Monday, 27 November 2017

Editor, Edit Thyself – Why I Can’t Make Mistakes

Courtesy of Writerful Books

I have been a book editor for thirty odd years – pointing out the shortcomings of other people’s writing and insisting that I know best.

The scary part for any editor is the day a book appears in print. It’s too late then to do anything about any errors you have missed. In the publisher’s office, we would gather round when a book came in. The designer would obsess about how the title sat on the spine; the production manager would fuss over the resolution. As the editor, responsible for every aspect of the book’s accuracy, I could hardly bear to look.

Imagine my anxiety recently when my own novel Unspeakable Things came back from the typesetter. I sweated with shame over every typo that had got past me (and the proofreader). I fussed over fonts and italics, paragraphs full out or indented.

Courtesy of The Book Butchers

There is a Sod’s Law in editing that the further you go into a book’s production, the easier it is to spot mistakes. This means they only become visible when it costs a fortune to put them right. An error in a set of ozalids is glaringly obvious, and the buck stops with the editor. A gaffe in a finished book is impossible to ignore – even though it has got past you a dozen times before.

Nervously checking my typeset novel, I realised that the first two chapters didn’t read as well as the others. This suspicion may have whispered at me before, but I had brushed past it, determined that the novel was ready AT LAST. I could not bear to tinker with it any longer.

Now the problem was obvious. I had rewritten the first two chapters last, and had not trimmed them back as thoroughly as the rest. The reading mind tripped over the phrasing, halting the flow of the text. Superfluous words muddied the stream and prevented the prose from sparkling.

How could I send the novel back to the typesetter with such last-minute changes? How annoyed would I be if an author did this to me?

But how could I, know-all editor, punctuation police and grammar fascist, publish anything less than my very best work?

I couldn’t. I made the changes. The typesetter didn’t mind – she is more tolerant than I am.

My last struggle was over widows – those leftover single words that take up a whole line and make the text look untidy. Editors can’t stand them, and they are removed from most types of book. I flipped through a handful of paperbacks at home and found that novels do sometimes contain them. But could I tolerate them in mine?

I tried to. But then I went back and made suggestions to get rid of the worst ones. Then the fairly bad ones. Then nearly all of them. I made myself leave a few in case the typesetter blacklisted me as a nit-picking nightmare.

I am happy with the result now. Unspeakable Things looks like a proper book! The first chapters are as good as the others (how good that is, you can judge in January).

But I still have horrible fantasies about other editors, authors I have worked with and people who have seen my facebook punctuation rants opening those pages. What if  I'm not perfect after all!? What if I get found out?

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