Chronicle of Higher Education, July 2006

What Are Book Editors Looking for?

Chronicle of Higher Education, July 21, 2006

By Dedi Felman

As an editor for a major publishing company, I am occasionally asked to give talks on what editors are “looking for” in books. It’s always struck me as a curious question. It presumes that we know what we are looking for; that blessed with foresight, we anticipate the Next Big Thing and then instigate a full-bore search for the perfect prepackaged book and author.

Not unheard of, I suppose. But much more often we wander, slightly dazed, through campus visits or a steady stream of summer submissions, hoping that good ideas and even better writers will find us — and that we will find them. Then, once we’ve located the creative kernel or thinker that sets us popping, an even-longer negotiation usually ensues over how exactly to get from idea to book.

Despite the latest headlines about Google Print or the e-book, our mission remains remarkably stable. We’re looking for the same thing we’ve always looked for — solid, readable, provocative, and important works of scholarship with clear ideas at their core. And if you know some of the basics of good writing, you have already improved your starting score.

What do you need to know when approaching a publisher? The first thing to remember is that all editors are different: We work in various divisions of different-sized companies with different mandates. We come from different backgrounds (some with advanced degrees, some without); we’ve set up different series and carved out different niches in the field. Our tastes vary widely. Some of us go wild over a rich and textured narrative. Some of us prostrate ourselves before the altar of “the big idea.” Some of us live to hoist yet another plaque onto the house’s prize-lined walls, some of us simply want a paycheck, and some of us want it all. So find the editor most likely to get enthusiastic about your work. Then listen to that editor’s advice.

To get you started, here are some basic first steps.

Identify the question driving your book. What is it about? Before you got lost trying to track every bit of information that exists on your topic, you had a question. Reclaim it.

Are you wondering what social conditions led hundreds to die in a heat wave? (See Eric Klinenberg’s Heat Wave.) Are you wondering whether the media stereotypes about black men — their morality, their civility, or lack thereof — truly hold up? (See Mitchell Duneier’s Slim’s Table.)

The central question that you started with could become the beginning of a narrative that documents change, one that contradicts conventional wisdom, or one that merely explains. But rediscover your starting point and write it down, using no more than a few sentences to explain what motivated you, and now your book.

Identify why that question matters. The next key to your success lies in that well-oiled mantra from elementary school: Who cares? If you can’t tell your reader why they should care, you probably don’t have a question that motivates an entire book.

That’s easier to do in some cases than in others. We know why we should care about global warming or suicide bombing. Even if we’re not historians, we can see why gaining a clear understanding of the aftermath of the Civil War matters. It’s a lot harder to show why people should care about what Spinoza said (although Matthew Stewart in his recent work The Courtier and the Heretic did just that).

Still, you know why you cared. And if you can sniff out what interests people when you explain your project to them and build on that to tell us why it all matters, you’ve got a question that can sustain a reader’s interest for 300 pages.

Create a narrative structure. Or, how to think like an architect. First and foremost, your book needs a logical architecture or frame. And that frame must actually support the house.

Is your story an academic mystery in which the answer, through a steady accumulation of evidence, will gradually be revealed? Or perhaps it’s a dramatic conflict with two plausible storylines (yours and the conventional wisdom?) battling it out until a deus ex machina comes on stage to resolve all? Or a chronological narrative where we come to grasp a shift that has played out over time?

Prepare an annotated outline of the entire book, including the introduction (how will you grab the reader’s interest?) and the conclusion (where do we go from here?). Then be prepared to justify your building plan. Does Chapter 4 naturally follow from Chapter 3? Perhaps Chapters 5 and 6 should be combined? Are we hearing the same point over and over? If it’s a complicated story, break the book down into three or four basic parts (often, “the what,” “the so-what,” and the “now-what”) and try organizing the chapters from there.

Don’t cling to your first outline. Put it away for a week, and then re-ask yourself the same questions. Outline it to friends over a few drinks and see if they get it. If not, it could be their inebriation, but more likely, you need to try again.

Make the story your own. The best books are the ones where writers seized control and told the story they wanted to tell. It’s hard to do that in your first book. Finding your own point of view is a lifelong process, and spelling it out with a distinctive voice and verve often takes a second or third book. But hold the despair. There are steps you can take to hurry the process along:

  • Throw out all traces of the literature review. Yes, you painstakingly put together a comprehensive overview for your committee, but now is the time to find your own voice. Like it or not, a book is an act of ego. Do not quote or explain others’ philosophies at length, or you will put your reader to sleep. Don’t let others grab your center stage.
  • Eliminate those endless block quotes. Never use someone else’s words to make a crucial point for your argument. Quote others when their rhetoric is powerful and you absolutely, positively couldn’t say it better yourself. But in most cases paraphrase.
  • Avoid jargon at all costs. You have probably heard that one before. But doesn’t jargon make me sound smarter? The answer is no. Jargon just makes your prose mushy and obscures your points. Ask yourself if your reader will understand how you are using a word. Then ask yourself if you truly understand how you are using that word. Then get rid of it.
  • Use examples. It’s not just the novelists who know that it’s more effective to show people what you would otherwise tell them. Follow flamboyant or intriguing characters through your narrative. Choose striking metaphors to express your central ideas. Once you’ve alighted on an indelible image or character, remember that your carefully chosen example isn’t superfluous to your argument, it is your argument. Show your reader something they won’t forget. Startle them.

Avoid Abstraction. I know, I know, you can’t avoid abstraction. But make an effort to unearth the reality that underlies your theory, and return to it as often as you can. Share with your reader the real-life problem that makes your abstract argument concrete. For just two great examples of that, see Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars or Robert Frank and Philip Cook’s The Winner-Take-All Society.

Understand the true beginning of your story. When it comes to the opening of the book, you must fight the temptation to begin in the middle. Think back to what you knew before you knew any of what you now know, and then back up even further. Don’t start the story where you would if you were talking to the six other people in your workshop who already know the disciplinary questions by heart.

Begin by asking your overarching question. Then allow the reader a sneak peek of what’s to come. Finally, lead the reader quickly through the introductory information that they need in order to understand why the question matters and what’s at stake. Then and only then, after they’ve been properly prepped, are you ready to let loose.

Understand the end of your story. After all the hard work of plowing through a book, there’s no greater disappointment than to have it drift off, either repeating the themes stated in the introduction or veering into irrelevant tangents.

Seize the opportunity to point the way forward for the rest of us. If it’s a chronological tale, find the natural ending for the era that you have been describing and an anecdote that expresses the spirit of that point in time. If it’s a policy-oriented work, avoid ending with pie-in-the-sky proposals; tie your suggestions to the actual discussions in the book. If you’ve introduced characters in the book, return to them and wrap up their stories. The best works of both fiction and nonfiction open up worlds and ideas even as they tell a story that has a definite end.

Be fair. We live in a time when bestsellers engage in shouting matches and have titles like Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. But I’m a respectable scholar, you protest. I’m nothing like those pop polemicists. You may not think you are, but are you examining the unquestioned and thickly encrusted crevices of your thought? Just because all your friends accept that unions are a force for good doesn’t mean that perspective is unquestioningly right. And if you reflect that point of view rather than truly argue it in your book, you aren’t being fair.

You don’t need to submerge your argument in mights, perhaps, and coulds, until the book flounders in equivocation. But you do need to be fair to all sides. Give your book to someone who you know disagrees with you, and ask him or her if you have presented that person’s views fairly. And take their critique seriously. The best arguments engage with and demonstrate the pitfalls in the other side’s logic. Be fair, and the reviewers will be fair to you.

Give your book a pithy title. You might think that is industry folly, but it’s a premium exercise for conveying (and selling) your argument. The Republic. Bowling Alone. The Lonely Crowd. The Time Bind. Streetwise. Gideon’s Trumpet. The View from Nowhere. What do all those titles have in common? They illustrate an idea with an image. They don’t use jargon. And they express the author’s thesis in five words or less.

Finally, remember: You’re not Tom Friedman (or David McCullough). And no one expects you to be. Yours is a narrative with a thought-provoking thesis, not a journalistic account. And though the more journalistic techniques that you can incorporate, the better your writing will read, don’t overworry this. Especially for a first book.

Internalize Strunk and White and maybe even William Zinsser. But don’t twist yourself into a New York pretzel trying to write for Punch Sulzberger. You are bringing the rigor of logic, the surprises of great empirical inquiry, and the revelations of hard-won research to others. That’s a large-enough task.

Dedi Felman is an executive editor at Oxford University Press.

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