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.
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!