The lost art of editing

Fountain pen against background of marked up writing

The long, boozy lunches and smoke-filled parties are now part of publishing’s past, but has rigorous line-by-line editing of books been lost too, a casualty of the demands of sales and publicity? asks Alex Clarke in The Guardian.

Reach for the current issue of Private Eye and you will find “Bookworm”, the anonymous author of the magazine’s Books & Bookmen column, indulging his or her fondness for schadenfreude by rounding up the worst reviews of this season’s crop of new books. The writers mentioned will no doubt simply shrug – or perhaps grimace – to have readers’ attention drawn to less than ecstatic comments, especially when numerous glowing reviews are ignored.

But “Bookworm” also has a few sharp words for those whose work is undertaken outside the glare of publicity: “it’s not only the authors who will and should wince on reading these words. The editors . . . are responsible as well, for being too indolent, timid or unobservant, if the reviewers are right. But will pain spur them to remember that editors are supposed to edit?”

Editors are supposed to edit: well, of course. What else would they do? And why should Private Eye, in the process of tweaking a few authors’ noses, alight on those who labour behind the scenes and accuse them of incompetence? The answer lies in the changing role of the editor, in the turning wheel of the publishing industry and in the expectations of readers.

For some years now – almost as long as people have been predicting the death of the book – there have been murmurs throughout publishing that books are simply not edited in the way they once were, either on the kind of grand scale that might see the reworking of plot, character or tone, or at the more detailed level that ensures the accuracy of, for example, minute historical or geographical facts.

The time and effort afforded to books, it is suggested, has been squeezed by budgetary and staffing constraints, by the shift in contemporary publishing towards the large conglomerates, and by a greater emphasis on sales and marketing campaigns and on the efficient supply of products to a retail environment geared towards selling fewer books in larger quantities. In more broad-brush terms, the question is whether the image of the word-obsessed editor poring over a manuscript, red pen in hand, has given way to that of the whizz-bang entrepreneur attuned to the market’s latest caprice, more at home with a tweet than a metaphor.

Read the full article in The Guardian …