I have been editing people’s writing for over 25 years now, from proofreading theses, when I was trying to earn side money to pay for University fees, to magazine article editing and more recently entire books. I thought it would be most useful to speak about what I thought was important in editing, and how it releases the full strength of writing.
It is important to decide from the outset what your goal is when you write. If it is to impress your immediate entourage, friends and family basically, to seek approval, then maybe you don’t need to publish, let alone edit. Because editing is about getting the best out of your book, your article, your content whatever it is. It requires guts and insight, time and focus on the one hand and a dose of humillity on the other to embrace the experienced opinion of your first reader and harshest critic, your editor. It is not about keeping the author in their safe and comfortable haven where they have been dreaming and writing the dream. It is about taking them from the expression of their story to the communication of it to their audiences. It goes beyond proofreading to ensure that the book can be understood and relatable beyond the familiar context that the author may daily live in or even address. It opens up the book and content to its global possibilities beyond the author, the immediate lessons of the story, the visible lines inked.
Editing: A fresh pair of eyes
The writer lives in the world they have created, first in their heads and later on paper, no longer able to distinguish what they know of the book and what their writing has actually made clear. A fresh pair of eyes is the opportunity not just for a fresh pair of eyes, it is one for a new perspective which challenges the writer against any gaps or holes. This means that giving editing to a friend who agrees with you or understand your way of thinking is not going to help.
Not long ago, I wrote the preface of a book. It turned out somehow, that as an editor, I had been expected to have edited my own work. It is actually hard to explain this to people at times when they are not open to what it means. A fresh pair of eyes is not there to undermine your knowledge, to refute your abilities, but to point out what anyone, bestseller, editor, author or god, can no longer see when they have been living in it for too long. When I edit, I do it in stages and live a few weeks between each set of edit so I can look at things anew. But the writer lives with a book for a rather longer time and it would take years for them to truly appraise their oeuvre.
Ideas are clear in our minds and the fact that we are trying to recreate our mind world to share it with others require a flow whose logic is a little more universal than our personal one. Many editors are great at checking spelling or grammar mistakes and even at sussing where the right word has not been used. These functions are increasingly challenged by artificial intelligence that create spell checks and grammar correctors and even thesaurus and other meaning helpers. But no amount of technology so far can truly fully do that work and further, can ensure that your structure is meaningful to a reader that does not have your background and context to understand your writing the way you present it. How many film script have you got lost in because the writer lost the direction of their own plot? This happens more often that you can imagine as a writer providing a context to a friend they want to edit their book. Neither help and both only make the point of this article.
Edition – content
There are a lot of people out there who are story tellers than that have books. This is because a lot more people than you think are great are telling the story and less so at writing it. They have a way with words that is nourished by the presence of an audience, their response and the wish they have to entertain and share with them. It is hard for this type of story teller to think of themselves as such because when it comes to writing, even though they are literate and can read and write, telling their story in written words is hard.
Most of the time, authors, story tellers and readers alike forget that we are first and foremost an oral people. It is not just an African thing, it is what we do. We learn to talk, provided we are not impaired naturally, accidentally or contextually, before we learn to write. We learn to hear sttories, even those that are written before we learn to and start reading them. We think and often talk faster than we can write, which in itself can, nowadays, be sorted out with a dictaphone. But in order to tell a story, like my daughter’s questions prompt in me, there is no better stimulator or motivator than the right audience and the right question, and that is what a good editor is. I know many would argue at this point that ghost writing and editing lines blur but to be able to guide someone to express their story in the best and most heartfelt way possible is different to asking them questions so that you know what to write on their behalf, the latter being ghostwriting of course.
Edition: Style – Voice
One of the most important and most difficult task in editing is for the editor to recognise the style of the author and while editing to keep it. The author has their audiene, people like them who are looking for a voice to express what might be hard for them to do and that voice has to transpire throughout. Especially as editing goes beyond proofreading, it beccomes more important that it remains about enabling the author’s voice to best express itself. That voice has to be recognised when it speaks at interviews, as it authentically reads their favourite passage of the book, as it recognises its words and revisit their sense, plunged as reading does to one, back to the situation they have described.
There are so many ways that the flow of a story can be broken when the writer’s ideas are coming in faster than they physically transcribe them. Again here, their knowledge of what they intended to say will often superseede what they actually see on the paper. It is not just about another set of eyes, it is about that set of eyes, starting the denouement of a flow and understanding where it is broken, whether it is with intent and whether and how it needs mending. Broken flow can work to create suspense and relate parallel stories or events. The editor should be able to see through what would work and whether this continues to speak in the author’s voice.
The invitation / The first line/sentence
Take a lot of time with the first line of a book or even of an article. It is the first impression of your content, of you, of your article, of your book, sometimes even more than the title. More importantly, it is the reason why people will read on, or discontinue reading. It should be an invitation to the reader. It is the hand holder that takes them into your world. You know your audience and you know your story. How would you keep someone looking for an excuse to go not just from leaving but wanting to know more? Take time with the first line. It is one of the most important part of your book after the cover.
Your editor might tell you that the first sentence is written first and many a time, rewritten last. As your story guides you to its end, you sometimes realised what the entry scene is and with it the entry message. Having someone coming to your bok without any knowledge of it whatsoever is one of the best opportunity for you to have someone to review that first invitation into your world.
Editing: The title – a promise
Yes, a title is a little more of a promise about what there is to come than it at first appears. It’s the implied sentence ‘ This is what my book is about and this is my style and my confidence in the delivery’. While the first sentence gets you in gear for the rest of the story, the title tells you about the story. It should in a way that boasts its assurance while highlighting or warning even of its content without revealing it at all. This can be done, for example, either via:
- The main character – I always loved The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry which warns you about the ways of a man who in effect is not a bad man as such but who will trample often on life and friends in order to get to its goals, in this case the truth on a bed of logic. I always found lazy the use of the main character’s name as title but Candide, the book by Enlightenent French philosopher Voltaire, is one of the exception as the name is like the hippopotamus, the very nature of the character and the reason for all that happens to him as a consequence. We could argue though that naming a character after their character is a little bit on the nose, but there are circumstances to be considered in the 19th century context when philosophy needed to wear lamb’s clothes to hide its wolf’s indignations from the powers that were, for fear they might not be published at all. Aesop’s fables of course use this method for most if not all of their titles, although none of the animals have names and only their species is mentioned, often attached to the object of their personality. For example, mention of the fox carries an assumption of cunningness, tortoise of slowness and so on.
- the main object (physical or abstract) – One of my favourite book of all times is Das Parfum by German author Süskind. Grenouille is the main character and his nose leads him to olfactory obsession for the perfect scent and eventually to murder. The title is humble yet is all. It says perfume confusing the stench of the impending murder without ever lying to the audience. Pride and prejudice are the abstract objects that lead the story in the novel of the same name, and like the previous novel, are characteristics of the main characters.
Of course, many books and guides might give you what seems to be an exhaustive list, but each book should be able, by its originality and uniqueness to kindle a unique title. An editor will help you suss that out so you can have a professional title rather than an amateurish title by the numbers.
Editing: The summary, content presentation or trailer – whetting the appetite
My niece wrote her first published story at 17. The summary spoke of a Cinderella story, so I must admit I was a little disappointed as I just expected a well-written rehash of the Disney takes. I don’t think I have been prouder of the work of anyone. The girl took us by surprise with a work that, first and unexpectedly, understood the essence of the story often hidden in the frills of style and magic with which traditional tales and filmographic adaptations encumber it. Secondly, one had to read the summary to remember it was a Cinderella story: the tale was so busy having depth, realism and expressing relatable and heart-tearing events that it did not have time to do what its predecessors thought was important – trying to reassure the audience that Cinderella was a victim and that magic will get her out of it. The shere maturity and unique perspective of the theme was refreshing. The summary was right but in no way was it revealing of the plot. This is a difficult thing to do when an author wants to show that they are unique and worth a read as they tend to want to reveal it all rather than just wheting the appetite.