Julia Boss, May 2006
To the Editor:
Jerry Z. Muller laments that far too many history books suffer from "a yawning gap between the quality of research and analysis on the one hand, and the quality of the writing on the other" ("Style is Not a Luxury Option," Perspectives, March 2005). Muller makes a valid point that too many history books go to press insufficiently edited, although one may argue with his contention that historians have consciously identified careful prose writing as a luxury in which they need not indulge. The "quality gap" may be better explained by financial pressure on university presses or time pressure on scholars. Unfortunately, the article's proposed solution—a reiteration of the long-standing advice to circulate manuscripts among colleagues and friends—will do little to reduce the number of "$20 bill books" on library shelves. Colleagues typically respond to manuscripts at the level of research and analysis, not prose style, and not all historians are blessed with friends willing and able to unwind convoluted academic writing.
For many scholars, a better solution is to hire a freelance academic editor, someone familiar with the best prose standards of the discipline if not the technical details of the research subject. I came to academe after several years in publishing; while working to complete my own dissertation I have edited manuscripts for a number of scholars whose teaching and administrative responsibilities leave them less time than they would like for editorial revision. While the freelance editor solution might seem to place a high financial burden on the individual historian, in many cases university research grants can be applied to editorial expenses as well as to direct research costs. An in-depth professional reading can easily pay for itself in revision time saved—and can make the difference between a book that gets read and a book that languishes in the library stacks. Muller insists that historians "have a responsibility to their readers to try to write well." Junior scholars juggling heavy teaching and administrative loads may already recognize their literary responsibility, but may find that a freelance editor can help them better accomplish the twin goals of writing well and producing books that make an impact in an increasingly competitive job market.