Saturday 10 March 2018

How to be a Good Editor

Christmas is heading for the far distant horizon, so I am now embarking upon the major process of editing the first draft of Fear & Phantoms, book six in the Victorian Detectives series, before sending it to my first reader/editor for a read-through.

Editing is, in its essence, the art of making things sound better. I have had various editors in my time and they all work in different ways. My OUP editor maintained a firm hands-off stance, more or less allowing the book to emerge from manuscript to finished product unscathed with just a few marginal queries en route. On the other hand, I have had editors who carefully scrutinise every paragraph, and red-pencil everything they want changing.

It is a fine balance for the writer to maintain. On the one hand an editor does (or should) know what makes good, readable prose and so it is in one's interest to take on board suggestions offered. However it is a moot point how far an editor allows their own 'reading' of the manuscript, and involvement in the creative process to predominate over the original voice of the author. I have been told, on one memorable occasion, that a character ''wouldn't have said that''. As if I knew nothing about them. Sometimes, you have to fight for your integrity. It is never an easy balance.

On this occasion though, I shall be doing my own edits, which means I shall be fighting for my integrity against myself, which will be interesting, and the internal Civil War will probably throw up all sorts of queries. Which I shall have to refer to myself to solve. Hopefully any conflict and animosity will abate enough so that the two of us can get on with it.

By the time the book reaches my final editor, it will be almost summer. I am not good in hot weather, but the heat in the Victorian era must have been almost insupportable for women. Forced to go about in tight whalebone corsets, stockings, and numerous undergarments, forbidden to show their arms and legs for fear of exciting male sensibilities, one can barely imagine the torture they must have undergone.

And then there was the smell to contend with. In the days before Bazalgette revolutionised the sewerage system, everything made its malodorous journey through London to the River Thames, into which raw sewage and the by-products from factories, and slaughterhouses were poured, so that in the heat of summer, the stink was unbearable.

There is a story that Queen Victoria, visiting the Houses of Parliament one day, noticed small pieces of screwed-up toilet paper floating on the Thames. Upon inquiring of an official what they were, she was told that they contained messages of goodwill from her subjects.
Now that's what I call good editing.


  1. Ah editing ... I enjoy it as it is, for me, the process in which the narrative becomes a real story (I know what I mean!)

    And the stinky Thames - possible a bit like the stinky Ganges!

  2. I love the post and the ending tale about Queen Victoria. Do you think she believed him?

    1. She had a wicked sense of humour (before Albert snuffed it) so I bet she did, and probably laughed. The Victorians were a lot less stuffy than they are painted

  3. Great post, Carol. I also do my own editing these days and frequently tut, tut at myself for making silly non sequiturs. Time is the best editor though. The bigger the gap between the readings, the more I read as an 'outside observer'. As for the Victorian official who said that to her majesty...just brilliant!

    1. Witty clever think-on-your-feet lot, the Victorians

  4. We keep being told that we should have our work professionally edited, and I can see their point. But when you have been writing as long as we have, aren't we professionals?


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