I fell into editing by mistake. While I was taking a degree in English and Drama in Australia, planning to become an actor and writer, I fell in love with Australian theatre and, with two others, started a monthly national magazine. Aged 21, a Pom who hadn’t long been in the country and had only ever worked on student newspapers, I became the Executive Editor of Theatre Australia, managing, editing, and often rewriting the contributions of well-known theatre practitioners, critics and journalists.
I soon discovered that practical people skills, in person and on paper, were essential to an editor’s job. Copy had to be cajoled out of deadline-hating regulars; scruffy, hand-written notes had to be typed up into elegant prose; some changes had to be so subtle that the most precious writers wouldn’t notice the difference from their original submission; and feedback had always to be positive.
These interventions had to be performed without expectation of praise because, like a top tailor, a professional editor makes their clients look their best in the eyes of the world without drawing attention to themselves.
When I returned to England eight years later, I worked as a freelance editor for Methuen and then became a writer and script-editor for television. One of my script-editing projects was a children’s series called Runaway Bay, which starred a young Naomie Harris as well as actors like Craig Charles, John Woodvine and Cathy Tyson. It was set in Martinique: three summers in the Caribbean were the best editing perk I’ve ever had!
But – it was a French-English co-production, with half the episodes written by English-speaking French writers and half by British writers. The difference in quality, tone and style between the 18 scripts was vast, and part of my job was to bring consistency, and compliance to the guidelines of both French and English Children’s TV broadcasting.
A few years later, I began writing my first novel and was put in touch with an eminent editor who offered to go through my initial chapters. I was excited to see her improvements, but found in the returned manuscript that she had turned my style into bland ‘literary’ prose, removed anything contemporary sounding and all contractions, even in dialogue. I hadn’t set out to write a classic, but this convinced me I couldn’t write, and the draft got consigned to a bottom drawer – until I submitted the original version to Richard and Judy’s Novel Competition and it was then published by Macmillan, with almost no changes.
When I started to edit other writers’ fiction, I was especially careful to maintain their author ‘voice’, especially with writers who could tell a great story but had a tenuous grasp on grammar, punctuation and spelling. This could sometimes mean replacing/re-ordering/re-punctuating most words in most sentences to create a Standard English reading experience, without losing their style or momentum.
Having done exactly this for one novelist, I returned her a ‘tracked’ edit and an ‘accepted’ version where she only saw the finished result. She totally ignored the mass of red inline edits in the tracked version and emailed me to say she was pleased to see, after a break, how good her writing was; she hadn’t been sure when she’d sent it off to me. I don’t think she ever understood how much work went into making her writing so good – or probably what she paid me for.
There’s more to editing than rules and detail and, as with all skills, good editors grow with experience. I now have a team of great editors at Rethink Press, and when I’m checking out new editors, I look for these five qualities:
- Love, as well as knowledge, of language
- Empathy (with authors)
If you’re publishing your book with us, or just using our editing services, you can be confident of an excellent process, giving you constructive feedback as well as a polished manuscript. If you’re looking for a freelance editor, talk to them and to other authors they have worked with. If you and their other clients are confident they have these qualities, be prepared to pay them a decent fee for an incredibly valuable service.