Can Technology & Big Data Make a Better Book?
(Photo : Can Technology & Big Data Make a Better Book?)

Why one professor thinks so and is trying to blend the art and science behind creating and editing art on a page.

"It's a skill, it's not an art," shared Brendan Reichs, a New York Times bestselling author of more than fifteen books across the young adult genre. "Some authors or readers think the ideas and words naturally come to them from the sky.  But the truth is every author works their butt off to get there -- you write bad drafts then you revise and revise and revise."

Reichs made the unlikely leap from a litigation attorney to authorship and is adamant that there is much more skill and effort that goes into writing than any innate talent. 

"Hemmingway did a huge disservice to authors telling people he would write one draft and then submit it and have it published," continued Reichs. "That's not reality."

"I've always known that editing is key to any great book -- everyone in the publishing world will tell you 'Great Books aren't written; they are Re-written,'" says Eric Koester, a professor at Georgetown and the founder of the Manuscript Group, a social venture that provides community-powered writing and publishing programs through its Creator Institute and New Degree Press organizations. "I have tried for years to find some science or patterns behind the revision and editing process and exactly what it takes to edit a book from a mediocre first draft manuscript to a great book.  And I just came up empty."

Koester believes that with new technologies we can begin to analyze the process of great editing to reveal some powerful patterns behind 're-writing' an exceptional book.

"Unfortunately most authors toss away first drafts of a book," he said. "That means we haven't had a huge volume of first drafts of books available that we can compare to the finished book manuscript to see what and how the book changed."

"We just don't know how the great books are re-written."

Fortunately, Koester was able to access nearly two thousand manuscript drafts -- from the first draft through the final book -- from authors he'd taught and coached to analyze the editing process.  Working with a team of researchers to use comparison software to track changes to a manuscript and some manual analysis of the types of changes, revisions, and edits, patterns quickly emerged.

"We're constantly experimenting, reworking, and assessing as the writing is happening in real-time," shared Shanna Heath, a developmental editor, and author who has worked with Professor Koester and hundreds of authors. For talented editors like Heath, their processes are developed over time and often honed through experience.  

Technology can help understand and find patterns in the editing and revision work between an author and her editor like Heath.  By studying the evolution of a manuscript from a draft to a finished book, and identifying the changes (beyond grammatical changes, but structurally) made based on feedback and insights from editors, beta readers and the author themselves Koester's team found exciting patterns to what most impacts the final book for a reader.

"We were able to identify eight core components -- and the eight are in fact unique across various genres from nonfiction, fiction or memoirs -- where editing of a book manuscript led to the most dramatic and impactful changes and evolution in the book," shared Koester.  "Suddenly we were able to see the patterns that great editors utilize with their authors by observing how the books evolved.  It was powerful to know that there's science behind the art."

Brian Bies, the head of publishing at New Degree Press, has been able to turn these insights into a process that strengthens and sharpens the process of editing.  "Editing is still driven by great editors, but using Professor Koester's research we've been able to be much more systematic about how a book can be evolved from a draft to a finished product.  Editing is often this 'black box' and we've found a very different experience in arming every editor and author with data and tools to help demystify that.  This doesn't necessarily make the book editing process easier, but we find it to be more efficient and effective, and it creates more transparency between and author and her team.  Authors write words and finding a way to give them the confidence to change those words is critical."

Shared Heath, "Every writer is unique and the diversity of tools and data helps us to help them in the most effective way for that individual."

This process of blending the art and science of editing and revising books has helped Bies and New Degree Press support three national book award winners or finalists in 2021 alone.  

For Koester, the insight has been a long journey to understand what it takes to translate ideas inside a potential author's head onto the page.  "We know great books when we read them.  But for a long time, we didn't really know how they became great along the way.  Once we start to see these patterns, it gives me great confidence that we can help get more exceptional writing into the world.  We're still at the early days of this research and we hope to continue to learn more as we study more works, but it's exciting to see."

"You have to keep at it and you have to be able to take critique," says Reichs. "Learning how to take feedback on your work is the hardest thing in the world, but it's how great books get made."

And technology may finally be helping us unlock that mystery.

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