Where do you draw the line? And whose line is it to draw, anyway?
Sometimes, as an editor, you will need to draw a line. Imagine you’re the copy-editor, and your client, a book publisher, has asked you to tone down the wildest excesses of an author’s ‘quirky’ sense of humour, while retaining the tone of voice – all the things that give the text its zip, and make it engaging. So as you work your way through the book, it’s up to you to decide what’s OK, and what’s not. Is that joke questionable? Might this image offend? Could the client be sued for letting that be said? Will the reader feel alienated? Are all the readers the same? And am I just being old-fashioned, or a pedant, or a prude? It can be very tricky.
This is why you have to step back sometimes, and check who you are editing for. Is the reader just like you? Or might they have slightly different sensibilities? Can the author be allowed to get away with more than you would feel comfortable with, if you were writing the book yourself? You have to try not to let your own preferences take over.
As with all things editorial, so much of this comes down to sensitivity – and judgement. It’s necessary as an editor to be sensitive to many things: context, tone of voice, prescribed style, things that need checking, possible legal problems, repetition, plagiarism … the list goes on and on. You need your feelers out, all the time. You’re on high alert! But you also have to avoid being oversensitive. Is the item in question really so risqué? Might it actually be the best and most concise way of making a point, or conjuring a very precise image in the reader’s mind? Might it simply be true to the author’s personality, even if not to your taste?
Editing is not some kind of crusade. We’re not here to beat authors over the head with a rulebook, to get them to conform and see the error of their ways, according to us, or to weed out opinions of theirs that we don’t really like. We should be trying to help them express their individuality (or why would anyone choose to read their book?) – but in a way that speaks clearly to as many readers as possible. Spreading their word, not our own. And one of the things that makes our job as editors so complicated – and so interesting – is that there’s usually more than one way of achieving that.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She likes drawing lines in the sand, but is always careful to consider the context. No lugworms were harmed for this post.