IVP - Addenda & Errata - No Time for Sharpening Pencils!

July 21, 2008

No Time for Sharpening Pencils!

Over twenty years ago, when I was about to start my editorial career, I read something by an experienced editor who commented that when one finishes a book, there is no time to organize one’s desktop or sharpen pencils. I thought this was in Editors on Editing, but revisiting that volume, I’ve not found the passage. I’d be interested to find out whether I remember this accurately or not. Anyway, “No time to sharpen pencils” has played over and over in my head as I’ve finished one project and jumped into another. Even though it turns out that these days pencils don't figure much in editing. Perhaps the equivalent would be sorting out my email in-box.

I’m the type that, given the choice, will finish my meat before going to my potatoes, and the potatoes before going to the green beans or applesauce. If when I’ve finished my potatoes, you ask if I’d like more, you’ll only annoy me. I just finished them, now it’s beans—can’t you see!

So ideally, I’d like my work life—and desk!—to lend itself to the same orderly progression. But let me tell you, editorial life is nothing—and I mean nothing—like that! Maybe there is an editor or two with a clean desk somewhere, but I suspect they’re not having a good time. So far as I can see, my tribe mostly organizes by piles arranged—or not arranged—on every work surface and even the floor. Sometimes I’ll try to force the work into a tidy mold, with perhaps a well deserved pencil-sharpening or email sorting interlude. But this just doesn’t seem to work.

To adopt another metaphor, an editor’s life is often like standing in one of those batter’s cages, with the pitching machine pumping balls at you. You’d better keep swinging or there’s no telling where they will hit and bounce. And if you slow down, the balls will collect at your feet. And if you lean down to grab one, you’ll get bonked in the head.

The other day I managed to send out a bunch of invitations to various folks to contribute to a reference work that’s getting underway. I had a pleasant hour or two living under the delusion that I was done and could turn to another project. But it wasn’t long before the responses started rolling in, along with various questions that needed answering. There was my editorial host again, asking, “Would you like some more potatoes?” “Well no,” I responded, “I thought I’d graze on my green beans. But thank you anyway.” Doesn’t matter. The host insists. I got the potatoes.

But what am I grousing about? It’s actually the variety in this job that is one of its most intriguing aspects. You might think that it’s monotonous. But it’s not. At least not if you are intellectually curious. On any given day I might spend time reading about Hindu-Christian relations, be thinking about so-and-so’s critique of so-not-so, be asked what I think of a manuscript on political theology, consider the merits of publishing a book on science and theology, sketch out an idea for a book in biblical studies, correspond with an author who has a fascinating idea for a book on the missional church and delve into the history of form criticism or the ancient Near Eastern background of Ecclesiastes. And these will be stirred up in a bouillabaisse of emails, paper, Word files and PDFs. If it’s not that combination, it’s another. And if I don’t enjoy it, I’ve only got my default meat-then-potatoes-then-beans proclivity to blame.

Posted by Dan Reid at July 21, 2008 3:56 PM Bookmark and Share



I often suspected that your life (and that of other expert editors) looked something like this but it is interesting to hear you describe it.

Years ago, when I interviewed for a position as academic vice-president, a perceptive board member asked me what about the job I thought would pose the greatest difficulty for me. I pondered that and answered: “keeping many balls in the air at once.” It turned out that I understood myself well and eventually that is what led me out of administration. Very few balls fell during my tenure but keeping them all in the air at the same time thoroughly wore me out and took the joy out of my working life. You have clearly learned how to deal with it.

Watching one of my fellow administrators, an old hand who was good at what he did, I was struck by how many balls he allowed to fall yet he was extraordinarily effective. Identifying which balls have to be kept in the air and which ones can be ignored is part of administrative wisdom and I never got there. My president loved me for it, but I wouldn’t have lived long.

I recall the story of an army general who was observed, at the end of the day, taking everything out of his “In” box and putting it in his “Out” box. The observer asked if he had just seen what he thought he had. “Yes,” replied the general, “and you would be surprised how little of it ever comes back again.”

Blessings on your frantic labours,

Comment by: Terry Tiessen at July 21, 2008 1:14 PM


I definitely let some balls drop and have to beg the forgiveness of folks! Right now I'm sure there are some dropped balls in my 450+ inbox messages that need to be sorted out. Like your former colleague, I have on occasion (under pressure) told myself, "They'll forgive me for dropping this one and this one, but I'll never hear the end of it if THIS one is dropped! Come what may, this has priority." Fortunately for me (if not for others), the older I get, the faster I forget my failures!


Comment by: Dan at July 21, 2008 6:55 PM

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