Devlin's Angle

August 2009

In Praise of Good Editors

Blaise Pascal is reported to have once ended a letter with the observation: "I have written you a long letter because I did not have time to write a short one."

Pascal had it right. Good writing is hard work. Writing that is informative, flows well, is easy to understand (and unlikely to be misunderstood), and is as brief as possible while meeting all those other criteria, takes time and effort. In most cases, it is also the result of at least two minds - the author (who gets the praise, should any be forthcoming) and an editor (who gets at most a single mention in the acknowledgements).

Editing was one of the main discussion points at the PREP workshop on mathematical writing held at the MAA Carriage House in Washington D.C. in June, an event that was the focus of my last column (July).

One of the workshop themes was the importance of editing your own writing - indeed, editing is an integral part of the writing process. Another was the benefit of having your writing edited by someone else. To experience this part of writing, the workshop split into small working groups, each of which took a collective look at samples of writing provided by the members. In my case, the group comprised, in addition to myself, Katherine Socha of St. Mary's College of Maryland, Janet Beery from the University of Redlands in California, and Monica Neagoy, an independent scholar and author from the Washington D.C. area. My July column - which grew into our column as July progressed and the other three successively edited it - provided a fairly detailed look at our activities as a collaborative group.

All four workshop presenters (Ivars Peterson, Paul Zorn, Underwood Dudley, and myself) had served as editors at one time or another, as had some of the participants. But we were all primarily writers. The focus of the workshop was to improve mathematical writing skills. Our interest in the editing process was motivated by our desires (instructors and participants alike) to become better writers. We were not trying to become professional editors.

Being a professional copy editor requires a very different set of skills than what is required to edit your own work or that of a fellow writer, and few people seem to excel at both.

Over the years, I have worked with a number of first rate professional copy editors. After the first version of my July column appeared, one professional mathematics editor I am acquainted with (we have corresponded a few times, but never met or worked together) could not resist editing the sample newspaper op-ed article our group used as an exercise in editing. I thought it would be of interest to finish off my discussion of editing by showing you (with his kind permission) what he produced.

His name is JD (Joshuah) Fisher, currently living in Cedar Park, Texas. He is the managing editor of a company that provides staff development and middle-school mathematics instruction to school districts throughout the U.S. He has been a mathematics textbook editor and writer for about fourteen years.

The purpose of the exercise was to write a short op-ed piece for a local or national newspaper that will explain to parents what algebra is and why their children may be finding it difficult. The title was fixed and the piece had a strict upper limit of 400 words, excluding the title. It has to get past the editor, grab and keep the attention of the readers, and leave them with as good an understanding of algebra and algebra-learning as is possible in just 400 words. You will find my original sample op-ed piece here.

Fisher's edited version, complete with mark-ups, is here. (I double-spaced it to make it easier to follow the editor's comments.)

For comparison, Socha's edited version is here.

Beery's edited version is here.

Neagoy's edited version is here.

As you will see, each of the three "editors" in our PREP group sought some improvements along the lines Fisher did. But none of us came close to his version. Not only did he spot various structural flaws in my composition, he managed to reduce the overall length to just over 350 words. I don't know about you, but I think Fisher's version is a lot better than my original. The content is not different, notice. It still says what I set out to say, and it still carries my voice. But it's just much, much better - cleaner and more to the point. QED.


Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month. Devlin's most recent book for a general reader is The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern, published by Basic Books.
Mathematician Keith Devlin (email: devlin@stanford.edu) is the Executive Director of the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR) at Stanford University and The Math Guy on NPR's Weekend Edition.