Why is editing necessary?
‘Good writing rarely exists without good editing’ – of course an editor would say this. Yet it is undeniably true. Many people outside the publishing industry are unaware of the web of interacting parties and interests that circulate as a piece of writing becomes a published text. And among this nexus are editors: acquisitions editors, who commission, shape and frame texts; copyeditors, who turn the final manuscript into the best it can be for readers; and proofreaders, who function as the last bastion of clarity and consistency. Collectively, editors are the gatekeepers and friends of writing.
What is editing?
‘Editing’ can mean many things, with definitions as varied as are books themselves. And definitions are complicated by the fact that editing is an invisible art: practised at its best editing will, by definition, go undetected.
I have sometimes been asked if editing is a technical skill or an art. It is both: it demands technical skills peculiar to the specific intellectual domain but it is also an interpretative practice that demands professional judgement. Editing training courses can cover the former. The latter comes with experience, commitment, intellectual curiosity and knowledge.
There are several aspects of writing an editor may critique: the overall logical structure and balance of the text, adherence to the subject or book’s objectives, signposting, linking and organizing of content, coherence of the line of argument, use of active/passive voice and of tense, clarity of explanation, length of sentences, economy of word use – to name but a few.
It is probably no coincidence that ‘edit’ in English originates as a verb in the late eighteenth century – the century that witnessed the emergence of the republic of letters and the widespread growth of knowledge. Look up ‘edit’ in the Oxford Dictionary and you will find a flurry of other active verbs:
- PREPARE (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it
- CHOOSE material for (a film or radio or television programme)
- ARRANGE it to form a coherent whole
- CHANGE (text) on a computer
- [edit something out] REMOVE unnecessary or inappropriate material from a text, film, or radio or television programme.
Prepare, choose, change, remove. Every one of these acts requires assessment, judgement and justification, whether implicit or explicit.
All this means decisions to take as an editor. How long should that sentence be? Does that word need to be used? Is another word more appropriate? Does that sentence get across the author’s meaning? Will the reader understand that allusion or implication? Is this line of enquiry or argument coherent? Is that explanation clear?
How do I, as the editor, intervene to make the text clearer, consistent and credible, while upholding the integrity of the author’s voice and faithfulness to their chosen style, answering to the contingencies of the publisher and related stakeholders, and accessibility to its future readers? This is the nexus of professional editorial decision-making. The fact that there are potentially several different answers to all these questions demonstrates that editing, for all its objectivity and exactitude, is an interpretative practice.
The role of editor is not easily deconstructed. Editors see themselves as embracing many roles – literary critic, mentor, intermediary between author and publisher, marketeer. But in all cases there has to be mutual understanding and respect between author and editor. An editor should listen to what you want to achieve and devise the best means of doing so. Your editor should communicate with you clearly and professionally, explaining the process and discussing any particular concerns they or you may have. And they must know what and when it is their decision to make. This came home to me in one of the first books I edited, In Pursuit of Life, by Eric Hazelhof-Rozema. Eric’s words remain with me still: ‘You stuck tenaciously to your guns but weren’t above giving in when something meant very much to me. The result shows the harmony, and professionals who matter have noticed.’
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