In Praise of Editors…

Over the last few months, I’ve been engaged in an activity which I had always in the past held at arm’s length:  editing.  That is to say I’ve been editing a book of essays, the majority of which are not my own work.

(Obviously, I’ve had a fair old whack at editing myself over the years, but that turns out to be hardly the same thing…)

Anyway, I/we are on the final edit of this book of essays now, scrutinising the text line by line–with a blank post card underneath each line as I go.

And I just want to say that with each subsequent edit of this vast-ish tome (it runs to over 500 pages) I have grown more and more grateful to and in awe of those superb individuals, the very embodiment of patience, diligence, erudition, tenacity, grammatical wisdom and literary nous, editors.  The proper ones.

Because as I am coming to understand and appreciate, the best editors aren’t just checking for spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, they’re reading your mind.  They’re knowing what that turn of phrase is that you’re trying to remember, but can’t.  They’re spotting the plot-holes, the weak characters, the sloppy prose, the omissions.  They’re understanding what you mean to say even when you yourself aren’t exactly clear what that is.  And they’re evaluating whether you’re achieving your aim in every sentence and paragraph and chapter, even when you yourself are having difficulties articulating precisely what that should be.

I was reminded of this when reading a review of a new biography (if that’s the correct word) detailing the collaborative work between the poet William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy, which author and critic Allan Massie sums up thusly: “…Professor Newlyn convincingly demonstrates how much William owed to Dorothy, and the extent to which his work derived from their collaboration. Dorothy was not only his beloved sister, but his muse, first reader, first critic and editor…” ( )

And as I have reflected on this, I have realised just how astonishingly fortunate I have been with my first and foremost editor, who by coincidence also happens to be my husband.  And I want to put it down in print right here and now that without him, without his insight and patience and breathtaking intellect…well, I don’t even want to contemplate the alternative.  Frankly, it’s too hideous.

OHF coverFor example, he astonished me this morning–when we were discussing the essential role of an editor–by telling me some of what he had seen when he was editing Of Honest Fame.  He spoke affectionately of a couple of his favourite chapters–those featuring Boy on the run in central Europe and Jesuadon hunting an assassin through London, and he told me that it wasn’t just a matter of words, there was also the necessity of listening to the rhythm of the prose, the cadences…that it was more like editing poetry than prose, and one had to be aware of that.  He told me further that it was necessary, when editing me, to understand that I wrote through the prism of John Donne’s poetry and I couldn’t help it…

I was, I shall be honest, frankly astonished.  And humbled.  And overwhelmed with gratitude.  Because he’s right, of course, though I have not seen it before.  I do think of my work through the window of Donne’s poetry, though also a bit through the sonnets of Shakespeare and the driving verse of H.D.  But, you see, the absolute marvel of it is that I hadn’t even known that about myself and I would certainly never have had the wit to express it so kindly or so eloquently or accurately.

This is one of the passages about which he was speaking:

“All through the day, as the sun laboured to lift the weight of fog which hung grey as a pigeon’s breast over the housetops, shrouding the great dome of St. Paul’s and all church towers, Jesuadon, himself dull as a mouse’s back among them, half-walked, half-ran.  Ran with all his boys, their ceaseless footfalls swallowed up in the clanging, grinding noise of the city, through the labyrinths of the squalor and refuse of men, from Cat’s Hole to Pillory Lane, among the clapped-out, clapboard houses of St. Katharine’s Dock where the dwellings were as the nests of human rats.  Running, their faces a blur as they ran.  Running, their hundreds of eyes alert all, stalking, hunting, the man who had struck down…”

And as I’ve just read this passage again, I am once more filled with gratitude and wish I could grovel in humility (that would probably get cloying and boring, rather like too much exposure to Uriah Heep) before him and say, “Thank you” until the cows come home and go out again…Because without his gimlet eye, without his unerring inner poetic voice, without his incisive literary acumen, I would never have dared to attempt so much…

So to all those other fine, intuitive, wildly intelligent and utterly brilliant individuals who have over the centuries helped us to achieve our desire of writing the best we can–even or usually when we’re our own worst enemies–to those editors, I say “Thank you.  Thank you.  And thrice thank you.”


3 comments on “In Praise of Editors…

  1. Rappleyea says:

    Your husband’s description of your writing is brilliant. I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it, but it evoked a big “ah ha” in me when I read it.

    I’ve never done any professional editing, but I have edited several novel length fan fics for an excellent young author. I really enjoyed our relationship, getting into her head, and writing or re-writing in her voice and style when necessary.

    In your list of what editors do, I would add to check for continuity errors, i.e. making sure that characters, descriptions, events, etc. stay consistent throughout the length of the story.

    A great line from the song Boulder to Birmingham (Emmy Lou Harris) is, “the hardest part is knowing I’ll survive”. Does that describe your editing ordeal?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Yes, continuity errors are another must-be-seen. It’s one great reason to avoid describing clothes, in my opinion.

      Though the funniest continuity error I ever heard was from Dorothy Dunnett. Her son was reading along in the new Niccolo book, and looked up and said, I thought you said his eyes were brown. They’re blue here. So she, with her spanking brand new computer, did a search and replace, to turn all the blues into brown…hence she had the brown skies, the brown sea, the brown dye in the vats…She thought it was hilarious. Which it was in retrospect–probably not so much at the time!

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