Friday, October 29, 2010

Good and Bad Editing

On the occasion of the announcement of the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award, the BBC News Magazine resurrects the debate around an earlier comment by Claire Armitstead, chair of the judging panel and literary editor of the Guardian, that the books submitted for the prize had shown a general lack of editing in today's publishing processes.

I must say, far too many times now when I read novels the spell of the story is broken for me by some howler or other: for instance, in two books recently (one of them Andrea Levy's Small Island) I came across the non-ironic assertion that in Britain the leaves on the trees in autumn turn first red then yellow, and on both occasions the story of the novel was immediately displaced for me by speculation about the editors involved, and an image of them sitting at their desks, or maybe, no, chatting on their iphones: had they not really read the book properly? Or were they so young and urban that they didn't even know that this was a mistake? Or care? But don't they have trees in London? Don't they ever look up from their cappuccinos? OK, OK, I know it's an unfair image, but it's the one that came...

But then rooting out such factual/mechanical errors was traditionally the role of the copyeditor, (a figure whom I understand is rapidly disappearing from publishing), and what Armitstead is more importantly concerned with is the dying role of the editor as a mentor in storytelling:
Writers set out wanting to tell their story in their way. Sometimes they don't think about what it's going to be like actually reading it. The editor's job is to point out where they're going off track… what I felt is that editors are not intervening.
This hits the nail on the head. Writers worth their salt should always write with a sense of how their writing is going to be read, but there needs to be someone with a more objective eye judging whether or not a piece works, and if not suggesting how it would work better. Proper editing takes time, as is pointed out in the BBC article, and it's not difficult to see therefore how the role of the editor can suffer due to marketing restraints. As is also pointed out, writer and editor need to develop the kind of long-term working relationship unavailable in a culture of publisher-hopping in search of better deals.

Above all, though, radical editing requires sensitivity, and a commitment to the author's - or at least the story's - aims. This has been very much on my mind recently, as my first novel is currently being reissued with the original structure - radically changed by the first publisher - reinstated. The editing that that book was given by a feminist publisher the first time round was quite simple, but extreme: chapter 4 was moved to the beginning and changed from past to present tense, destroying, as far as I was concerned, my careful seduction of the reader via a gradual change of tone and perspective into sharing the experience presented in that chapter. This may have made it a better book for that particular publisher's market - a book with which they judged women readers could instantly identify - but I had never intended it as such a book, and the story I wanted to tell was different from the one which this simple but drastic measure created. (You can read about it in more detail on my author blog here.)

But then that's the thing with editing. It's such a powerful tool, it's such a role of responsibility. It's a distinguished profession with important skills we'd be the poorer to lose...
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