Editing the multiauthor book: Some tips

As I unpacked books from my previous office, I came across a 14-chapter, 23-author nonfiction tome I hadn’t looked at since editing it a few years back. It is not the most complicated project with which I have dealt; in fact, many of the authors of this particular volume were skilled writers. But it is something of a paradigm for this type of editorial work.

Why, I kept wondering, do books involving essays by several different writers require so much more time and care than single-author works?

The obvious answer is consistency. All by itself, that one word explains perhaps as much as two thirds of the difficulty. On a macro level, the editor must take in and comprehend issues addressed by each so he can recognize when one contributor contradicts another. For instance, perhaps a table in chapter 2 establishes that a particular dollar value is attributed to forest conservation. In chapter 10, however, another writer explains that “monetarism cannot suffice as an attempt to quantify forest-preservation benefits.” In other words, two writers in the same book have come to a conclusion completely at odds with that of the other.

In cases like this, you must determine whether such a disagreement arises from an apples/oranges situation: Are both authors really writing about the same thing? Was Author A’s point limited to a specific aspect of the table, while Author B’s goal is to lay down some ground rules? In that case, it’s crucial to query both writers in ways that will unearth how to rephrase their arguments so that it is immediately clear to the reader how they each came to their particular perspective. If they are dealing with the same basic concept, however, it’s up to the editor to find a way to question both writers in ways that help them arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution.

Before querying the authors—and risking an unpleasant dust up between them—an editor has to know whether the purpose of this particular collection is to present a unified approach to the subject. Perhaps the compiler’s intention is to ferret out just such controversies and air multiple sides between two covers? If so, call upon all the diplomacy you can muster when querying the authors. Disagreement, in itself, need not be avoided, but you have to find a way to communicate with each author that he has presented an idea counter to the other writer’s theory and it behooves both of them to agree on how they will disagree.

T.Robinson ICAD 1631

“ICAD 13/61” by Teresa Robinson

Those are the broad strokes—line editing concerns, if you will. But the second third of this puzzle—maintaining consistency on a micro level resides more in the domain of copy editing, and it opens up even more opportunities for trouble. Although these kinds of conflict typically are simpler and quicker to resolve, they tend to crop up multiple times per page.

For example, making sure every author spells toward without the s (or with it, if you prefer) is practically autonomic, and making sure all writers refer identically (and accurately) to people, places, things soon becomes reflexive. In the book in hand I was paging through, I came across mention of British Columbia’s “Great Bear Rainforest.” That made me recall that, a couple of chapters later, another author discusses the “Great Bear’s Rain Forest.” Yet a third included a multiple mentions of the “Great Bear rain forest.” Since the Province of British Columbia’s website cites the “Great Bear Rainforest,” I took that as the closest to definitive I was likely to get, and over the course of the 14 essays, I adjusted this name seven times as a result.

Now, factor in that half of the articles in this book were written in English by Spanish- (and in one case Portuguese-) speaking writers about regions in South America. Throw in, too, that the publisher instructed me to make sure all acronyms for Spanish corporate names were cited based on their English-language counterparts, and you begin to see how time consuming such verification becomes. It also should be little surprise that the proper-name spelling section on my style sheet accounted for 18 pages, clarifying why publishers often refer to that tool as a style authority.

But what about the remaining one-third? I came to realize that this final portion is spent coping with the opposite of consistency—the balancing act of maintaining personal approaches and tone(s). In this regard, editing a single-author book is usually fairly straightforward: I become aware of, then comfortable with the writer’s voice and approach to her subject so I can be aware of instances where she may inadvertently stray from one or both.

Each of the writers in a compilation of articles will have her or his own distinctive voice. I always consider to what extent one essay reflects and/or differs from all the others—it is important to guard against putting readers off by abrupt changes in style or voice from one chapter to the next. But simultaneously I must permit each essay to maintain its own distinctive character. (This definitely isn’t true of a fiction collection, where tonal differences are likely to be part of the point.)

As I shelved this bound trip down memory lane, I began to tote up the multiauthor books I’ve edited. (Pretty much anything is more appealing than unpacking at around 4:00 pm.) When I passed 20, I thought better of the whole process—both unpacking and notching my multiauthor-book belt.

But I do wish I could recall the first such book I edited. What must I have done?

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