The boot’s in the other backside: being edited

MIR10coverI’ve been editing other people since 1987, suggesting changes that range from use of commas to wholesale structural modification, and taking in errors of both syntax and fact along the way. It’s a strangely satisfying job that always make me think of midwifery – although I can’t claim any first-hand experience – in the sense of helping someone else to bring something to final fruition. Mercifully, epidurals have only been required on a small handful of occasions. (Notably in the case of one nervous academic whose prose read slightly oddly till I met him, and realised I should have been reading the text in a blazing Melbourne accent.)

It’s a role that requires not just specific skills, but a high degree of sensitivity, tact and diplomacy. It’s not your work that you’re improving, at least not directly: it’s the author’s, although they aren’t actually the people in the absolute forefront of my mind while I’m editing. (The front row seats go to the readers, whose lives the editor is seeking to improve by making whatever suggestions they can to prevent the prose getting in the way of whatever the author is intending to convey to them. And while they might seek to induce a variety of states in readers, bafflement is quite low on the list.)

Authors, understandably, have a very real sense of ownership of their manuscripts. Writing is harder than it looks, and they’re the ones that have been doing it. And it’s not just the cover that their name will be attached to: it’s their reputations too.

But being edited. Mmm, that’s different. I’ve experienced it as a journalist and copy-writer, although to a lesser extent that I might have anticipated. (I don’t this is entirely a case of trumpet-blowing, by the way: I try to be as clear as possible about what’s needed before I deliver, and changes are often a matter of something that I wasn’t told at the outset.) But – as I’ve written at my own fledgling personal blog – fiction isn’t journalism, and in more ways than are immediately obvious. Whether or not that latter actually manages to be objective, that’s usually at least part of its intention. Fiction is a far more subjective realm, where ‘right’ and ‘better’ are much more subjective terms. And the author’s sense of ownership may well be even more personal: in most cases, they didn’t just write it – they ‘commissioned’ it too.

So my excitement at having a short-story selected to appear in the 10th Anniversary Edition of The Mechanics’ Institute Review was entirely genuine – I really did have to read the email quite a few times before I realised that it did actually say ‘accepted’ and ‘successful’. But the email also introduced my editor and my copy-editor. I’ve just looked up ‘apprehensive’ in a thesaurus and I don’t see a better word, although ‘nervous’ might be equally accurate.

I told myself how much I’d appreciate feedback and responses from tutors and fellow students alike during my time to date on the MA: that helped a little. I reminded myself that I knew the value of the editing process: if I didn’t believe that, what had I been doing for the last umpteen years? And I reminded myself that communicating entirely by email (I live on the borders of Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire) can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. So I suggested we meet face-to-face first to talk about the process, and perhaps the story.

Stephanie, my editor, turned out to be not just delightful – and very tactful – but insightful and helpful. My experience as an editor, which my subsequent experience seems to validate, is that areas of greatest difficult in any manuscript are those passages where something was so clear in the writer’s mind that its fuzzy or opaque quality for a reader escapes them. (Never proof-read your own writing: you know what you think you’ve said, so you believe that you have.) A brief passage filling in part of the narrator’s own history was duly added, and a couple of places where she ascribed a different underlying emotion to that intended were suitably reworked.

The editing process at this stage also confirmed personal writing failings that I was working on eliminating where still as yet ‘in the system’: two metaphors where one was enough, an abundance of animal imagery, and a love of intrigue that meant the opening paragraphs could be difficult for the reader. The sentences stayed largely unmolested, but their order changed and their impact was greater as a result. (I loved a small piece of advice from George Saunders at the 2013 London Literature Festival – give the reader a little something in every paragraph to keep them reading – but beginnings are especially difficult: a perplexing hors d’oeuvre reduces the chance that they’ll stay for the mains, no matter how seductive they might have been.) The process took two iterations – and quite a few hours of contemplation where words were pencilled in, erased, replaced or moved to other sections – but it certainly wasn’t painful, and I’m very grateful for Stephanie’s inputs and insights. (And she’s right about Ben Whishaw too. In several ways, as it turns out.)

First daunting hurdle cleared without too much knee-scraping, I then met – purely digitally – my copy-editor, Sue. A woman of eagle-eyes and delicate touch, I should add, but copy-editing felt at first impression considerably more like a taste of my own medicine. I’ve often remembered, shuddering slightly, a man whose (academic) writing was the first he’d had copy-edited by anyone. Arriving at my desk and seeing the amount of red that had been spilled, he had the humour to ask if I’d cut myself while I’d been reading it. Sue’s first mark-up might have given him the same reaction, although I think my own experience of the process meant I was better prepared. What impressed me, however, was her approach: not to simply reword, but to highlight areas where very minor changes might improve the flow of the text, or better convey the state of mind of the narrator. As with Stephanie – and with the work-shopping experience from the MA course – I took the view that each reader’s reaction is valid: the individual reader may not have ‘the answer’, but they can still ask the question. And if they felt questions needing asking, I probably needed to answer them. Some of those answers were ‘You’re right’, some were ‘Thanks, but no’, but most were ‘Thanks for asking, I’m going to make this change’.

As with Stephanie, the process took a couple of iterations, but each time the story felt stronger. But it also still felt like my story. The combination of those is, I would say, the mark of good editing. The final story that appear in MIR10 is as good a version of it as I’m likely to produce – at least at this stage in what I think I should call ‘my writing career’ – and I’m proud of it, and immensely grateful to both of the editors for their insights.

For any other writers coming to the editing experience, I would encourage them to embrace it. As a writer (and that’s still a phrase I have to almost dare myself to type), I don’t think of myself as someone who writes primarily for himself. If that was my main aim, I would keep a diary. (This may be a personal trait: I love cooking and making music, but there’s a different joy to be had from doing either for others. And more learning to be had from their responses too.) I prefer to think I write for others to read, and if editors are not our first readers – I have a husband for that, bless him – then they are certainly our second, and the feedback they can give us is invaluable.

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