Thursday, 18 June 2020

Thoughts on editing

Though I set up this blog to write about my writing, I rarely do that. The subjects covered are wide ranging and mainly stimulated by happenings in my day-to-day life and often focus on travel. So, back to books for a change and to that great improver of one’s writing – editing.

When I decided to write about this topic, one which is so close to the soul of anyone who writes, I happened to be reading Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words where he remarks that whenever anyone writes about editing there will always be an elephantine abuse of English somewhere in their text. So look out!

The professional editor’s basic role, as I see it, is to remove grammatical errors and typos, clarify unclear English and impose the house style of the publisher (things like the use of inverted commas, capitalisation, use of numbers such as 100 versus one hundred, use of slang, etc). Even this can cause problems between the editor and the edited.  When I wrote technical books they were mostly published by US-based publishers and it was one of these that changed the verb following a word I used extensively (data) from singular to plural: where I wrote ‘data is’ they substituted ‘data are’. However, general usage had settled on data as both singular and plural and the singular (datum) was little used. The publisher tried to insist on ‘data are’ so I checked out five previous books that they had published – all of them used ‘data is’ extensively. Other battles were not so easily won.

Many years ago, I met my first self-proclaimed lesbian in a bar in Georgetown, USA. The conversation began because she had a broken leg and her plaster cast occupied the stool between us, but that is by-the-by. It occurred around my ‘data is’ period just mentioned and I needed a shoulder to cry on, so I told her about it. She then confessed that she was not only a lesbian, but also an editor. However, her writers called her the ‘stealth editor’ because when they read the edited manuscript they could not detect what had changed, yet proclaimed that the outcome was better. I wished then, and many times since that she could edit my writing.

Before that incident, in fact years before I published my first book, I met an editor in a bar in Ipswich, UK he was, actually a sub-editor of the local newspaper. I was a minor contributor to that rag at the time through the correspondence column and my activities as chairman of the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale. We were talking about beer and I asked him if he had read my latest article. What he said surprised me: “Oh no. I don't read content when I’m editing, if I did then I would miss the errors”. That’s the sort of editor I like, I thought.

Later, when I started up on my own, I launched a newsletter called VINE which stood for Voice in Europe. I wrote all of the content and felt very exposed since I had no one to check it over before printing. Fortunately, my old boss, Hugh Daglish, had retired just then and was at a loose end and agreed to layout each issue for printing and to check the grammar. His mother had been an English teacher, he had written a book on fonts and he knew little and probably cared little about the content. Perfect qualifications, and it worked well until his sudden death in Israel. I sold the newsletter soon after that.

Nowadays, I have two stalwarts who valiantly read through the books I write before I let anyone else see them. And, though we occasionally disagree about things like capitalization and starting a sentence with ‘and’, the process is amicable and enjoyable. And I am entirely grateful to them for spotting typos, grammatical errors, and so on. They also make useful suggestions about content which I often act upon. You know who you are, so thank you.

What has really spurred me into writing this blog is this: the editing of my latest book has been hell. The first phase went reasonably OK, though there were minor problems about English usage and so on – all exacerbated by the fact that the publishers were based in India. That done there was then an unexpected and very long second phase where a committee was formed to overview content. Now, admittedly, I was writing on sensitive subjects including potted histories of various famous figures from the Indian sub-continent, but my sources were all identified and I had no axe to bear in recounting their lives. The committee had axes! Whole swathes of the book were rewritten in a florid style completely unlike my own and including opinions, in my name, that I did not hold and could not justify. I was horrified and indicated that, despite my own considerable time and money expended on the book, I could not agree to its publication.

In the end, of course, compromises were found, tempers cooled and the book was completed (as I write it is yet to be published). But it will never be mine, not in the way that my others are. And I still dream of that stealth editor with the broken leg.

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