The importance of being edited

I was going to blog about my back but it’s far too depressing, so I thought I’d write about this instead: according to the current issue of the NUJ magazine, book publishers no longer work with writers to improve manuscripts, but instead expect the draft they see to be the final draft. Which, if it’s true, probably explains why books are increasingly full of typos, factual errors, repetition, unfunny crap and things that don’t make sense. A bit like this blog, heh.

Criticism hurts – if you don’t believe me, try telling the local psychopath that his jeans make him look like “a big ponce” the next time you’re in the pub – but there are very, very few writers whose work doesn’t benefit from the input of a good editor. I don’t just mean nuts and bolts editing, either, although that’s important: I mean the editorial process as a whole.

Here’s what many writers would like you to think the editorial process entails:

Writer comes up with the greatest story idea ever
Editor is terrified by writer’s genius but commissions the story
Writer starts writing a work of unalloyed genius
Editor starts worrying that writer’s genius will upset advertisers, the entire world
Writer fends off clueless attempts at editorial intervention; submits the greatest article ever written
Editor and sub-editor remove all the good bits and butcher the writer’s perfect prose
Editor chooses writer pic that makes him look “a bit chinny”, for a laugh

Here’s what actually happens:

Writer comes up with half-arsed story idea
Editor sees potential, makes sensible suggestions to make story better
Writer starts writing, wanders off on bizarre tangent
Editor reels writer back in and points him/her in right direction
Writer makes amazing claims, libels entire world
Editor removes libels and encourages writer to try “facts” and “research”
Writer submits article with lots of typos and very unfunny jokes
Editor and sub-editor get rid of libels and unfunny jokes, fix typos
Editor uses the only pic of the writer where he’s not striking a stupid pose

Of course, editors get it wrong too – I vividly remember writing a piece for a well-known Scots sunday newspaper whose edits turned a short, snappy piece into something utterly impenetrable that was seemingly written by a toddler on a Sunny Delight binge – but the combination of a good writer and a good editor produces work that’s better than the writer would manage on his or her own.

You see it a lot in blogging: pieces that are well-written but which would work much better at half the length, or which would have more impact if they’d been criticised by someone who can see the bigger picture. But where the absence of editing is really obvious is in the sites who recruit writers without payment in return for exposure. Without good editing, the exposure you get is worthless: the sites showcase your typos, your tangents and your inability to get to the point, and because nobody’s showing you what you’re doing wrong you never get any better.

Put it this way: if this post had been through the editorial process, it’d be about three words long – or more likely, scrapped.

7 thoughts on “The importance of being edited

  1. paul says:

    Great post :) As an editor, I feel it’s my role to ensure that a writer files the best copy they can – I work for them as much as they do for me. That sometimes means telling them that while they had a good idea to start with they need to do a few things to make it better. That gets me a great article that readers respond to; it gets the writer a portfolio piece that could bring them more work, so both sides benefit from the process.

    When I write, I look forward to my work being subbed by a competent copy-sub because I know it will make it better. Years ago, when I was a production editor, I wrote a feature for an editor who said “we don’t need to sub your copy, you’re a sub yourself and we’re in a hurry so we’ll drop it straight onto the page”, and I cringed. That piece never made it into my portfolio, surprisingly enough.

  2. Stephen says:

    I think the obvious drop-off in quality once a writer becomes a Big Star (eg JK Rowling) happens because the editors get too scared to do their job, or are told by management not to risk one-third of the firm’s income by being too demanding. They probably become sycophantic cheerleaders instead of proper editors.

  3. Gary says:

    Stephen, I think you’re right. I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books – I have wizardophobia – but the heft of the most recent one is ridiculous. Reviews suggest it rambles on quite alarmingly, too.

    Paul:
    > so both sides benefit from the process.

    Definitely. It’s quite interesting to compare early drafts of a piece with the version submitted after editorial “meddling”, and then with the version that actually hits print. I reckon in 99% of cases each step shows a dramatic improvement.

    > I look forward to my work being subbed by a competent copy-sub because I know it will make it better.

    Competent is the key, I think. The sunday newspaper article I mentioned in the main piece was clearly subbed by a small monkey rather than a human being, and the results were horrifying.

    I think maybe the reason the role of editors and subs is played down is because it dents the image of the writer as a solitary genius, untouched by the dead hand of commerce. When in reality that means they’re writing unpublishable crap :-D

  4. David says:

    The latest HP book wasn’t as bad as the one before. It really did go on a bit. Mind you, you have to give Rowling some credit for getting kids to want to read a book with 700+m pages.

  5. Squander Two says:

    > I think the obvious drop-off in quality once a writer becomes a Big Star (eg JK Rowling) happens because the editors get too scared to do their job, or are told by management not to risk one-third of the firm’s income by being too demanding. They probably become sycophantic cheerleaders instead of proper editors.

    See also: Radiohead.

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