the i's are dotted. Line editors read them for grammar and smooth-sailing sentences; clunky ones are nixed and rewritten. Then there is the developmental editor. Ah, yes. We are cut from a different cloth. We don't have the master eye for details like the other two; we obsess over logic. Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How are our best buddies. They go with us everywhere and drive everyone crazy. When there’s a hole in the writer’s logic, it’s the developmental editor who introduces him to the 5Ws and How. And we don’t stop there; you see, we can’t sleep at night if chapter one should be chapter three and chapter three should be chapter twelve. Or, Heaven forbid, a lame paragraph sends the reader down the wrong path, only to meet the dead end of confusion. It kills us to see logic wasted. Linear, my man, linear!
The developmental editor is the editor about whom authors have strong opinions. Some rave over how she makes beautiful books out of the piles of spaghetti plopped on her desk. After all, it's not the editor's name that graces the covers; these authors send thank you cards and breathe a great sigh of relief. Others pout and cry uncle: “You’re making me redo this? One time is enough for me!” For these authors, the developmental editor is more than happy to take it upon herself to re-write the manuscripts as she sees fit, on the sneak. Better to re-write than to face the mobs with an incoherent diddy of a book, and (gasp) with her name listed in the acknowledgments. I can only speculate that these authors breathe a sigh of relief, too, but thank you cards are not forthcoming under these circumstances.
After some years in the biz, I now have my newest victims-- my boys. They are young, fresh, and very reluctant. Oh, to be the son of a professional book editor. The torture. Rewrite! Rewrite! Ever since my guys have been old enough to fashion a paragraph, I have impressed upon them that they should never be married to what they write. There is always a new way to express an idea. Writing is an exploration and a journey; and the more you dig in, the more you grow. To get right down to the crux of the matter: Like many tasks in life, it's better to be in love with the process than the outcome. If you’re looking to get it right the first time, you’re heading for an experience that’s about as exciting as the dentist’s drill! Heady stuff for a third grader, I know, and my sons have gone through as many as four drafts before hitting the editorial home run.
My oldest son, in 8th grade, is now accustomed to my edits. He leaves his paper dutifully on my desk and asks me to "give it a read.” The red editing pencil comes out, and the work begins. I follow a few basic guidelines. Sentences and paragraphs that are well crafted receive a positive note. I use standard editing marks to show him how to fix sentences that are grammatically incorrect or clunky. Or if I suspect there would be a better way to explain something, I ask him, in the margin, to think about another approach. On the other hand, sentences that could be rewritten to sound more mature are left alone. After all, it’s his paper, not his mom’s, so it's better to let the youngster's voice shine through. Nevertheless, holes in logic are noted with my trusty 5Ws and How. I treat him just like I would an author. And, you know, he tackles it (the whining has subsided over the years to a small sigh), searching and researching to find the materials, crafting his work to make it right—or as Bob Wright would want “better!” Over the years, I have found that fewer sentences sound less than mature, and his paragraphs are more fleshed out without his mother’s prompting. Well done, son!
Now a note about red pens and pencils: I once read in a well respected home schooling magazine that red pens and pencils are a no-no. Children, apparently, find them insulting and become overwhelmed by a paper covered in red marks and comments. This, the expert said, leads to tears and disappointment. Hmm. I never thought of this. So when we visited Staples at the start of the school year, I happily asked the boys what color pens they would like me to use. I heard that purple was a favorite among the school age sect. I presented a few gel pens for approval. My boys screwed up their faces, simultaneously. (I love when that happens.) “Why?” they said. “If you use purple, we won’t see it all that well. No, we like red. Get red.” So much for educator’s psychology. The checking and editing pencils made by Ticonderoga are perfect for the job—red and erasable (hey, even us editors need to erase!).
Well now, whatever happened to Robert Wright? I hear he’s still out there, thrashing out the big ideas he loves to explore to get the kernels on paper. I haven’t read his more recent titles, but I suspect that he’s finding out why book critics are called book critics. It's a tough world, publishing is. Well, Bob, you were right. Big ideas take an enormous amount of patience and most of all, yes-indeed, rewrites. Enjoy the journey! God bless.