Dotting the 'I's ... an editor's role? - Alex Marchant

I’ve worked in publishing for a long time now in various capacities. My first job was as desk editor for a small press in Gloucestershire - back in the days when galley proofs were still a thing, and my first job was proofreading medieval city records in Latin (letter by letter...). The company was leading the way in computer typesetting, but overall little had changed since Gutenberg. 

Caxton's printing shop

After a spell back in archaeology, I moved briefly into medical, then management publishing – where I learnt numerous buzzwords and reluctantly retailed the bulls**t beloved of that sector. Being pushed towards management didn’t appeal – neither wrangling staff nor overseeing the editing of magazines – so I moved back to what first drew me to the industry – working directly with collections of words that other people had lovingly crafted.

Newly freelance, I targeted academic publishing companies as potential clients – that’s where I’d started and where I felt I could best use my skills. I’ve always written fiction and also briefly flirted with a move into fiction editing (an interview with Walker Books was spurned in favour of a sunny French archaeological dig), but for most of my freelance career I’ve worked for university presses and similar non-fiction publishers. My days are spent wrestling with the minutiae of referencing systems, polishing academics’ prose, spotting missing commas, framing queries and suggested rewordings as diplomatically as possible, and far too often being sidetracked into social media when googling what was a legitimate editorial query....

More recently, with the extension of my career into writing fiction for children, other opportunities are opening up for me, and sometimes I’ve wondered whether to offer my editing skills to fellow independent authors. After all, to an extent these skills are transferable to fiction and might well help to avoid the frequent criticism of some self-published books – that they are littered with silly typos and errors.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor Image may contain: one or more people
Two of my favourite typos (both spotted one day in a single project - not by an indie author), are cavalry substituted for Calvary and canons for cannons...
Yet, while I have on occasion edited fiction over the years, and yes, can spot stray punctuation, incorrect spelling, dodgy formatting and the like, I’m well aware that fiction copyediting is a very different beast from non-fiction. An author’s voice is such a subtle thing, and we all have our own personal ways of telling our stories. I suspect I would struggle to tread that apparently fine line between helpful, light-touch editing and – well, telling an author they’d used too many adverbs, or asking whether they really wanted their characters to do that!
I’ve had a flavour of the potential difficulties recently, having invited some fellow authors to contribute to an anthology of short fiction about our favourite king, Richard III, to sell as a fundraiser for Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A dozen kindly agreed, and a similar number who heard about it on the grapevine are keen to contribute to any future project. I’ve enjoyed the whole process, from reading the stories as they came in to the satisfaction of seeing everything come together and pressing that button for Amazon pre-order. And yet ... here are a disparate group of authors with a wide range of styles and views – all writing about a single man, who has – to say the least – a controversial reputation and a history that has been interpreted in myriad ways over the centuries. We’re all Ricardians – who believe the man was unjustly maligned after his death – but we still have many different approaches to his story.

A clutch of Ricardian authors, plotting an anthology, Alex, Marla Skidmore and J. P. Reedman, Bosworth 2018

I found myself adopting the lightest of light-touch approaches, pulling back from queries or changes that I might have made with hardly a thought in my day job. Afraid of imposing my views or my style. Would the Richard in my stories have said or done this or that? (Answer: it doesn’t matter – this Richard isn’t ‘mine’!) Might that comment be a tad controversial for some of our potential readership? (Hmmm, could be, but it has to stay...) Should I back away from any mention of the arguments over his reburial location? (Eek – the trouble that caused!) Alien abduction – hell, why not? An adverb here or there – no matter...
When all is said and done, these stories belong to the authors who wrote them. I may be named on the title-page as editor, but that just denotes my role as facilitator – doesn't it? I simply gathered the people and stories together, dotted the ‘I’s and crossed the ‘T’s, checked the headings matched, chased up a well-known historical novelist to write the Foreword (yes! [punches fist in air] – we got her!), uploaded it all for sale. It’s not my job to tell anyone how or what they should write. Their names are on their stories: they’ll take the praise – or the flak.

Grant Me the Carving of My Name, now on pre-order!

Have I got the balance right? I hope so. I guess time will tell. My fellow contributors have been appreciative of what I’ve done, and pre-publication buzz is building – as are the pre-orders (currently we’re #4 in Amazon’s historical fiction short stories ranking and 170 in the overall chart – although as we are up against Wolf Hall and all three volumes of Lord of the Rings, I must admit I’m still bemused as to how those rankings work). The book includes a ‘call for contributors’ for a second anthology. If that goes ahead, will my editorial ‘policy’ be the same? Hmmm.....

Sources:; Lady Butler's painting Scotland Forever!;  Four canons with Sts Augustine and Jerome by an open grave, with the VisitationMaster of the Spes Nostra [nl] (active c. 1500–1520, Northern Netherlands)


Rosalie Warren said…
Yes, there can be a fine line between an author's personal style and the need for editorial correction in fiction. As a fellow copy editor and proofreader (and also an author) I am all too familiar with that quandary. I sometimes get round it by adding a comment to the author, pointing out, for example, that their punctuation is not standard but perhaps they realise this and are deliberately doing it for special effect. After that, it's up to them! (I also tend to point out that ease of reading is of prime importance, whatever the register of the writing.)
Umberto Tosi said…
My kingdom for an editor (as fine as you!) Good editors make for better writers, and vice versa. Having an intelligent, thorough-yet-attuned editor gives a writer the confidence to take creative risks as much as a censoring one (internal or external) dampens said creativity. This is not to mention the improvements all around in legibility, accuracy, consistency and style. On the flip side, a good editor thrives on working with a fine writer, not as adversaries, but as part of a creative team. Anyway, thank you for your thought-provoking essay on our craft, Alex.
Alex Marchant said…
Many thanks for your comments, Rosalie and Umberto!

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