What did editors ever do for us?
[This is an article I originally wrote for the newsletter of the Society of Authors in Scotland. When I brought up this subject at a committee meeting of the SOAIS, it turned out we were all concerned about the tendency of both authors and publishers to view the editing process as some kind of “optional extra”. It ain’t, it just ain’t. So I went and talked to some editors, and the writers who love them, and took my life and my semicolons in my hand…]
So you’ve emailed your finished book to your editor. That feels good. You’ve sweated bullets polishing it, never mind writing it. You’ve checked it over till your eyes bleed, looking for typos and misspellings and those wretched ‘though/through’ confusions that spellcheck never picks up. You had your mate check it over, that mate who is really good at proofreading. You finally feel you can relax for a few days, let the next story simmer in your head.
What’s worse, then, than to see the “Yay fabulous!” reply pop into your Inbox – accompanied by a closely-typed, nine-page list of editorial suggestions?
Here’s what’s worse: not getting the closely-typed nine-page editorial.
I’ve done my share of cursing and weeping and head-desking when I see those emails, and I’ve done my share of yelling: “They don’t understand what I’m trying to do here!” There’s really only one way to react. Which is: sit down and start working through the nine pages. Once you simmer down and wipe your eyes, I guarantee that at least half of the suggestions will come under the heading Things You Should Have Noticed Yourself. Another quarter will come under Things You Actually Knew, But Never Wanted To Admit. (The other twenty-five percent might well be Things Your Editor is Wrong About, but that’s the great thing about a really good editor: you’re allowed to argue, and you do actually have the final say.)
Julia Williams is an editor as well as a successful writer, so she sees the process from both sides. “[As an editor] I see myself very much as the backroom person, who can advise and suggest, and I hope, improve on what is already a great story. I am a sounding block for the authors I work with, teasing out the best parts of the story, and pruning the excesses and bits that don’t work, until in the end it is there shining and bright as it was always meant to be.
“As an author, I know I’d be lost without my editor. I can often see where things aren’t quite right, but never how to fix them. However good a writer you are, you need another, dispassionate eye over your work, curbing your self indulgence, and bringing out the best in your writing. I hope that’s what I do for my authors; that’s certainly what my editor does for me.”
Too often I’ve heard writers say they’d never let an editor “interfere” with their work. The best and most successful writers in the world still have editors (and if they ever start thinking they’re too big to be edited, you can always tell. No names no pack drill). A good editor cares, almost as much as you do, although as author Fiona Dunbar says: “The trouble is that, like good parenting, all too often that work is invisible: you don’t get to see the product as it would have been, had they not been involved.” Or as fellow author Candy Gourlay puts it, “A talented editor will understand your every intention, tell you what’s great about your work, steer you the course you wanted to be on, all the while leaving all the words to you.”
And there’s an important thing that shouldn’t need saying, but often does: editing is not proofreading. Editing is taking a forensic, objective eye to your work and pinpointing problems of structure, characterisation, dialogue, pace. It isn’t taking your writing apart and replacing it with the editor’s – that’s bad editing. It’s making your writing into the very best it can be.
Although, “I’ve always felt that being an editor demanded you beat up some of your author’s characters – or at least threaten them,” says Graham Watson, a freelance writer and editor who has worked with many publishing houses. “Editors are there to test the strength of the work. That’s partly why they’re feared – because writers are anticipating a first and most vicious critic.
“Yet that’s what they need – better to discuss with an editor a piece of writing that could later earn the writer a mauling on twitter – so the key thing to remember is that the editor is actually on your side. Their job is to see what you can’t see, to point out where and why things don’t work, and also to rescue the gems. We’re under no illusion about where the talent is. That might be something else writers – especially beginning writers – don’t know about editors. It’s not a hatchet job. We do this because we love books. And writers!”
He adds, “The harmonious writer-editor relationship comes when the editor has tuned into a book in its rawest state and can see what’s gleaming.”
Or as Josa Young, journalist, editor and writer, puts it: “A good editor removes the stuff that slows things down: exposition, repetition, explanation”… he makes sure that although the reader may still have work to do, it’s “joyful work,” not a tiresome slog.
That clever mate with the sharp eye for typos is absolutely invaluable, but he’s not an editor. (If he actually is a professional editor, treasure him forever, and send him flowers.) Your publisher isn’t an editor either: that’s why she should provide one. If you’re self-publishing, you are literally your own publisher – which sounds like a stupidly obvious thing to say, but it means you should provide yourself with an editor exactly the way an external publisher would. Do pay a professional – one you can trust, obviously, and preferably one recommended by other writers. Okay, not everybody is independently wealthy. But if you’re going to treat yourself as a professional, it’s a good idea to respect and invest in yourself the way a traditional publisher should.
And they really should. Editing is an integral part of the publishing process. It’s not an optional extra. If your publisher doesn’t offer you a professional editor – ask for one. If they tell you you’d need to pay for that – well, bow out. Pay for your own editor and publish yourself. If a publisher won’t or can’t pay for an editor, their publicity and distribution budgets aren’t likely to be impressive. You’ll be better off on your own, and your royalties will certainly be bigger.
I’ll give the last word to Ben Horslen, Editorial Director at Puffin: “When I think about the author-editor relationship I’m always reminded of Sherlock Holmes’s comment on Dr Watson: ‘It may be that you are not yourself luminous, but you are a conductor of light.’ A good editor will do more than spot that your hero is holding his deerstalker in his right hand at the start of the chapter and his left at the end. They will improve the story by giving the one thing every writer lacks, no matter how talented they are – a reader’s perspective. A story is rarely as clear to the reader as the writer believes it to be. An editor’s job is to spot (sometimes pre-empt) the unintentional ambiguities and unexpected side-alleys that can distract the reader from the writer’s story. I want to help the writer’s story reach the reader in the way the writer wants it to. If I can correct their use of semi-colons while I’m at it, that’s just the icing on the cake.”