What it takes to be a book editor
Eric Forbes on a subject close to his heart ... mind
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 nurtured, encouraged and supported. Those were the days when editors actually line-edit text, checking facts and figures, weeding out inconsistencies, and turning clichés into elegance. Such days are long gone.
Developing good editors takes time, effort and commitment. 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.
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 ‘creating’ a good book. You must enjoy the thrill of a perfect sentence.
There’re not many good editors to go round not only in Malaysia but elsewhere, too. Good editors are hard to come by. Most publishers do not believe in investing in good editors or editing skills. And good editing skills can only come from excellent writing and grammatical skills, good rewriting, revising and research skills, etc.
If you enjoy reading and think you will enjoy the whole process of ‘creating’ books, here’s what you need to do to excel as a good book editor. (And if you have a disposition that is meticulous, detail-oriented and observant, all the better.)
Developing a flair for writing is important if you want to be a good editor. It is essential that editors not only have a flair for writing but write well. You cannot edit without understanding the mechanics of 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. Practise and hone your narrative skills by writing book reviews, author profiles, articles, etc., and get them published in the papers and magazines.
Read as widely as you can and be critical of what you read. If you are keen on pursuing editing as a career, the best way to learn how to edit is to read as widely, deeply and omnivorously as possible—and read both fiction and nonfiction. Editors are readers first. Sadly, most editors don’t think like a reader because they do not read enough. Read literary criticism, book reviews, etc., to understand the process of evaluating books. Learn to self-edit your articles.
Editors must build a muscular command of general knowledge. Editors, regardless of their writing abilities, often fail in this area. They do not have enough facts about the world they live in, particularly stories that use factual information and historical references. You don’t need a great depth of knowledge of the subject; you just need to know a little bit about a lot of things and know how and where to look for answers. Every time you read, you are going to find things you could use in your work. Knowledge is your resource, so acquire as much of it as you can. Read books that teach you to be a better editor and a better reader.
Writers must learn and develop self-editing skills. Pay attention to your grammar, your punctuation, tone down on circumlocutious writing, overly long or dense paragraphs, avoid clichés or use them only sparingly, spellcheck the typescript, use consistent spelling throughout your typescript, etc. Remember what Isaac Babel said about punctuation: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a full-stop in the right place.” Writers should spend more time on punctuation because that’s where they are usually weak at. There’s nothing wrong with checking up on the basics of punctuation. Good punctuation brings clarity and makes writing more powerful. Read up on the basics of grammar if you have forgotten them. Or consult someone who is good at it.
You don’t need to be detail-oriented, but it helps. You tend to learn to be more detail-oriented on the job. Most of the editing skills are gained on the job. And you also learn from authors. Some of the better writers among them do point out your errors and you learn from them.
Being an editor is not a job—it’s a calling. Always remember this. You don’t exactly join the profession for the money!
Recommended reading. If you are keen on learning how to edit and do it well, you might like to check out Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995), which is more of a guide to editing than writing per se. Whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you might find this enjoyable and full of useful advice to jump-start your creativity by learning how to fix flawed writing, how to improve good writing and how to use the techniques of fiction to enliven nonfiction writing. Stein was a writer, editor and publisher for well over four decades. He edited writers like James Baldwin, Jack Higgins and Elia Kazan and published a lot of superb literature, as well as some excellent commercial fiction, many of them best-sellers. Stein’s How to Grow a Novel (also published by St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999) is also good; there are lots of helpful editing tips in it. Read both for optimal impact.
Working 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.
You must enjoy both fiction and nonfiction. 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 deal with topics that are grounded in reality. A good editor does both equally well.
You must enjoy the time spent checking facts. Though the onus of ensuring the accuracy of facts and figures falls on the writer, editors are often called upon to check on them when there’s a need to do so.
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 do you look for in a good book? Good writing, basically. However, there are several essential ingredients that make a book good. There are several criteria of what is considered good writing. Of course, personal taste matters, too, but only to a certain extent. When you feel something indefinable when you are devouring a sentence is one way of gauging wonderful writing.
If you are writing fiction, pay particular attention to the elements that readers normally look for in a good story. What makes a story good? What do we look for in a good story? We hope to find an intelligent mind behind a lively prose style, a distinctive point of view and pleasurable entertainment. Originality is always important; a good story must have an enduring quality, a distinctive voice, gripping plots, characters that grab you by the scruff of the neck, language, style, inventiveness, stories that tap into the contemporary state of mind, etc. The wonderful thing is, there’s no one way to tell a story or write a book.
Editing can be traumatic and nerve-wracking most of the time because most of the typescripts that are accepted are not only badly written but lack content or substance; there’s not much in the way of depth or breadth in the writing. It’s rare that you receive one that you can sink your teeth into. If you think you can add value to a piece of work and are willing to take on the challenge of fine-tuning the prose of others, you might like giving editing a try!
Eric Forbes is a senior book editor with a publisher in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
A version of this article appeared in the October-December 2008 edition of Quill magazine