The Crime Readers' Association

The Importance Of Being Edited By Fergus McNeill

25th December 2015





Somebody once said “The only thing worse than being edited, is not being edited.”

I forget who it was, and those may not have been their exact words, but they made an extremely decent point. The process of taking a draft manuscript and turning it into something that’s ready for reading is a critical stage for any book. Whenever I hear people discussing the writing process, or squabbling about the merits of self-publishing versus the merits of traditional publishing, I’m surprised how infrequently the role of the editor is raised.

To clarify, the kind of editing I’m referring to isn’t focused on spelling and grammar; that’s ‘copy-editing’ and, though it’s absolutely vital, it’s a very different process, usually done by a different person. No, what I’m talking about is that big-picture view, considering the story itself, identifying what works and what doesn’t, and finding ways to improve it.

Naturally, the thought of someone taking your new-born story and giving it a rigorous examination might seem a little daunting, but a good editor can really empower the author, giving them confidence to change passages that had seemed to be set in stone, or permission to delete a precious chapter that no longer fits. Like a crystal ball, they can offer glimpses into the future, predicting the reactions of the readers and the questions they will ask, giving the author time to hone a suitable narrative response (and making the author appear clever in the process). In some respects, editing is a little like special effects in a film; when it’s done well, you don’t even notice it, yet it makes the whole production much, much better.

So, with all these obvious benefits, you’d think that every author would seek out the best editing… but who do we trust to undertake this important job? This is where problems can arise.

We all check and change our own writing to some degree, but the idea of editing – REALLY editing – my own work is a non-starter. I just don’t believe it’s possible for me to take a truly objective view of something I’ve spent months slaving over. Even if I embraced the task and got the book to the point where I was completely happy with it, I’d know it hadn’t been fully tested, and the idea of dumping that job onto my readers seems a little disrespectful.

Friends and family may offer to read your work, but they won’t wish to upset you, so they typically focus on the positives, telling you about the things they liked rather than warning you about the things that need to be fixed. They may really want to help you, but your relationship gets in the way.

What about freelance editors? I’ve not had the opportunity to use one yet, but there are plenty of good ones out there. Just remember that you are engaging them to find problems with your story, not to compliment your writing; validation that you pay for is meaningless, after all. The author needs to think carefully about how the writer/editor relationship works. Let me give you an example:

When I completed a fairly solid draft of my second novel, I was naturally nervous (as I always am) but broadly pleased with what I’d achieved. I had a few nagging doubts that I couldn’t put my finger on, but I sent the manuscript off to my publisher and waited for their response. In due course, I sat down with my editor to work through her initial feedback and, although she liked the story, she had a number of points for discussion.

To be clear, this wasn’t the important little details, like line-edits, tweaking a phrase, or tightening a paragraph. This was about the structure of the story – looking at the pace and the shape of things, and reflecting on how the reader would feel about each character’s journey. My editor highlighted several things, which seemed innocuous enough in themselves… but it wasn’t until I began addressing those changes that I appreciated their importance. Individually, they weren’t huge – most of the scenes remained the same, with subtle tweaks at key points…

…but those changes made an enormous difference to how the story felt, and to how I felt about the story. I was profoundly glad that her feedback forced me to revisit those areas that I might otherwise have left alone.

And this is the issue. I’d be uneasy about working with an editor unless I knew they had complete freedom to be critical, without any fear of upsetting me or losing me as a client. This is one advantage to having an editor who works for the publisher – her allegiance is to the story and its readers, not to me. And that seems the right way to do things.

I appreciate that other authors may find that different methods suit them better, but I think there’s a lot to be said for the collaborative approach, working with someone who shares your vision for the book, who pushes you as a writer, and ‘keeps you honest’.

And remember, editors never get the credit they deserve – all the praise still goes to the author in the end. So when I sit in an editorial meeting, and my editor suggests something brilliant, and I groan “I wish I’d written that,” she can smile at me calmly and say “You will, Fergus. You will.”

Fergus McNeill has been creating computer games since the eighties, when he started writing interactive fiction titles. Over the years he became known for his own content, and his adaptations of other authors’ material, including working with Terry Pratchett to create the first Discworld game. He also wrote and directed voiceover scripts for a number of award-winning titles.

EYE CONTACT, a contemporary crime thriller, was his debut novel, followed by KNIFE EDGE, the second in the Bristol-based Detective Harland series published by Hodder.
Now running an app development studio, Fergus lives in Hampshire. He is 44, married, with a teenage son and a very large cat.

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