When It’s Time to Restrain a Writer

The editor “will see to it that the sensibilities of the readers of the book have been respected and not unnecessarily offended,” says Words into Type (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974, p. 57). I earnestly wished that the editor had followed this instruction with Bill Bryson’s The Road to Little Dribbling (New York: Doubleday, 2015). Bryson is an entertaining, best-selling, humorous writer who occasionally has been a bit crude. In this book he went beyond being occasionally crude and used the f-word a lot, along with a bunch of crude and obscene terms. I’ve enjoyed some of his other work, but I was sorry I borrowed this one from the library and glad I didn’t buy it.

Words into Type doesn’t say never to let an author offend readers. Sometimes controversial content needs to be published, and some people won’t like it. In The Road to Little Dribbling, there was no need for Bryson to be a potty-mouth. Probably some readers didn’t mind, and probably some found it funny. But his humorous observations didn’t require crudeness, and the book would have been better and just as funny with more restraint.

So how does an editor see that readers are not unnecessarily offended and that their sensibilities are respected? I’ve never personally had to remove obscenity while editing, but I have occasionally had to keep authors on course. My advice is to respect the author’s sensibilities and not unnecessarily offend the author. Where editors recognize a digression, the author may see a jewel of writing. The editor can point out which portions detract from a piece of writing and how they may limit the readership. In my experience, the best authors are open to correction. Still, you may present your advice politely and respectfully and have it rejected. And if the author is a best-seller, the publisher may come down on the side of the author. When Words into Type says, “See to it,” that presumes some authority that an editor may, in reality, lack. Nonetheless, it’s important to try—for the sake of the readers, the author, and the publisher and to do your best work.

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