Editing is an underrated, underpaid skill in large part because it’s invisible. Good editing, in the reader’s experience, is a negative. Some people may note the absence of typos, or the lack of stumbles over poor sentence structure. Nobody but editor and author knows about the rambling, pointless plotline, the ending that weakened the whole book and had to be redrafted, the inexplicably omitted antagonist, irritating repeated word, massive plot hole, or 5000 words of unnecessary verbiage. By God you’ll see all that if it’s left in, and leave scathing reviews accordingly, but with a properly edited book, for all the reader knows, the author delivered an impeccable MS and every plot twist, satisfying scene and well structured ending is her genius. Nothing to do with anyone else, oh no.
And of course, because editors are invisible, you get people thinking they don’t need them. Authors who refuse to accept editing, self-published authors who say, ‘I’ll get my friend to read it over’. And, worse, people who work as editors without really understanding the job. People who think it’s about tidying up, who have no idea how to tackle deep structure or tonal issues or limp characterization, or how to do that without breaking an author’s heart.
Dinner party man: What do you do?
Me: I’m an editor.
Dinner party man: Don’t they have spellcheck for that?
I learned to edit working on travel guides. There is no room for sloppiness in a printed travel guide. There was no room for bringing them out late, either, since they are out of date from the day the author delivers. We used to edit in shifts, splitting MSS to finish them. People sometimes slept in the office. After that, I worked at a large romance publisher for several years, where the book turnaround was insanely fast. There is nothing like editing four books in a week and reading six slush MSS in between to get you good at X-raying a book, seeing the bones, and rearranging them to make a functioning skeleton. Do that enough and you don’t just have a vague feeling of wrong: you know exactly why this character’s decision weakens the book; why that scene, brilliant in itself, destroys the pacing, or alternatively needs to be twice as long; why these two plot points have to be rearranged; why this character ought to live rather than die.
I really feel this book should end on the obliteration of the entire human race.
(Editorial email from me to author. She agreed.)
As both an editor and an author who has benefited greatly from editing, I know how much work goes into this. I know how hard it can be to identify the problem with your own MS, and how hard it is to write the email that explains what has to be changed. I know that nobody wants to hear ‘massive rewrite’ and that it actually doesn’t feel that much better if the editor calls it a tweak. And mostly, I know that editors are the unsung heroes when it goes right, but the first in the firing line when it goes wrong.
Because, if you think for a moment, ‘This book is badly edited’ is kind of meaningless. What that actually says is, ‘This book is badly written and the editor didn’t fix it.’ But that’s the job. The author’s hacked out the raw material and the editor’s there to do anything from a light polish to a full-blown carving operation – but leaving no fingermarks, with no trace of her presence, just letting the story shine.
So when you read a book and you don’t notice anything wrong with it, spare a thought for the ninja editor, reading the clunky and the poorly structured, the repetitive and the nonsensical and the really quite alarming, the badly spelled and the just-not-quite-perfect…so you don’t have to.
KJ Charles is a freelance editor and author. Thanks to Andrea Pina for the inspiration for this post!