Sunday 31 December 2006

On editing encyclopedias

Twice this week, at social gatherings, I have found myself having to explain the difference between an ‘author’ and an ‘editor’. The distinction evidently isn’t always appreciated, perhaps because editors do a lot of writing – as in newspaper editorials – and authors do a lot of editing. And on the front of a book, such words as ‘edited by’ can appear in very small type.

The question usually arises like this. I am at a house where the hosts have a copy of, say, The Penguin Encyclopedia (which I edit), and I am introduced to someone as the ‘author’. No, editor, I correct. But that has no effect. The next question is invariably ‘How do you begin writing an encyclopedia?’ I don’t write it, I say, I compile it. ‘Is there a difference?’

There’s never time to give the whole answer – hence the usefulness of a blog. The situation isn’t entirely clear-cut. I wrote, but I suppose also compiled, my first attempt at an encyclopedic work, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. That wasn’t like an ordinary book, where you start at the beginning and keep going ‘from left to right’ until you reach the end. It was like a huge jigsaw puzzle, with bits partially completed from all over the place and chunks of material moved about to make them fit better. (The English Language encyclopedia used a different method. I’ll maybe talk about that another day.) CEL was a purely authored book.

The general reference works, such as the family of books which began with The Cambridge Encyclopedia in 1990 and which now have a reincarnation in the Penguin series, are a totally different matter. I don’t write these. The writing is done by a team of people brought together for the purpose. These are mainly specialists – over 400 of them – from museums, university departments, public service organizations, and so on. Some are free-lance specialists. For current affairs (such as Nobel prize-winners and Oscars) I have an assistant editor in my office who writes first drafts.

How do I find specialists? I use my own sense of who’s who, supplemented by the intuitions of the commissioning editors in the publishing house. In firms such as Cambridge University Press, every area of knowledge is covered, and someone in the Press will know who are the leaders in a field and – more important – who are the authors capable of writing entries that are accessible to a general readership. That's the exciting bit - meeting these people. I got my space exploration entries from NASA. My biology entries came from the Natural History Museum in London.

Once potential contributors are identified, I get in touch and ask them whether they would be interested in writing, say, 300 entries of about 100 words each on the people, places, and subjects that comprise their field. With some subjects, such as zoology, it can be a thousand or more entries. Most people say yes. The fees are never brilliant, but specialists usually appreciate the importance of the task of presenting their field to a general public. Many organizations are also concerned about maintaining a strong public presence, and being involved in a big encyclopedia project is good PR.

You give your contributors a brief, and a deadline, and wait. The entries then come in on time, all beautifully written, requiring no editing.

I wish. For every one contributor who sends in material on time, five are late. Some are very late. You quickly learn to set contributor deadlines well ahead of the real deadline. In mercifully rare cases, the contributor doesn’t deliver at all, and you have to start all over again – or, if the subject is a fairly general one, you end up writing the stuff yourself. Here too, the distinction between editor and author is blurred.

But it’s mainly blurred because of all the revision that has to be done. I don’t write these entries, but I do rewrite them. And the process of rewriting takes time – months, in the days before email. The chemistry entries come in. They are excellent chemistry but I cannot understand them. I rewrite them to make them intelligible and send them back to the contributor. He says they now make good sense but they are bad chemistry. In simplifying the language I have distorted the content. He rewrites and resubmits. Now I can’t understand the entries again. I rewrite. He rewrites. Eventually we are both satisfied. Who wrote the entry that you eventually read in print, after such a procedure?

Once you have edited one entry, or set of entries, the next lot is there, waiting in the wings. And what is especially important is that you clear your mind of the first set before embarking on the second. No good having your head full of chemistry (more precisely, the language of chemistry) if you are about to edit a set of entries on, say, art history, where the style of exposition is very different. The biggest thing an encyclopedia editor has to do is learn how to forget. On Monday I would be able to talk to you intelligently about some detailed points in chemistry. On Tuesday I wouldn’t – though you can try me on art history! But not tomorrow.

So you can imagine now my reaction to the next comments which tend to come up at social gatherings. ‘Gosh, you must know a lot!’ or ‘I wish we had you on our pub quiz team’, or even, ‘Can I phone you as my friend?’ To which the answers are No, You Wouldn’t, and Definitely Not, respectively. It’s an interesting philosophical question: what do I know? If you were to ask me a factual question about an entry in the encyclopedia – when was the Taj Mahal built, shall we say? – my typical answer is ‘I know the answer to that question’. There is a pause. ‘Are you going to tell me?’ asks my interlocutor. ‘No’, I reply, ‘because I can’t remember it.’ I do know it – I rewrote the entry on the Taj Mahal, after all – but it’s one of the 5 million or so facts in the encyclopedia database which has just slipped my mind for the moment. So do I know it or not? I know where to look it up, that’s for sure.

(There is in any case no one answer to the question 'When was the Taj Mahal built?' It all depends on which part of the complex you are thinking of. That's why different sources give different dates. Many supposedly factual questions have alternative answers. Which are the longest rivers? It depends on which tributaries you take into account. Which are the tallest mountains? It depends on what you take to be the 'foot'. In which year was so-and-so born? It might depend on which calendar you use.)

I was once invited to be a member of the local Rotary Club’s quiz team, and was an absolute disaster (but not as bad as the local police superintendent, who couldn’t remember what the speed limit on a dual carriageway was). I asked the organizers whether I could bring a copy of my encyclopedia with me. Can’t understand why they refused.


Anonymous said...

Dear David,
I’m a writer from India and have written over a hundred short stories. Recently, I read your book ‘The Language Revolution’…have been reading a lot of your books ever since…
In ‘The Language Revolution’, you have made an observation – though language death is a serious social tragedy, not many artists have reflected upon it as they have on other catastrophes… You have said that except for some poems or an odd article, there isn’t a single drama or novel or even a short story…
However, while reading this, I was glad that I had already written a short story about a dead language…The premise and the claims are all purely imaginary, but through the story I wish to emphasize that with every language that dies, mankind is losing at least one vital message…

I wish to send that story to you…please allow me.


Chetan Joshi


DC said...

This comment is about issues in endangered languages rather than about encyclopedias in general, so I have addressed it in a separate thread. See 'On being artistic about language death'.

Anonymous said...

Dear Professor
I would appreciate it if you could tell me whether '...someone in the Press will know who are the leaders...' and '...who are the authors capable of...' are embedded questions. In case they are, I wonder why the question order.
Thank you.

DC said...

Two reasons: reflects my conversational style; and makes the sentence easier to read. Imagine having to wait until the end of the long 'authors' clause before you met the word 'are'.