Advice

The Editor Made Me Sound Inane

What to do when you loathe the changes made to your manuscript

Ian W. Hill / Creative Commons

November 02, 2015

Question (from "Corey"): I recently reviewed a book ("New Book") for a journal in my interdisciplinary field, one which prides itself on innovative writing and edgy ideas. I wrote a review that I thought was clever and well phrased, rather in the mode of British journalists who show a personality — often warped, often witty — in their reviewing and skewering of others’ books.

I did not skewer the New Book. I wrote a reasoned critique, providing quotes and indicating how I’d come to my opinions. My review was not a personal essay, but I did refer to myself as "I."

In print, though, and without my knowledge and consent, every one of my "I"s was changed to "this writer."

That’s an old usage that I thought went out half a century ago, along with "ibid." and "op. cit" for footnoting. (Your younger readers may not even remember when "footnotes" appeared at the bottom of the page, as opposed to today’s "endnotes").

Anyway, I was horrified to sound in print like some old colonial Anglophile who’d just crawled out of a Crimean trench and didn’t realize the world of letters had changed. The New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s took responsibility for their writing, and took joy in creating their author personae. But me, now I am "this writer."

What can I do to avoid this kind of fiasco in the future?

Answer: Ms. Mentor sympathizes, even weeps, at your situation. She, of course, refers to herself in third person — but she is always Ms. Mentor, never "this writer." Her third-person self is a tribute to her model, the incomparable Miss Manners. They write in the mode known as "third person haughty" — not uncommon in Victorian England, but increasingly rare in our barbaric times.

Yet most modern American writers shouldn’t sound like Victorians, Ms. Mentor thinks, unless they are being satirical or deliberately snooty. Americans do informality very well, and are cleverly folksy when it suits them. That is one of the joys of reading American writing, including the work of experimental bloggers and slash-and-burn critics. There is always a surprise nugget, a snapper that makes you guffaw in spite of yourself.

No one should ever deprive any writer of his/her/its unique voice. Ms. Mentor considers "this writer" a crime against literary humanity. Her soul revolts.

But what can you do?

Some journal editors do check back with authors before a review or article goes into print. Some simply send a marked-up text for your approval, and Ms. Mentor blesses them with hers. Sometimes journals let you see the edited version, but only through an elaborate thicket of passwords, log-ins, and screen names (all designed by power-mad fiends who want you to take off your shoes, submit to retinal scans, and provide urine samples — you and Ms. Mentor know their types). But if you submit your will to theirs, you may get to see your bundle of writing before it reaches the world.

Other journals are simply imperialistic. They make changes that they wish to make, and the author/reviewer is regarded as a necessary morsel, slightly above a gnat.

"Una," a tenured scholar of some repute, was once victimized by such an editor, who transformed her mild, gentle critique of a young scholar’s work into a blistering denunciation of the supposed evils and inadequacies of the book. The review came out under Una’s name, and she was mortified. She does not eviscerate the work of young scholars — ever (unless, say, they are guilty of plagiarism). She thinks, as Ms. Mentor does, that they should be cherished and nourished. She wants to give them kittens and kudos.

Nevertheless, she was out in print as Una the Bomber.

Una wrote a letter disowning the changes in her review. The fierce editor — a famous public intellectual — ignored her letter. But she was never again assigned a review for that journal. So the world was denied Una’s unique perspectives.

Can you protect yourself?

Well, you might read the journal’s past published reviews, and see if they specialize in slashing or smarming, if either is uncongenial to you. If the reviews all sound alike, all in one writer’s voice, you can assume that some Heavy Editor is in charge and has a Vision. If you don’t share that Vision, you might want to decline the assignment.

(The Vision, in some fields, also includes a political perspective. This is especially true, Ms. Mentor has heard, in the fierce field of Middle Eastern studies.)

While you’re scrutinizing the reviews already published in the journal, you might also look for how they handle — if they do — Forbidden Words. Most journals wouldn’t cavil at a direct quote from Chaucer’s "Miller’s Tale," in which Nicholas grabs Alisoun by the "queynte." But the modern version of that word is usually taboo. Likewise, if you need to quote or use current popular vulgarities, check if the journal allows those words. Or provide your own circumlocutions.

But back to Corey. What will you lose by producing, even inadvertently, an awkwardly written review?

Academic journals rarely pay for book reviews, more’s the pity. At most you get a free book. But reviews can be part of one’s professional profile and reputation — and thanks to the Internet, anything that goes up once is available forever.

You might keep a watchful eye about arrangements when you get the book-review assignment. Is there a contract? Will you be sent proofs or edits to approve? If not, you’re vulnerable. They can do what they want and put it out under your name.

Does this happen often? Ms. Mentor does not know, and would like to hear from readers.

As far as she can determine, there is no code of ethics for book-review editors. Nor is there a bill of rights for book-review writers.

But as with everything published in our Age of Attention Deficit, few will note nor long remember whether your review — or the book itself — was hellacious or rhapsodic. They may remember your name, though. Do make sure that’s spelled right.

Question: I’ve heard that most published academic books are never reviewed at all, anywhere. So no one knows you’ve written the book, except maybe your relatives, who’ll all say they can’t understand it, anyway, and why don’t you write a best-selling novel? My mentor suggests I get friends, or friends of friends, to write reviews of my book on Amazon and Goodreads, and in the Appropriate Journals as well. That strikes me as inappropriate manipulation, and that I should leave it up to them, and to the journal, and to the universe, to decide whether to review my book. Am I being too fussy and nitpicky and high-minded, and is it apt to hurt me at tenure time, when my book seems to have attracted no interest and made no impact?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor has been hearing about academic seminars on "creating your own brand," in which professors are exhorted to "curate" their "social-media presence" over sundry "platforms," in order to create a "brand."

Are these tasks mandatory? Ms. Mentor wonders. Do they take too much time from reading, writing, researching, teaching, job hunting, and worrying? Is an ingenious website better for you than a published article?

Ms. Mentor welcomes comments, including braggings and kvetchings, about academics and their web presences. She presumes you can avoid being confused with that felon who has your same name, but how do you do that?

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, identifying details are smudged, and anonymity is guaranteed. Ms. Mentor will not review your book for you.

© Emily Toth

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.