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May 2009
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2009-05-06 »

The value of professional copy-editing

A few months ago I did a contract for O'Reilly Media (the "animal book" publishers) to write some chapters for their new book, Version Control with Git.(1)

Working with a "real live" publisher is really interesting. This is the second time I've done it,(2) and both times it's been a very positive experience.

After hanging out on the Internet for a while, you almost stop realizing how low-quality the content is. I'm generalizing here, but I include this very journal, and in fact, this very article, in my generalization. I think I'm a pretty decent writer, but there's no doubt in my mind: a professional editor can help you say the same thing, only better.

Once upon a time, I imagined that working with an editor would be annoying; that I'd waste a lot of time fighting over how to phrase something and how my way is obviously better and gets the point across more clearly, or how your way doesn't even say the same thing. That's not really how it works. A really great editor fixes the words without changing the meaning.

In fact, thinking about how good this article could be, but isn't, makes me feel self-conscious about writing it.

It's not just me. I've been a long-time reader of Robert X. Cringely, who used to write columns for PBS and who now writes his own blog instead. (Follow the links and compare.) You can tell it's the same guy with the same clever insights, but the quality drop from then to now is tangible and saddening. His insights just don't seem as clever; he over-exaggerates and he blows his own horn a bit too much, which presumably PBS wouldn't let him do. He was better off with the restrictions.

A while ago I wrote about the Harvard Business Review, which contains, in every issue I have ever read, multiple articles with more insight than I have seen anywhere on the Internet. That's a serious claim, and I make it seriously. In their case it's not just editors, but peer review and very high publishing standards, that make sure the quality is unreasonably high.

I don't have any particular love for the dead tree format of publishing. But much worse than the change in medium is the associated change in editorial standards. It used to be so expensive to publish that it was worth paying someone to first make sure it was good; nowadays, it's so cheap to publish that the cost of hiring a copyeditor and fact checker outweighs all the other costs.(3) Thus the quality of published work has degraded badly over time.

The end result is odd: reduced publishing costs should leave more money for editing and fact checking. Instead, people think those costs should drop at the same speed, which is unreasonable unless you cut quality.

Would you pay more for quality, edited work? Really? I like to think I would... but aside from the occasional purchase of an issue of HBR, my actual behaviour says otherwise.


(1) The book is finally available for pre-ordering on amazon.com! In case you're curious, my main contributions were the introductory sections on git blobs, trees, and commits, and the later chapters about git-svn integration and git submodules. (Sadly, the book was written before I made git subtree, so I didn't get a chance for any free advertising.) You'll find my name in the Acknowledgements section that nobody ever reads.

(2) The first time was back in 2004, an article in Wired Magazine about Autonomic Computing and Nitix. The online version doesn't really do it justice; in the print version, my article was on the page beside an illustration from The Fantastic Voyage. Woo hoo! My conclusion at the time: the reason everything in Wired sounds so cool (regardless of reality) is that their editors are capable of taking anything and making it sound cool.

(3) This reminds me of an analogy to selling software: more expensive software is expected to have more expensive support costs. If you buy software for $69 in a store, the tech support had better be free. But if you pay $100,000 for "enterprise" software, they're going to charge you at least $100/hour for support... and who cares? $100 compared to $100,000 is not even worth negotiating about. Or similarly, Microsoft has to drop the price of Windows in order to sell it on Netbooks, because Netbook hardware is cheaper. It doesn't actually make sense, but people expect it anyway.

Update (2009/05/06): Fixed a typo, after several people reported it. Okay, I guess the alternative professional copyediting is to just post your stuff on the 'net and hope your friends correct you before your enemies do.

Update (2009/05/06): A thoughtful response from Charles Stewart on advogato. He happens to offer copy-editing services, just in case you believe my article and you think you need some.


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