December 18th 2015
Editing is a critical part of writing. No piece of writing is ever better the first time around than it is after a critical eye has been cast over the draft and all those little mistakes that creep in can be effortlessly erased. All those not so little mistakes – the plot holes, the clunky dialogue, the missed opportunities for awesomeness – those aren’t so effortless to repair. Once you’ve done, though, going through the manuscript again and again, polishing up the words until it shines, gives you something you can own, and be proud of. You can probably think of all sorts of metaphors: cutting a rough diamond, touching up a painting, sanding down the grain on a piece of furniture, but let’s call the thing we’re talking about the thing. Editing a story you’ve written is necessary and vital and it’s part of the job. If you don’t do it, you’re not finished yet.
But what about editing other people’s work? I have – up until very recently – never done this. And having now done it, and still being in the middle of it, I have a new-found appreciation for the editors I’ve had over the years. Because it’s actually hard work. Yes, the eye for detail. Yes, the memory like a steel trap. Yes, the looking at the word in front of you while holding it in context with all the other words. There’s a most difficult of balancing acts, though, and that’s the one to do with voice.
I’ve been editing my late father-in-law’s war-time memoirs, running from when he first went to sea aged 16, in 1937, to late 1945, when he finished an 18 month long voyage. Arthur was a Shieldsman, born and bred, and his prose, while sometimes on the challenging side, is full of colour and character – his character – and I’ve been intent on preserving as much as that as humanly possible, while maintaining clarity and ease. Arthur was a natural storyteller, but as if often the way, the oral tradition can sit ill with the written one: we don’t write like we speak, and we don’t speak as if we’re dictating a letter. In amongst the unnecessary Capitalisations (which have been the bane of my life for a few months), and the multiply-claused sentences, there’s warmth and humour and excitement and sorrow and fear. And making certain that it’s Arthur that comes through, and not me, is what my editing ought, and hopefully is, what it’s all about.
Having done most of the heavy work – now I’m down as far as the rechecking, the footnotes, and the sense of it, and afterwards, a final read-through – I can honestly say that this isn’t how I’d want to spend my days. My stamina, my concentration levels, and my eye for the extraneous probably isn’t quite good enough, though I’d hope I’d get better with practice.
One final thought: people kvetch about the price of ebooks compared with the physical product, without considering that the cost of the dead-tree part of it isn’t that big a proportion of the final price. What you’re paying for – after the author, of course – is all the ancillary ‘soft’ work: the editor, the proof-reading, the art department, the marketing… and they’re worth every penny.
I’ll leave the final word to Arthur:
The regular run was France, Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar. We had a very good crew, and everyone got on well. She wasn’t a good feeder but we put up with it: the job was okay and she was a handy ship with a good skipper. We sailed down the North Sea on our way to France, and as we passed the French coast, we could see the huge pall of smoke rising from the beach at Dunkirk. It wouldn’t have been any use sending us in, to help in the evacuation as we were empty and absolutely huge. And an easy target for the bombers. We carried on, and arrived at the French port of Boucou near Bayonne, in the corner of the Bay of Biscay, near the Spanish border. The ship was tied up alongside a loading berth, everything was quiet.
After tea, the majority of us decided to walk up to the village and have a drink. It was only a few hundred yards, and we sat outside at the pavement bars, with umbrellas over the tables. It was June and a lovely summer evening. Suddenly we heard someone running and, lo and behold, it was the AB who was the watchman. “Quick!” he screamed. “Get back to the ship: the German advance column is just coming in to the town.” Evidently someone had phoned the harbour master to warn him the Germans had just passed their house, on there way into Boucou.
He ran to our ship and shouted to the skipper to get out as quick as possible, or we would be captured. Everyone ran like mad, down the road, and the fellow next to me was moaning as he had just bought the round. When we arrived at the quayside the ship was all ready to let go, and we all climbed aboard. Out we went and just in the nick of time.