Here’s an old advertising joke for you.
Question: How many creatives does it take to change a lightbulb?
Answer: Fuck off, I’m not changing a thing.
I told this joke to a good friend of mine, whose professional background happens to be in the creative industries. I told him this joke as a comment on how unreasonable we can all be when our work is being critiqued by others – even though it ultimately leads to a far, far better result. As we say in Yorkshire, he looked at me gone out, and said, “No. Just – no. Don’t let them touch a word. They’re your words. You’re the expert. Your publisher’s job is to package and sell. Let them change the frame. But not the picture.”
I was touched by his faith in my work, but I’m convinced he’s dead wrong.
Editors are vital. When editors cease to matter, book quality drops. We all know this, but I think I have a case study which actually proves it. I’m a huge fan of Stephen King – of his sustained craftsmanship over an enormous, epic career, and of his frankly slightly scary work-ethic. But if I go back to the eighties and compare the books he wrote as Richard Bachman to the books he wrote, during the same time period, as Stephen King, the Bachman books are orders-of-magnitude better.
Also – Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” versus “The Love Machine” and “Once Is Not Enough”, and the camping chapters in “Deathly Hallows”.
I don’t know this for sure, but I have a theory that King, Susann and Rowling reached a point where they were so famous and successful they were able to resist the editing process. Or possibly their editors stopped trying quite so hard – because really, everyone was going to buy the book anyway. Whatever happened, the net effect was that, without brilliant editing, their books stopped being the genre-defining works of their generation, and merely became pretty damn good.
To offer a slightly frivolous analogy; I am, by a country mile, the person who spends the most amount of time dealing with my hair. I wash it; I blow-dry it; occasionally I even style it. But I know perfectly well that if I wander down the road to my hair-dresser, she will instantly have it looking twenty times better than I ever could. Sometimes what we need is not intimate knowledge, but professional expertise. Whose work doesn’t benefit from someone whose entire professional career is built on a deep and profound understanding of what good writing looks like?
Editing makes our books better. I passionately believe this.
But – having sweated blood to edit “New World Fairy Tales” down from its original 56,000 words to my closing position of just under 51,000, and having pressed “send” knowing fine and well that the brief was for collections “in the region of 45,000” – I’ll admit was still scared of the editing process.
I know my faults as a writer. Left to my own devices, I ramble and I over-punctuate. My own first edit always consists of fixing these two issues, at least as far as I can. But that’s always the sticking point, isn’t it? When you send off your manuscript, it’s as good as you can make it. You have reached the point where you, at least, can do no more. For it to get better, the only way forward is for someone else to take over.
I knew this right up to the moment when the edit file actually arrived in my in-box, at which point I instantly panicked about what I might find. I was assaulted by vivid memories of the many, many creative teams – oddly-dressed, eclectically-named, angry and defensive, treading the fine line between Saying What They Thought and Not Upsetting The Client – whose work I had cheerfully tweaked in my brand’s favour over a fifteen-year career in marketing.
Oh my God, I thought, staring madly at the email. I am now officially about to transform into that foldy-arms madwoman who won’t listen to reason.
Of course, as it turns out, Being Edited was exactly what my manuscript needed. Jen Hamilton-Emery at Salt took my rampaging punctuation in hand, reining in my excessive love for ellipses (which I sort of knew about really) and my over-use of the Oxford comma (which I didn’t). She also deleted one entire story; a simple but brilliant solution to the fact that I was six thousand words over the limit. Instead of the death-by-six-thousand-cuts I had been dreading, I had a clean amputation, which leaves an economically-viable collection and maybe even a potential nucleus for a future follow-up. Here’s hoping, anyway.
The best part; my work has been turned from a manuscript into a book. It looks like a book. It’s in a proper book font (Bembo 12 and 13.5). I actually get chills down my spine when I read it.
My book is better for being edited. My book is better for being edited. I always knew it would be, but now I believe it as well. The difference between what your head knows and what your heart feels is personal experience.
Now, if I could only get over my fascination for commas, and ellipses…