The Value of Editing a Colleague’s Work

No LFF post this week, because that just isn’t where my head is, and if I can’t put together a decent post for that series, I am just not going to do it!  Where is my head right now?  Well, I’m in the midst of editing my boss’s book, which is an enormous project but is also, quite frankly, the most fun I’ve had as a graduate student in quite some time.  Natalia Cecire of the blog Works Cited recently posted on how to receive a colleague’s feedback on your work (hint:  graciously and thoughtfully), but I’m also finding that giving feedback on a colleague’s (or superior’s) work can be a valuable rhetorical exercise and stimulate self-reflection.

My boss is a professor outside the English department who works in a field that nevertheless interests me.  He holds an endowed chair, recently won the book award from the top organization in his field (an entire journal issue was dedicated to responses to that book), and the book he is currently working on is his fourth.  In other words, editing this guy’s book feels like kind of a big deal.  Yet the experience has taught me that even prestigious faculty have to work extremely hard at their writing and have to deal with rejection.  See, his book has been under contract at a major university press for the past couple of years, and having submitted the final draft in February, he is now in possession of some readers reports that are making him second guess the project or at least his relationship with this particular press.  They just seem to want a very different sort of book than the one he wrote, which isn’t an indictment of his scholarship so much as it is a reflection of the divergent visions of author and publisher.  Now, we’re talking about a high class problem when the scholar in question can say, “Well, Oxford UP is interested in this project, so I may just take my work there,” but the less-than-smooth road to this book’s publication has given me a helpful, if somewhat scary window into what one has to face in getting one’s work out into the world.

So, he is having me edit the entire book before he sends it off to Oxford and a couple of other presses that have expressed interest.  So, I have been commenting on each chapter, and sending it back to him.  He makes some changes and sends them back to me to see if I like them, and he genuinely seems to appreciate my feedback and suggestions.  We have a dialogue, a dialogue (if I can say this without sounding weird) that is very much like the ones I try to create with my students, not an authoritarian call and response, but a colleague offering up an opinion as an informed reader.  I’m finding that the rhetorical moves I was taught to use in writing center consultations and in paper comments–stating your reaction “as a reader” rather than ordering the other person around–are perfectly applicable in this situation as well.  It helps that the person on the other end of the conversation adapts to the needs of his reader rather than insisting that the reader just work harder to understand.  Where he has pushed back against the reader’s reports, it has always had to do with philosophical or political disagreements.  The argument of his book is more populist than the press wants, thus making them feel that it should me published for the trade market rather than for scholars.  Also, the book deals with some politically sensitive issues that pissed one reader off to no end.  I’m guessing that the ability to adapt the writing to the reader’s needs without compromising the entire visions is how he came to be writing his fourth book and can basically choose the press he wants to work with.

So, it’s been a good lesson in how to both give and receive feedback, but it’s also been a confidence builder and an experience that has driven home the importance of peer review exercises for me.  Reading someone else’s work–whether the other person is a classmate or a superior–fortifies your instincts about what good writing looks like and how problematic writing could be adjusted.  There is something about the way we are taught about textual communication that makes us think that it is entirely up to the reader to “get” the author’s meaning, that makes us forget that readers are sometimes qualified to make certain judgments about how well an author is communicating that meaning.  In my earliest grad seminars, we often had to critique each other’s work, and I would often get intimidated by particularly dense papers whose brilliance I assumed I just hadn’t grasped.  When I started this editing project, I similarly feared that I would be revealing my own ignorance or unsophistication if I pointed out things that were unclear to me or places where the prose became cumbersome, but after getting through a few chapters (and my boss’s gracious attitude helps), I’m reminded that I am part of the audience for this work, a legitimately informed reader with enough expertise to comment on how well the author is communicating.  And that’s a pretty cool realization.

Editing someone else’s work is also a reminder that everybody’s writing has quirks, that everyone struggles with some basic aspects of usage or structure.  I, for example, have a weird penchant for using “this” ambiguously by burying the antecedent.  This guy tends to overuse “however” and often doesn’t tie parts of his historical narrative to his interpretive argument in order to remind the reader what we’re supposed to be taking away from the narrative.  In other words, one of these chapters under utilizes commentary sentences, assuming that the evidence speaks for itself, one of the writing concepts that so often bedevils my undergraduates.

It feels like I’m going to end this on a kind of “Everybody Poops” note, but it’s true.  Everyone writes shitty first drafts, and sometimes even the second or third drafts are problematic.  But the real lesson I’m trying to convey here is that you should jump at opportunities to critique other people’s work.  For one thing, you may need that person to give you feedback on your own stuff.  But it’s also important to recognize that taking the time to do this sort of thing–even if you’re not getting paid for it–may have valuable consequences for your own self-confidence and your own writing.


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