I forget who it was, but they made a very decent point. The process of taking a draft manuscript and turning it into something ready for reading is a critical stage of any book. Whenever I hear people squabbling about the merits of self-publishing versus the merits of traditional publishing, I’m surprised how infrequently the role of the editor is raised.
When I talk about editing, I’m not really thinking about the spelling and the grammar – that’s copy editing which, though absolutely vital, is a different process, usually done by a different person. No, what I’m referring to is that bigger-picture job – looking at the story as a whole, identifying what works and what doesn’t, and finding ways to improve it.
In some respects, editing is a little like special effects in a film; when it’s done well, you don’t even notice it, yet it makes the whole production much, much better. So, with all these obvious benefits, it would seem sensible for every novel to go through the process, right?
It depends on who the editor is.
We all check and change our own writing to some degree, but the idea of editing – really editing – my own work is nonsensical to me. I don’t believe it’s possible to take a truly objective view of something I’ve spent months slaving over. Even if I embraced the task and got the book to the point where I was completely happy with it, I’d know it hadn’t been fully tested, and the idea of dumping that job on the reader seems a little disrespectful.
So what about freelance editors? I’ve not had the opportunity to use one, but they certainly exist, and I’m sure there are many excellent people doing this job. My only concern with this approach is that the author needs to think carefully how the writer/editor relationship works. Let me give you an example:
When I completed a relatively solid draft of a recent novel, I was naturally nervous (as I always am) but broadly pleased with what I’d achieved. I had a few nagging doubts that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I sent the manuscript off to my publisher and waited for their response. In due course, I sat down with my editor to work through her initial feedback and, although she liked the story, she had a number of points for discussion.
To be clear, this wasn’t the important little details, like line-edits, tweaking a phrase, or tightening a paragraph. This was about the structure of the story – looking at the pace and the shape of things, and reflecting on how the reader would feel about each character’s journey. My editor highlighted several things, which seemed innocuous enough in themselves… but it wasn’t until I began addressing those changes that I appreciated their importance. The changes weren’t huge – most of the scenes remained the same, with subtle tweaks at key points…
…but it made a big difference to how the story felt, and to how I felt about the story. I was enormously relieved that her feedback forced me to revisit those areas that I might otherwise have left alone.
And this is the issue. I’d be a little uneasy about an editor working for me because (in my case, at least) I don’t think that’s the right structure. I much prefer having an editor who works for the publisher – because then her allegiance is to the story and its readers, not to me.
I know it’s not for everyone, and I know it requires an editor who shares your vision for the book, but I like our collaborative approach. For me, it’s great having someone who “keeps me honest” and pushes me as a writer. And when we sit there, and she suggests something brilliant, and I groan “I wish I’d written that,” she can smile at me calmly and say “You will, Fergus. You will.”