Stuff that authors need to know #2: the lost art of editing

Several years ago, the poet Ingrid de Kok, who polishes her own work with something akin to wave action, told me she believed that eighty per cent of South African fiction, both by newcomers and established writers, was under-edited. As an experienced freelance editor who trains other editors, I agree. I seethe with frustration when clearly talented, even brilliant writers produce work unnecessarily marred by flaws as a result. And by flaws, I don’t just mean the typos and grammar mistakes that more and more reviewers grumble about. I mean confused arguments and rambling descriptions and irrelevant characters and thin research and plot holes and repetition and dénouements that rely on amazing coincidence. I’m fed up with reading local fiction and non-fiction books that look like drafts, and thinking: “This shows such promise – what a pity it wasn’t properly edited.”

I hear this lament from colleagues and reviewers all the time. South African writing is currently experiencing an extraordinarily fertile boom (it’s arguably a victim of its own success, as an astonishing body of emerging talent explodes into print), and we’re doing it a disservice by not supporting it with professional standards of publishing.

But this is not necessarily because there’s a shortage of good editors. The reasons are both crassly obvious and a great deal more complex. In the first category, I have two words: time and money.

But before I wade in and tackle problems in the industry, I want to salute local publishers – especially independent and literary imprints – for the heroic efforts they make to find and publish innovative work under difficult circumstances. Most of the publishers I know personally work insanely hard for the love of literature – it’s certainly not their pay that’s motivating them. And they are providing a platform for a scintillating and diverse chorus of voices who would not be able to get even an agent – much less a publisher – to take them seriously abroad.

That said, let’s unpack this question of time and money, starting with the latter. Contrary to popular belief, the publishing industry in this country is not a wealthy or even a comfortable one. School textbooks are the mainstay of the industry, and trade publishers stay afloat by producing dictionaries, cookbooks and Bible study guides. Producing literary or intellectual works is the least profitable form of publishing in this country. This is because South Africans don’t buy books, much less fiction, and when they do, it’s the latest Danielle Steel. The best-seller fiction lists seldom feature more than two South African authors – André Brink and John van der Ruit – all good and well, but what about our up-and-coming writers?

Yet there are dreamers and gamblers who believe in supporting and publishing South African writing, who invest in our vast reservoirs of talent. But they invariably run on the slimmest of shoe-string budgets. Even in well-established publishing companies, belts are always on the tightest notch: a few years ago, the MD of a respected middle-sized local publisher advertised for a PA. An excellent candidate was identified, and asked her current salary. It was more than the MD was earning at the time.

Editors – both in-house and freelance – are notoriously poorly paid, especially for editing good local writing. What’s more, publishers can seldom compete with what other sectors can offer: editing for the private sector, parastatal, government or academic institutions, international organisations and publishers, and even NGOs, pays at least twice, and sometimes three times more than editing for local publishers. The above tend to reward expertise, track record and experience in a way that local publishers rarely do (they can’t afford to). The latter will usually offer standard freelance rates to whoever comes along, regardless of whether they’re a twenty-three-year-old with scant experience, or a recognised editor, with decades of experience and numerous award-winning books to their credit.

But is the pay really that bad? The problem is that editing budgets are usually set in advance (in bigger publishing houses, by finance honchos who’ve never edited a book in their lives) or calculated according to a formula that suggests that editing is a standard procedure for all manuscripts, rather like servicing a car (R XX per thousand words, or sometimes per page, on the assumption that it will take an editor one hour to do one thousand words or X number of pages). But until you’re immersed in a project, it’s impossible to estimate just how much work is involved, and both publishers and editors err on the side of hopeless optimism when budgeting.

In my case, at least three or four times a year, publishers dangle irresistible local projects under my nose: original, sometimes exceptional writing by gifted authors who’ve often specifically requested that I work with them. The publishers stretch their editing budgets, and I scale my rates down to meet them. The authors and I get happily engrossed, lengthy meetings are held, and chapters whiz back and forth via e-mail. I’ll comb through the authors’ reworked MSS up to four times; usually three times, and never less than twice.

All this is deeply satisfying, not least because of the learning curve for both parties. But there’s a down side to doing the job properly (i.e., over and over again until it’s right): as a primary source of income, for someone with four degrees, four post-doctoral fellowships, and over two decades of experience as a writer, editor and academic, I might as well wait tables (in fact, I’m told this pays better). Can I afford to do this on a regular basis? No.

This is why many of South Africa’s most competent editors have alternate careers, or work for clients able to pay us what we’re worth. As a result, we live on a constant see-saw between selling ourselves short in order to do exciting and worthwhile work, and earning enough to pay the bills.

This feeds into a general editing malaise. There are indeed some fabulously bad editors out there. As a writer, I’m also on the receiving end, and I take a crumb of comfort from the fact that the times my writing has been turned to gibberish, British and American editors have been responsible, while the best editors I’ve worked with – as a fiction, academic and trade author – have been local. (It’s worth noting that editing in South Africa, no matter how shaky, does not even begin to compare with the abyss into which the craft has plunged in North America and Europe, where many publishers have abandoned any pretence at editing, simply sending manuscripts straight to press.)

But far more common than downright bad editing is the phenomenon of what I call Killer Robot Editors – those who simply work mechanically through a text, correcting grammatical and idiomatic errors and checking that if the bedroom walls are green on page 67, they’re not blue on page 134. Some call this line- or copyediting – I think of it as glorified proofreading. Yet, this is all that most publishers budget for, and what many editors consider the extent of their responsibilities. I once supervised a punctilious editor who had carefully corrected each sentence of a linguistically mangled report. Checking the final result, I looked at the three lengthy opening paragraphs of convoluted waffle (now grammatically pristine), took my red pen, and reduced them to three succinct sentences. The editor gasped: “But are we allowed to do that?”

This is exactly what I believe editors should be doing. But this kind of intervention – which is what I think of as real editing – comes very close to ghost-writing, or précis; itself a form of ghost-writing, and one that takes great skill. Publishers who support this kind of editing – especially financially – are the exception, not the rule.

The formulas for freelance rates, calculated in terms of number of words edited, simply don’t fit the realities of editing. I once worked on a manuscript written in a kind of shorthand: 48 000 words long when I got it, it was 75 000 words long when I had finished “editing” it. And how is an editor to be rewarded for effecting cuts, or compacting works into the page extent set by the publisher? (I’ve twice taken non-fiction manuscripts of 500 000 words each, meticulously researched and dense with facts, and, at the insistence of the publisher, reduced them to half that length.)

Then there is the question of time. The speed with which a publisher can move a book from manuscript stage to final product on the shelves of the bookstores is a major factor in staying afloat financially. The longer a book spends in production, the more money it costs the publisher. This principle also applies to editors, especially freelance ones – it’s not only tempting, but fiscally prudent to zip through a manuscript, collect the cheque and move onto the next one. At worst, this can lead to “take the money and run” tactics: I recently audited a spectacularly sub-standard edit done on an MS of 50 000 words – it had been edited in nine and a half hours flat (the industry standard is around forty hours).

My single biggest problem is not the rates publishers pay, but the time-frames they allow for editing. Sometimes only weeks are allowed for processes that should take months. Proofreaders also need time to do their jobs properly, and often, in the haste to get a book out for the Book Fair (April and May are collective nervous breakdown months in South African publishing) or some other event in the marketing calendar, they are required to do the impossible. Likewise, rushed or incompetent typesetting can wreck the best efforts of both editor and proofreader.

All these pressures, like many apparently neutral processes in this country, do a great disservice to new and developing writers, especially emergent black writers. Novice writers, and those who might need support with language editing, are particularly disadvantaged both by the mechanical approach to editing, and the lack of time available for the process.

And there are more complex factors operating as well. It is no coincidence that some of our best editors are also gifted writers: one thinks of Ivan VladislavićTom EatonMartha Evans and Mike Nicol, for starters. But because editing requires that one write as if one is someone else – becoming, in effect, a writing chameleon – most of us find that editing stifles our own creative voices. This is a dilemma to which there is no easy solution.

But even for those editors whose textual instincts are unerring, but who have no desire to write themselves, editing can become disheartening and demoralising. Lynda Gilfillan, a superb editor who specialises in fiction, notes that editing is one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated tasks around. Editors are generally viewed, by authors, publishers and the public alike, as menial labourers in the literary vineyards, part domestic workers of the text (who tidy up sloppy punctuation and attend to the dirty laundry of incomplete and messy referencing), part carping, red-pen wielding primary-school teachers who pounce upon split infinitives. Low down in the publishing hierarchy, any competent in-house editor is rapidly promoted up the ladder, further and further away from the grubby labour of spinning manuscripts of straw into books of gold.

Editing is also often performed under extremely trying circumstances. It demands unwavering concentration and focus. Yet the in-house editor’s day includes coaxing tardy suppliers, briefing designers, attending meetings, and dozens of other vexatious interruptions. It is simply not possible to edit a 650-page academic monograph of immense complexity if the phone keeps ringing. Actually, it’s not possible to edit – much less proofread – anything in disruptive working conditions. So when I was OUPSA’s academic editor, I soon began staying late in the evenings and coming in to the office over weekends, so as to be able to do my job in peace. (I hasten to add that publishing staff are not ever paid for working overtime, not least because many would double their salaries each month.)

Inevitably, being stuck in a meagrely paid and low-status job that makes it impossible to have a normal social or family life leads to the decision to go freelance. But this is no bowl of cherries, either. It can be lonely, and inevitably one becomes isolated from the trends and concerns of mainstream publishing. There is often no peer support or evaluation, no one to correct or guide.

To add insult to injury, editing is by definition one of those jobs in which the innocent are blamed and the non-participants are rewarded. One is held responsible for things over which one has no control (the vagaries of typesetters, the fact that the author has gone to a funeral instead of reading final proofs) and blamed for the sins of others (the author’s stubborn refusal to excise a character who adds nothing to the plot, the carelessness of the indexer).

The sad truth is that a good edit is invisible to all except the two or three people who looked at the initial manuscript, and the author; but an inadequate edit is glaringly obvious to all but the most oblivious reader. So, to reiterate, ours is quite literally a thankless task – our finest work is unsung, unacknowledged, unseen, or at best, attributed to the author – but should we get it wrong, we are excoriated.

This all sounds very gloomy, but it points to an important truth we still mostly ignore in South Africa (here the overseas book industry does have an edge on us): it is critical to recognise good editing. Elinor Sisulu, former Chair of the Book Development Foundation and herself an internationally acclaimed writer, feels that good editing must be lauded, and good editors acknowledged. She would like to see national awards and prizes going to those responsible for particularly skilled work, with publishers and authors identifying and nominating candidates. She argues that this will also create a greater awareness of what it is that editors actually do – a useful intervention, given that there are authors who still treat their editors as supernumerary typists or human spell-checkers.

The golden rule here (just read the acknowledgements page of any international best-seller) is Appreciate The Editor. I wouldn’t go as far as Stephen King (who announces “The editor is always right” – although I love him for saying it), but it is worth contemplating that some of the world’s most famous authors insist on working with certain prized editors they trust, following them even when that editor moves to another publisher. This has led to overseas publishers who hope to sign a stellar author wooing his or her editor. Food for thought.

So what can publishers do to improve editing standards in South Africa?

Better pay for editors would help retain skills in the field, but this presupposes a general improvement in the way writing per se is appreciated and rewarded. Bluntly, until South Africans buy more books, our publishers will continue to operate on the smell of an oil-rag.

But there are certain things that publishers can do to acknowledge the efforts of a good freelance editor, and ease their burden.

First and by far the most important: they can pay us promptly – within five working days (it shouldn’t take more than that to check we’ve done the job properly), via EFT, and without subtracting tax at source. Nothing makes me see redder than publishers (and there are many of them) who’ll beg an editor on their knees to meet an impossible deadline – one that involves sacrificing time with family, skipping the gym, serious sleep deprivation and mainlining coffee at 2am – only to become all skittish and helpless the minute payment falls due. The non-appearance of your cheque is blamed on the iron-clad rules of their draconian Finance Department (to whom you are just another creditor, to be warded off for ninety days if possible), and you discover that the contract the publisher gladly signed, promising to pay within thirty days, isn’t worth the paper it was written on.

The hypocrisy, the sheer bad faith of it makes me gag, especially given that the nature of editing means that it’s not possible to juggle lots of different overlapping projects; freelance editors who are able to immerse themselves in more than two projects at once are seldom doing a very good job. So we are exceptionally vulnerable to tardiness in the cheque department. In one of my favourite fantasies, I have the power to delay – by an arbitrary time ranging from one week to six months – the salary of every employee in every publisher’s Finance Department, from the CFO down. Let them feel what it’s like to rack up frightening overdraft costs, explain why they can’t settle their monthly bills, risk driving an uninsured car or losing medical aid cover because their stop-orders have bounced – through no fault of their own. To top it off, I’d like a select few to have their cars or houses repossessed. And then I’d say to them: “The money is there, you will be paid, I can’t tell you when, we are just sorting out some administrative issues, but it is coming.”

To put it more elegantly, there is a hadith that says: “Pay your worker while the sweat is still on his brow.”

Next rant: did you know that publishers are neither legally obliged nor entitled to deduct tax at source from payments to freelance editors? Many of us endure this, but few can afford to have 25% of gross income on loan to SARS interest-free at any given moment. Close reading of the relevant tax legislation is most illuminating. If you are a freelancer meeting your own overheads and a registered provisional taxpayer in good standing, and can prove it, publishers have no business subtracting tax from your payment.

But it’s not just about the money (or the respect – or lack thereof – that it conveys for a high-skill job). What about training – the great South African panacea?

A whole host of copy-editing courses have sprung up in recent years. But my sense is that these teach the kind of mechanical line-editing I describe above. I believe that editing is an art for which one needs an aptitude that cannot be taught. Skilled editing is as much an ear for cadence as it is an eye for correctness and consistency; so if there is no inner ear that can hear how the sentence should fall, no X-ray eye that can detect the idea buried in a mass of tortuous prose, no deft ability to excavate it with all the dross trimmed away, training will be to no avail. In fact, it can make matters worse, rendering editors utterly formulaic. The knack to good editing consists of knowing when the rules can and should be broken.

Good editors also tend to have certain personality types; words like “obsessive-compulsive”, “typical Virgo” and “nit-picking” have been bandied about. But true editors are not necessarily geeky perfectionists; given that their work requires that they be diplomats, counsellors, navigators and plastic surgeons, really good editors have excellent people skills and vast stores of tact. And they are also constantly and insatiably curious, with an interest in the world around them that arms them with a magpie store of general knowledge.

So I’m a bit dubious about weekend copyediting courses. The above skills can and should be developed, ideally in-house, but they cannot be transplanted. Meanwhile, in an era of cost-cutting, publishers are employing fewer in-house editors, and with the economic slow-down, freelancers are being abandoned as “luxuries” as well. So competent editors are draining out of the workforce, and editorial skills are contracting.

Ideally, publishers should actively train their in-house staff in a structured way rather than on the run. If seniors haven’t the time (and generally they don’t), they should pay someone experienced to come in and do it for them. It’s considered standard practice to send marketing and sales departments off on team-building exercises or training junkets, so there’s no reason not to run workshops for your editorial staff. If you have a stable of freelancers you use regularly, train them too. Better still, pay for follow-up. Have someone come in for two hours once a fortnight, say, to check through the in-house editor’s work. No one has time to do quality control anymore, and that’s another reason for the uneven editing I see. I was fortunate that when I was first learning the ropes at OUPSA, the editor managing my project checked my work, tweaked it, gave me feedback and encouragement – and she did this daily. (Penny Nyren, wherever you are, God bless you.)

Another common assumption related to training is that only those whose first language is English have the potential to edit, which is often a politically correct way of implying that blacks can’t edit. This is rubbish. Yes, mother-tongue fluency is essential in an editor (and it is no good attending an editing course in the hope that this will remedy your linguistic shortcomings), but most educated denizens of the African continent speak four or five languages with a skill that puts the average white South African to shame. The world-famous writers Wole Soyinka and Nuruddin Farah used to earn their bread by editing (in English) before becoming household names. Locally, some of the most respected publishers of largely English imprints have Afrikaans as their first language.

It is not the multilingualism of South Africa’s would-be editors that presents the problem, but poor education – both the decades of appalling (and deliberately inferior) education under apartheid, and the chaotic state of education since 1994. Brian Wafawarowa, CEO of New Africa Books, feels that once South African publishers start employing and interning black staff, not necessarily as editors, but as designers, typesetters and on production, marketing and sales teams, in one generation, their children will be editing local fiction with confidence. The best preparation for this is to read and read and read – according to local literacy initiatives, first in an indigenous language, and then in English. So before waxing indignant at the lack of black editors in South Africa, replace your children’s iPods, DVDs and Playstations with books.

What can editors do?

Get together with your peers. Whether you do so socially or professionally, this offers an opportunity to network, ask questions and bounce ideas around. Talk to each other online and via e-mail, but try to meet in person, too. Once, at a meeting between myself and three other editors on a team project, conversation turned to the placement of commas in cited material. After five minutes of heated debate, someone started to laugh: “Listen to us – what a bunch of train-spotters!” Editors are indeed train-spotters, and getting together with your fellows to compare notes on the strange esoterica of the craft is valuable, and fun besides.

The corollary is that if you are a senior and established editor, you should mentor younger practitioners, especially if you spot someone promising. I subcontract out a lot of small jobs largely because it gives me the opportunity to identify editors with potential, and to keep an eye on their progress.

Next, you can stand up for your rights. You can insist on the best possible rate of pay within the available budget, a reasonable time-frame, prompt payment (in instalments for lengthy projects) and decent treatment (it is the publisher’s responsibility to manage difficult or demanding authors, rather than handing them over to you with a sigh of relief). Be very clear about how you’re prepared to work – if you behave like a doormat, you are more likely to be treated as one. (For instance, you are perfectly entitled to insist on phone-calls and meetings during normal working hours only.) But there is a very important caveat to this: standing up for yourself works only if you are very good at what you do. Otherwise, publishers might simply pick a meeker editor who is easier to push around. Life is not fair.

The following tactic is very satisfying, but not recommended unless you have a truly superb track record: if you are being paid in instalments, and one fails to arrive, walk off the project. Down tools and refuse to pick them up until the money is in your account. If it’s more than a week late, announce your withdrawal from the project, instruct the publisher to appoint a new editor, and prepare a full handover brief. Then follow through. I mean it.

[Author's note: Since I first wrote this piece, it has been pointed out that in case of clients asking you to do work when they haven't yet paid for the last job you did, this is an alternative strategy. If I ever try it, I'll let you know how it turned out.]

What can authors do?

Hand in a polished manuscript. Far too many South African authors, out of timidity, innate sloppiness, ignorance or laziness, hand in manuscripts for editing that resemble the roughest imaginable first-draft stage. Journalists are particularly guilty of this, because they’re used to flinging copy at a subeditor as they race to meet a deadline.

Space doesn’t allow for discussion of how to prepare your MS before sending it out into the world, so I’ll give one golden practical rule: read the entire MS aloud before submitting it for editing. Yes, the whole thing, chapter by chapter (not necessarily all at once). Your lips MUST move. And you must read from a print-out, not your computer screen. All kinds of glaring errors will leap out at you, repetition and sequencing errors will be revealed, all the clunky dialogue will grate on your ear, and you’ll be bored by some of the descriptive or philosophical passages. Now get stuck back into your MS. And before sending it off at last to the editor, remember to run a spell-check – it’s plain bad manners not to.

And speaking of the unmannerly, there are still authors who become indignant at the notion that their work might need editing. Sometimes I encounter the racist assumption that an editor is required only when a black author is involved, but not when the writer’s “first language is English”. (Those who have Afrikaans or isiXhosa or Arabic or Russian as their mother tongues may indeed need their editors to pay careful attention paid to idiom and grammar; but the most flawless command of the English language does not protect against woolly writing or implausible plotting.)

So accept – gracefully – that your MS will need editing, even if (in the words of Margaret Atwood) it feels like “landing face down in a threshing machine”. I believe that there isn’t a writer alive, no matter how celebrated, who doesn’t need their work edited; and of the hundred or so books of all kinds I’ve edited, some by highly respected and award-winning authors, only two so far have qualified for what publishers optimistically refer to as a “light” edit. (Note that if your publisher tells you, “Your MS won’t need much editing, it’s very clean,” they are almost certainly guilty of wishful thinking – especially if you are relatively new on the writing scene.)

Remember: no author is able to be entirely objective about their own work; and most need help in addressing the mysterious, amorphous audience “out there”. It is not easy writing for strangers, for folk we will never know, but whom we need to woo, to convince, to impress, to enthral, to entertain.

A brilliant editor will act as a go-between, a midwife, an emissary, an alchemist in the complex task of turning the solitary act of writing into a text able to speak to multiple readers. There is no author who will not benefit from the ministrations of such a paragon; but such paragons are under threat in a publishing environment that increasingly cannot develop, support or reward excellence.

Nick Mulgrew