Editing the Multiauthor Book

edited copy art

I have just completed work on a 14-chapter nonfiction book to which some 23 authors contributed (some are coauthored). While this certainly is not my first multiauthor MS. Nor is it the most complicated one with which I have dealt. In fact, many of the authors in this particular project bring skill to their writing. But it impresses me as something of a paradigm for this type of editorial work. Why, I kept wondering, do books by numerous different writers require so much more time and care than most single-author works?

The obvious answer is consistency, of course. That one word alone explains perhaps as much as two thirds of the difficulty. On the macro scale, the editor must take in and comprehend the points made by each author well enough that s/he can recognize when one contributor contradicts another. Say, for instance, a table included in chapter 2 points to the conclusion that a particular dollar value may be attributed to forest preservation. Then, in chapter 10, the writer explains how monetarism won't suffice in quantifying benefits--in other words, a conclusion completely at odds with his colleague's. First you must make certain not to fall prey to an apples/oranges argument; then, find a way to describe the problem to both writers so they can arrive at a mutually acceptable resolution. This is not to suggest that individual authors aren't apt to come up with their very own conundrums, just that editorial recognition of them is usually much simpler.On a micro level, not only is it crucial that every author spell toward without the s (or with it, if you prefer), each must also refer accurately and identically to people and corporate entities. For example, one essay in the recently completed book referred to British Columbia's "Great Bear Rainforest." A couple of chapters later, however, another author discussed the "Great Bear's Rain Forest"; and yet a third included a couple mentions of the "Great Bear rain forest." (The first result of a Google search brought me to the Province of British Columbia's website, which cited the "Great Bear Rainforest.") Throughout the book, I adjusted this name about seven times. Now factor in the twist that half of the essays in this book concern South American subjects with English-preferred acronyms for Spanish corporate names, and you begin to see how time consuming such verification becomes. You also will understand how I ended up with an 18-page style sheet.

But what about the remaining one-third? I came to realize that this other portion is primarily spent coping with the opposite of consistency--the delicate balancing act of maintaining 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, then assure that they remain intact throughout the work. With multiple authors, each of whom has her or his distinctive voice, the editor must always weigh to what extent one essay may reflect and/or differ from the others. It is important that the reader is not put off by abrupt changes in voice from chapter to chapter, but the editor must simultaneously permit each piece 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 of the publication.)

Now I am about to delve into a nonfiction book written by two--and, in a couple of instances, three--authors working together. Writing by committee. I wish I could recall the first multiauthor book I edited. What must I have done?

Posted by Brian Hotchkiss on Mon, Oct 19, 2009