A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Editing: A Dying Art?

Since I've just embarked on a six month proofreading course, I was bound to be interested in Alex Clark's article, The Corrections, featured in yesterday's Guardian Review. He asks the question: Has rigorous line-by-line editing of books been lost ... a casualty of the demands of sales and publicity? His answer seems to be: partially, yes.

Clark rightly praises the skill of the publisher's editor, and recognises that a good editor is the unsung hero of the finished book. Not that the editor should be glorified in any way - the author is the person with the original, creative talent, the one who will be celebrated or reviled by the public and the critics. The editor is merely the midwife in this process, easing the way to the printed book's birth, correcting and improving in as sensitive a manner as possible without ruffling too many of the author's peacock feathers.

He cites some of the great editors of the past - Robert Gottlieb, for instance, who gave a helping hand to Joseph Heller, John le Carré, Toni Morrison and John Cheever; and Diana Athill, who editorially guided VS Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys (and I would say you needed a great deal of skill, tact and diplomacy to edit the copy of these three larger-than-life characters!) He also mentions some of the acclaimed editors of today, such as Ravi Mirchandani at Atlantic Books, Lennie Goodings at Virago, Dan Franklin and Robin Robertson at Jonanathan Cape, Mary Mount at Viking, Sara Holloway at Granta, Nicholas Pearson at Fourth Estaste, Jenny Uglow at Chatto & Windus, Simon Prosser at Hamish Hamilton and Neil Belton at Faber.

However, the task of intelligent and scrupulous editing is shifting more and more into the margins of the publisher's working day as the nature of publishing itself changes. Budgets are being trimmed; book production is becoming increasingly regimented; sales and marketing departments are growing, while copy-editing and proofreading departments are downsizing dramatically (of course this may help me in my own intention of becoming a freelance proofreader). Our general view of how we consider text may be changing too, and what we expect  and demand from it. To quote Clark: While most readers are understandably enraged when they buy a book and then spot spelling, grammar and factual errors, some may feel that other considerations are more important. Given the proliferation of user-generated content of all kinds, and the demand for instant gratification, it's unsurprising that speed and economy are often prioritised over care and quality. (Are there issues here for us as bloggers, I wonder?)

How we buy books, and what we expect from books, has certainly changed. Clark concludes: To buy a book, whether in a physical or virtual bookshop, is to navigate an obstacle course of special offers and money-off deals that are designed to make you buy more, not better; in the case of ebooks, the retailers' first aim is to sell you a device, with hugely discounted books as the bait. Finding out what book you want has also changed; although there is still plenty of high-quality literary criticism available, there is no doubt that there has been a shift away from the painstaking analysis of words and sentences and towards straightforward plot recital and a speedy thumbs up or down. If these peripheral factors are not directly linked to standards of editing, they are surely indicators of the extent to which books have been commodified. The word may still be the thing; but it isn't the only thing.


Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

I appreciate this fascinating spotlight on a part of the publishing process that is as crucial as it is underappreciated and unscrutinized. I am sure there are issues for bloggers. It would be nice to see a collection of pieces by famous writers of their experiences, positive and negative, with editors. Good luck with the course.

Friko said...

Issues for bloggers? Definitely.
But we'd have to self-edit rigorously to produce anything that an pass muster in a truly literary world.

I forget how many books are published in the UK alone annually, how many of these are pulped very quickly, how many are on the three-for-two piles and how many make it into posterity.

I have a feeling, I hope I'm wrong, that with books, as with everything else in this fast-moving and pared-down (to the lowest common denominator) world we live in, quality is of secondary importance.

Why take care over editing when tomorrow the book being edited has sunk into oblivion?

Ruth said...

I'm glad to have a peek too, Robert. I might want to follow in your footsteps in a few years.

Of course this topic is much discussed in my English department, both among faculty and students who want to find something to do to earn money after graduation that has to do with books, editing, proofreading, etc. Even though I tell students all the time that Advertising is a field that matches their major well, there is something rather sad about the shift from editing books to advertising them as the location of so much attention and money.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all your responses to this.

You've got a valid point, Friko. Though editorial standards within the best publishing houses remain pretty high, even now.

Ruth - I'm really enjoying the course (distance learning) so far, and am very impressed with it. I have a feeling you might well like it. If your students want to get into publishing, the best thing is to get as good a degree as they can, then to attempt to get ANY job in publishing - no matter how 'lowly'. It may be easier to start in sales and marketing. Though what's easy nowadays?

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

On a complete tangent here..... I love the new look of your blog. It is very clear and easy to read, and I find the header photo totally inspiring.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Kiwi. 'A change is as good as a rest', as they say round here.

ksam said...

I have to second Kiwi's comment...I was thinking exactly the same thing. So I guess your already beginning to visually/graphically edit! The whole thing "pops" much more now and is easier on my sometimes weary eyes.

As for grammar and editing... you know it's bad when I can spot all sorts of flaws in some of the stuff I see these days!

am said...

Fascinating, Solitary Walker.

By trade, I am a proofreader and editor of dictated medical documents. Until recently, my job consisted of listening to dictations (sometimes very difficult to understand because of background noise and other complications), editing grammar and punctuation and watching for discrepancies in medical information.

These days we still do some of that transcribing from dictations and editing word-for-word (when the computer program cannot "understand" what is being said), but now we are mostly editing drafts that have been "read" by a computer program first. We listen and read the rough draft word-for-word, editing as we go along.

We are editing by both sight and ear. It's satisfying behind-the-scenes work, at times frustrating, not very well paid (at least at the speed I can do the work), but I love the work because it requires intuition, a love of words, a love of accents and a love of puzzle-solving, and it allows me to work at home and determine my own work schedule.

Happy to hear that you are on your way to being a proofreader! It is a satisfying art, isn't it?

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I love books that are not only beautiful in content but also in presentation, a truly holistic work of art, made to last and be cherished.

There have been programmes about the relationships between writers and editors on TV, and I was impressed with the way good editors were able to assist authors with making small adjustments to the work, and to keep to their goals with timelines etc.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks Karin and Raph. Your comments are much appreciated.

And thanks also, am, for your long and interesting comment. I was aware you were a medical transcriptionist, but was not quite sure what that entailed.

I think proofreading and copy-editing will be immensely satisfying at this time in my life. To work freelance from home would suit me very well. I got totally fed up of covering tens of thousands of motorway miles a year working as a publishers' sales agent. Like you, I have a penchant for all those things you mention: words, crossword puzzles, intuitive logic etc.

The course so far (long-distance learning) - run by the Publishing Training Centre at Book House, London - is excellent, though I've only done one assignment so far.

Amanda said...

personally i see blogging as a looser way of communicating and as such don't worry as much about capitalizing and punctuation -- the environment of blogs strikes me as a more freeform place. however i completely adhere to these standards with traditional publishing.

i once read, "no-one ever says that a book was well-edited!" maybe so, but i believe good writing and good editing are dependent upon one another. your concerns about editing standards and the burgeoning digital publishing age are certainly thought-provoking.

The Solitary Walker said...

Amanda - I think I'm in complete agreement with you - the blogs I like, I like irrespective of all those formal aspects - I like soul, a communicative instinct, wit, subtlety, honesty, perception, enthusiasm and all the rest - above dotting i's and crossing t's. Of course! (Noting that your own spelling, punctuation and non-capitalisation are pretty consistent, though ;)

People don't seem to say that a book was well-edited, it's true - but I have read a lot of critics lambasting a book for being badly-edited. Always the same, isn't it: when it goes well, nobody notices; when it goes badly once in a blue moon, everyone jumps on it. (My son's training to be a social worker, and my wife's a teacher, so I know all about this!)

Very much like your blog, BTW - I've been catching up on it lately.

Caroline Gill said...

Thank you, Robert, for pointing us in the direction of Clark's extraordinary article.

Caroline Gill said...

P.S. You might also enjoy this . . . short but definitely sweet so far as editors are concerned.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Caroline.