June 1, 2014
Sgt. Bergdahl seems to be at the head of the news this morning. After five years as a Taliban prisoner in Afghanistan, he was released in a trade deal in which we turned loose five prisoners from Guantanamo. This has apparently stirred some outrage, primarily because the United States does not deal with terrorists. Given the nature of the Taliban, that seems like a perfectly reasonable policy. But we also don't want to leave military people behind.
I have a compromise arrangement that might satisfy everyone. We do not release terrorists under any circumstances, but, for American prisoners, we will exchange politicians who wave the flag and get in line to support pointless wars. Maybe if we set that kind of system in place, we'll be a little less reckless about jumping into these things.
The copy-edit manuscript for Coming Home arrived (electronically, of course) this week. I've begun going through it, and the experience reminds me of a basic truth: People can't be trusted to judge their own work. The draft I submitted several months ago was, I thought, close to perfection in every detail. I'd gone through it carefully, made sure the events described were consistent with each other, that the language worked, and of course that the spelling and grammar were correct.
You can guess what's coming. And I'm not sure why it's still such a surprise that so much has gone wrong. It's always that way. I can't say whether everybody has this experience. It's not something we normally like to talk about. But the truth is that I'm not sure where I'd be without my copy editor. Currently, there are two of them, Sara and Bob Schwager, who have been of immense help over the last few years.
It's hard to understand how, in the fifth (or eighth) draft of this book, I could have missed so much. I think what happens is that in producing the first draft, which is inevitably the brute work, I tend to let a lot of the details go. I don't record them. Don't want to break the mood that has me rolling forward. When passion takes hold, as it normally does during the early construction period, I don't want to stop to record that a character arrived at a space station in, say, November, on the 11th, shortly after dinner time. But it creates a problem when, a hundred pages later, I mention that, when he went in the front door at home, he walked into a Christmas party.
So what's the big deal? I can pick all that up in the second or, surely, by the third draft. Right?
Apparently not. By the second draft, I've almost literally lived inside the book for several months. Everything makes sense. I don't remember the details I put aside and there's an assumption that I wouldn't say something if it contradicted the fictional reality. That's the best I can do by way of explanation.
Despite all efforts, we still seem unable to find everything. Mostly, that consists of stylistic issues, which are not usually matters that concern a copy editor. Still, problems can persist.
There's a famous story about a bet between a British editor and someone else –I don't recall the details (ahem)—that the editor could not produce a perfect book. And they were only talking about grammar and spelling and so on. The editor presumably gave it more than ordinary attention. But when the publication date came, the title had been misspelled.
If it seems as if this is only an issue for writers, I'd argue that it's something for all of us to think about. The last person who can be trusted about the validity of an opinion, or a product, is probably the individual responsible for it. That's okay if we're only talking about baseball teams or what constitutes the best pizza topping. But when we're in a position of authority, as a boss, a teacher, a parent, it's prudent to establish a climate in which those over whom we have authority are given free rein to voice their opinions as well.
This is not about encouraging rebellion. But a smart boss will want his subordinates to say what they think. If he's about to make a major blunder, it's better to hear it from one of your own people than from the manager you report to. Moreover, people, kids, students, whatever, will always respond better to us if they understand that we are willing to listen to what they say.