Susan Rabiner, Thinking Like Your Editor

As I’ve been gearing up to write a new book, I’ve been thinking about how to do it better this time — continuous improvement and all that.  Some fairly obvious observations are on my mind: stronger argument, a more compelling narrative, less repetitive, probably shorter, and one big-picture idea,* below the rest of the post.

With these thoughts of self-improvement in mind, I’ve turned to the pros to see what they have to say, and found a wonder of a book.  It’s by former Basic Books editorial director-turned-agent, Susan Rabiner (you can follow her on Twitter, as I do; perhaps that will encourage her to Tweet more if we do!).  I heard Ms. Rabiner speak to a group of faculty on my campus; her talk was excellent, as is her book: Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Non-Fiction — and Get it Published.  Rabiner’s book even got the two thumbs up from Lara Heimert, the editor of Urs’ and my book, Born Digital, and our next project.  (We know from first-hand experience just how demanding, and amazing, Lara is!  Lara does not recommend books lightly; she said that she routinely gives it to her authors.  Hmm…  I wonder why we had to come across it on our own?  Maybe…)

There are lots of reasons why I hugely liked this book, most of which come down to modeling.  Rabiner has written a book that must itself accomplish all the things she’s telling the writer to do, which is no mean feat.  She tells us, for instance, to make argument and narrative work together — and, lo and behold, she does just that in her own text.  It’s a few hundred pages, yet it reads (almost) like a novel; I read it in one sitting.  The text is clean and flows from idea to idea in a way that pulled me along.  All the while, the topic is about thinking up a book project, writing a proposal, what to expect from an agent/editor/marketing department of your publisher, the distinction between a trade book and a university press project, and so forth.  I can see why it is recommended reading for anyone writing serious non-fiction.

Rabiner notes that, when someone is standing in a bookstore with your book in her hands, you have to convince her to devote 5 to 10 hours with you.  This great framing helped me think about my next project.  But it also became clear to me: Rabiner succeeded at her own assignment: 5 hours with her book was well-spent.

(*And at the same time, I have in mind a big-picture thought, encapsulated well by Cody Brown in TechCrunch, about thinking in terms of “apps” as well as “books”, in the traditional sense.  I think this next one will look more like “book” than “app,” but the form factor and interactivity components to any sustained argument strike me as important.  With Born Digital, Urs Gasser and I created four “books”: 1) the traditional bound one/Kindle version, which I count together as one, since I see little difference between the two from a user experience, much as Cody Brown notes in her TechCrunch post; 2) a blog; 3) a wiki; and 4) one comprised of student-generated videos, still a work in progress.  This is a topic for another day, but much on my mind.)

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