Archives For Editing

editors wants

The goal of most writers is to become published writers. In his diary, C.S. Lewis describes a rather peculiar route to publication followed by one of his acquaintances at Oxford.

During his prolific career, Lewis dealt with many different editors. Some experiences were positive, while others were less so.

In the diary entry which follows, Lewis expresses his befuddlement at the criteria some editors use to make their decisions.

“Stead” was William Stead, an American poet who came to England as a diplomat, became an Anglican priest, baptized T.S. Eliot, and returned to the States prior to WWII. Stead also introduced Lewis to W.B. Yeats, a curious encounter I will be writing about quite soon.

Wednesday 5 April: Started revising Greek History today. At first I found my notes etc. in great confusion, but when that was straightened out I worked with more interest and pleasure than I had expected. . . .

I also got the two poems (typed v. accurately for I/-)* and saw Stead in order to get the address of the London Mercury.

He told me with a solemn face and admirable naivety how he had got his accepted. Two or three were sent back by return post, whereupon he went up to London and called on the Editor, saying, “Look here Mr Squire, you haven’t taken these poems of mine and I want to know what’s wrong with them!!”

If the story ended there, it would be merely a side light on Stead, but the joke is that Squire said, “I’m glad you’ve come to talk it over: that’s just what I want people to do” and actually accepted what he’d formerly refused. Truly the ways of editors are past finding out! (All My Road Before Me)

Anyone who has submitted their work for publication consideration can relate to Lewis’ incredulity. Long ago I resigned myself to their arbitrariness and irrationality. They are, after all, simply human beings, and as such, inescapably subjective.

While we could all agree on circular filing** submissions filled with typos or misspellings, they sometimes reject what is excellent and embrace what is maudlin. The stories of best sellers that were repeatedly rejected are common.

It’s true that some publications have pretty exhaustive stylebooks, but when it comes to the content of what they publish, it frequently appears to be based on momentary whim.

After many years of writing, and a handful of years as an editor myself, I have come to believe the decisions are purely subjective. Subjective and arbitrary, depending on the mood, time of day, weather, status of family relations and digestion of the editor.

A Postscript on C.S. Lewis and Stead

After the diary excerpt cited above, Lewis continues with a bit more about the brash American.

Stead gave me the proof of his new book, The Sweet Miracle, wh. I took away. So far it seems rather dull. Worked for the rest of the day, except for a nightcap of Repington.

If you would like to assess for yourself the “dullness” of Stead’s poetry, you can download a copy of The Sweet Miracle and Other Poems via Hathitrust.

The book Lewis refers to as his “nightcap” was a history of the First World War, in which he had personally served. It was written by Lieutenant Colonel Charles à Court Repington, a war correspondent. Both volumes are available for your bedtime reading (volume one, volume two).

* “Typed very accurately for one pound.”

** Also referred to as the “round file.”





Be an Inkling

May 3, 2017 — 5 Comments

Lemming Critique

Do you invite others to critique your writing before you publish it? If you want to be successful, you definitely should.

I never cease to be amazed at how presumptuous some writers are. I’m referring to those who deny their work could be improved by having others offer suggestions for improving it.

When I reflect on the fact that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien subjected their own work to the critical eyes (and ears) of their peers, I realize I must do no less.

Just as their involvement in the Inklings made them better authors, in the same way our participating in writing or critiquing fellowship is vital to our advancing in the art.

Lewis recognized this early in life. Long before the birth of the Inklings, he exchanged “works in progress” with his lifelong friend, Arthur Greeves.

Lewis went so far as to declare, in a 1916 letter to Greeves: “It is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.”

Benefits of Writing Fellowships

Some profitable results that come from participating in a support group are obvious. Depending on the group, your compatriots identify places where your writing is not as clear as you intend it to be. Some participants may also be good copy editors, and willing to share their skills.

Then there are the proverbial “grammar Nazis” whose contributions are actually valuable, if you desire to write well. (Of course, the comments of others are only suggestions, and all writers are free to implement, or dismiss, the advice.)

In longer works, your writing companions can help you identify when your pace is erratic or your story is going off track. It’s not uncommon for them to offer worthwhile ideas that would never have come to you if you relied solely on your own cranium.

Another benefit comes from gaining new insights into the writing life. For example, one of my writing partners made this observation that continues to guide me. Discussing how frequently I digress to extinguish any possibility of misunderstanding, he said, “The instinct of the journalist is to be concise. The instinct of the historian is to be thorough. You’re a historian.” Realizing that I invariably default to the latter, the historian, helps me to consciously attempt to temper that orientation. (I know, I don’t succeed too well with that, but just imagine what my writing would be like if I surrendered unconditionally to my innate inclination.)

Encouraging Others

Participating in a writing collective means we never have to be isolated, alone with words destined never to be seen by another human eye. At the very least, we share them with our friends. And, potentially, the collaborative process helps see them through to publication

It is well known that without C.S. Lewis’ persistent encouragement, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would never have seen print.

Lewis revealed his nature as an encourager early in his life. The quotation above comes, in fact, from a letter when he is challenging Greeves to continue faithfully sending his work for Lewis to comment upon.

I do really want to see something of yours, and you must know that it is impossible to write one’s best if nobody else ever has a look at the result.

However, I told you I would proceed to serious measures, so here is my manifesto. I, Clive Staples Lewis, student, do hereby give notice that unless some literary composition of Arthur Greeves be in my possession on or before midnight on the last night of June in the year nineteen hundred and sixteen, I shall discontinue from that date forward, all communication to the said Arthur Greeves of every kind, manner, and description whatsoever, until such composition or compositions be forwarded. ‘So there’ as the children say. Now let us go on.

This amusing passage reminds us of two final things. First, if we have difficulty connecting with a local writing group, remember that we are not limited by geographic proximity. (Never truer than in today’s wired world.)

A second lesson is that, as in most human relations, humor makes good things even better. Oh, how the halls of Magdalen College and the Eagle and Child must have echoed with their laughter.

Devastated by Criticism

November 14, 2016 — 14 Comments

calvin-criticismHow do you feel when others criticize something you’ve written? Do you just want to tear your work up and start all over again? If you do, you have something in common with J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings. And he is not the only great writer with whom you share this hypersensitive trait.

Tolkien’s inability to accept constructive criticism is no secret; it is frequently noted in biographies.

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, and we are often suspicious of the mental health of those who do. Yet many writers actively seek out constructive criticism in order to sharpen their skills and improve their work.

That is a major reason for the existence of writers’ groups which pop up in varying expressions wherever serious writers live. While another benefit of such communities is the simple encouragement that comes from gathering with others who share your passion, it is the critical examination of each other’s manuscripts which provides the clearest concrete benefit. It’s no accident many such literary meetings are actually called critique groups.

Tolkien was a member of one of the most famous such fellowships that ever existed, the Inklings. It was in that setting where he first shared the stories of hobbits and elves who would make such a profound impact on Western literature. He said it was primarily through the encouragement of the Inklings—specifically his good friend, C.S. Lewis—that these amazing stories were ever published.

You see, Tolkien had a terrible and frequently fatal flaw . . . When his writing was criticized, he felt compelled to toss it aside and begin anew. Many other writers have been afflicted with this curse, and not all of them had a C.S. Lewis to rescue their words from the dust bin.

I have shared in the past Lewis’ description of his friend’s handicap.

No one ever influenced Tolkien—you might as well try to influence a bander-snatch. We listened to his work, but could affect it only by encouragement. He has only two reactions to criticism; either he begins the whole work over again from the beginning or else takes no notice at all.

Criticism of the Constructive Variety

As I said a moment ago, no one really craves criticism, and yet most serious writers actively solicit it. As I write this very column, it is with the intention of sharing it tomorrow with my friends in my own writing circles.

When you read it, it will likely have changed, probably in subtle, enriching ways. You can gauge the benefit of mutual critiquing by the amount and the quality of the criticism which is shared. And, should you feel violated, rebuke defensiveness and remind yourself that even the greats, like Tolkien and Lewis, gained from the comments and suggestions of their friends.

I recently learned of another individual who struggled with receiving criticism. It was John Calvin, the father of Reformed theology. Belonging to the Lutheran branch of the church universal, my readings in Reformed history have been limited. However, I’m currently reading two similarly titled books* and I discovered something that may be commonly known to Reformed clergy but was news to me.

He often tended to express his disappointment in extravagant terms. When he encountered an obstacle, his reaction was stark: he would burn his manuscript, never write again, never publish anything again. His decision to write was motivated by external factors: a request by his circle of friends and colleagues, or as the result of his emotional reaction to an event or a work that he read. . . . (John Calvin and the Printed Book)

The good news though is Calvin did not allow these obstacles to have the final say. Instead, he turned to those he trusted and sought their counsel.

Indeed, his extreme sensitivity meant that he needed to have the emotional support of close friends. As a Reformer and specifically as an author, Calvin never worked in isolation even though he was the dominant figure in his setting. While he was confident of the quality of his writings, Calvin still had no hesitation in submitting them to his colleagues before publication. (Ibid.)

Not that Calvin always welcomed suggestions. There was one particular Reformer to whom he sent some of his work whose “commend from Zurich were too numerous and detailed. Hence Calvin stopped sending his manuscripts to Bullinger prior to printing, although he maintained cordial relations with the Zurich Reformer.” I can almost read Calvin’s mind at the time: I asked for your suggestions, not a complete rewrite of the manuscript.

So, it appears those of us who feel discomfort at the sting of criticism—even when we request it—stand in good company. So don’t ever let that temporary pain discourage you from continuing to write.


* A 2005 volume is called John Calvin and the Printed Book, while a 2015 collection of essays is called Calvin and the Book.

csl sayersCan you imagine receiving a compliment like this from C.S. Lewis? Your work “even enlarged my vocabulary.”

Shocking . . . but another writer did receive that rare praise.

In 1954, Lewis wrote a lengthy letter to his friend Dorothy Sayers, praising her recent publication of Introductory Papers on Dante. Lewis’ opening sentence reveals his delight. “Your Introductory Papers have given me a regular feast.”

Lewis specifically comments on a number of insights he found particularly worthwhile. And remember, Lewis was an expert on Dante in his own right.

One evidence that Lewis’ praise is sincere, and not mere flattery, comes in his comment that “every essay and nearly every page enriched me.” Not every page, mind you, but very nearly every one of them.

Offering Gentle Criticism

Consistent with the nature of friendly literary criticism (like one receives in a healthy writers group), Lewis does offer some specific advice on how to strengthen a specific point that he regards as overemphasized. In this case it relates to a classical Latin phrase.

At one point Lewis expresses awe about a portion of the book, and then immediately proceeds to make an enjoyable comment about the limitations of the English language.

P. 52 is a blaze of (just) splendour. (Drat our homophones: by just I don’t mean ‘nothing but,’ I mean ‘justified,’ ‘veracious.’)

Toward the close of his letter, Lewis raises a profound notion about our perception of humor. He cautions Sayers, in her interpretation of Dante’s Comedy, not to read it directly through the lens of our own day. “I’ve a feeling that in handling particular passages you are too certain that whatever is comic to us was, and was meant to be, comic at the time.” He continues:

Because, as any one can see even from the old Punches,* nothing changes so quickly as the sense of humour: so that in reading any old book there is nothing we are less sure of than which places wd. welcome a smile. And oughtn’t we to start by a recognition that our generation (yours & mine) was quite abnormally ‘tickle o’ the sere’** (already the young people are less so).

A Poetic Postscript

Lewis ends his letter to Sayers with some advice for her subsequent work with Dante. He courteously writes, “Don’t give me the next set, I’ll buy it.”

Then he makes a suggestion to protect her from the spurious criticisms of ignorant literary critics. (Note that he doesn’t use the choice descriptive in a vulgar sense common today, but in more classical sense of extreme foolishness.)

And do put in an essay on D. as ‘poet’ in the old, narrowest sense—his sheer poeticalness. Otherwise we shall have some ass saying that because you like so many other qualities, you are oblivious to that.


* Punch Magazine was published in England until 1992. The 1881 image below is inspired by Dante’s Inferno, and applied to the violence in Ireland.

** Easily made to laugh. From Hamlet: “The clown shall makes those laugh whose lungs are tickle o’ the sere.” The seare, or sere, was part of the trigger of old matchlock guns, so arranged that the slightest movement would make the gun discharge. Lungs, then, “tickle o’ the sere,” are those easily moved to laughter.

punch dante

Hunting Facts

March 7, 2016 — 10 Comments

librariansI’m having a serious problem. One that was shared by C.S. Lewis.

Unfortunately, it has reached its greatest intensity as I am striving to meet the deadline for my doctoral dissertation.

The problem is one that should be simple to remedy, yet I’m crippled by it. The solution is so simple that it is almost embarrassing to admit what it is.

But, confession is good for the soul. (That’s not a biblical verse, by the way, in case you were wondering. Nevertheless, it’s quite true.)

So, here’s my confession. I love to conduct research.

The internet is tailor made for a lifelong student like me; I can follow any avenue that piques my interest from one corner of the world wide web to the other.

And, I do.

That’s the problem, of course. I always over-research the things that I write. And this dissertation is no different. I have so much research—good stuff—to cram into it that I’m dreading hearing back from my advisor . . . who now has the first three chapters in hand.

So, how does this plight resonate with the life of C.S. Lewis? Well, not in the sense of my possessing his brilliant intellect and memory. Lewis had no need of the internet to sort out all of the material he had studied.

Still, the two of us do share one important character trait. He too, was an inveterate collector of information.

In his anthology of George MacDonald’s writings, Lewis confesses his pleasure at conducting research. He says it in this fashion:

“I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellen-forschung) is perhaps in my marrow.”

Alas, my marrow is filled with the same unquenchable hunger.

Considering Your Own Writing

It may be that some Mere Inkling readers share this passion for pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

It can certainly be argued that it is an important facet of writing. But there are other aspects of writing, and it is quite natural for different elements of the process to appeal to different individuals.

Perhaps you prefer the initial brainstorming, daydreaming or idea phase of a writing project.

Or, as we have discussed, researching information may be the high point of your writing efforts.

This typically leads to outlining, in various shades of detail. Some writers prefer to proceed without any structure in mind. (This is usually not a good idea when writing nonfiction.) I like outlining. I find establishing a logical structure satisfying work, probably because I’m NTJ.

There are, of course those who honestly love the writing itself, especially when they are in the zone and the creativity is really flowing. Frankly, for me the writing is work. (That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the feeling that flashes when you come upon the perfect word or phrase.)

And, although I’m a brutal editor of my own work, and find sharpening an article rewarding work, I must admit I am a little surprised when I encounter a writer who enjoys this phase of the process the most of all.

Then there is sharing or submitting a manuscript for publication. Most writers are a little nervous about this, but some find it exhilarating.

Once someone has published a book, it is now normal for the bulk of responsibility for its promotion to rest upon their own shoulders, as the author. I’m still waiting to meet someone who claims that this is their favorite phase of the writing cycle.

Back Again to the Oxford Don

Lewis’ writing is so enjoyable that I want to close with a longer excerpt from the introduction.

C.S. Lewis’ high regard for MacDonald is well known. This anthology of his work was a tribute to him, in the hopes of introducing many more readers to his work. This book is insightful into the hearts of both men. After all, the editor’s choice of quotations cannot help but reveal much about them too.

In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.

Honesty drives me to emphasize it. And even if honesty did not— well, I am a don, and “source-hunting” (Quellen-forschung) is perhaps in my marrow. It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought— almost unwillingly, for I had looked at the volume on that bookstall and rejected it on a dozen previous occasions— the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.


There is no authoritative step-by-step list of the writing process. Some sources call the idea stage “prewriting.” Others break writing down into two parts: “drafting” and “revising.” Some consider editing primarily to be “proofreading,” while you can see from post that I merge the revising and proofreading into what I call “editing.” There are various other structures that are used to describe the writing process. My suggestion is to go with what works for you.

MacDonald’s works are now in the public domain. You can download a free copy of Phantastes here. There is a LibriVox (audio) recording available at the same site.

Bach’s Lost Classics

November 20, 2014 — 11 Comments

csl bach


Were you aware that scholars believe half of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music has been lost to the world due to the carelessness of his relatives?

I was unaware of that sad fact until recently.

J.S. Bach was the preeminent prodigy of a gifted musical family. His father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, was the leader of the musicians in their German city. All of his uncles were professional musicians. Two of Bach’s sons also became noteworthy composers.

Bach (1685-1750) held a number of important posts. These included serving the courts of Leopold, Prince of Anhalt-Köthen and Augustus III, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

It is not uncommon for gifted men and women to remain unrecognized during their lifetimes. In such cases, it is not surprising that many of their works would be lost.

Bach, on the other hand, was appreciated during his own lifetime. Despite that fact, many of his creations would pass into oblivion. Why?

Amazing, only a single early cantata was published during his lifetime.

Upon his death, all of his precious musical manuscripts—chorales, motets, arias, sonatas, suites, fugues, concertos, canons and more—were divided among his family. Some of the manuscripts were sold, and others presumably were saved and eventually lost to time. Perhaps someday more pieces will be rediscovered, but that remains to be seen.

Bach was a devout Christian (of Lutheran persuasion). While the Cantor of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig he wrote more than 300 cantatas inspired by the Gospel readings for Sundays and church festivals. One hundred of these musical gems have not survived.

C.S. Lewis enjoyed Bach. In An Experiment in Criticism, he uses the composer’s music as an example of something so profound that it continues to satisfy.

Many people enjoy popular music in a way which is compatible with humming the tune, stamping in time, talking, and eating. And when the popular tune has once gone out of fashion they enjoy it no more. Those who enjoy Bach react quite differently.

In his Diary, Lewis’ brother Warnie describes the inauguration of a new record player in 1933. “This after my long expected new gramophone arrived . . . I am delighted with it . . . After supper Jack, Minto and I sat cozily in the study and I played them the Pastoral Symphony and a sonata of Bach.”

In our modern world, the increase in leisure time has allowed many people to pursue their creative dreams. Some write, others paint, and a smaller number compose music.

Bach’s tale makes one wonder what will happen to their labors of love once they are gone. Will our family or friends divide them among themselves? Will they ever be read?

Rather than be depressed by these questions, let me encourage you to share your work with others now. Perhaps a blog would be a suitable avenue for publishing your thoughts? There are also a number of options for publishing ebooks, including some that do so at no cost.

Of course, not everything we write merits publication. We should strive to write something worthwhile, and edit it to the point where we can be suitably “proud” of our literary offspring. No doubt Bach spent many hours revising his compositions until they sounded perfect to his own ear.

And, for those of us who share the faith of Bach, it is worth noting the words he wrote at the close of each of his religious works (and many of his secular pieces): Soli Deo Gloria . . . Glory to God Alone.

Corrupted Poetry

July 28, 2014 — 14 Comments

proofreadersA sloppy proofreader can ruin the most praiseworthy writing. (Just ask Mark Twain.)

If you’ve ever seen something you wrote poorly edited—or including introduced errors—you know personally just how criminal this is.

My choice of adjectives reveals that these tragedies are nearly always mistakes, and not malevolent. Despite that fact, they disrupt the flow and impugn the skill of truly good writers.

I was thinking about this subject today after running across the following passage during my research of the American Civil War. An 1861 newspaper lifted the following from an issue of the Boston Courier.

The Errors of the Press—“Really,” said a printer, in conversing with a literary man about errors of the press, “gentlemen should not place such unlimited confidence in the eyesight of our hard worked and half-blinded reader of proofs; for I am ashamed to say that we utterly ruined one poet through a ludicrous misprint.”

“Indeed! and what was the unhappy line?”

“Why, sir, the poet intended to say:

     ‘See the pale martyr in a sheet of fire;’

instead of which we made him say:

     ‘See the pale martyr with his shirt on fire.’”

The critics were down fierce on the poet; but we don’t see why. A man “with his shirt on fire” must be a highly poetical object, as his life would be in imminent danger.—Boston Courier.

I can easily picture the exhausted proofreader unintentionally substituting a burning garment for a consuming inferno. It made sense to him. And, since he was unlikely to have an ear tuned to poetic imagery, the practical reference to ignited clothing must be what the poet actually meant.

This reminds me that it’s impossible to have too many eyes cast upon the final draft of a work before it goes to print. Take care of your friends and family who offer you the gift of proofreading; their talents deserve to be appreciated and rewarded.

Mark Twain’s Thoughts on the Subject

Samuel Clemens got his own start in the newspaper business and knew firsthand how challenging proofreading was. However, that did not prevent him from venting about the poor proofreading of his novel More Tramps Abroad.

The following was written to his publishers in regard to the printer’s shortcomings. The 1897 letter clearly reveals Twain’s colorful (and occasionally vulgar) writing.

I give it up. These printers pay no attention to my punctuation. Nine-tenths of the labor & vexation put upon me by [them] consists in annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own.

This latest batch [also has] my punctuation ignored & their insanities substituted for it. I have read two pages of it—I can’t stand any more. If they will restore my punctuation themselves & then send the purified pages to me I will read it for errors of grammar & construction—that is enough to require of another who writes as legible a hand as I do, & who knows more about punctuation in two minutes than any damned bastard of a proof-reader can learn in two centuries.

Conceive of this tumble-bug interesting himself in my punctuation—which is none of his business & with which he has nothing to do—& then instead of correcting mis-spelling, which is in his degraded line, striking a mark under the word & silently confessing that he doesn’t know what the hell to do with it!

The following year he wrote a mellower review of the work of the proofreader. Not in the heat of correcting a muddled manuscript, he was able to comment on the benefits afforded by good proofreading.

You think you are reading proof, whereas you are merely reading your own mind; your statement of the thing is full of holes & vacancies but you don’t know it, because you are filling them from your mind as you go along.

Sometimes—but not often enough—the printer’s proof-reader saves you–& offends you—with this cold sign in the margin: (?) & you search the passage & find that the insulter is right—it doesn’t say what you thought it did: the gas-fixtures are there, but you didn’t light the jets.

I must say that I have been rescued by my proofreaders far more frequently than I have been abused by them. May God grant you the same blessing.