All in the Edit

Clarity, conciseness and consistency – a holy trinity drummed into me many years ago while training as a copy-editor and trying to learn the little tweaks, fusses and decisions necessary to slap a writer’s prose on the arse hard enough to bring it to life.

It is the task of a copy-editor to make a writer look good even when it’s obvious they should have stuck to a career in potato printing; to roll their prose-jobbies in glitter if a gleam can’t be coaxed from polish; to elevate the pedestrian or the turgid with no tools at their disposal other than a ready way with grammar and a winning red pen. Like a discreet butler, a copy-editor straightens word-ties, brushes off word-suits, points the writer in the direction of their target audience and lets them take the bow with no other reward than the satisfaction of a job well done.

Because if the copy-editor has done a good job, nobody will ever know that they were even there. They’re ninjas of the typescript, leaving behind no prints or DNA. The finished product looks like the author’s work and sounds like the author’s work, and only the copy-editor knows where to find the invisible mending under the floaty top skirt.

A copy-editor hard at work.

And this is the right and proper way of things. The author’s voice is all important. Writers are people who sweat, sob, wail, and peg their self-esteem on the line to flap and snap as they reveal to people the workings of their mind. The last thing an author wants to hear is their voice being thrown by someone else, somebody who hasn’t turned to drink over the metaphorical impact of a split infinitive – somebody who doesn’t understand or even care.

Thank God for blogging then, because there is the author’s voice loud and clear and finally it’s mine.

Yes, I hold my hands up. A blog is essentially a vehicle for greedy egotism. It’s a place where clarity, conciseness and consistency go to die; where children whose mothers never breastfed them hang out and hold forth to people who won’t hit them over the head with a cricket bat in time to “…third the dirty donkey”. The blogosphere is a safe place, where no-one is told to “Shut up, you smell like a fat kid’s belly button.”

I should probably produce for your dubious delight copy which is factually accurate, free of tautology and regularly punctuated throughout its beginning, middle and end.

Blimey, why would I want to do that? More importantly, why would you want to read that? The end result would be harder to swallow than a cream cracker in the Gobi.

As it is, I rattle on, luxuriating in the decadent filth of digression, sucking on fingers slick with sticky syntax and improbable use of en rules. Here I’ve been promoted to editor-in-chief and I don’t mind telling you, dear reader, I like it. It makes me feel dirty and omnipotent, like the first head louse to survey a class of five-year-olds and contemplate the possibilities.

But – yada, yada, yada – with great power comes great responsibility. I’m no longer the birthing partner of a single baby; I’ve become ward sister to the entire nursery.

The editor is responsible for giving a publication its identity, a voice. Moulded by a myriad of editorial decisions, a personality emerges, a collection of character traits, to which a reader responds. Whether a blog, circular or newspaper garners respect for integrity, or derision for a lack of professionalism, depends entirely on choices taken by the editor and his team.

And the editorial team at The Berwick Advertiser this week made two startling decisions, the second calling for the adoption of a surprised expression – what I refer to as my animal-porn face, combining as it does a fascinated disgust with a quick mental calculation referencing practicalities.

Top left of The Tiser’s front page strapline caught our eye:

“McIntyre Magic – Top comedian to play two nights in Berwick.”

Yes, Michael McIntyre. The arena-filling, multi-award winning Michael McIntyre is coming here. To Berwick-upon-Tweed. Berwick, a town so modest that even our charity shops look embarrassed.

Now, regardless of whether you find McIntyre a comedy genius or merely a vaguely oriental-looking guy mincing around in a suit, this is still technically news, isn’t it?

News (n). noteworthy information

I can’t help but feel that a different publication might have done more with the story, more about the town becoming a draw for big-name acts or, y’know, maybe an opinion piece on the subject or, or…  or a McIntyre themed tear-out-and-keep wipe-clean recipe sheet. But it wasn’t to be. There they were on page 3 and tucked below the fold – the scant and tatty paragraphs of general McIntyre wiffle. Huzzah for conciseness, at least.

No matter. That’s very much the editor’s call, a matter of taste that has absolutely nothing to do with dark and ignoble forces at play between warring factions whose origins for hostility have long since been lost in the mists of time but probably arose from toys not being shared nicely. Pas du tout. The Tiser is at heart a local paper for local people, and there is something touching about precedence being given to stories having a direct relevance to our lives.

Sadly the same couldn’t be said about an item of correspondence printed on the letter page.

Generally speaking, feedback is a good thing. The right to reply, letters to the editor, blog comments – these all let a publication know that it is engaging with its readership, provoking discussion and debate.

But this week the letter page became a platform for a hate-filled individual to launch a personal attack against another. The Berwick Advertiser chose to print a letter so ripe with spite and venom against one of the town’s public figures that anyone reading it would be left in no doubt that the correspondent was an invective away from bursting in a spray of infected bile.

This letter wasn’t a simple diatribe on the failure of a public figure to fulfil his professional duties – anyone in the public eye is fair game in this respect – but rather took the form of a defamatory spleen-vent on how the correspondent viewed this person’s shortcomings as an individual.

Disgraceful. The decision to publish this letter was at best misguided, at worst recklessly unprofessional, causing needless hurt and upset to family, friends and no doubt the target himself.

At NOT BAd, diverse and opposing opinions capable of stimulating lively exchange receive a warm welcome, but a handful of recent comments have needed a degree of moderation. To me this is a no-brainer. Ultimately it is the publisher a readership holds accountable, not the small and bitter person wielding a pen or tapping a keyboard late into the night.

It seems appropriate to finish on another useful gem from the copy-editing handbook:

The material you choose to leave out is often more important than the material you choose to leave in.  

Just for clarity’s sake, you understand.


8 comments on “All in the Edit

  1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/jul/23/mediamonkey

    I love this letter from a rather over-sensitive Giles Coren.


  2. Hear! Hear! How’s that for clarity and conciseness (if there is such a word!).

  3. Well said. I was at a cremation in Blythe a couple of years ago, two chaps arrived late, due to traffic issues. Rev Hughes went out of his way to talk them through the service afterwards, a very nice gesture.

    The Rev also has an excellent sense of humour and self-deprecation. A few weeks ago he told a joke in public about St Peter calling a shrink up. He told the shrink that he had to work on God because he had delusions of grandeur, God thought he was Vicar of Berwick.

    A good guy, sometimes hiding behind a cloak of illusion.

  4. I am a serial editor, can’t ever leave anything I’ve written alone. Publication editors constantly tell me to ‘finish the piece!’. Voice is good. Clarity is good. Form and punctuation are good. Letting go – as you have consistently done – is better. Top marks.

    • Hi Brennig

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

      I share your pain – a writer’s work is indeed never done. We can always find something that we wish we had done better or funnier or left out entirely. We are the world’s worst self-sabotagers. But our OCD tendencies are such a barrier to creativity. Sometimes an “Oh, screw it!” approach pays dividends. An acceptance of our fallibity means that sometimes, just sometimes, we get to see the beauty of the wood rather than the bark on each individual bloody tree. 😉

      Lovely having you popping by. Come again and I’ll put the kettle on.

      Chastity x

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