Editing is an art

by
Steve Evans


Editing is a strange beast. People write about it as if its meaning is obvious, yet for someone who does it professionally, as I do, it’s not at all obvious. Put another way, editing covers a range of sins of commission and omission, and there are people who focus on different aspects of the art.

And it is an art, or so I think. Most professional editors do most of their editing subconsciously as they rip through a text, correcting spelling, grammar, syntax, while at the same time thinking, or trying to think, about the “big picture” – what the piece is meant to be about, how it can be improved. So I reckon that when people are working like that, on a number of levels simultaneously, they are artists. That’s true even though they are participating in a social process, rather than creating themselves in the dark garret of their imaginations.

It’s probably unfair to say so, but much of my best editing is done using the highlighting function of the mouse cursor, followed by a deft manoeuvre* with the delete key. I’m really quite good at this.

No writer writes without doing some “self-editing”. A really successful writer, whose hard copy books are flying off the shelves of airport bookstores, will have editors begging to massage her or his work. Those of us who are not so favoured will do it pretty much alone.

There is a difference between an editor and a reader. I have a few readers who read my stuff, and give me (hopefully) unvarnished opinions. I don’t have an editor, and wouldn’t pay for one.

Readers are important, partly because they help give a writer perspective that is easy to lose when buried up to one’s shoulders in the muck of a manuscript. When people argue in favour of editors this is primarily what they have in mind, I think. But someone who does a lot of editing of other people’s work develops this for their own writing, or should – a built-in bullshit detector.

I came to fiction somewhat late in life after many years working in daily journalism, and chose the thriller genre for what might seem somewhat arrogant reasons but that actually concealed a lack of self-confidence: my line was (and is) that I have a “serious purpose in a frivolous genre”. I admire writers who work in this territory like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard, not so much for their “hard-boiled” approach but the seriousness of their purpose. The best thriller writing surpasses the limitations of the genre and I suppose that was my aim from the first. Now I am thinking about writing in a different way.

Experiencing things first hand is good, but it is impossible for a writer to experience everything in life in order to write about it. At least one thriller writer murdered his wife and then wrote it up, but I don’t think this is recommended. Doing desk research is necessary, and occasionally direct questioning of experts is possible and desirable. For me, most of the sub-genres that shuffle under the rubric of the thriller are implicitly boring as they focus on the “real detail” – police procedurals for example. Police work in real life is quite mundane 99 per cent of the time. It’s also pretty safe, even in countries like the US with a reputation for casual violence. Emotion is where it’s at.

One manual for fiction writing that I admire, says that your book is finished when you are sick of it. That’s pretty good advice.

* I live in an antipodean society whose spelling and syntax are very different from dominant American usage, and even from the “parent” English. Anyone who is put off by it – sorry, it’s just too hard to put into another guise.

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