Zeal, and a mission

When I was at junior school, every July my class put on a summer play. All the other girls would spend two weeks fighting over who was going to be the princess. While they were all arguing, I used to go off into a corner, quietly study the cast list, and pencil in my name against the jealous queen, or the wicked witch, or the fairy godmother. When the princess was finally chosen, all the other girls would look around, and find that the second-best part was already gone.

Years later, looking at publishing careers, I did exactly the same thing.

Occasionally in my professional life, I’ve been given the opportunity to speak publicly about and defend the stage of editorial work within publishing that is called copy-editing. Much more often, though, I’ve had the chastening experience of reading (on Facebook pages by authors, or in articles or letters in author magazines) – or, even more awkwardly, overhearing discussions involving authors I am just about to work with – various wails, grouches, sarcastic asides or seething, spitting vitriol, all directed at the hated copy-editor.

It can be a thankless job. Done right, it’s invisible, and the author and publisher jointly get the credit; done badly, it’s like sticking pins in readers’ eyes, slicing the heart out of a book and destroying all pretence of suspension of disbelief. You don’t become a copy-editor if you enjoy the limelight or thrive on praise. We are decried as pedants, rigid in our thinking and slavish in our attachment to the arcane rules of grammar at the expense of creativity and expression. We are ‘failed writers’, made bitter and twisted by constant contact with people doing what we cannot, and gleefully taking out our self-loathing on the texts of those who have succeeded. We're self-righteous bores and know-alls, looking for every opportunity to criticise, and eager to trample the sensitive egos of authors laid out before us. Not only that: every reader who spots an error in a book widens their eyes in horror and is sure they could do a better job. Just as most people who speak a foreign language believe they can translate, and most people who can write a letter are sure they could write a novel, lots of people who can read think they can edit or proofread.

Because of this, both copy-editing and proofreading are jobs that get squeezed, in both time and budget (‘the intern can do it’; ‘oh, let’s use her instead, she's cheaper/faster’ – one small publisher now even advertises for its readers to pitch in and do the job collectively for nothing!). The recent self-publishing explosion has generated a yet greater battalion of freelance copy-editors and proofreaders of little experience and haphazard skill, and it’s not easy to judge: unfortunately you actually have to be a good copy-editor in order to assess one.

And yet I wouldn’t do anything else. I’ve learned more, in thirty years of editing, than I could ever have imagined. It is expert travel writers I have to thank for a sketchy but still extraordinarily useful overview of world geography, European history and culture, and art and architecture, as well as for being able to wangle a room upgrade in seven languages. From the writers of financial textbooks I have understood a little of, and become angry about all of, the causes of the 2007 financial crash, even if it didn’t stop me, or the companies I work for, from suffering from it. And fiction expands the heart as well as the mind: discussions about character and motivation are essentially discussions about people.

I can’t write books. I don’t have the dedication, or the imagination. But it’s worthwhile and fulfilling in itself to be of service to those who can. And I think I have the easier job, too: commissioning editors are on the front line of a company’s success or failure, needing to read the market and walk the impossibly thin and wobbly tightrope between quality (always the ideal) and marketability (a painful necessity). I don’t have to worry about that: I just get to chip the diamond out of the rough and polish it till it shines.

So this blog has a bit of a mission statement: to rehabilitate the reputation of the job I love, and in whose value I believe wholeheartedly. Copy-editors are not jealous queens, and they really shouldn’t be wicked witches; if you meet one who is, just dismiss them in a puff of smoke. Me, I’m always aiming for fairy godmother.

Kiwi popsicle


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