The Importance of Being Edited

A Saturday morn­ing ritu­al for me is read­ing the Guardian Review, a pub­lic­a­tion that gen­er­ally fits with my out­look and pro­duces good reviews (though the edit­ors are occa­sion­ally guilty of hav­ing right-wing­ers review left-wing work, or a homeo­path­ic prac­ti­tion­er review a his­tory of con­ven­tion­al medi­cine). One of this morning’s inter­est­ing art­icles is ‘Black day for the blue pen­cil’ by Blake Morrison.

Mr Morrison is con­cerned with a mod­ern tend­ency (though his art­icle is full of his­tor­ic­al examples of the same) to down­play the role of the edit­or. Several books, he argues, have been improved by judi­cious use of the editor’s blue pen­cil: the Great Gatsby, and Sons and Lovers, for instance.

I don’t have any bird’s eye view of the pub­lish­ing industry, but it is not dif­fi­cult to think of con­tem­por­ary examples where an edit­or would have been more use­fully employed. The latest Harry Potter, for example, is an enjoy­able read (I’m half-way through), but I can’t help but feel that closer edit­ing would have improved it. Of course, if you’re the biggest selling author in the known uni­verse, you might find it dif­fi­cult keep­ing a sense of per­spect­ive on the changes your edit­or sug­gests. Another example — and a great book, in my opin­ion — is ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck. It’s undoubtedly an excel­lent book, and a monu­ment­al piece of lit­er­at­ure, but cer­tain amount of tidy­ing would have sharpened the jaz­zi­er pas­sages (as, I think, Steinbeck him­self admit­ted in his ‘Working Days’ journ­al).

I tend to agree with Mr Morrison that there is less edit­ing these days; his eco­nom­ic argu­ment is com­pel­ling. In mod­ern pub­lish­ing, and the rush to pro­duce the book, the edit­ing is bound to be squeezed. The less time an edit­or takes over a book, the quick­er he or she can move onto the next poten­tial best­seller. The ques­tion, of course, is wheth­er this pres­sure is great­er nowadays. I think it is.

Meanwhile, I’ve returned to the manu­script of my latest nov­el, Proper Job, after a break of approx­im­ately one month. I am armed with my editor’s report, and there is no doubt in my case, I would sug­gest, that Rachel’s work rep­res­ents an excel­lent oppor­tun­ity to improve my book so that I can secure the interest of a pub­lish­er.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

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