Publicity Writing and Copyediting, Considered

Posted January 28th, 2014 in Copyediting, Publicity, Random by Emily Varner

As this website attests, I am primarily a publicist for books in biblical studies and church leadership. But I also copyedit books on occasion, to exercise my copyediting and proofreading skills (not to mention learn a ton). My informal tagline for copyediting is “helping really smart people not sound dumb;” and while it sounds arrogant, I beg to differ. Bar none, the authors I have copyedited have been brilliant, creative, thoughtful, perceptive, and organized. But that doesn’t mean they express themselves in the best words, phrases, sentence construction, or tone. To read through a manuscript I am editing is to become an anonymous student of a master teacher, to ask questions that will enable other students to learn well, and to clear up clutter and confusion that will detract from the message. When authors come back with appreciation for how their nameless copyeditor has channeled their style and thoughts to make their books better, this hard work is all the more worthwhile.

Publicity writing can feel like the opposite challenge; at times, I long to retreat into the safety of using many words to explain an argument, perspective, or approach. Instead, I get a handful of words–a few phrases–that can either push the book and author into a deserved spotlight or hide them in the waterfall of new books and resources, which are constantly pouring out before a seemingly shrinking number of book readers. My tagline for publicity writing could be “trying not to sound woefully ignorant of an author’s complete argument.” If I could express the entire argument in a few sentences, there would really be no need for a book. And especially in (though not limited to) academic circles, PR hype is not my friend. Can something be “the best,” or “comprehensive,” or “groundbreaking”? Perhaps, but I had better be doubly certain of that before I want to claim it.

In publicity copywriting, the author and editor can become a great ally in the process. I don’t have the leisure of reading each manuscript three times, I don’t have the same depth of understanding of the subject matter, and I don’t communicate nearly as much with influencers in the book’s field. Involved authors help nuance the necessary truncation of their material and point publicists in the direction of the most receptive audience for their work.

In these situations I am no longer the faceless entity re-crafting phrases but an actual person with an email address, someone whose job description includes turning into tweetable text something that requires a book. And that thick skin that authors get warned about needing upon the return of their copyedited manuscript transfers to the publicity copywriter–being content not to get it the first time and to need a hand, whose extraordinarily thin wording may require a good deal of finesse before it can go to work for the book and the author.