The Joys of Being an Editor by Rosalie Warren

Another distraction - view from my window as I type

When I’m not writing my own books or not-very-successfully trying to promote them, my chief occupation is being an editor, proofreader and appraiser of other people’s work, and I must admit I love these things almost as much as I love doing my own writing. The processes are very different, however, and seem to use entirely different bits of my brain. It would be lovely to be able to do my own work in the mornings, for example, and work on other people’s books in the afternoons. I know some editors who do this, but for me it simply doesn’t work. It was the same with lecturing and research, in the days when I did those things. In UK universities, lecturers are expected to fit their original research into the gaps between all their various teaching commitments and administrative functions. There are exceptions in a few places, I believe, and perhaps for some who’ve achieved the dizzy heights of academic stardom, but on the whole it’s a question of ‘Right, no lectures or meetings between nine and ten this morning – quick, let’s have an original idea or knock off a paper.’ The trouble is, most people’s brains, especially the creative aspects of them needed for research and original writing, don’t work like that.

I’m not going to address the university problem here, though it’s an enormous one and leads on to much else that needs to be thought about. Just to say, though, that I fully accept that students need and deserve the very best in teaching, perhaps even more so in these days when they incur such enormous debts. I’m in no way trying to say that lecturers shouldn’t be giving their very best to their students, and of course administration, as well as the giving of lecturers, seminars and lab classes, is a very important part of that. I’m just pointing out that it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to be creative ‘to order’ – especially in the tiny gaps between setting exam questions, marking papers, counselling a distressed student and planning next year’s courses.

Of course, there are always the vacations! I think some people still believe that university lecturers have the same holidays as the students. Soaps like ‘The Archers’ on Radio 4 have been known to perpetuate this myth. ‘It’s the summer…’ I remember one supposed lecturer saying, ‘so I’m off to spend it in a cabin by a Canadian lake.’ Excuse me while I have a little scream...

No, lecturers don’t get the summer vacations, not in the UK anyway*. Student vacations are when lecturers try to catch up with their own research and attend conferences to keep up with what everyone else is doing. (David Lodge fans please take note – most conferences are not like the ones he describes!) Oh yes, and plan next year’s courses and supervise PhD students, and the rest. I’m not saying it’s not fun and I did enjoy my years as lecturer until life, family responsibilities, commuting and mental health problems made all the juggling finally become impossible. 

My life now is much simpler and I’m very thankful for that. But to get back to my initial point, I still experience this dislocation between my two functions. In order to get properly into my own writing I have to clear my desk first, and that means getting my editing out of the way. My editing, however, is my main source of income, so it’s not a question of reducing how much I do, or not until a few more people start buying my books! It’s this old question of organising myself, of being able to switch roles, and of still having the energy, once I’ve finished a chunk of editing, to get back into my own writing.

Would it be easier if my day job were gardening or painting people’s walls? I suspect it might, but I’m getting a bit too old and creaky for all of that.

One of the chief problems is the old one, familiar to many writers, of turning off my internal editor as I write. Not just the picky one that faffs around with apostrophes, hyphens and dashes, but the one that sits over my left shoulder, looking on and telling me that every word I write is crap. She’s there now, fretting away about this post. I’m trying to ignore her. She never leaves; it’s just a question of blocking up my ears. I need her for later drafts, but not for the early ones. I wished she’d get the message but I suspect she never will.

To end on a more positive note, I want to say that I do love my work as an editor (etc). I’ve just finished two particularly interesting novels, each of which in its own way has broadened my horizons and filled me with admiration, not only for the writers but for the characters they have created. Truly inspirational (if you’re reading this, you know who you are). Most of what I edit and appraise I find very interesting and I’m sure it all helps to inspire my own work in one way or another.
I also, would you believe it after all this moaning, love being a writer. And there’s something about not having enough time to do it that’s good for the work. Like the way that writing on the back of an envelope takes away the fear associated with a clean blank page. I can really associate with J.R.R. Tolkien, who, I believe, wrote the first few words of ‘The Hobbit’ on the back of an exam paper he was supposed to be marking. Which, I suppose, contradicts what I was saying above. His creative brain was clearly awake in the middle of the marking process. Ah well – a little bit of self-contradiction can go a very long way. Maybe this afternoon, having finished my editing this morning, I’ll find a scruffy bit of paper and get back to my own work in progress.

All the best

My Editing Website (as Dr Sheila Glasbey)

*I believe it’s different in the US, where at least some lecturers get the summer months ‘off’ – but they don’t get paid for those months.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thank heaven for good editors! You're double blessed being a creative writer and professional editor. I've been both, but I must admit that editing - particularly, disciplined line-editing - has never been my strong suit. I envy those with that awesome talent, and those, like yourself, who can also balance both pursuits. Good luck with your projects.
Bill Kirton said…
I'm sure we could have a long, interesting chat about academics' attitudes to the job balance, Ros. I took early retirement in 1989, leaping at the chance offered by the university to be part of their kowtowing to Thatcher and becoming lean and mean. Colleagues have since complemented me on my timing, saying that the old, culturally-based courses which gave time and space to discuss Pascal et al had been replaced by 'French for Lawyers', 'French for Doctors', etc. I'm not knocking that - indeed it came partly as a result of student pressure to be offered more vocational courses. All the while I was in post, however, I was aware of how lip service was being paid to the teaching aspect of the job. They made the right noises, but students were seen by some as a necessary evil. I can't explain it really, but I always felt that creativity belonged to the teaching rather than to writing articles which simply had to meet predictable (and often stultifying) academic requirements. But I loved the job and still wonder at the fact that I was paid for spending my time in such a pleasurable way with young, interesting, intelligent young people.
Rosalie Warren said…
Thanks, Umberto, for those kind and encouraging words.

And Bill, yes, would love to chat with you about all this. It's great to hear someone enthuse about creativity in teaching. I think in my field (cognitive science) the research end of the job was much more creative in nature than you have made it sound - perhaps it depends on the field. We wrote papers, of course, but what came before that, when we had the time, involved experimental work, programming and trying to come up with new explanations and theories. That tended to leave limited creative resources available for teaching, which is far from ideal, though some of my colleagues, I have to say , managed to do both and to do it very well. I agree that it is a privilege to work with young, interesting and intelligent young people and I still miss my students a lot!
Enid Richemont said…
I can vouch for Rosalie's editorial skills - she edited one of my adult novels last year, and she was excellent. And I think she still has a student, albeit a very young one.
Umberto - what is that terrifying black spider in your image? I speak as an arachnophobe.
Really interesting post. Is it the whole "right brain, left brain" thing, I wonder? I can also vouch for Rosalie's editing and appraisal skills as she has an excellent understanding of what a writer needs whilst being constructive and encouraging at the same time. And if you haven't read her latest novel Lena's Nest, I can highly recommend it!
Rosalie Warren said…
Thank you, Enid and thank you, Melissa. I'm blushing now, after your very kind comments. Enid, if you mean my young granddaughter Daisy, yes, she's the most brilliant student ever. She's currently majoring in film studies, with particular reference to 'Frozen'. I will make sure she sees your film when she's a little older.

Melissa, I'm sure there are connections with the left/right brain divide, though I think some recent studies cast doubt on whether it's as clear cut as that. But there is no doubt that our brains host a number of distinct identities and it's fascinating the way the brain models its various selves and identifies with or 'owns' different aspects of itself at different times.

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