ON EDITING AND BEING EDITED – Natasha Cooper
Looking back to my years in publishing, I sometimes wonder that I survived without feeling the blade of an axe in my head
I knew my authors hated being edited nearly as much as I hated being caught between them (‘Do you like my book?’) and the sales department (‘You expect us to sell this crap?’). My responsibilities when editing popular non-fiction seemed to me to include: picking up any obvious mistakes: ensuring that a non-specialist reader could understand the fundamental argument; offering suggestions to some of my more academic authors for ways in which the text might be made more accessible, e.g. replacing unnecessarily pompous circumlocution with a straightforward statement. I had some wonderful authors, among whom Jan Morris stands out for her professionalism as well as her skill. She always delivered on time and at precisely the right length. Her text was always elegant, colourful, individual, and funny. Going through her work her work with an editorial pencil was wonderful, but it could be alarming, too: there was so little to do.
I made plenty of mistakes, of course, and remain awed at the memory of some authors’ tolerance of my interference. As I tried to manage their sufferings, and my own, I vowed that when – if – I realised my ambition to write I would never give an editor trouble.
More than quarter of a century on, and with twenty-eight published novels, I have to confess that I haven’t kept my vow. During those years I have had some wonderful editors and proof-readers. But I’ve had one or two stinkers, too. I have come nearer to understanding the mind of a murderer when reading editorial comments than at any other time in my life. Many of the people with whom I have worked have retired; some have probably died, though not at my hand; and some are still in place.
There was one who took exception to the opinions expressed by a thoroughly unpleasant character during a fictional television debate on hunting and animal rights. The editor in question so disapproved of my character’s opinions that she demanded their removal, irrespective of the fact that both sides of the argument had to be put in my invented debate. Another rang up to say that the art department had produced an image for the cover that everyone admired but which didn’t look at all like the character in my novel. She ordered me to go right through the book, changing every description of my main character to fit the chosen illustration. I was such a patsy and such an approval-junkie in those days that I did as I was asked, and I learned how hate tastes. When the order was repeated after I had delivered the second novel in that particular series, I refused to obey.
Some copy-editors appear never to have heard of metaphor. Others have no sense of humour. Many have tiny vocabularies and never use a dictionary. Hardly any now know that a gerund takes the possessive pronoun, or what a colon is for, or a semi-colon. They don’t understand that tenses have to agree within a sentence or when the pluperfect is correct. One desk editor once told me that ‘use of the pluperfect has a distancing effect’. At least she knew what it was.
Tin ears are common in the editorial population. At the beginning of one novel I had a scene with three criminals running through the dark towards a smuggler’s plane, carrying contraband. Breathless, tripping over, hurried, anxious, they seemed to me to require short, breathless, syncopated sentences to describe their actions. The line editor ironed out every one, adding conjunctions and commas, completely missing the point.
I have had ‘corrections’ made that turn a reasonable sentence into nonsense or add a clunkiness that was not there in the original.
Occasionally editors seem to have failed to observe their fellow human beings in any way and therefore ask the most idiotic questions. One wrote in the margin of a scene in which a psychopath in prison swings his chair on to its back legs, ‘how is it that he and the chair have not toppled over? Are his feet still on the ground?’ I sent back an account of the way many men tip back their chairs, sometimes keeping one or both of their feet on the ground, but sometimes balancing themselves with a knee pressed against the table edge. I went on to say that I didn’t think narrative flow would be improved by adding such an explanation to the novel itself.
Comfort comes from all sides when one needs it. Reading the late, great Tim Binyon’s Whitbread-winning biography of Pushkin, I came upon a letter from Pushkin to a friend, in which he animadverts at great length on the idiocy of his editor, who would not accept the metaphorical use of some particular phrase he had included. If I had my copy here I would quote the letter but, alas, I have not.
If a genius such as Pushkin suffers like this, what can the rest of us expect?
Natasha Cooper, whose most recent crime novels have been written under the name N J Cooper. As an editor and historical novelist, she used her own name: Daphne Wright. Read more about Natasha over on her CRA profile