The Editor's Cut

When I got back from Cambodia, the editor’s proof of my new biography was waiting for me. This is the moment I dread with every book. Having lovingly crafted every sentence and agonised over every chapter link, suddenly someone else is in charge of your masterpiece and they don’t love it the way you do.

But having a good editor is the most essential thing for any writer. They know when you’ve been self-indulgent (murder your darlings!), careless, or just downright confusing. This is particularly true with biography, because there’s such a fine line between giving the reader enough information to understand the situation, and either loading them up with irrelevant detail, or telling them so little they’re mystified.

Novels need pruning too, and there are some very badly edited books on sale. I’m just reading a bestseller and have come upon this in the second paragraph: ‘Just north of Tarvisio, on a curve that led down to the entrance to the autostrada and thus into the warmer, safer roads of Italy, the driver braked too hard on a curve and lost control of the immense vehicle.’ Didn’t the editor point out that having ‘on a curve’ twice in one sentence on the first page was a bit much? Or maybe they were too respectful to do so? We can probably all think of very famous writers whose editors became unwilling (or just too intimidated) to wield the red pen. Catherine Cookson was one of them - and her later books suffered from it.

Fortunately I’m not famous enough to experience this syndrome and I don’t think my editor would be worried even if I was. As you can see from the picture, she’s not afraid to do a bit of crossing out or re-writing. The book runs to more than 600 pages, and most of them look like that. By the time I’d reached page 100 I was ready to commit homicide! But by page 250 I was full of respect for someone prepared to give my manuscript such minute attention and willing to acknowledge that there were a lot of words that needed to be eliminated instead of the editor. There were also a lot of stupid errors and Freudian slips I would rather have died with embarrassment than have exposed to the public. Katherine Mansfield: The Storyteller will be a better book for having such a stringent editor. I’ve just emailed it back to her and the whole process has been what my mother would have called ‘a character-building experience’.

So, now to open a bottle of Prosecco and wait for the corrections to the corrections to come floating across the internet between New Zealand and Italy! But the acknowledgements will have a big vote of thanks to the editor.


  1. Lucky you!
    It sounds like you have a fantastic editor.
    Even if the whole process is painful it must seem very worthwhile.


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