Last night I finished reading a book that really needed an editor. Or, rather, a better editor.
This non-fiction book was wildly popular when it was first published by a major publisher in the early 1990s, and it is still well-known among women of a certain age. I bought the book years ago when I intended to use it as a reference in a course of study. That study never happened, so the book sat on my shelves and made several moves with me. Along the way, I started to read it a couple of times, but I just couldn’t get into it and put it aside after a short while, never getting past the first chapter.
When I picked it up again a couple of months ago, I had to make myself get deeper into the book, which is almost 500 pages long. The subject matter still matters to me and I’m glad I made the effort to stay with it. I’ll even pass the book on to a friend or two, but I will do so with a caveat because both of these women are well-read and one is a writer: try not to get bogged down in the book’s inhospitable writing and presentation.
What makes a book hospitable? In my view, perhaps stemming from my southern upbringing, a book should be inviting. A writer should welcome readers and strive to make them comfortable, even if the subject matter is a difficult one. For example, this book could be shorter in length. Maybe not by much, but even 100 fewer pages would help. Long books are usually no problem for me — some of my favorites, both fiction and non-fiction, are far longer — but this author repeats herself quite often, and most of the time it is unnecessary.
The author’s usually dense, sometimes complicated, sentence structure meant I had to read too many sentences more than twice (yes, twice) to glean her meaning. Some of this is due to her multi-lingual heritage — Spanish and Eastern European, in addition to English — but most of the time this could have been alleviated by a simple comma or two, or making a long sentence into two. I wonder, in fact, if the narrative was transcribed from tapes because of the sometimes-fast and breathless style. Still, I believe a better editor could have kept her rich language structures intact, even vibrant, while making the book more comfortable for an English-reading audience.
To the author’s credit, the book is well-researched and her notes and references are extensive. She is a well-known Jungian scholar and practitioner with a PhD, and her bona fides show throughout. The subject matter is one I’ve long been interested in, which is why I kept the book and why I kept reading through to the end, even when I had to struggle on occasion. For such a long book, the typography and formatting are surprisingly well done, although the fonts are necessarily smaller and line spacing tighter than I find most comfortable.
In addition to the above considerations, then, what else helps make a book hospitable? Readers will differ, of course, but it helps to think about what works, what doesn’t. Something as simple as plenty of white space is important for me (see the last sentence in the previous paragraph) and is just one more example.
Ultimately it comes down to William Zinsser’s declaration: ‘Hard writing makes for easy reading. Easy writing makes for hard reading.’ I submit that one can — and should — switch ‘editing’ for ‘writing,’ too. When both missions are achieved, it’s a good bet the book — or story, essay, academic paper or dissertation, even a blog post — is one you can be comfortable with and you can rest in its hospitality as you read.