Today’s post concerns the secret weapon of many an excellent (legal history) author, the development editor. I worked with two on my book, Almost Citizens. They were crucial to my learning curve. Without them, I would never have crafted a book that resembled the vision in my head.
Before starting my book, I had never contemplated paying someone to help me improve my writing. Legal history is a specialized area, and I chose my words carefully to hew to what the sources supported. I worried that someone from outside the field would seek to simplify or expand my claims in ways that I would just end up reversing. The problem was that I also knew that I could benefit from fresh eyes on my writing. By the time I’d drafted a few chapters and signed with Cambridge University Press, I felt confident about my narrative structure and cast of characters. But I found it more difficult to do smaller-scale reorganizations and line edits. This was partly because I was so close to the manuscript. It was also because writing is a skill, and I had more to learn.
Despite having many generous readers, none seemed likely candidates to become writing mentors. Colleagues and reviewers grappled with my work and provided incisive comments. But that feedback almost always involved the substance of the argument rather than its tone and constituent sentences. Given the economic realities of book publishing, many publishers hardly do any editing of manuscripts in progress. I did have the good fortune to publish with American Society for Legal History’s book series (which I discuss here). Sally Gordon was my editor there, and she was a tireless and skilled reader. But she soon saw that the book and I could both gain from more editorial engagement than she could devote to a single book in her series. So she recommended that I consider a development editor.
I had never heard the term. Perhaps because I live just down the road from Hollywood, my mind immediately went to the entertainment executives who tell show runners that their sitcoms need more dogs or a kooky sister to really draw in the millennials. But (spoiler alert!) that was not whom I was to encounter. The editors I would work with helped me produce the best possible version of my book. Sometimes, such work is called development editing. Sometimes it goes by different names.
I sought someone who could help me make my prose sing (or at least hum occasionally) without sacrificing nuance and accuracy. Given my topic, that meant an editor who could engage legal and historical arguments, had a sense of the evidentiary norms in the field, and understood the potential audiences for the work. But finding such an editor is a bit like turning up a good contractor for a renovation; you ask around, check out samples of the person’s work, and ultimately take a leap of faith that the (intellectual) place that you lay your head will be transformed for the better.
I had the good fortune to work with two excellent development editors. I learned of both through admired colleagues who sang the praises of having collaborated with them. The first was Grey Osterud, an accomplished academic historian. Rather than teach, she complements her research with editing colleagues’ work. I was thus confident from the outset that she knew and honored the standards of academic history. Once I had the manuscript drafted, I undertook a rewrite with Pamela Haag, an author of serious histories for broader audiences. Notably, she also has a contract with Yale University Press for a style guide for the scholar-writer that I look forward to adding to my shelf soon.
As Grey and Pamela helped me improve the book’s prose, they were also teaching me to be a better writer. One set of lessons had to do with the difficulties of evaluating choices about organization when one is too close to the text. Because I was circulating individual chapters to colleagues for feedback, I tried to put enough at the front of each chapter to orient them. The result was bloated chapter introductions. My development editors saw the problem immediately. They worked with me to shorten the chapter introductions and have them serve more as bridges between chapters than as introductions to standalone essays. Similarly, my immersion in the particularities of the book’s events had led me to subdivide the book’s chronology into overly narrow chronological bands. As Grey and Pamela perceived, such fine distinctions muddied the broader argument rather than clarifying it. Thus, a chapter that I had written with six sections, one for each of three characters at each of two times (ABCABC), came to contain just three character-centered sections (ABC).
Careful editing by others is a wonderful way to discover one’s own writing tics. I had been particularly blind to two. I wrote long, intricate sentences and was overly fond of metaphors. I had to learn to reduce clauses and interjections, break up sentences, and clarify which verbs and nouns went together in what ways. Similarly, I had to unmix metaphors and close them out before they ceased to clarify. The difficulty in both cases was less fixing the problems than perceiving them in the first place. Grey and Pamela sensitized me to my propensity to create these tangles, which was all I needed to start fixing them.
Like many historians, I revel in the details and complexity of what I study. Seeing the danger, my dissertation committee co-chair Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof counseled that my job was to over-claim and that his job was to rein me in. But knowing that I should trim and sum up did not wholly cure me. My development editors urged me to go further. Curate evidence. Don’t cut one of five quotations; leave just one. Remove tangents. Lead with bold claims. Qualify them later. Or don’t. The result was much more accessible prose. Arguments rose to the surface, no longer drowned by my sea of evidence.
There is one big downside to a development editor: she costs money. How much varies by who you hire, for how long, and for what. But price tags in the thousands of dollars would be common. The best solution is to have someone else pay. My law school (USC’s Gould School of Law) is extremely generous in its support for junior scholars’ work. While schools and departments may vary substantially in what they are able to offer, it is always worth asking. Knowing that peer institutions have offered similar funding can sometimes help shake out extra funds.
Had I had to pay for my development editors entirely out of pocket, I might have balked at using them or using them so extensively. In my case, that would have been a mistake. Their services were worth far more than the cost. As an early-stage scholar, the benefits were quite large. I have many productive years left in which to benefit from what I have learned in terms of writing and argumentation. The book is stronger too. That matters because the book is my debut in legal history as a mature scholar. It was also the centerpiece of my file for tenure (which I just received--Yay!).
My biggest fear when I began working with development editors was that I would not recognize the final text of the book as my own prose. In fact, the opposite was true. By the time I began working with Grey, I largely knew what I wanted to argue, which historical actors and narratives I wanted to feature, and what evidence I wanted to rely upon. But I found it frustratingly hard to translate the book that I had in my head into words on the page. As Grey and then Pamela and I worked on the prose, the gap between it and my envisioned book narrowed considerably (albeit with some nice additions suggested by my development editors that I had not foreseen). Almost Citizens ended up being very much my book—even more so than I had at first hoped.