Tuesday, 10 July 2012

On Being Edited

Here's something I at first intended as a letter to the editor, in response to a column called This Writing Life (National Post, July 7), in which a writer sang the praises of editing.  I take a somewhat different slant, and for some reason the editors declined to publish it.  So here it is:


When I published a murder mystery several years ago, I ended up on the local book circuit, where I met a much more published author, who asked me, “How do you like being edited?”

Too astonished to reply (I would have said, “About as much as being tortured on the rack”), I simply listened as this much more successful writer went into raptures about the editing process.  “They take the garbage I write,” he said, “and turn it into readable prose.”

To which my response, but only in my head, was, “Why don’t you learn how to write yourself?”

Some writers like being edited, some don’t.  Some need to be raised up to a level of mere competency; others dislike being dragged down to that level.  I am in the latter category.  After nearly 40 years of publishing books, reviews, and yes, letters to the editor, I know something about what makes a fine sentence, paragraph, chapter.

I see in Iain Reid’s latest column that he values the partnership he’s established with his editor.  Lucky for him.  My experience with editors has been quite different.  I have generally been edited by people I never meet whose aim seems to be to impose usage book rules on free-flowing prose, disrupting transitions, creating awkwardness, and occasionally introducing factual errors.  And all this, especially when writing for newspapers and other periodicals, with no chance to object or correct.

It was a bit different with my novel.  There at least the editors discussed things with me.  The first one told me I had misspelled my protagonist’s name.  I asked for a new editor.

The new editor was very gentle and gave way when I pleaded to keep what I had written.  He noted that I used the phrase “a bit” a lot.  This was an interesting observation about my style.  But of course he wasn’t just observing; he wanted me to change it.  I refused.  I told him I’d pay him a pound (this was a British editor) if any reviewer ever complained about that phrase.

I never had to pay.  The novel appeared 90% as I’d first imagined it, bits and all, and was nominated for an Arthur Ellis award for Canadian crime writing. 

That was nice.  The other good editing I can remember was from the books editor of the Victoria Times Colonist.  She never altered a word I wrote.

Some writers are like that mystery writer I met or Iain Reid.  Others are more like Rider Haggard, who learned after his first novel was polished to death that he much preferred his first drafts: keeping the new wine in its original bottle, he said.  And he dashed off novels like King Solomon’s Mines and She in six weeks and published them as they came to him.

Good writing comes from the gods, the muses, the ceiling – wherever.  Editors (and writers themselves) tamper with it at their peril.

We are rushing headlong into the Internet age, where perhaps everyone will self-publish without being edited.  This may be bad for those who need editing, but for the rest of us, what a liberation.

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