On the importance of editing

I’ve not been around online much recently. I’m a bit embarrassed that this is my first new post in a month, although I do have a number of very good reasons. There were a few days of being unwell; quite a few more of job-hunting and soul-searching (resulting in the Big Life Decision to not take the excellent position I was being offered, in order to dedicate the next several months to writing the concluding volume of the ®Evolution trilogy – cue lots of deep breaths and sleepless nights); the kerfuffle of transferring from one friend’s flat to another’s, due to builders being in; and the search for my own flat, which to my immense relief and satisfaction was finally concluded last week (hello Victoria Park!). But the thing that has demanded the biggest chunk of my time and attention over the past four weeks has been editing.

Although my second book, Binary, is out in just over two months, a dearth of available copy editors meant that I only got the manuscript back for my review and any final changes at the beginning of the year. (It’s also a big part of why my editor – who, by the way, has the additional responsibility of the entire publishing enterprise that is Jo Fletcher Books – works seven days a week, bringing her considerable skills to bear in order to plug that gap.) Even after the ministrations of the copy editor, followed by two weeks of my own scrutiny (I hasten to add that about half of this was spent on polishing the story, not just the copy), Jo and I went down to the wire a week later, correcting commas and paragraph breaks, tweaking tenses and phrases.

The book that was sent off a scant few hours later to be typeset is much the better for it, which makes the apparent shrinkage in editing as a profession, along with the value placed upon it, so dispiriting. And I don’t just mean copy editing. The ability to look at a text with a critical eye, appreciating its good qualities but also identifying any implausibilities in its plot, inconsistencies in its characterisation and flaws in its prose,  is crucial to the quality of the finished work and happens long before the copy edit. Whether what emerges from that structural review are minor modifications to said plot, characters and prose, or a major edit involving significant changes to the way the narrative is organised and constructed, it is unimaginable that, from first draft to published volume, there are no improvements to be made. Although, sadly, that is what too many authors, and indeed their publishers, seem to think.

I recently picked up a novel that I’ve been dying to read, by an author who I already knew from their online media presence (which is much more disciplined and consistent than mine) and convention appearances to be intelligent, articulate, interesting, and a builder of complex worlds and layered, intricate plots. The book should have been right up my proverbial street – and I made it about 80 pages in before giving up (I’d have chucked it across the room at 40 had I been less enthusiastic about the author). I could see that the worldbuilding and twisty plotting had been meticulously thought through, but the plausibility of the characters and quality of the prose veered wildly from one scene to another, indeed at times from one paragraph to another. It was clunky. It was awkward. The story was clearly there, but it read like the first draft that you dump willy-nilly onto the page in your haste to pin your ideas down before you lose them.

It read like it hadn’t been edited.

Now I have no idea what this particular author’s creative process is like, nor do I judge it; there is no single right way of doing things. I tend to do a lot of editing as I write, which is supposed to be a no-no, but it works for me. And I start each day’s work by reviewing and editing what I did the day before – which usually results in the loss of around 10% of the previous day’s words, further tightens and polishes the prose, helps me pick up on any plot or character problems I might be writing my way into, and gets my head back into the place and the mood of the piece.

Then the whole thing, from opening sentence to final paragraph, gets reviewed and edited by me at least – at least – once before it gets shown to anyone else.

I bite my nails for a few weeks (or if I get the timing right, go on holiday); then I take the initial feedback from editor, agent and beta readers, and work through the manuscript, soup to nuts, again. The result goes back to the structural editor, who reads it a second time and identifies anything that still doesn’t quite click. If there were major problems at that point the script would come straight back to me (this has never yet happened, I’m glad to say). Otherwise it goes on to the copy editor, while I get a note about anything the structural editor recommends I take another look at when I’m going through the copy edit (this is what one of the two weeks I mentioned at the beginning were spent on). The copy edit itself is mostly concerned with correcting punctuation and grammar, suggesting better words and phrases (and in my case, because I lived in the States for many years and Americanisms still sometimes slip through, replacing them with the British equivalent), and pointing out any inconsistencies within the book (and between books, if it’s a series).

Are you counting? That’s at least five editorial passes so far. And there is still one final chance to make minor edits, at the page proof stage. This is the typeset manuscript, the pages as they will look when bound between the covers and placed on the shelves at your friendly local bookseller. You do not want to have many – or, preferably, any – changes at this stage, but the point is you can.

There is no single right way of doing things, and not everyone will be as obsessive about this as me (or indeed my editor). But every book that finds its way into print with an indie or imprint or small press or major publisher will have been read by someone besides the author. That person will most likely have ‘editor’ somewhere in their title. And if a book that ends up printed and on sale still reads like an unedited first draft, what, I ask myself, is that person doing?

Why are they not doing better by their authors? Are the authors ignoring them? Or are the titular editors ignoring what that role requires of them?

(I’m not going to quote any passages or otherwise identify this particular book, but I will say that my experience of it was by no means unique; it was merely the most recent. If anyone’s scratching their head, wondering exactly what I mean by ‘quality of prose’ and wishing for examples of transformative editing, go read this post by utterly fantastic fantasy author Hal Duncan. The target of Hal’s essay is the shibboleth about the wrongness of adjectives, which he dismantles with characteristic élan. The point for mine is that he starts with this incredibly florid sentence:

“Stepping out into the bright sunshine amidst the delicate singing of the birds, she sensed a passionate stirring in her spirit that left her open to the mysterious excitement of the brave challenge that lay ahead of her.”

– which would get the book thrown not just across the room, but out of the window if I happened upon it – and ends with this:

“Stepping out into glorious sunshine and tender birdsong, she sensed a stirring in her spirit, passionate, brave, that left her open to the mysteries and thrills of the formidable challenge ahead.”

– which is decriptive and emotive and lyrical, and might actually make you want to know what happens next.)

I don’t doubt there will be readers of this post whose reactions will be something along the lines of: But isn’t it up to the author to be able to write well? That’s what talent is about, surely. And yes, it is. But not even the most talented among us can do our best work in a vacuum. We need feedback. We need criticism. We need people who are themselves talented at unpicking the threads of narrative, and are willing to say to us: This is good, but it could be better. Here’s where it fails. Here’s where you can fix it.

And, even when the content is as good as it can be, we need people who can wrangle copy. We need to acknowledge the importance of how that well-structured story, with its believable characters and elegant, punchy prose is presented to the reader. I recently read another novel, the third in a very successful series; and I could tell that the copy editor had been changed, or gone AWOL, or fallen asleep on the job, somewhere between books two and three. The author’s plotting, characterisation and prose were as enjoyable as ever, but it was full of what I could only assume were uncorrected typos: what was clearly intended to be two sentences separated by a comma instead of a full stop, full stops where there should have been commas, ‘their’ instead of ‘there’, quotation marks opened but not closed … you get the idea. The quality of the story was high; the quality of the text was – not the lowest I’ve seen, but definitely mediocre. If it had been the first book in the series, it might well have prevented me ever picking up the second.

This stuff matters. None of us who write fiction want our readers popped unceremoniously out of their immersion in the worlds we construct. None of us who read it want our own suspension of disbelief to be punctured – whether by a misspelled word, a continuity error, an implausible plot twist or a badly turned phrase. Speaking as a reader, I want more than just a good story – I want it so well told that it beckons me back for a second visit, and a third and a fourth. As a writer I want to tell my stories that well.

So this is more than just a rant: it’s a call for readers and writers to take a good hard look at what we consider to be an acceptable level of quality in professionally published literature. Talent and imagination are essential, of course, but we need to value more than just creativity. We need to value craft. We need to ask for, and accept, criticism. We need to appreciate technique. We need to remember that making art is not an artless enterprise, and that carelessness is not rewarded. We need to honour the gatekeepers who make us better at what we do, and to demand of them that they keep on doing it.

We need to be willing to edit. And be edited.

§

P.S. While I’ve been writing this post the Binary page proofs have come in. Guess what I’m going to be doing this week?

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4 Comments

  1. Brilliant post! I’ve been editing the second draft of Summer Goddess since November, line by line, taking it to bits and putting it back together in a way that will hopefully transform it from a horrible splurge into something that people almost might want to read. It takes a long time, and a lot of different pairs of eyes, to get right. I had a similar experience to you, I bought a book by someone I liked, that sounded like the kind of thing I enjoyed, but I couldn’t get past about page 60 because the editing was so poor. If I’m mentally editing a book in my head as I’m reading it, then something’s not working!

    • Thank you! You can tell it’s an area that has been exercising me a lot recently. I hear grumpy comments all the time to the effect that, ‘Nobody cares about quality anymore’, but I don’t believe that. I care about it, and clearly I’m not alone!

  2. Reblogged this on Joanne Hall and commented:
    “Gemsigns” author Stephanie Saulter talks more articulately than I could on the importance of editing over on her blog today – go and check it out!

  3. Liz

     /  February 10, 2014

    I have seen this happen to friends of mine, and I dread it happening to me. I can only say I am incredibly grateful for all the time my beta readers have put into the 3 rounds (and counting) of editing my current project has been through!

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
    Regeneration is now out in the US! It joins Gemsigns and Binary, already available throughout the English-speaking world. I like to think they're literary science fiction, but you can make your own mind up. This is where I talk about what I'm working on, ask your opinion, and generally think out loud.

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    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

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    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

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    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    REGENERATION

    The 3rd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    BINARY

    The 2nd Book of the ®Evolution

  • US Edition

    GEMSIGNS

    The 1st Book of the ®Evolution

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