Australian author Michelle de Kretser once said that her excitement at receiving a publishing contract is not so much due to the promise of being published, but the pleasure of being edited. ‘No-one, not even my own mother, will read my work with the same degree of close attention as my editor.’
By contrast, this is what Kingsley Amis had to say about editors: ‘… the worst kind prowls through your copy like an overzealous gardener with a pruning hook, on the watch for every phrase he senses you were rather pleased with, preferably one that also clinches your argument and if possible is essential to the general drift of the surrounding passage’.
It’s clear that being edited can either be a fulfilling, even enjoyable, experience for authors, or a deeply traumatic one depending, to a large extent, on the skill of the editor and their affinity with the book they are editing.
I’ve been editing fiction for over fifteen years, working with authors such as Deborah Forster, Frank Moorhouse, Blanche D’Alpuget and Glenda Guest. Thankfully, I have never encountered the antagonism expressed by Amis; instead, the collaboration has invariably been stimulating, productive and deeply rewarding. Below is a brief outline of my process of working with authors on their books.
The first read is crucial. It’s the only time I’ll come to the manuscript with fresh eyes, free from preconceived ideas and judgments. I always try to complete this initial read in one sitting so as to allow the whole story to take shape in my mind.
In this reading I’m alert to my immediate responses to the book – am I engaged? Am I getting bored? Where exactly does the story lose me? Where and how does it regain my attention? Am I drawn in to the emotional landscape of the book? Do I believe in the characters and their plights? Is the setting vividly portrayed?
At this stage I’ll refrain from taking too many notes, only jotting down my immediate reactions to the unfolding narrative.
Then I’ll let the book stew in my head for a few days. As it’s cooking, I’ll take note of the aspects of the story that have stayed with me, and those that have dissipated. Which characters made a particular impression, and why? Which characters made no impression at all, and why? Has the book affected me emotionally? If so, why? If not, why not? Can I articulate what the book is about? Are its themes and core ideas clear? What is the author trying to achieve – and is this intention being realised?
Following this, I’ll revisit the manuscript for another reading – this time, a much closer look. My aim here is to find reasons for my initial responses – evidence to back up my claims. I’ll analyse the narrative structure, the characterisation, the interplay between front story and backstory, the relationship between plot and character, the effectiveness of action in transmitting the plot.
One could call this ‘the diagnostic reading’, where I aim to identify what seems to be ailing the book. Is it an improbable plot? Sketchy characterisation? A breathless narrative or one bogged down by too much backstory? Is there too much exposition; in other words, is the author telling us too much at the expense of allowing the story to unfold, to reveal itself to the reader? I’ll articulate my assessment in the form of a detailed structural report for the author.
This stage is when – in the best author-editor relationships – the deeply satisfying process of collaboration kicks in. Author and editor grapple with the manuscript and discuss ways of addressing the book’s problem areas. The best solutions are often found by the author, where they engage with my suggestions and discover previously unconsidered angles to the story. For instance, during my work with Deborah Forster on her novel The Book of Emmett, she decided to focus the story on Emmett’s relationship with his children, especially his daughter Louisa, rather than on Emmett’s childhood which previously occupied a significant part of the manuscript. This introduced a bold narrative voice to the novel, and gave it its emotional heft and urgency.
Once the book’s structure is deemed to be sound, the manuscript is ready for copyediting. This is the fine-tune stage where I ensure that the language is clean and crisp, free of errors and ambiguities. I try to make sure that each word justifies itself, that the narrative is tightly woven and unencumbered by redundancies, repetition and general slackness.
I check the manuscript for inconsistencies and internal slips of logic or coherency, such as improbable time-sequences, contradictory character descriptions or other places where the world the writer describes seems to rupture.
At this stage I also check that dialogue is being used effectively, and judiciously. Is the novel too reliant on dialogue to convey meaning? Is there too little dialogue? Do the words that come out of the characters’ mouths ring true for their time and location? The ultimate aim here is to ensure the smoothest possible narrative, one that draws the reader into the story and is free of any obstacles that might intercept their immersion in the story’s universe.
Like the best mending, the best editing is invisible. Ideally, each book should come to the reader as an intact and internally sound entity; readers should think: this book is exactly as it should be and could never be – was never – any other way.
Nadine Davidoff is a freelance book editor and writing/editing teacher with over fifteen years’ trade publishing experience. She has worked as a Senior Editor at Random House and a Commissioning Editor at Black Inc. She was a founding editorial board member of The Monthly magazine and its fiction editor. More information is available at http://www.nadinedavidoff.com.au/