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Editing - Behind the Red Pen

From little grammar mistakes to major plot holes, a good editor can be the savior of your book. Peter Salmon gives a look inside the mind of an editor and how the editing process can be the most important one your writing will go through.

On e of my favourite objects in the world is a facsimile edition of The Waste Land by T S Eliot. It is a reproduction of the original manuscript, showing Ezra Pound’s edits of perhaps the greatest poem of the twentieth century. The first couple of pages are wonderfully wrought poetry – Eliot grappling with metaphysics, spirituality and history. And through them is a huge diagonal line and the word ‘No’. In the margin of page three, Pound has circled a phrase and said ‘the poem starts here, get rid of the rest’. And so the poem does, with the immortal opening line ‘April is the cruellest month’. It is the best copy-edit in history.

Is there anything sexier than a good edit? Of course, for any author, is there anything more confronting, challenging, horrifying and mortifying than being edited? As someone who is both an editor and a writer I know both sides of the coin. Here is my work of genius, which I care about, worry about, think about all the time and have a very definite idea in my head about; here is my work that I turn over and over in my head at 3 am, making characters taller and shorter, making them die, bringing them back to life, adding a chapter here, taking away a chapter there; and yet here is some devil-may-care-editor armed with nothing but red pen (or track changes on Word, but go with me) who is going to stomp through my manuscript with their own stupid ideas. How dare they?

And yet, is there anything sexier than a good edit? I remember my first time (pauses, lights cigarette). I’d submitted my perfect manuscript to my publisher and waited for it to come back from the editor with nothing but a large tick at the end, and, perhaps, a brief sentence thanking me for changing the course of literature. What came back was extraordinary.

Had I noticed, for instance, that I had changed tense three times on the first page. That throughout the manuscript I had used the word ‘then’ 412 times, so almost twice a page, and that most of these could be removed without affecting the meaning, ‘he sat down’ meaning the same as ‘then he sat down’? Had I noticed that the character I had die a spectacular death on page 73 was strutting about unharmed on page 82? Or that I had written 68 as ‘68’, but 54 as ‘fifty-four’? And finally, that the Zippo lighter the character uses in 1929 wasn’t invented until 1933? Part of me, of course, wanted to hunt the copy-editor down and kill them. Beating them to death with my manuscript seemed a fair and proportionate response. Two weeks they’d had it, and had found all of this in a book I’d been working on for three years.

And yet… and yet… by God it was sexy. First of all, here was someone treating my work seriously. They cared about the book because they wanted to make it work – the first person except me that I could say that of. Those people I had made up were actual characters, who’s existence had to make sense. The plot had to make sense. All sexy in itself. But also, the glorious minutiae of grammar!

Had I mixed fewer and less? Indeed, I had mixed up fewer and less (though less times than I had thought – I mean fewer), and someone else was worried. Yes, ‘then’ is mostly redundant, because narrative automatically presumes time passing, so (then) you can leave it out. And the word ‘suddenly’ – ultimately, everything can be described as happening ‘suddenly’ – ‘I suddenly got up, I suddenly walked across the room, I suddenly opened the fridge, I suddenly got out a piece of cake’ – so, I suddenly realised you should NEVER use this word (I am willing to fight to the death on this point, and don’t get me started on adverbs – NEVER use them either, he said grumpily). It was a whole new and exciting world. The rules of grammar, I realised are not arbitrary. Yes, they CAN be broken (as Raymond Chandler said ‘when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split’), but the reason the rules exist is that theybring clarity. If you are reading something and it’s not quite working, you can bet that the grammar is all shot.

Writing anything is a brave and foolhardy act. There are no roadmaps. Let’s face it, writing a novel, in particular, is a pretty ridiculous thing to do. ‘I’m inventing people who do imaginary things!’ It’s a hard sell to anyone, and it can often be a hard sell to yourself (the 3 am horrors). And don’t talk to me about plot. Whose idea was that? Imaginary Character A has to meet and fall in love with Imaginary Character B by page 89, somewhere in the Alps. How does that happen? Madness!

And yet we do it because, when it works, it’s the best feeling in the world. And this is a huge part of the job of the editor – to make your work the best it can be. Yes, it is challenging, but it can also be exhilarating. Finding a good editor is the best thing you can do. Churn through husbands, wives, lovers, any other type of relationship, but if you find a good editor, then hang onto them for life.

The best lesson I ever had in this was before I’d had a novel published. I told a friend, who is a prize-winning novelist, that I was ‘working on a novel’. He said no I wasn’t. He said I had a bunch of writing that may turn out to be a novel. Once I had finished the first draft, then I was working on a novel.

The editing of a novel is as much a part of making a novel as the writing. Suddenly in 1921 [Ed: Published 1922 – check date of composition], T S Eliot happily wrote a load of stuff that may or may not have been a poem. Then when he had finished, him he and his editor, Ezra Pound, started making it into The Waste Land [Ed: The Waste Land], by using less fewer words. If T S Eliot can lose the odd page, I think I can… ‘April is the cruellest month’ [Ed: Is it? – check this].

Peter Salmon is an Australian writer and editor living in the UK. His first novel, The Coffee Story (Sceptre, 2011), was a New Statesman Book of the Year. He has written frequently for TV and radio, and for broadsheets including the Guardian and the Sydney Review of Books. His next novel, Blue Roses, will be published in August.

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