Edit like Bourne

This is not a drill, soldier … This is a live project. (Alexander Conklin, The Bourne Identity)

It can appear that the life of a freelance editor is rather sedate. However, there are times in my professional life when I feel less like a desk-bound word shuffler, and more like a renegade assassin on the run … Here’s how Jason Bourne inspires me daily in my work as an editor.

I try to be …

  1. Decisive

If there’s one thing I like about Bourne, it’s that he doesn’t dither. He always seems to know which way to jump, which street won’t turn out to be a cul-de-sac, which villain to knock out first when he’s outnumbered. Often, pausing to consider your strategy before getting going is the right thing to do … but once that’s done, you just have to get on and do it.

  1. Resourceful

Say you need to blow up a house – containing the body of an adversary you’ve just finished off armed only with a pen! – and all you’ve got to hand is a magazine. (This is a scene from The Bourne Supremacy.) There’s no time to waste, but you can clearly see that if you rip some gas pipes away from the wall to create a leak, and roll up the magazine and stick it in the toaster, it’s going to have the desired effect. You don’t even turn around to admire your handiwork as pyrotechnics go off behind you striding purposefully away from the scene.

Well, I’m not nearly this violent or destructive as a general rule. However, figuring out how best to use a set of resources quickly, efficiently and in the most suitable way for you and the task at hand is a valuable lesson for all editors.

  1. Economical

The garbage man? Negative. (Jason Bourne, The Bourne Ultimatum)

One of the most exciting scenes in The Bourne Ultimatum is in Waterloo station in London, when Bourne and a hapless Guardian journalist are trying to evade a hitman. When editing, as when you’re being staked out and are fearful for your life, extra words can really get in the way. Oh, really, you mean that chap wheeling the cleaning trolley over there? No, now you come to mention it, I’m pretty sure that’s not ­– Bang.

It’s also interesting to note, of course, the American term for ‘rubbish’.

  1. Aware

I can tell you the licence plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? (Jason Bourne, The Bourne Identity)

Every good editor must hone their sixth sense for knowing when a detail is out of place, and they need to know where to look to find out how to correct it. The other day I gave myself a virtual pat on the back (yes, I do sometimes talk to myself, too) for noticing a wrong spelling in the name ‘Ernie Els’ – rather poetically, someone had actually given him two ‘l’s. And I don’t even like Formula One.

  1. Unobtrusive

I don’t send you to kill. I send you to be invisible. I send you because you don’t exist. (Alexander Conklin, The Bourne Identity)

An editor is not meant to shine. If the reader notices what we’re doing, we’re probably not doing it right. I know my place: I lurk in the shadows and let the author stand in the light.

  1. ‘Multilingual’

I can’t be the only one to experience a particular frisson when Bourne opens his mouth and out comes fluent German, or French, or whatever. What a useful skill! Sadly, I can’t actually claim to be multilingual (though my written French is good enough that I can spot an errant accent, and I know just enough German to realise that a noun should be capitalised). What I do have, though, which is useful for an editor, is the ability to take on the ‘language’ of the particular client I am working for. I am conversant with their style sheets, if they have them – and more than that, I understand how they think, the kind of things they might want to express, and how best this can be done.

  1. Adaptable

When Jason Bourne is reunited with his possessions in the safety deposit box in Zurich (in The Bourne Identity), he discovers, along with a gun, a cache of passports bearing the names of his various identities. This is pretty much analogous to being freelance. You have the employment equivalent of a fistful of passports. You can go anywhere; you have possibilities. If one contract isn’t to your liking, once you’ve fulfilled your obligations you can find something that’s a better fit.

  1. Focused

They don’t make mistakes. They don’t do random. There’s always an objective. Always a target. (Nicky Parsons, The Bourne Supremacy)

I do sometimes make mistakes (and try to learn from them). However, as the years pass I try to do random less and less. Each job I take must have a purpose. It could simply be paying the bills, in which case I would like it to be well compensated. It might be about keeping in touch with a valued regular client, or it could mean working for a new contact. It might give me valuable experience in an unfamiliar area. Perhaps it will raise my professional profile in some way. What I try not to do is work on a job that doesn’t offer me something specific in return.

  1. Great in a car chase

Oh. Sadly, in nearly twenty years as an editor, this has not once been put to the test.

Me with fringeLiz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She is not on the run from the CIA, as far as she knows.

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