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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #10: Editing


Helen Moffett - 2010-09-15

With total freedom to choose a topic, I find myself returning to a song I’ve been singing for many years – the question of editing and its quality.

It’s no secret that I regularly bemoan the lack of (good) editing I see in locally published books (and books published abroad, but let’s stick to our own backyard for now). This afflicts all categories and genres of writing, but here my focus is quality fiction – so-called “literary” novels, short story collections, poetry – and those works of memoir or non-fiction that hinge on good writing.

Because this is a drum I beat so relentlessly, I sometimes fear it’s become habitual. I also find myself asking why good editing is so important – are the reasons as self-evident as we assume? As someone dedicated to supporting local writing, to identifying talent that is often raw and colloquial, am I guilty of tunnel vision, unable to see the narrative woods for the typographical trees?

As I mulled this over, a friend sent me a piece, “Red pen blues”, by Claire Armitstead, an outpouring of frustration about the poor editing she encountered while judging the Guardian’s First Book award. As so often happens when editors try to give examples of poor editing as opposed to poor writing, her critiques have the smack of train-spotting about them, but what I found particularly interesting were the comments that followed.

A recurring theme is the complaint by readers that typographical errors “spoil” their pleasure in reading – in this category, the comment “Nothing spoils the flow of a book more than being brought up short by a missing full stop, or a mis-spelled word” is typical.

There is truth in this, but this kind of annoyance with the quality of production – and a book studded with typographical errors isn’t necessarily one that has been badly written or edited – masks a far larger problem. As Armitstead says, “My frustration is that even books with the flair and intelligence … to make the longlist would be even better if an editor had pushed them a bit further.”

This presupposes a shared understanding of what it these editors were supposed to have done. The comment thread, however, reveals that there is no such understanding. One person clings to the Romantic notion of the Writer, alone and heroic in the creative quest: “I’ve never understood novelists who allow editors to mess with the structure or writing of their works; it’s your book, if you can’t write it yourself, then give up.” Someone mentions “copyediting”, another “literary editors”; one blames authors (“most fiction isn’t copy edited because the authors don’t want their text touched by anyone else”); and of course the villains of the piece are the publishers, now run by “bean-counters”, and ultimately the education system, which either fails to teach scholars to write, or teaches them badly.

What I find interesting is that a previous piece I wrote on this topic and posted on Book SA last year attracted very similar comments – clearly this is a global problem. Some authors insisted that they were finally responsible for the appearance of their texts; some railed against deeper systemic problems (poor education, cash-strapped publishers jettisoning editing); and it was clear that nowhere in the world of publishing and writing is there consensus on what it is that an editor does.

I’ve written elsewhere that a good edit is invisible – it is only bad editing that is glaringly obvious, which leaves us with the problem of trying to establish what editing involves by looking at its shadow.

It does bear mentioning, however, that production values – the physical processes and specialist tasks that go into making a book a tangible entity – are taking a hammering as costs are cut and cut again. A recent disturbing development: a few local publishers seem to be foisting the task of proofreading the page proofs of forthcoming books on to the authors. Proofreading is a specialist skill that involves far more than simply checking for typos and word omissions. Learning how to massage a line or paragraph so as to eliminate loose tracking, bad word breaks or widows/orphans takes practice and experience. It’s wishful thinking to assume that an author can pick up on glitches like these, and mark up proofs for the typesetter. Poor typesetting in turn can sabotage a book that might have been exquisitely written and prepared, undoing the careful work of author, editor and proofreader.

But at least the duties of the proofreader and typesetter can be quantified. It could even be argued that the job of a copyeditor is fairly clear-cut (although I regularly wrangle with colleagues over the difference between copyediting and line-editing – every publisher I’ve worked with has a different notion of what these entail). It is the realm of “deep” editing – a process known by a dozen different terms – literary editing, development editing, manuscript development and more – that is the source of my most profound frustration. Like Armitstead, I regularly read books that evoke the response, “This shows promise – but it could have been so much better with good editing.”

Yet some of my authors are puzzled by my insistence that their manuscripts need close, careful editing: in many cases (alas, not all) they have worked their way through numerous drafts and have responded to the input of various readers. Surely, by now, their labour of love needs only a few tweaks? They are dismayed to be told that the 60 000-word final manuscript they’ve worked so hard to produce constitutes raw material to be shaped, carved, honed and polished until the shape is crystal-clear and every facet shines.

The good news is that the quality of this “raw material” is at an all-time high in South Africa. This is what drives my dissatisfaction with editing and publishing processes that simply dole out a hasty lick and promise to writing with the potential for sustained brilliance – not just the occasional sparkle – if thoroughly edited.

Steve Connolly, former MD of Struik publishers, was fond of quoting the following proverb at me: “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I’ve found this a useful corrective when tempted to edit as close to perfection as possible. Perhaps “perfect” sets the bar too high.

Or so I thought until I read the short story collection Homing, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, recently published by Umuzi. I had encountered some of the stories before, in various incarnations; I had even edited one for publication in Oshun’s collection 180º some years previously. The originals had been carefully polished to begin with; what I found breathtaking was the author’s almost relentless insistence on rewriting and reworking stories that already represented an exceptionally high standard of writing, that had already garnered praise and prizes.

Rose-Innes’s collection represents the closest thing to perfect writing I’ve yet seen produced in South Africa. It’s not just extraordinary in its own right: it is ringing testimony to the saying “Writing is rewriting.” And this also encapsulates what editing boils down to. But because the editor should never be the one doing the rewriting, in the final analysis, she or he is the one who enables rewriting – providing the “push” that Armitstead finds lacking in today’s publishing industry. In an almost alchemical process, the good editor catalyses the author’s rewriting. This takes guile, craft, confidence, the ability to tune into and reverberate with the author’s voice and vision, and sometimes nerves of steel. Sadly, the best teacher is experience, and there are no short cuts – after 25 years, I am still learning how.