The first experience came in the course of delivering some feedback to another editor. It’s always absolutely fascinating to see how a fellow professional tackles a particular piece of work. In the case of this piece, there were two points in the brief that could be construed as conflicting. The first point asked the editor to impose a plain English style, with short, punchy sentences. The other point asked the editor to preserve the author’s voice as much as possible. The question then arose of what to do when these two instructions contradicted each other.
Ten or fifteen years ago, I would no doubt have favoured the first point, and would have performed a heavy edit even on quite clean, readable text in order to achieve this. These days, I would tend to favour the second point, and would try to leave the author’s text alone as much as possible. Why? Because the author knows exactly what they are trying to say, and it is my job to make sure that they manage to do this. Every change I make, for whatever reason, carries a risk of changing the author’s meaning, or adding a new emphasis, or messing up a nuance … and that is not my job. It’s not my piece of writing. (In this case the author had written clearly and well, in a way that was appropriate for the audience, though they had sometimes used quite long sentences. There was perhaps no right answer.)
The other experience arose as I became more deeply immersed in a writing project of my own. At the risk of stating the obvious, I have found, the more I do it, that writing is really, really hard! Even writing quite badly is hard, let alone producing anything to be a little bit proud of. It’s not just about getting the words down on the page without error, after all; it’s about actually trying to say something coherent and even meaningful, that might one day hope to engage a reader. It is truly very difficult to sustain an original idea, and develop it, and keep control of all the wayward things that want to blow it off course. And all the while trying to express things clearly and unambiguously, unless ambiguity is the aim … Well, anyway, I take my hat off to anyone who can manage this over the course of 1,000 words, or 10,000 words, let alone 100,000 words.
It is very easy, as an editor, to wade in and start picking a piece of writing apart – looking for things that are ‘wrong’. Oh look, we say – or post, or tweet – at all those grammatical howlers, or that inconsistent spelling. But if we were to start instead by looking at everything the author had got right, we might have a very different attitude and approach. (Don’t get me wrong – I am not referring to the nightmarish stream-of-consiousness witterings that are really little more than a series of sketchy notes cranked out too close to a deadline by certain authors who should know better. I refer only to work that has obviously been thought about, researched and laboured over. Also, all of this tends to go out the window when any author attempts to write about colour theory, which crops up a lot in books I work on, and always, always seems to come out garbled.)
Anyway, with this in mind, as I continue my own writing quest – which must be fitted in around days spent mostly earning a crust by editing other people’s writing – I am filled with renewed respect for authors, and a diminished desire to impose any of my own arbitrary likes and dislikes on them, when they have put in so much effort to get to the point at which I first encounter their words.
I’ve since written a follow-up to this post: When to intervene.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.