Friday, May 11, 2007

SHOOTING THE BREEZE

“PLEASE DON’T TOUCH MY STUFF?”
By Eric C. Forbes

THERE IS A VERY GOOD REASON editors do what they do. Yes, they edit (and then some). And it has nothing to do with conditions rooted in traumatic childhood experiences or some kind of unfathomable psychic disintegration. Believe me when I say it is indeed a traumatic experience to edit the writing of some writers. But edit we must.

What’s this with Malaysian writers who hate to be edited for fractured grammar, syntax and wrong usage of words? They seem to get their knickers in a twist over being edited. They actually believe that bad writing is acceptable and that nobody really cares about bad grammar as long as the topic is interesting. Some say that bad writing is a style! Can you believe that? And they say it with a straight face: looking at you squarely in the eyes and without blinking theirs. Some say editors do not have the qualifications to edit their stuff. (For one thing, editors do know a thing or two about the common mistakes writers make: dangling participles and misplaced modifiers, for instance. And punctuation.) Have they no idea that the editing process is for their own good? Don’t they understand that they will look bad if their books come out with all the mistakes for the world to see. Writing that is well edited do not lose the writer’s voice. In most instances, good editing enhances the writer’s voice and the essence of the story. The idea of editing is to bring about clarity, yet retaining the cadences, phrasing and grammatical structures that remain a vital stylistic component of each writer’s work.

It is real frustrating when you practically have to engage in heated negotiation and endless bargaining each time you correct the bad grammar of writers who insist on maintaining their right to write badly. What do you mean my English is not good enough? I spent a decade in Mother England getting my degrees and all and I am sure my English is as perfect as perfect can be. Strange as it may seem, the better writers are not the ones I have problems editing. Why is it always the bad ones who give me a splitting headache: they are usually arrogant, stubborn and condescending. Why is this so? If truth be told, I have no idea. Perhaps some kind of cosmic energy thing at play here.

Editors are the arbiters of quality, making sure that mediocre writing does not flood the market and stifle the minds of the reading public. For the professional editor, it is both a serious commitment and a responsibility. They are the middlemen between publishers who expect bestsellers all the time and writers who think their books are going to sell twenty million copies and secure them a yacht or two in the Aegean and perhaps a vineyard in the south of France.

Whether we like it or not, the fact of the matter is that most writers lack even the most basic of language skills. There are many common mistakes that writers make that they are unaware of. These are the stuff editors look out for: grammar (why? simply because most writers lack knowledge of basic grammar); punctuation (to make sure the commas, full-stops, colons, semicolons, hyphens and dashes are placed at all the right places); inconsistencies; unnecessarily repetitious phrases; readability (toning down on circumlocutious writing and overly long paragraphs by breaking them down into manageable chunks); pruning clichés (or allowing its sparing use); correcting the spelling and ensuring the use of consistent spelling throughout the book; checking facts and figures; revising and rewriting sentences and reorganising paragraphs for clarity of thought and fluidity; doing away with excess research and making sure the writer writes more if there is a dearth of content. Grammatical inconsistencies can be very distracting and will mar the pleasure of enjoying a good book.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are writers who rejoice in having their manuscripts rewritten by others. Thank God! Now that somebody is going to rewrite it for me, I can continue partying all night long. Rewriting manuscripts for authors is one thankless task that I wouldn’t want to wish on another living being! It’s the publishing world’s equivalent of open-heart or neurosurgery.

You can’t imagine the absurd lengths some writers go to to prevent their work from being edited. But that story is for another day. They overprotect their babies to the point of suffocating them and retarding their growth and development. Not exactly a very healthy attitude. If authors do not allow us to edit their work, I have a simple solution for it: just reject the manuscript and go on with your life. You are not going to lose anything. Most of the time, it’s for the better.

(For publishing houses, the normal procedure is to reject a manuscript outright if the author does not allow us to edit their work. Publishing house cannot lose control over the editing process. And if the manuscript is not of the quality we are looking for, we stop working on it and find a way to change that. The editor-author relationship is long term and we cannot afford to start on a wrong footing.)

We do take on manuscripts that are less than perfect if we think they have latent potential and only if the writers are willing to work hard on improving and developing them. Sadly, most of them are not willing to do that.

In the meantime, go write your perfect sentence. After all, there is nothing like the sound of a perfect sentence; yes, it crackles like dried leaves being trampled upon in the heat of a summer’s day. Of course, this is actually harder to write than it sounds.

Postscript
These are just some facts of the publishing business and the craft of writing. Writing is tough. Writers must be passionate enough about the writing process. There will always be good and bad writers, though more of the latter. Good writers don’t just give up. They rise to the occasion. Facts are facts and writers must not be deluded from these facts. If you care about writing and believe in improving the way you write, you are what the publishing industry needs. Don’t give up; go forward! Believe me, this advice comes straight from the heart!

26 Comments:

Blogger Xeus said...

Eric, thank you so much for editing the first 3 chapters of my book :) I hope I'm not one of those writers who gave you a lot of grief :) - besides my hyphenation....

Friday, May 11, 2007 6:06:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Lynette - I enjoyed editing your first three chapters because they are basically well written and clean. No, you are not one of those writers who give me endless grief.

You know, Lynette, it comes to a stage where it is so hard to edit because you practically have to engage in negotiation and bargaining just to correct bad writing with writers who insist on maintaining their right to write badly. You don't stop being an editor just because it is the weekend! Ha-Ha!

Friday, May 11, 2007 6:30:00 AM  
Blogger Xeus said...

We must be very humble, I agree, and accept criticism of both our writing style and storyline. It is the only way we can improve. Better we accept criticism during the draft stages and rewrite it accordingly than having it rejected outright when we send it.

Friday, May 11, 2007 6:57:00 AM  
Blogger fathorse said...

Oh God, semicolons. When? Where? gah.

The most thankless of jobs are nearly always the most important arn't they?

Friday, May 11, 2007 8:10:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Xeus - Having your work edited is a humbling experience. The important thing is for writers and editors to meet halfway and create a book that is worth being published.

Fathorse - Interesting blog you have there. You are so right, the most thankless of jobs are nearly always the most important. Like everything else in life, not just publishing.

Friday, May 11, 2007 5:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would be very appreciative if an editor actually takes the time to improve on my work!

Friday, May 11, 2007 8:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric - Above all else maintain the quality! Otherwise, if lousy, half-baked writers get published, they drag the better writers down with them and give Malaysian writing a bad name. So please keep the faith and guard the Gates! We don't want to end up like some countries where everybody and anybody can get published.

Saturday, May 12, 2007 1:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What do you do when authors do not allow you to edit their work?

Saturday, May 12, 2007 5:47:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

If the author does not allow me to edit, then he or she better be good. Because for publishing houses, the normal procedure is to reject a manuscript outright if the author does not allow us to edit their work. It is difficult to edit if we have to engage in constant negotiation and bargaining with authors just to correct their sentences. It is too time-wasting a processs. The publishing house cannot lose control over the editing process. Period. And if the manuscript is not of the quality we are looking for, we stop working on it and find a way to change that. The editor-author relationship is long term and we cannot afford to start on a wrong footing.

Some writers seem more interested in having a printer print their book as it is - without it being edited at all. They don't need a publishing house for that. If this is the case, then they should self publish their work by paying a typesetter to set it and a printer to print it. Only then can they retain the essence and purity of their writing!

We do take on imperfect books if we think they have latent potential only if the writers are willing to work hard on improving them. Most of them, sad to say, are not willing to do that.

Saturday, May 12, 2007 5:52:00 PM  
Blogger Lydia Teh said...

Editing is necessary to improve writing. So go on and edit, Eric.

Sunday, May 13, 2007 12:03:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think, basically, it is all about the human ego: arrogance. Writers who are arrogant should just stash their manuscripts in their drawers and wait for archeologists in the future to dig them up and display them as exhibits or artifacts in museums.

Sunday, May 13, 2007 12:29:00 AM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Hi Eric,

Sounds like being an editor is not an easy job. I do agree with you completely that good English is essential.

Can I assume that editing non-fiction is different from editing fiction?

And in editing fiction, if language is not a problem, what is the role of an editor and the writing style of the writer?

Monday, May 14, 2007 11:28:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Yes, Alex, it is tough being an editor, especially in dealing with writers who are stubborn.

Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, good English is always essential.

If the manuscripts are well written, there is not much difference between fiction and nonfiction. But, personally, I find it tougher to edit fiction because there are lots of abstracts involved in fiction while nonfiction is based on facts and research.

In editing fiction (we are assuming that language is not a problem here), the role of an editor is to make sure that the story makes sense. In this instance, the editor plays the role of a conceptual editor as well as a reader responding to the work. Here, the editor will look at plot lines, characterisation, paragraphing, chapter beginnings and endings, etc. The important thing here is to improve the manuscript yet maintain the voice of the writer and the essence of the story.

Of course, all these are easier said than done.

Monday, May 14, 2007 4:38:00 PM  
Blogger Alex Tang said...

Thanks, Eric, for your response. I like what you say about "the conceptual editor as well as a reader responding to the work."

I always believe that writers and editors should work in partnership if they are to publish a book.

Unless a writer writes for his or her own consumption, then they have the privilege of leaving it 'as is'.

However if they want to introduce their works to the world, then he or she must submit to a greater scrutiny and add value to their works. This means good English or whatever language they write in, continuity and flow in the writing, and consistency in the use of terms. This is where editors come in, to add value... and protect us poor readers.

I often hesitate to buy local publications because many of them are so badly written that it is an agony to read.(oops, I am gonna get bricks thrown at me).

Monday, May 14, 2007 9:05:00 PM  
Blogger Obiter Dictum said...

Are there writers who doubt the need of an editor?

Your job is as essential as theirs. No doubt about that.

Monday, May 14, 2007 9:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Writers tend to overlook a lot of things when they are in the process of writing a book. An editor to spot my inconsistencies, flaws, blemishes, etc. means a great deal to me.

Monday, May 14, 2007 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger Tunku Halim said...

Eric, thanks for editing my books for more than a decade. You're been wonderful. I do need to buy you lunch on my next visit!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 7:36:00 PM  
Blogger Kak Teh said...

we can never see our own mistakes, we can never be our own editors - we always need another pair of eyes. I always welcome any kind of comments or suggestions and corrections. Thank you for this piece,eric. I cannot thank enough those friends who give me their honest opinion. we are forever learning.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 9:45:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

T. Halim - The pleasure is all mine. Looking forward to more!

Zaharah - It's true that writers can't see their mistakes most of the time. However, writers nowadays must do lots of self-editing to smoothen and accelerate the publishing process. I prefer to do minimal editing on writers' work so I prefer them to submit as clean a manuscript as possible. This is to enable me to concentrate on other aspects of the publishing process which are equally important. I am glad you liked my piece. Thank you!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007 11:30:00 PM  
Anonymous cloudycoo said...

:P eric eric - first time i am posting on your blog even though read it quite a number of times. Yeah never underestimated the job of editing, basically don't ever underestimate others/job scope be it the writer or the editor..

Wednesday, May 16, 2007 7:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Eric,

I know it takes years of experience to edit, but how does the editor ensure that your editing does not change the intended meaning--especially when it comes to very specialized technical terms and phrases? Also, how to be sure that the editor's English is grammatically perfect?

Thursday, May 17, 2007 3:38:00 AM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Not all editors are born equal. Not all editors come to the editing process with similar experiences. There is no way of ensuring that an editor's English is perfect. To be a good editor, you need to be well read and have a breadth of knowledge in as many areas as possible. You must enjoy both fiction and nonfiction. You must have a passion for the language and its quirks and idiosyncrasies. You are always seeking the elusive perfect sentence. The idea of editing is not only to retain the writer's voice but to enhance it. Experience matters a great deal. Years and years of it to spot common mistakes. A well-edited book though rare is a joy to behold.

Thursday, May 17, 2007 4:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Editors do serve a purpose. Writers tend to overwrite and editors are there to calm them down.

Sunday, May 20, 2007 4:23:00 AM  
Blogger Argus Lou said...

Wonderful, funny and illuminating piece, Eric.

Let me hazard a guess: writers who don't want their stuff touched are like that because they don't know better. Whereas good writers know there's always something they missed spotting.

P.S. Did you notice 'The Gift of Rain' has two Chapters 23 (or whatever number the last chapter was)?

Monday, May 21, 2007 11:53:00 PM  
Blogger Eric Forbes said...

Hello JY - Yes, there are two chapter 22's. It is just one of those things that happen in publishing.

Yes, you are right, good writers tend to go for perfection and are thus very attentive to the details. My kind of writers!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007 3:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Shahir A. Razak said...

Eric, I'm really interested in publishing a book but I don't know any good publishing houses in Malaysia that accepts English book written by Malaysian authors. Can you suggest any publishing house that can accept my work and where to send them to?

P/S: My book is a fiction, close to the fantasy genre.

Friday, June 18, 2010 11:06:00 PM  

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