Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Editing for beginners

For many young writers, the thought of having their work edited in a front-rank publishing house is a very distant prospect. At the moment they are far too busy trying to finish the book, trying to find an agent, and then hoping that someone might nibble.

For those who actually have a contract, however, the process of being edited (or not) is a matter of some concern. Once upon a time, editors seem to have played a major part in determining the overall shape, style, and content of particular books (Maxwell Perkins being the most famous example). Today, however, even friends of mine who have no connection with publishing at all tend to remark on how sloppily books are edited.

In fact it wasn't so long ago that a UK publisher -- name will come to me in a minute; ah yes, Nick Webb I think it was -- went on record as saying that as many as half the books published these days are not actually read by anyone in the publishing house at all. That was, he said, the only possible explanation for the standard of some of the stuff which was published. And I don't think he was entirely joking. Many a (non-fiction) book is bought on an outline, given a quick scan when it comes in, and then sent to some freelance for a bit of a polish. If she's not too busy. Then it goes to press.

I got on to this subject because Martin Goodman, over at So You Want to be a Writer, has some thoughts (11 April) on his own experience of editing, plus a few comments about the process in general. It's well worth a look, as is his interview with the publisher Ben Ball (now head of Penguin in Australia).

I can only say that my own experience of editors has been somewhere between painless and pleasant. But it is not always so.

A few years ago, the UK Society of Authors journal The Author published a horror story which, many subsequently claimed, was all too typical. Time has erased the details, but it involved a distinguished English writer with a dozen or so novels to her credit, and an American publisher who employed some moonlighting sophomore; said 'editor' proceeded to 'improve' the English writer's punctuation, choice of words, and phrasing. Only the most determined lobbying produced any reversion to the original, and then very grudgingly.

A friend of mine had a similar experience with a non-fiction book about business. This was edited for sale as a mass-market paperback, by one of the top half dozen UK houses, who employed a freelance mouth-frothing feminist for the job. She went through the book and made it politically correct. Thus every reference to the Chairman of a company was altered to read Chairperson.

My friend pointed out that, at the time (and probably now), there was not a single company quoted on the London Stock Exchange which had a 'Chairperson'; but they all had Chairmen. As I had been the person who sold the rights I got involved in this nonsense. Fortunately, the chief executive of the imprint concerned (female) was as fed up with feminist nonsense as we were, so all was well.

But it can be hard work and it's often the most dreadful waste of time.

The one thing a writer should pray for is a good copy editor, aka line editor -- someone who will spot spelling mistakes, notice when you've typed 'reign' and mean rein, or rain -- and who will suggest (heavily underline the suggest) points where a sentence could be shortened or a paragraph rewritten with advantage.

The art of editing is a difficult one. And since many publishers are unable/unwilling to pay the proper rate for the job, the best that you can hope for is that it will be done by a conscientious and skilled person who is actually enthusiastic about your book and isn't too bothered about the money.


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Anonymous said...

I can certainly empathize, having published both books and articles in newspapers and magazines. My pet peeve is the editor who is a frustrated writer and so re-writes the opening or conclusion of an article. I have met any number of these and not one of them improved anything. On the other hand, I have had gifted editors who taught me much about writing well.

Anonymous said...

I've been unable to establish exactly what it was that Nick Webb was complaining about ("as many as half the books published these days are not actually read by anyone in the publishing house at all"), but my guess is that he had typos in mind.

He might, I suppose, be thinking of clumsy writing, but my own experience suggests that this may well be entirely the fault of the editor -- that is, it may in fact be the work of the editor. One of my reasons for giving up freelance journalism was that I got so sick of seeing other people's sub-standard work appearing under my name.

I even wrote an article about it. It was entitled "Hands Off!", and appeared in the Spring 1999 issue of The Author. To quote my own words (Is there no end to this man's arrogance?) "[The editors'] task would be easier and the finished product better if they would only accept that I am not a fool." And lest there should be any doubt, let me emphasise that all the examples I gave were from major UK and US publications -- available, as they say, from all good newsagents.

Some writers make a positive virtue of carelessness. Tom Quinn, then editor of The Countryman, wrote in The Author some years ago (sorry, don't have the exact reference)that this is how the "professionals" operate: they are always happy to see their work heavily edited.

But was Oscar Wilde ("I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.") not a professional?

All good writers write (as all good readers read) with their ears. Editors with ears of tin are a menace.

Martin said...

I edit and copy-edit two journals, and my experience is that most writers are very happy for sympathetic copy editing. On the other hand, I have yet to experience a copy editor who generally improves my own texts. (-;

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