ON BOOK EDITING
By Eric C. Forbes
Check out my article on taking the first step to getting published
What sort of changes does an editor make?
Most writers lack basic English-language skills. Grammar (because most writers lack basic grammatical skills), punctuation (to make sure the commas, full-stops, colons, semicolons, hyphens and dashes are inserted at all the right places), toning down on circumlocutious writing and overly long paragraphs by breaking them up into manageable chunks, shooting down clichés or allowing its use only sparingly, correcting the spelling and to ensure the use of consistent spelling throughout the manuscript (Malaysian and British publishers demand British spelling while American publishers demand American spelling), checking facts and figures, revising and rewriting sentences and reorganising paragraphs for clarity of thought, etc. Rewriting manuscripts for authors is sometimes called for.
Have you worked for different publications or types of books? How does it vary between the fields?
I edit both fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is more challenging to edit because you deal with abstracts (like literary styles, metaphors, narrative voices, etc.), while in nonfiction you are dealing with stuff that are grounded in reality. A good editor does both equally well. In newspaper and magazine publishing, you tend to cut long sentences, compressing them to fit the space allocated due to advertisements and illustrations. They are much easier to edit compared to books. But then to create a good magazine or newspaper is a challenge in itself. And to tie up all the loose ends before you put a magazine to bed is nerve-racking most of the time.
What’s the most memorable thing you’ve done in your career?
I have edited a couple of great books, especially those that are evergreen, that will stand the test of time, and I can live with that. You somehow learn to live for those rare moments.
Does an editor have any sort of rights to the book they edit? Does the success of a book impact an editor, e.g. royalties or is their job done as soon as the book is ready for publishing?
Editors do not have any rights to the books they edit unless they are contracted to do so and may either be paid a one-time payment or have a share of the royalties. However, most publishing houses do not practise this. The success of a book edited by an editor reflects well on him, of course, and is usually used to place a value on him. Though the job of an editor is done as soon as the book is published, there are always such things as revised editions, reprints, etc., to consider.
Do you mentally edit everything you see, like when you see a misspelt advertisement or an incorrectly punctuated road sign?
Sad to say, I tend to do that more often than not. It’s a hard habit to break.
What’s the hardest thing about being an editor?
You can’t imagine the number of execrable manuscripts I receive. It seems everyone wants to be a writer nowadays even if they can’t string a proper sentence together. I always tell bad writers that I only edit English. And they say what they have written is English. And I say that’s not English, that’s no English at all, believe me.
The main impression, for what it is worth, is how very little good writing there is. That’s not surprising, really, if truth be told. Let us not kid ourselves any longer: writing is difficult, and there aren’t many people who can do it well enough.
Fractured, mangled English has been (and will always be) the bane of my life. Most manuscripts are so atrociously written that I prefer not to look at them at all. A bonfire, that’s where they belong. Either that or I flush it down the you-know-where. I hate myself for saying this, but step into my shoes and you will understand what I mean. Editing bad manuscripts is such a waste of life and natural resources.
We have more than enough writers as it is. What the world desperately needs is, I think, more readers who appreciate good writing and make discerning book-buying decisions. I always say, “If you can’t write, don’t write. Spare the world the pain and agony of reading your writing. If you want to write, do it properly.”
The editing somehow doesn’t get any easier as you gain experience through the years because the quality of manuscripts leaves much to be desired. Of course, once in a blue moon, you still chance upon wonderful books. As an editor, I live for those moments, rare though they are.
What kinds of time periods are allocated to the editing of books?
It depends on each book: on the subject matter, on the quality of the manuscript, on whether there are illustrations (tables, charts, etc.), manpower availability, etc. Some can be completed within a week, some take months. The thing is, most of the time you find yourself editing a couple of books simultaneously.
How much time is spent checking facts and collaborating, and how much is actually spent working on the language of the text?
The onus of ensuring that facts are correct falls on the writer, though editors also check on facts only when there’s a need to. We spend most of our time editing the text. Very tedious and daunting a task. More time should be devoted to the checking of facts and figures. Most of the time you tend to make do with whatever you have because you simply do not have the luxury of time.
Who does an editor generally report to, the publisher or the author?
The editor reports to the publisher but works with the author as much as possible to complete a book. And then he works on the blurb, gathers endorsements for the book and works with the graphic designer to create the book cover or dust jacket.
Do many writers have an editor before submitting their manuscripts to a publisher?
No, though they ought to. Sadly, many writers do not edit their manuscripts as thoroughly as possible before submitting it to a publisher. It would be ideal if manuscripts are edited before an editor in a publishing house looks at them. Editing is very time consuming and tedious.
Most potential writers lack self-editing skills. Most of them do not proofread or edit their manuscripts before submitting them to the publisher. Such raw manuscripts are so badly organised and written that editors or publishers prefer not to look at them at all. If you can’t edit yourself, you shouldn’t be writing at all in the first place.
If you are writing fiction, pay particular attention to the elements that you as a reader normally look for in a good book. What makes a good book? What do we look for in a good book? We hope to find an intelligent mind behind a lively prose style, a distinctive point of view and pleasurable entertainment. Originality is always important, it must have an enduring quality, a distinctive voice, gripping plots, memorable characters, language, style, inventiveness, stories that tap into the contemporary state of mind, etc. Sadly, most writers don’t think like a reader because they do not read enough.
What aspects of editing do you like and what aspects do you dislike?
When you’re editing wonderful books, you are actually gaining new knowledge, new insights and broadening your horizon. I hate it when I have to edit really, really bad manuscripts simply because the subject sells.
The whole process of publishing a book: sourcing for manuscripts, typesetting them, editing them, packaging them, blurbing them, soliciting endorsements for them, printing them, etc., can be a heady experience. However, the publishing industry is more often than not commercial than creative. There are actually lots of wonderful ideas floating around, but we cannot do them simply because we are not sure if they would sell. Also, most manuscripts, in reality, are mediocre, and there aren’t many good ones to choose from. Most of the time we work with what we have.
Is it difficult collaborating with writers?
Most writers tend to be lazy and expect the editor to clean up their manuscripts, which is not always possible nowadays, because books need to be published and marketed as fast as possible for obvious reasons. Writers must learn to revise and rewrite what they have written.
Do you feel that having a talent for writing is important for an editor?
It is essential that editors not only have a flair for writing but write well. You cannot edit without understanding writing. Editors must be well read in as many genres as possible, both fiction and nonfiction, and excellent in grammar and syntax. You must develop a perfect ear for tone when it comes to constructing or rewriting sentences.
Is competition fierce for book editors trying to find work?
You can always find work as an editor. However, there is always keen competition for good editors. The trouble is, not many publishers appreciate the value of a good editor.
How would you suggest a writer go about acquiring an editor?
Once a writer’s manuscript has been accepted for publication, you will be assigned an editor. Obviously not all editors are good in what they do. If a writer is assigned a good editor, he should count himself lucky.
There is a real lack of editing skills in Malaysia. I am not sure whether this is a global phenomenon or whether the standard of editing in Australia and other parts of the world is deteriorating, but good editors are rare.
Editors are the arbiters of quality, making sure that mediocre writing does not flood the market and contaminate the minds of the reading public. Mediocre writing must be rejected; good writers must be encouraged and supported. Those were the days when editors actually line-edit text, checking facts and figures, looking out for inconsistencies, and turning clichés into elegance. Such days are long gone.
Developing good editors takes time, effort and commitment. Editors must edit more, but we must consider the realities of the workplace, where editors are subject to punishing schedules and the bottom line. There is this unseemly haste to get books to market before they’re ready. The editorial process is not taking as long as it should. There are so many books out there. Some of them are worthy. Most of them aren’t. I do believe the great ones will rise to the fore, but they can be obscured by the glut of trash that is being churned out. That can lead to a dulling of the senses. However, good publishers are indeed a rarity, especially those who appreciate the value of good editing. What we need are publishers who grapple with the conflict between perfectionism and commercialism and at the same time try to find ways to improve public taste. That would be ideal.
What advice would you give an aspiring editor?
If you are serious about pursuing editing as a profession, the best way to learn how to edit is to read as widely, deeply and omnivorously as possible—and read both fiction and nonfiction. Striking a balance would be ideal. You must also write well. You must excel in the basics of English grammar. You must enjoy the whole process of producing a good book. You must enjoy the thrill of a perfect sentence.