The pen fantastic, or the unconscious rhythms of an editorially-minded brain

Originally published on LinkedIn back in August 2016.

Sometimes, during dinner parties, or when out at the pub, or even when being introduced to friends of friends at some social occasion (to be honest – we’re probably at the pub), inevitably, despite attempting to avoid being asked (or asking) the question, somehow, the looming, Cthulhu-like question presents itself before me, setting my social alarms on fire (because this is one of probably two questions that I try to avoid being asked): “What do you do?”

I loathe that question. More than I loathe bad coffee. Or warm cider. Or that awful cider-beer car crash of a concoction that my partner and I once failed to drink (even after we added vodka).

It’s an awful question. Because it doesn’t bear any relation to what I think, do, feel, or contemplate (I’m still trying to understand cats; I suspect this is a losing battle). So the lump bobs in my throat, and I answer: “I’m an editor”.

Here’s the most common response I get to this admission:

“So you’re a spell checker.”

Klaxons go off. Somewhere, red lights flash about a room full of people scrambling for their dear lives. Shadows bounce off walls faster than a year old with an espresso and a puppy

“That’s…not actually what we do. I mean, it helps to not have glaring typos in one’s works, but that’s not reeaaaaaaaallllyyy what editors do.”

And so the discussion begins. Once again, I have to justify myself. Guilty until proven innocent.

(Dear reader: you can surely understand, if you’re capable of experiencing sympathy, empathy, or even pathos, how much this is like wandering into the Eternal Tomb of Mediocrity and Bad TV Programming – all of it hosted and announced on loud speaker by Richard Simmons .)

Because you see, it’s easy to forget the struggles writers go through. It’s them versus a blank screen. And the blank screen doesn’t blink. Facing off against Weeping Angels is almost preferred to the numbing, soul-shriveling terror of facing off against a white screen.

Writers can be a nervous, uncertain lot, especially after having tussled the White Screen of Anxiety, to produce something that they hope to all the dark and ancient gods that walk in the forgotten alleyways just out of immediate eyesight, that they’ve produced something actually worth reading. And they hope that it made at least some sense, if not total sense.

And sometimes it does, right from the get-go. But there are so many nuclear launch codes that need to be in perfect nuclear winter harmony for this to happen. And hot damn but it’s a rarity.

More often than not, work will need to be done. Never mind the typos.

Do the paragraphs follow in a consistent and logical order?

Is there a central thesis?

Is the argument consistent throughout?

Is there a beginning, a middle, and an end?

Questions, so many questions.

And then us editor folk enter the process with our own set of questions:

Is the language style consistent throughout?

Those terms which appear more than once – are they spelled the same way each time they appear? Or does page 1 feature ‘specialise’ and page 19 ‘specialize’?

Does the piece flow? Are the paragraphs consistently of a similar size? Do they have a similar number of lines?

Is the tense correct?

So many questions.

We’re there, essentially, to make sure the whole is (ideally) greater than the sum of its parts. And that means ensuring that the piece is consistent throughout.

Think of it like a skeleton on an examination table. If parts of the thigh were suddenly up near the shoulder, and the ankle bones were swapped with the bones around the arms and wrists, more likely than not, our brains would tell us (upon seeing this madly mis-Lego’d skeleton) that “something is wrong”.

We should look at a skeleton and not notice, not think that anything is wrong.

When we read an essay, a novella, a short story, a full-blown brick of a novel, whatever it might be – we shouldn’t stop to think that something “doesn’t quite feel right”. It should flow effortlessly, and logically. The correctness of the skeleton should be an invisible obviousness.

And that’s what editors are there to do. To ensure the skeleton is consistent. At work, I call this “making invisible edits”. And it’s a thankless task sometimes. And reader – you know why. Of course you do.

No one ever notices what you do right, only what you do wrong.

So often times, what we do is thankless.

But if you noticed that something was wrong, however subtly, even if it’s just your unconscious nagging at you the way mine was when I watched ‘Suicide Squad’, noticing that something was wrong (in this instance – the editing and pace was inconsistent throughout the movie), then we, as editors, haven’t done our job entirely correctly.

Because it’s not an all or nothing proposition. Sometimes mistakes slip through and it adds to the final product. Or at least makes for a funny oddity. It’s a question of degrees, naturally.

But in essence, the editor’s job is to be invisible. And to make the experience seamless and consistent, to maintain the hook…the pull…to make sure the magic show of reading is never disrupted.

It’s a kind of strange magic. And I don’t know that any of us will ever be able to explain it. But it’s our magic. And who can ever really explain magic? More to the point: who’d want to have it explained to them? Where’s the fun in that?

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