I am always interested when someone chooses to write about book editing, so it’s no surprise that I was happy to find Alex Clark’s article “The Lost Art of Editing” in The Guardian’s online edition.
Clark laments changes in the publishing world where the bottom line of the conglomerate has become more important than the quality of the books sold. Says Clark, “For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts.”
He recalls one particularly amusing incident: “One evening at the end of last September I found myself all set to interview Jonathan Franzen about his new novel, Freedom, on the stage of the Southbank Centre in London. I had anxiously worked and reworked my list of questions, but while my preparation was not in vain, it was swiftly put into perspective by an unexpected turn of events. It transpired that Franzen had that very afternoon, during the filming of a BBC television programme, discovered that the UK edition of his novel contained a number of errors – errors that he thought had been corrected during previous stages of production. In other words, the copies of the novel stacked high in the foyer, not to mention the tens of thousands on their way to bookshops, were not as Franzen, or indeed his publisher, intended.”
At first glance, none of this may seem like it pertains to a memoirist or family historian considering limited distribution or self publishing. But on second thought, Clark demonstrates that even our greatest writers need a diligent, skilled editor. Experienced, thoughtful editors help authors shape the content of their books to make sure their stories are well told. They also help authors to make sure that they are correct on the sentence level.
With the decline of editing in publishing houses and the rise of self publishing an increasing number of authors are turning to independent editors to help them make sure that their books are the best that they can be.
Unfortunately a fair number of self publishing authors skip the editing step or gloss over it. Having a sympathetic friend or writing group review a manuscript is not the same as what an author gets from a skilled editor. The result can be a book with a story less sharply drawn than it could have been and a series of errors that could have been avoided.
Even after a good editor has helped polish your manuscript, realize that the final responsibility rests with you, the writer. Diana Athill, who as an editor worked with literary greats like Phillip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike and Simone de Beauvoir, and after retirement wrote Somewhere Near the End, a memoir which won the Costa Prize for Biography, observed “The answer I found for myself is that I take much more trouble than I used to in the line-by-line editing of my own manuscript, and I think authors should now take that responsibility on themselves if they don't want to be annoyed by minor details.”
Click here to read Alex Clarke’s article “The Lost Art of Editing”