Friday 10 February 2012

Editors: necessary or annoying?

One upon a time... before computers, computer speak/spelling, and SMSing, written language was formal - with grammar, spelling and punctuation conforming to its dictates.  Literary prose and poetry, however,  often broke the rules for the sake of rhythm, emphasis, and that wonderfully unique phenomenon - style. And there was something, too, about pacing back in that pre-computer era AND comprehension: readers, it was assumed, could retain what they had read in the preceding chapter and could savour a slow, even (God forbid) subtle exposition.
Writers like Virginia Woolf, (who wrote great slabs in parentheses,  spayed words across the page like bullets; or drawled them, creating a timeless, dream-like trail of subconscious thoughts and impressions) would have a hard time in the hands of the modern publishing editor.
My writing doesn't come close to that of Virginia's, but my experience with editors so far, has been somewhat confounding. Their first assumption is that they represent the reader - a mighty big assumption- and as such must make the work in front of them, palatable, digestible even. The reader, it is assumed, must be told everything in the first 5 mins - there has to be a hook - the reader won't wait for a slow exposition: the characters need to be defined swiftly and their connections made clear at the outset. Keeping a juicy titbit up the sleeve might startle the reader, who apparently would have felt safer to have known about it earlier.  Chapters need to force a page turn, otherwise the reader might put the book down.
(I've been putting James Joyce down since I was a girl and am still managing to pick him up.)
"Finding Artemisia-a journey into ancient women's business," is at the line edit stage. Dramatic structure has been established, characters developed and inane editorial questions answered. Now the editors are battling commas (before 'and' or 'but'?) colons (semi or the whole hog?) and dashes ('em' or 'en'?) and I humbly await their verdict.
Fortunately my publisher is giving me the last say on the tone, voice and style of my story, and that is comforting because it is, after all, my story and I am confident my readers will be inspired by it.
If you have an editing anecdote, please share.


  1. Richard has written on my f/b author page:
    Very interesting and I agree with your comments but am also cognisant of the needs of today's reader. I was an editor for a while and as pedantic as the average editor - with colons, semicolons and commas, for example. I was also a copywriter once and trained to catch the attention of readers!

  2. My reply: It's a big topic isn't it? Ugly grammar certainly detracts from the read. I'm constantly amazed how many times I read or hear on the news "the team were" etc. Magazines and news papers have always been market focussed. But I am really questioning the new regime of editors. I guess what concerns me is the dumbing down factor.