How to be an editor (and what to do)

EditingInevitably, the question which follows my telling some people that I am a book editor is “What do book editors do exactly?” This question is usually based on the assumption that a writer writes the words, sends it off to the publisher and then it gets printed as is. When told this isn’t the case, that in fact there are numerous steps between submission of manuscript and final placement on the bookshop shelf, the response is often one of surprise. So, in this week’s column, I shall be telling you exactly what a book editor does.

Before I go any further, however, there’s one undeniable fact about editors: no matter where you are in the literary world, whether you’re just starting out or an international bestseller, editors are an essential requisite if you want your work to be taken seriously. Even stellar writers like JK Rowling and Stephen King get their work edited: however, in some quarters, it appears that editors are considered to be nothing more than an unnecessary luxury that can safely be left out of the process. I’ve read many reviews in which it’s been pointed out how badly spelt and grammatically incorrect a book is – something which leaves a bad impression. The bottom line is that, if writers want their potential readership to finish the book and come back for more, it behoves them to treat readers with the utmost respect. Uploading your newest literary masterpiece to Kindle or whatever is one thing, but uploading it with typos, spelling errors and grammatical mistakes is more or less telegraphing the notion that

a) you don’t care about your work strongly enough and

b) that you couldn’t care less about your readers.

What you’re saying in essence is that readers don’t count: if that’s how it comes across then why should they care about your book?

Having established that, let’s now explore what the art of editing is really about. Make no mistake about it – editing is an art. As I’ve mentioned before, I liken it to music or, specifically, learning an instrument. There are basics which everyone needs to learn, like chords, chord progressions, scales, and technique. Those are just the starting ‘mechanics’ of the instrument – the tools which will enable you to produce something melodious and not an undifferentiated atonal caterwaul. But there is something beyond that, which marks out the truly gifted player from the merely pedestrian journeyman: musicianship, a quality which can lift an already beautiful piece of music into something truly and unforgettably moving. That is what any serious musician aims for and, in a similar way, this is what a good editor also aims for in his/her own way.

Anyway, let’s now move on to the meat of the article: what editing actually involves. Of course, a good working knowledge of your native language is an absolute must, allied to a modicum of common sense. First thing I usually do, if I have sufficient time (if there’s no specific deadline, in other words), is to read the manuscript to get a sense of what the story’s about as well as what the writer’s trying to say and how they’re saying it. The real work starts on the second run, where I go through it with a fine-toothed comb looking out for such things as spelling mistakes and typos, long unwieldy sentences, grammatical errors, inconsistencies in tense, character or narrative history, needless repetition or even unnecessary passages that don’t add anything to the narrative (of course, some writers need less or very little editing than some others do). Sometimes I may feel that certain things would be better placed elsewhere, or events swapped around (these latter especially may be based on nothing more than intuition, born of experience of course). There’s also the possibility that certain aspects of the story provide an opportunity for expansion or elucidation, or that something ‘extra’ needs to be added to give the story the necessary X-factor to make it better.


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