So it’s the late 1970s and I’ve just been hired by the science-fiction media magazine, Starlog. My first task is to review and edit an article by one of my literary gods, Isaac Asimov, on the possibility of faster-than-light travel. More to the point: is the starship Enterprise’s “warp drive,” which enables it to travel at multiples of light speed, theoretically possible. I do my research, take notes, hand them in, and am told to call Dr. Asimov to discuss. Big gulp. But I do. I have a list of 14 questions. When I read the first, Asimov says, “Make the change.” Ditto for the second one. I am halfway through reading the third query when the good doctor interrupts and says, “You’re name is Zimmerman, right? You introduced yourself as an editor, right?” Well, assistant editor, I mutter. “Good,” says Asimov,” then edit.” And . . . click. He hangs up the phone.
The late Asimov—who still holds the record for most books written and published in the English language, over 400 titles—had no time for rewrites or second drafts. Years, later, when I was working with him on another project, Asimov confessed to me that he was “only as good as my editors.” When Asimov delivered a draft, he was done with that book or essay. He did not look back, only forward.
This explains the embarrassing fact that in his classic book about the solar system there is a line that slipped by and appears in every one of the dozens of printings the book has had, stating that there are seven planets in our system. (This was at a time when astronomers still had the good sense to count Pluto as the ninth planet.) Fortunately, most of his editors were more careful than that.
I discovered this error while editing a series of books for the Bank Street School of Education—four science titles by an award-winning author, one of which was a tour of the solar system. I found the error in her initial draft for the book. I was embarrassed to point it out, as “nine planets” was such an elementary fact, but her draft said “seven.” When I did point it out, I was not expecting her response to be, “But I got that from Asimov.”