THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EDITED
“I don’t need an editor,” said no writer ever. Well, not a serious writer – unless they are lying. And in all my years of being an editor, I have heard one or two authors tell some quite incredible porkies on the editorial front. You know, those kinds of authors who have difficulty drawing the line between fiction and reality.
“Oh, my editor did little but run my manuscript through the spell check,” happened to no writer ever. Unless you are very, very famous and powerful and the editor is petrified of receiving an email from you, never mind an entire manuscript.
I certainly need an editor for my novels. Despite being excruciatingly particular about language myself and reasonably accomplished at using it, there are things I miss in the wordiness of so many words that make up a big, long book sort of narrative. And I’m not talking about typos or inconsistency in spellings or split infinitives or hanging prepositions or any of that rubbish that grammarians bang on about. Such pernickety quibbles are often redundant in fiction manuscripts anyway.
It’s the trees you can’t see for the forest – no matter how many times you look – that are the most significant things a good and kindly editor might point out to you. And once you see one of these pesky trees yourself, it is usually so obvious it has a bushfire around it.
“Oh God, did I really have Bill running away to join the army at the age of six? How did I get the timeline that wrong?”
“Yes, quite right, why is my otherwise stoic character having a mental breakdown in Chapter Seventeen over her son not doing his homework? Does this reveal some latent emotional problem of my own? Indeedy it might do.”
Thank you, editor.
I’ve just been working on one of the best and loveliest manuscripts to cross my desk in quite some time, and it was a veritable minefield of trees concealing unexploded bombs. A multi-person narrative that constantly shifted back and forth in time, I was seeing trees everywhere – in the sky, on roofs, in fish tanks and among kitchen drawers. Not because the author was in any way lax or lacking skill. But simply because, in all those words, in all that rush of heart and soul, in all that grappling with grand themes and the hugeness of mental space required to create one protagonist, never mind fourteen, details – sometimes important ones – are overlooked.
All this, and still most people I speak to outside the trade think that editing is pretty much running a book through a spell check. This is probably why, apart from financial considerations, many self-published authors either skip the editorial process or misunderstand what it’s for. I’ve been approached by one or two over recent years with the instruction: “I only want my book proofread, as I am a schoolteacher/lawyer/academic and I know more about language and literature than anyone else on the planet.”
Needless to say, I passed on these. As will most editors. Because we really care about what we do: we care that an author’s finished work is the best, most sparkling, most wonderful thing it can possibly be before it hits the presses.
It’s a job that’s at the opposite end of the ego spectrum from writing. Editors are invisible, and rightly so, but we are there, in every good book. Always…