I’m loath to give a negative review, but I’m uninspired by The Editor’s Companion (Writer’s Digest Books, 2014) by Steve Dunham. The book rehearses rules that I already know and fails to provide a coherent approach to editing.
To be fair, perhaps the book isn’t aimed at experienced editors; it certainly isn’t aimed at editors who work on scholarly books or more literary trade books, whether fiction or nonfiction. Nor is it helpful for acquisitions editors, developmental editors, or those who provide structural or substantive editing. The title is misleading in this regard. The book is more for copy editors who work in journalism or corporate communications.
According to Steve Dunham’s blog, the book “will be useful to journalism students, novice editors, and those who have editing thrust upon them—volunteers editing organizations’ newsletters and websites, or people whose employers have assigned them editing responsibility because they are good with English.”
The Editor’s Companion focuses on the mechanics of communicating clearly to the audience. The eleven chapters cover topics such as fact-checking, accuracy, precise language, grammar, editing tools and resources, editorial relationships, and “marks of good writing.” Dunham is well qualified to discuss these topics. He has over thirty years of experience as a writer and an editor – mainly in journalism and corporate communications – and he provides many humorous examples of errors that he ferreted out and fixed. His Editor’s Companion blog offers more examples of editing gaffes from “Steve’s Hall of Shame.”
Despite these strengths, the book falls short of its promise. Part of the problem is structural: Dunham returns repeatedly to the same topics, the content often does not match the section headings, the paragraphs are short and choppy, and too much material is quoted from other sources. The result is a lack of coherence.
For example, the section “Good Grammar” in chapter 1 presumably aims to introduce the reader to the chapter on grammar that comes later on. Dunham begins with a catchy quotation from a writer who doesn’t care about grammar. Good. But he soon drifts into a long block quotation from a July 2001 interview between author Stephen Coonts and his publisher, the Naval Institute Press. The quotation leads Dunham to contemplate the hazards of editorial overconfidence and second-guessing. The section ends with another long quotation, this time from The Elements of Editing (1982) by Arthur Plotnik, in which Plotnik poses ten questions to help editors “critically examine their own work.” What happened to grammar?
This sort of stepping-stone thinking, in which one thought leads to another to another, leads to endings that have forgotten their beginnings. In jumping from one observation to the next, Dunham seems to lose sight of his purpose in writing. It’s too bad, because he obviously knows his stuff as a copy editor.
The heavy reliance on quotations may reflect Dunham’s journalism background. He believes that writers of nonfiction should not insert their own opinions. “The facts should convey the message,” he writes, “letting the reader draw conclusions from the facts. If it’s necessary to explain the implications of the facts, then the explanation should be supported with quotes from others, if possible.”
This advice might be okay for a news reporter, but the author of a book should go forth with boldness.
The trouble is, when Dunham does express an opinion, I dig in my heels. “A good rule to follow in editing,” he states, “is to eliminate words that don’t appear in a dictionary, unless the publisher is certain that every potential reader will know their meaning.” This statement occurs in a discussion on jargon – specialized or technical words. Dunham cautions against using jargon because many publications end up on the web for viewing by a general audience.
And yet, I wouldn’t dream of eliminating words that are not in the dictionary without querying both the author and the publisher about the purpose of the publication and the intended audience. I recently edited a book on literary theory by David Jarraway, an English professor at the University of Ottawa, who is fond of the word “anent.”
“It’s not in the dictionary,” I said.
“It should be,” he replied.
Anent is an Old English preposition meaning “in line with” or “in the sight of.” It evolved in Middle English to have a variety of meanings, such as “with reference to” and “about.” David considers it a wonderful word that should never have been dropped from the lexicon. All right then.
Dunham would appreciate this discussion, I think. But his journalistic style of writing in short and poorly connected paragraphs does not give him room to weigh arguments and demonstrate how he thinks through editorial problems in a coherent fashion.
This book has also been reviewed on The Editors’ Weekly. Any thoughts?