Reading a badly written essay or story or report is like suddenly crunching into a stone while eating something. The pleasure is gone and so is the wish to continue. I will not go so far as to say that it’s editing that creates great writing. But, after years of reading, editing, and dealing with a variety of authors, I am convinced that one of the critical elements of great writing is the, usually unnoticed, polishing work done by editors.
So what is great editing?
As with any discipline, several interconnected skills are required. But if we come down to basics, we find that the skills are of two kinds: (1) of the mind or intellectual/academic and (2) of the heart or intuitional. Each is meaningful in its own way. As important as it is to correct spelling, grammar, and references, to ensure uniformity in styling, to avoid repetitions, to figure out whether the structure of the work makes sense, and so on, the editor’s role doesn’t end with these tasks. For the serious editor, it is equally important to make an effort to understand what the author is really saying, what the level of the work is, and who the intended audience is. Most critically perhaps, the editor needs to understand when to ask the author about a proposed editorial change or what is meant by a particular set of words or phrases. The final piece of writing, the “end product,” must end up being effective, logical, and communicative, that is, able to reach the audience for which it is intended.
Experience, the real teacher
I will never forget the drubbing I received as a novice commissioning editor at the hands of a world-renowned scholar, one of the most acclaimed authors published by OUP India. I had sent him his script edited by a freelancer, without checking it diligently. The problem was that the editor, experienced, but overconfident, had changed the sophisticated language of the script and converted certain specialized words coined by the author into ordinary English. She had turned the writing into an ordinary masters-level essay. The author, who I later realized was normally urbane, mild-mannered, and quite friendly, was so angry that I thought I may have ended my career before it even really started.
The editor on her part had done a competent job as far as grammar, spelling, paragraphing, and punctuation were concerned. However, what she had also done, and which was unforgivable, was that she had laid a thick layer of mediocrity over the work and eclipsed the author. She had splashed ketchup over a fragrant, painstakingly made savory dish, so to speak. She had not raised a single query. She had been totally insensitive to the level of the author, the script itself, and that of its intended audience.
Editor and author teamwork
It is tempting to assume that skills of the second type that help the editor to be sensitive and intuitional, mentioned at the beginning, are relevant only in relation to highbrow writing. The reality, however, is that writing for children, students, or even leisure readers is more difficult than it is for specialized already knowledgeable audiences.
Many of us have despaired at the long, difficult, and unexplained concepts and words regularly found in many Indian school textbooks, especially in the Social Sciences/Politics/Civics topics for the middle and secondary school levels. We have also groaned inwardly when faced with books on various subjects “made easy,” or for the “layperson,” that leave the reader as mystified as he or she was before opening any such publication. I would even say that there is great scope for teamwork between authors and editors of children’s books or scripts for video presentations, for that matter.
Knowing what to do and when
So at times the language of an author needs just proper punctuation and a spell check; at other times it needs to be actually corrected; at yet others it may need to be pruned. In some situations, the editor may notice that sentences do not flow properly and conclude that some words or lines are missing. The editor may even see that a particular phrase or word is used to mean two or more different things. Those are the times to raise a query, simply ask the author, not to just insert something that might seem appropriate. The editor’s job is never to second-guess the author.
The smart editor needs to know not only what to do but also when to do it!
A publishing consultant and editor, Abha Thapalyal Gandhi, has been freelancing since mid-2014. She has extensive experience in development and desk editing, as well as in commissioning. She has worked primarily on law, politics, and social science projects. She was formerly Director, Legal & Regulatory, LexisNexis India and Senior Commissioning Editor, OUP, India.