There’s a dirty little secret at the heart of trade publishing, and it has nothing to do with sex. It’s called editing.
Editing covers a wide range of activities, but essentially it’s aimed at using the full resources of language to realise the best book possible out of the manuscript delivered by the author. Whether it’s a first draft or a twentieth, and whether it’s at a deep, structural level or at a surface level, most manuscripts arrive with some embedded problems needing serious editorial attention and intervention.
The problems are legion, and they don’t just comprise the obvious candidates of faulty grammar, syntax, and spelling, or redundancy, repetition, and tautology.
Most manuscripts also come with more deep-seated, pervasive problems, such as the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs; overuse of the passive voice; reliance on repeated phrases and clichés; underuse or misuse of punctuation tools; staccato or too-short sentences needing bridging and linking; prolix or circumlocutory sentences needing radical surgery; paragraphs that are too long or too short; inconsistent or wrong tenses; continuity and chronology errors; and even authorial explanations that are unnecessary or in the wrong places.
This is not to mention narrative denouements that are too forced or too slick, characterisations that are too thin, dialogue that is too undifferentiated, narrative details that are unnecessary or pointless, and plot points that are too instrumental.
Remember, these are accepted manuscripts I’m talking about — accepted on the basis of a proposal, or sample chapters, or maybe an entire first draft. You can imagine what rejected manuscripts are like.
I could go on — a lot — but you get the idea. High-level editing requires an array of high-level skills, and the author–editor relationship has to be an intimate one. Perhaps surprisingly, given the litany of troubles I’ve just enumerated, the relationship is usually conducted with civility and, often, genuine personal warmth and friendship. Most editors are happy to deploy their skills for authors whose work they admire and respect. And most authors appreciate the dedicated, concentrated effort that is put at their disposal.
The strange thing, though, is that none of this is meant to be public knowledge. The editor is an invisible aide to the writer — the details of his or her intervention in a given manuscript are never revealed. You can understand why: no self-respecting author is going to publicly acknowledge (let alone admit) that he or she needs a considerable amount of help with their use of language. And no editor or publisher is going to big-note themselves at the expense of their authors.
Perhaps that is why there’s a paradox of public perception about the finished product. It’s not uncommon, when obvious writing errors sneak through to a finished book, to read a reviewer’s comment that a particular author has been ill served by her editor, proofreader, or publisher. It’s worth parsing this comment. The clear implication is that the errors are not the author’s fault; instead, it’s the publisher’s responsibility to produce a linguistically clean work.
As it happens, most serious publishers think the same, and feel hurt if such errors are pointed out — and may even be critical of other publishers if that criticism is made of them.
What this means is that everybody has internalised the editor’s role, without ever acknowledging the contingencies it has to deal with. Nobody outside the publishing house knows the challenges that were presented by a given manuscript, and nobody knows how much or what it did to help improve it.
And this doesn’t even deal with financial imperatives — the fact that, for many publishers, especially in this climate, there’s a limit to how much editing is affordable, or even rational to undertake.
So editors are regarded as essential, even though no outsiders know what they do. And authors are regarded as innocent of their own misdeeds, even though this is a logically impossible position to uphold.
All of this is made even more poignant by the emergence of self-publishing authors, especially when they publish e-books. Many of these books are either not edited or edited amateurishly, so they display the faults listed above. But some of them sell very well (and are then adopted by conventional publishers), with very little concern being expressed about their technical inadequacies. Maybe, ironically, there’s an implicit recognition that you can’t expect self-published authors to write well or correctly.
Even more bizarrely, the mainstream media pays less attention to editing than its impoverished book-publishing cousins do. Whether it’s because of the outsourcing of sub-editing, or because editorial managers don’t know any better, or don’t care, or don’t have the time to think about it, it’s become noticeable how shoddy the use of language has become in our major newspapers and their websites.
You can find examples of this every day without even trying. Here’s a recent couple.
From the Age’s website, under a news item headed ‘Trials of a parent’, was the following caption. Understand (and correct) it, if you can:
The very public falling out of a British cabinet minister’s bodybuilding-obsessed son with his family.
From the front page of the business section of the Weekend Australian, here is a carefully but wrongly punctuated heading above a story about Gina Rinehart’s supporters:
Gina’s small, but loyal army
The first example is simply impossible to follow because of a misplaced clause; the second is clear in its meaning (apart from an inadvertent down-sizing of the squillionaire), but completely confused in its execution.
Does any of this matter? At one level, it doesn’t. As long as readers get the idea of what’s being communicated, close enough is good enough. At another level, it matters very much. If professional users of the language are sloppy or wrong, everybody else will either know no better or think that they’re being given models to follow. And if our use of language falls apart, thinking and feeling will as well.
Already, it’s noticeable how many comments on websites and blogs are functionally illiterate — full of atrocious mis-spellings, non-existent punctuation, and grammatical absurdities. Often, these comments are full of bile and rage, as well. There’s a connection here, although it’s not an obvious one.
The fact is that purifying ‘the dialect of the tribe’ has become a radically conservative thing to do. Paradoxically, for an intrinsically liberal medium of communication, book publishing has to be reactionary about language. Imposing editing rules and house styles flies in the face of instant everything — instant celebrity, instant news, instant gratification. It involves hard and invisible work, and there’s no obvious payoff for it. And yet, if you work at a serious publishing house, you have to do it, as well as you can and for as long as it takes.
After all, if trade publishers don’t think there’s a vital difference between good expression and poor expression, they’re effectively saying that there’s no difference between good writers and bad ones, or good ideas and bad ones, or good books and bad ones. And if publishers come to believe this, or act as though they do, they will have abandoned the core reason for their existence.
But they have to keep quiet about it.