The So-Called Editing Process

I am all in favor of peer-review on principle. Like everyone else I am prone to typos, misplaced bits of information, and unnoticed logical inconsistencies. I am thrilled to have these captured and remedied pre-publication. But in my case, the external reader then invariably goes on to characterize my style as unacceptably “breezy,” “journalistic,” and “colloquial,” which means that my sentences flow well and are varied and to the point, so that the reader doesn’t have to keep slapping himself to stay awake. And if I don’t have enough clout in the matter, they will proceed to gelatinize my liquid paragraphs with the usual academic ambiguities, qualifications, and obscurantisms, until the final product is just as miserable and inedible a porridge as the average musicology screed. Peer-review ought to mean critique by someone who can do it as well as you can. It’s maddening. What is it about a graduate degree that automatically turns its recipient into a lifelong devotee of barren and congealed prose?



  1. Tom Duff says

    You have tenure, right? Then the right response is “Thank you for your report. Rather than make these changes I’m afraid I will have to withdraw the paper.” Then send it elsewhere (maybe include the correspondence, so they know where you stand), or post it on your web site. Every stage of an academic’s career up to the granting of tenure is just fraternity hazing, requiring the non-tenured to bite their tongues. But after you’ve run the final gauntlet, there’s no reason to put up with crap like this.

    KG replies: You’re right, but I’m still waiting to see how much my editor lets me get away with. I’m close to seeking another publisher, but I’m hoping for the best.

  2. says

    Yes! Yes! Yes a thousand times over!

    I dread what graduate school is going to do to my belief that academic writing should not be written in some kind of a code that prevents the casual observer from participating. Coming from a jazz performing background I have this wonderful experience talking about highly complicated aspects of music and music history in simple, easy terms that make the topic actually interesting and fun.

    Actually, I am reading Peter Kivy’s “An Introduction to a Philosophy of Music” and one of the things I am enjoying about it is the occasional digressions he makes on seemingly everyday topics that he then relates to the philosophical/aesthetic matter.

  3. Alton says

    Anyone eager to get academic prose style right does well to look at the writings of musicologist E Eugene Helm. It’s a model of clarity and direct communication–like clear water over riverbed rocks. It’s how you do it.

    KG replies: I’ll look him up. (And proof-reading does come with the service.)

  4. says

    I blame it on the pernicious influence of French and German philosophers, most of whom are terrible writers. A professorial friend of mine posted a sentence on Facebook laden with corporeal gobbledegook as an example of beautiful prose; there was a certain poetry to it, but the author’s point at the end of the sentence contradicted everything preceding it. When I criticized it as bad writing, I was belittled by other academics, none of whom noticed that the sentence made no logical sense.

    Kyle, your writing is clear, witty, and persuasive. I loved No Such Thing as Silence. I agree with Tom Duff. Keep on doing what you do so well!

    KG replies: Thanks, Christian. Yale did not rein in my style on the Cage book: that was for a popular series, after all, with other volumes on the Hamburger, Gone with the Wind, and so on. But why a book should be less enjoyable to read if it’s for the academic market, I can’t see.

  5. mclaren says

    The prozeugmatic epdeicticist would admittedly find it not unlikely that the absence of semantic obnubilation would generate a concomitant (and needless to say, regrettably exegetical) lack of lexicological retrogression.

    On the other hand, fuck ’em.

  6. says

    “Editor” does not mean “Co-Author.” Maybe your editor is confused.

    KG replies: That made me laugh. I would indeed like to see the definition of what we mean by peer-review clarified. But the fact is, if I refuse to deal with the suggested changes to at least a reasonable extent, I probably wouldn’t get published. And if I tried publishing with non-academic presses, I wouldn’t be able to go into thorough analytical detail. It’s a Catch-22.

    • says

      Thanks. 😀

      I’m sure that you’ll come up with some kind of reasonable solution. Out of curiosity, have you come across any similar problems when publishing music?

      KG replies: I *don’t* publish music, or I certainly would run into it. As I’ve always said, I prostitute my writing so that no one can make me prostitute my music. Ives said something similar, with regard to the insurance business.

      • Bill Brovold says

        I became a carpenter so I could afford to make the kind of music I want.

        KG replies: Same reason I became a musicologist. (I’m all thumbs anyway.)

  7. John Chesnut says

    Can you put the rigamarole in footnotes or an appendix? David Foster Wallace’s book, Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity — though admittedly a popularization — manages to deal with a highly technical subject in the vernacular.

    KG replies: It’s not that they’re inserting rigamarole, but that they want to tone down my enthusiasm, resulting in my reading like every other dull, objective history book.

  8. says

    And I suspect that many of the people you write about would never traffic in academic sludge themselves. Which is why they’re interesting subjects to begin with.

    Some commercial artists have a useful stratagem: they slip a few inappropriate drawings into their submissions, so that the art director can dump on those, and leave the real work alone.

  9. says

    Peer review = fact-checking, right? It’s not an opportunity to beat someone over the head with Strunk & White. (Actually, Strunk & White have your back in this fight.)

    We have to blame Adorno for a lot of this nonsense. Does anybody know what he even means, 50% of the time?

    If you’re going to write about American music, music that establishes itself in contrast to European conceptions of good taste. Ergo, analysis and criticism of said music should follow suit, and be equally clear, direct, and open.

    Just send this reviewer a couple back-issues of Rolling Stone or something…

    • says

      Actually, S&W have been debunked over and over again. It should not be used as a style guide. The book contradicts itself many times over. And, neither of them knew anything about grammar. But for some reason S&W is held as the guide to good writing. Give me a break!

  10. John Chesnut says

    I am concerned about similar issues, because I am now trying to put together my own thoughts about music and I am not sure I will be able to find the right audience. I think most academic writing is pretentious, but I admire the writing of Leonard Meyer and Leo Treitler. They were good communicators who conveyed a sense of their love for their subjects. I have just ordered two DVDs from The Great Courses about writing great sentences and argumentation. I have not viewed them yet, but the descriptions of the courses sound very attractive.

  11. says

    Is this just in the arts? In the maths and engineerings and sciences, there has been a long trend towards a clearer and lighter and even jocular style. My undergraduate alumni rag is still – after so many decades – full of articles written in imitation of Feynman’s populist style. Is there still Science Envy in the Arts? If so, maybe they should envy that.

    KG replies: Maybe we need a Feynman of music. May I volunteer?

  12. says

    I remembered this quote, thinking it had to do with enthusiasm. If I remember the context aright, it came from a “Collected Prose” of Oscar Wilde, from a review of a book of essays by Walter Pater. I just looked it up via Google, and what I was hoping was “enthusiasm” was “extravagance” instead, but I still like it, and hope you do too:

    “Where there is no extravagance there is no love, and where there is no love there is no understanding.” — Oscar Wilde.

    What a pity, to lay wet blankets on the fires of enthusiasm.

    KG replies: Excellent. I might put that as the title epigram of my next book.

  13. says

    You’ve just explained, in your inimitably (& blessedly) “breezy,” “journalistic,” & “colloquial” style, why I ultimately decided against completing my UNDERgrad degree (despite having racked up more than enough credits in the “wrong” subjects). Rest assured that my biography of the vastly underrated composer-conductor Jean Martinon (1910-1976), when published, will be utterly bereft of “the usual academic ambiguities, qualifications, and obscurantisms and “barren and congealed prose” which has been the bane of academic publishing for at least four decades. When it comes to the near-impossible of task of conveying, in words, what goes on in a piece of music, you, D.F. Tovey, V. Thomson, W. Mellers (on those occasions when he managed to control his Jung-worship) remain the English-language benchmarks.


    KG replies: Why, thank you, Steve. I look forward to that Martinon biography.

  14. Scott Atkinson says

    As someone who edits other folks every day, I know firsthand what editing should and should not be.

    It SHOULD further the writer’s goal, whether you agree with it or not. That almost always means cutting away, rather than adding to.

    As a distant second, you edit to make sure the writer is working (in extremely broad terms) within the norms of the form. Even good academic writing has some quirks specific to it; your editor should make sure those quirks are generally followed, or ignored on purpose.

    Editors should never, ever weaken a writer’s sentences for the purpose of those sentences conforming to some ideal of what a particular kind of writing *should* sound like.

    The irony: academic writing is often tone deaf, and I’m convinced most of the people writing it have zero awareness of how it *sounds.* How strange someone who writes about sound should get caught by that.


    Scott Atkinson
    Watertown NY