Saturday, 20 June 2009

Editing the Editor


Geoff Bradley has written an article in the latest issue of CADS which I find interesting on a number of levels. He calls it ‘Editing the Editor, or “I Can’t Have Written That Can I?”’ and it deals with an essay he contributed to Barry Forshaw’s monumental British Crime Writing: an Encyclopaedia.

Geoff’s subject was Freeman Wills Crofts, a prolific and highly successful writer of the Golden Age whose Many a Slip I covered in a recent entry for Friday’s Forgotten Books. Geoff explains how, when he received his copy of the book, he checked his entry and found that various unsatisfactory changes had been made to what he had written. It seems that the changes weren’t made by Barry, but rather by a sub-editor at the publishers. Geoff was dismayed at the mauling his piece had received. Over the years, he has written a good deal of non-fiction for CADS and is a sound judge of writing quality, as well as being a first-rate editor (as is Barry) so I’m sure he was right to be concerned.

A number of things struck me about this article – quite apart from the natural sympathy that any author feels for a colleague who is dissatisfied by the way he or she is treated. I thought about the issues it raised in a more general sense and realised that, although I had contributed quite a number of essays to the same book, I had never checked whether my work had suffered a similar editorial fate. And I started to wonder whether this was down to laziness, lack of time - or simply a kind of authorial fatalism…

On a happier note, Geoff, like me, was impressed by the scope and readability of the encyclopaedia as a whole. It's one of the best reference works on the genre, in my opinion (and leaving aside my own contributions) to have appeared in recent years.

10 comments:

Philip said...

You would be very wise indeed to take the time to check the proofs of such essays, Martin, or of any book-length manuscripts you might one day write of similar sort. I am not sure how things proceed with fiction these days, but with non-fiction writing, I sincerely hope you are, indeed, sent proofs. There is enormous peril in this, for very few publishing houses have sub- or copy-editors on staff any more -- this is farmed out to freelancers of exceedingly varying abilities. But even when there were subs on staff, proofs needed to be looked at carefully. I remember well a friend who is now a considerable authority on the history of Soviet foreign policy getting the proofs of the first volume of a projected three-volume work and having a minor breakdown over what he found. I told him the quickest way out of this was for me to edit the proofs themselves from scratch, which I duly did and back they went and so were they published. And also an article by a very feisty historian which I saw in proof and found that the sub of the journal in which it was to appear had altered the last sentence in such a way that it completely upended the very thesis of the article. I showed it to someone who knew that historian well and he said if x sees that in print, he'll be on the first plane from Texas. I quietly changed it back. I've edited other works for friends in part to forestall the possibility of sub-editorial carnage. So I'm not surprised at Geoff's experience at all, though I am wondering if he actually received proofs in the first place. I wouldn't publish with any house that does not furnish them -- sends a chill down my spine.

Dorte H said...

It is odd what can happen in the process. Some time ago I selected what I thought was a suitable quotation for a blog post, only to find out that two sentences had been left out in the Danish version: "Her bouquet on the lid already looked a mess. Like a dollop of vegetables that had boiled for too long."

Sloppy translation, I imagine, as I can´t see the bouquet could offend anyone.

Martin Edwards said...

Very thought-provoking response, Philip. While I always receive proofs for book projects, it's rare to receive them for articles. I would guess it happens less than one time in ten.

Dorte, I once had a book translated into Italian (which I can't read) which was abridged - how this worked out, I simply don't know. I felt I just had to trust the publisher. But of course, that is a risk.

Ed Gorman said...

My favorite story about editors run amuck concerns a friend of mine who had a trunk novel he sold to a small publisher. Unbeknownst to him the novel was too long for the standard number of pages this publisher used so she went through the book taking out what she felt were "boring" scenes. She took out twelve thousand words of a fifty-eight thousand word novel. Continuity, as you can imagine, was kind of a problem. Then there was a soft core house back in the early Sixties where the owner let his college age nephew edit the books for the summer. The kid knew that the books couldn't exceed the fixed number of printed pages so he came up with a unique idea of making them fit- he cut the book at the point where it hit the word limit. Few of his books had endings. I agree with Phillip. Non-fiction can be scary. I pour over the galleys of articles and interviews to make sure I got everything down correctly. I've read articles about myself that were gibberish even though I went over and over things with the interviewer. My favorite was that I was born in 1979 and was a pilot. Since my son was born in 1964 and I'm afraid to fly I'd say he didn't keep careful notes.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Ed. On interview articles, I still remember the first interview I ever gave about my first book, to a Law Society journalist. He tape recorded the interview, yet still managed to invent quotes. These were, I have to say, wholly positive and rather flattering. But I have never understood why he felt moved to do it.

Martin Edwards said...

Incidentally, people have been too kind to point it out, but my diligent young webmaster urged me to correct my spelling mistake in the original title to this post! An example of my reprehensibly lax approach to checking, perhaps...

vegetableduck said...

Geoff told me about this problem with his Crofts article, but I haven't been able to read it (it's quite an expensive book). I imagine there were serious space concerns with that sort of endeavor.

maxine said...

I'm an editor of a scientific journal - we have a lot of sub editors (copyeditors) and do send authors proofs of the (rather heavily edited) copy. However, we do rather like authors like you, Martin!
I remember years ago when I did a stint editing our news section. I asked the then-news editor why he always OKd his proofs without looking at them, and why he never minded changes to his articles. "Tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping", he said - I just move on to the next week.
I suppose book publishing isn't like that, and I also suppose that this rather charming but flippant gentleman knew very well that he could depend on his trusty subs to do the boring but necessary to his articles.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting insight, Maxine. Whenever I do receive proofs, I do go through them, though maybe not as efficiently as in my early days as a writer. Now I tend to see what I think I wrote. But with articles which 'just get published' I suppose that, though 100% understandable, it's undesirable to worry too much about that which one cannot control - life is just too short.

Philip said...

If Maxine and I have different views on this, no surprise. Now I don't want of overgeneralize this -- when I edited an academic journal of history, I found some dismaying prose on my desk -- but by and large, those who labour in the arts and humanities can write more or less well. Scientists, though there be notable exceptions -- Richard Feynman, Brian Green -- I rather suspect not, and I find trace evidence of this in articles in academic scientific journals, hence all that heavy editing at Maxine's journal.