Writers write and editors edit. Editors who attempt to muscle-in on the writer’s function need shooting – or deleting – at birth. But the temptation to suggest a word here, or a phrase there, is always present and hard not to succumb to. And this last sentence, a wonderful example of convoluted syntax, could be expressed lucidly with more appropriate words in a different order – but then, it wouldn’t be me talking, would it?
Everyone talks, and most of us write, after a fashion, so writers are faced with an enormous canvas when setting out to write a book. And book editing is my speciality. Forget the rest; I focus on books. And focus is what it’s all about.
One person in a million is able to bring focus to all he or she does in a day, without thinking. The rest of us muddle through on autopilot, putting the milk back in the fridge, spreading marmalade on our toast while hissing at the cat pawing the goldfish bowl. Our everyday muddling through is fine – in the home – but try writing a book that way, and you’ll come a cropper. But that’s precisely how many aspiring writers set about their task!
Bill Bryson was an editor with The Times for years before hitting the big time with his wonderful books. As a sub-editor it was his job to tidy up and condense copy sent in by journalists. What a training! And the finest way to learn. It’s only when you’ve worked on hundreds of other people’s drafts that you appreciate what works and what doesn’t – in commercial terms. I’m not talking about writing styles; they’ll always reflect the unique individual who learnt to write and express him or herself as a child. No – what I’m talking about are the ticks, habits and trivial errors that can muddy the waters when clarity is called for, at all times.
Bestsellers seldom achieve true success by accident. And more books than you imagine are designated as such when they are nothing of the sort. Hype and obfuscation are the tools that publishers wield as they seek profits in what is a dreadfully competitive marketplace.
A profitable book presses all the right buttons, appeals to a set readership and delivers the goods: a good read. Press a few wrong buttons, fail to focus on your likely reader, and disappoint or confuse, and your book will fail.
In my role as editor I help writers focus on the needs of readers. This is easier said than done. I’m not saying to writers, don’t write for your own entertainment, enlightenment or pleasure. What I’m trying to do is ensure that writers empathise with the needs of readers. Punctuation matters little to writers; they know what they mean, . . . what they wish to say. It’s in their heads. But readers haven’t a clue what’s in the mind of a writer – until it’s expressed on paper, in a logical manner.
Writers, even experienced writers, are so close to their work, and often so enthusiastic about the story they wish to tell that they become incapable of standing back from their drafts and taking a forensic interest in every word, phrase or line. That’s where an editor can step in, ensuring the final book does justice both to the writer’s wishes and the reader’s intelligence.