The Nit Comb or The Importance of Editing

Last week in The Guardian, Rick Gekoski published an article  on the importance of editing, in response to the revelation that esteemed publisher Victor Gollancz didn’t believe in it:

‘If I were an author I would sooner starve than let anyone hack my book about.’ Woah there, Victor!

Thankfully, Fremantle Press does not share Gollancz’s view on editing. Because the thought of my work making its way into the world without being edited fills me with dread.

For starters, I don’t know how to use commas. No, I am not being facetious. I have a PhD in English, I teach English as a Second Language at a reputable institution and yet from the editing of my first and second novels I have come to understand that the placement of commas is a complex problem I may never fully fathom. You place a comma where you would pause for breath, right? Wrong! Commas allegedly adhere to either end of a clause. But what even is a clause? And does anyone actually care? Apparently, yes.

At a ‘meet the author’ event for A New Map of the Universe, a bitter, mean little man monopolised the evening telling me, at length, all the things he didn’t like about my book. Then, when coffee was being served and I thought the ordeal was finally over, he approached me to show me, in a page he had specially marked, a sentence in which he believed I had a misplaced comma. Having done battle with my editor over that very comma I felt confident it was in the only place it was reasonably allowed to be. And I told him so. Ah, revenge is sweet.

Of course, I do not presume to diminish the editing profession by suggesting all they do is shift tiny black slugs around a page. Editors have a startling memory for individual words. They encounter a word like ‘blessing’ for example, and something lights up inside their brains, Hmm, wait a minute, I’ve read that word before, only a couple of pages ago, I think, yes, here it is, page 74. They bring it to your awareness. Are you comfortable with this word appearing twice in such close proximity? There are 6416 different words in Whisky Charlie Foxtrot. I know because I downloaded a program to give me exactly such data. My editor could give me this same data without the benefit of software; like a sixth sense.

Editors are also rigorous fact checkers. I am the first to admit I am a sloppy researcher. (I am ashamed of this, but not sufficiently ashamed to change my ways). In my first novel, one of my characters travelled cross country from one town to another. I used the old atlas-and-piece-of string-method to guestimate the distance. Resourceful, I thought. My editor, employing more precise calculation methods, told me that my character had ended up somewhere in the ocean. Fail!

And what about anachronisms? Charlie and Whisky’s dad buys a copy of Moonlight Shadow in 1979? Impossible! Mike Oldfield hadn’t even written the darn song yet. Charlie gives his views on Tom & Nicole’s breakup at a New Year’s Eve party in 1999? Nope, sorry, they didn’t break up until 2 months later. Of course these things don’t affect the story in fundamental ways. But there seem to be people who read books with a metaphorical nit comb in hand, scrutinising for mistakes of any kind. One old dear, bless her socks, wrote me a letter, c/o UWA Publishing, after A New Map of the Universe came out. Look! I said to my husband. My first fan mail! Alas, it turned out to be an explanation of a technical error in my description of church bellringing during World War II.

Today, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot went to press. Any errors that have slipped through the editorial net are there for eternity. In November, when the book begins to make its way into people’s hands and minds, out will come the nit combs. So be it.

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The Nit Comb or The Importance of Editing   ANNABEL SMITH

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