Last week I wrote about the need to respect the author wherever possible – essentially upholding the editor’s mantra of ‘do no harm’. I argued that as editors we should approach a piece of writing with the assumption that the author does know what they are trying to say, and we should therefore do all we can not to meddle with their words, and potentially their message.
However, there are times when it is necessary for the editor to go further. As well as knowing when to leave well enough alone, we also need the experience, good judgement and confidence to do whatever it takes to make a text publishable.
Here are some examples of factors that would cause me to scrub in and wield my editorial scalpel:
- The text simply doesn’t make sense: It might be ungrammatical, with incomplete sentences. It might be little more than a series of notes. It might be written by someone whose first language is not English, or it might just be a bit unidiomatic. I always try to retain as many of the author’s words as possible, but there’s no getting around the fact that sometimes we really do need to rearrange their words quite a bit and substitute better ones, in order for them to make sense. I’ve had projects where I’ve been tempted to cut out the individual words on pieces of paper, toss them all up in the air, and type them up in the order that they fall, in the vain hope of some kind of meaning emerging.
- The text needs to fit a strict template and/or word count: Sometimes the author gets to decide how a book is going to be … and sometimes the publisher does. If the book is part of a series, or is being written to a template (educational publishing provides a good example of these restraints), it will be the editor’s job to tame the author’s wildest excesses, encourage them to adore the imperative (in the case of teaching resources, say) and generally hack everything into shape.
- Copy-editing in layout: Some of the copy-editing work I do is in InDesign, directly on the page layouts. In this case, there is often a need to cut and fit text to a highly designed paradigm (this is related to the previous point). This will often necessitate more intervention than when editing in the Word document.
- To fit a house style – within reason: If you edit for publishers, or other organisations, you will usually have a house style to follow. However, often publishers do say that more important than following this slavishly is achieving consistency within the manuscript. If in doubt, though, it’s best to check. And if there is no house style, I’d suggest overriding the author’s preferences only if there’s a good reason – and you may need to pick your battles.
- In answer to specific briefing points from the client, or indeed the author: The author may know that they have a particular weakness or tic (does anyone else feel a bit faint when they make the general assertion that grammar is not their strong point?). Or the in-house editor may have picked up certain issues in the development process, if there was one. The brief is your friend in this case, and can provide a good starting point when you come to start making changes.
- To get rid of repetition or redundancy: However much you want to respect the author’s words, there is really no need for the same thing to be said repeatedly (unless the template specifically calls for it), or for the same tired phrase to recur seventeen times in the course of a 30,000-word book.
What would I flag up for the author?
How far I go in alerting the author to changes in their text depends to some extent on the degree of contact I have with them. Often I work for publishers, and in this case they usually brief me on how much they want me to say about what I have changed. Some ask me to make most changes silently – not even using Track Changes – but to alert them to any that might be contentious or are more extensive. Others request that I edit with Track Changes turned on, in which case I assume that if they are worried about the level of correction, they will examine particular cases, and ask me to clarify if necessary. If I have direct contact with the author, I would still try to keep my comments brief, and only alert them to changes that might affect the meaning, often simply asking them to check the edit. I would not usually explain my working to the author unless asked, simply because unless they do ask, that is a waste of both of our time.
More editing = more time
For me, time is really one of the key issues here. Yes, respect for the author comes first, because it is their text, and it is my job to make it shine. But I also don’t want to spend more time on editing anything than I have to, because unless I am being paid by the hour, that will end up costing me. So I have a pragmatic as well as an idealistic motivation for keeping my editing as light as possible, while still turning in text that is fit to be published. And if the level of editing is greater than anticipated by the client, I will alert them to this as soon as possible so the budget can be renegotiated and adjusted if necessary.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.