Pensive Prowler #19: A Life in the Day of an Editor

Pensive Prowler #19 by Dmetri Kakmi

A Life in the Day of an Editor 

When I’m not being a writer, I am disguised as a mild mannered freelance editor, complete with spectacles, and I do what all editors must do to earn a buck. Prostitute myself. That’s to say, I sell myself to publishers and authors who wish to use and abuse my services.

Editing is a complex, multi-faceted task. It’s a responsible position, not to be taken lightly. You are after all facilitating the process by which an author brings a book into the world; and thereby creating literature, the life blood of a nation. In a way, putting yourself forward to do the job is hubris. You’re tempting the gods. You’re saying you know better how to fix this and how to correct that. It takes a special kind of extravert-introvert to display that kind of guts. You work long hours for paltry pay and little thanks.

Yet there is no book without the editor. Just like there is no manuscript without the author. While working together, the editor becomes an extension of the author, representing his or her interests to the publisher, and sometimes even acting as therapist and punching bag. During this time, they are the best and worst friends, conjoined for a time and ripped apart at the end. Though enduring professional relationships can develop.

 Still, people ask: What does an editor actually do?

Where to begin?

Without going to too much detail, the first thing an editor does is read the manuscript and form an intelligent opinion about it. This stage is called structural editing. You look at what works and what doesn’t work. Locate strengths and weaknesses. Character development, themes, story logic and coherence, that sort of thing. Is the structure strong or is it going to topple half way through?

Along the way, you ask yourself myriad questions. Is it interesting? Do I care about the story, the characters? Is the writing engaging? How can we build on various aspects? Sometimes you read the manuscript two or three times before you get a proper handle on it.

When you’re done, you present the author with a carefully worded manuscript assessment. And hope they don’t hang themselves when they read it. Why? Because no matter how famous or experienced they are, a first draft is never perfect. It is never ready to be copy edited. It’s the beginning of the road, not the end. You need many drafts before that can happen. Sometimes three or four. Sometimes ten. Depends on the author’s expertise, patience and pulling power.

This is the most rewarding and most tortuous part of the process for the author. It’s the part I enjoy most as an editor, watching the layers build. Few authors see it that way. It’s hell for many, like pulling teeth without anaesthetic. In fact, this is the stage where a story comes together and develops subtleties and nuances. It’s the slow percolating phase. That’s why it’s wise not to rush. Take your time, I tell the author. Don’t hurry. Despite tight schedules and their desire to be rid of the project and move on to new pastures.

A lot of hand-holding is done at this stage.

Let’s skip forward and pretend the necessary drafts have been completed. Everyone is happy and the manuscript is ready to be copy edited. This is the part I like least. But it must be done. To coin a metaphor, making a book is like fashioning a beautiful garment, the most perfect scintillating object in creation, and now you must sew on the precious pearl buttons or the invisible zipper that will seal the shimmering perfection over the corpus. It must be done or else the garment will not hang properly.

In aid of this, you diligently check for typos, punctuation, grammar, inconsistencies etc. You tighten sentences, make them more eloquent, more precise… And then you have to pass it by the author who may or may not like what you’ve done. This is acceptable. That isn’t. Leave as is. When it’s gone through the approval phase, you proofread the first pages to make sure the typesetter has taken in all the edits exactly as you wish. Sometimes you may have to go to two or three sets of page proofs before everything is to your satisfaction, by which stage you’re ready to poke out your eyes with a fork. Or take up pole dancing, which is more profitable.

Behind the scenes, you’ve been quietly working with a designer who is coming up with cover concepts. The author is consulted during this process but they rarely have final say. Unless they’re incredibly famous and powerful. Or if they’re working with small publishers, who tend to be more inclusive. Sales and marketing carry most weight in big publishing houses. Even the editor can be sidelined during this process, and I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut at cover meetings. Idiotic decisions can be made by people who have not read the manuscript. When a cover is approved, the editor, whether he likes it or not, emails a jpeg to the author with the following caveat. “We love this cover and hope you like it too.” Meaning you better like it, ‘cause this is it, baby.

Sometimes all hell breaks loose, sometimes a few jiggles are required to pass it through the eye of the needle. Then it’s time to send the whole lot to the printer. Months later, while you’re working on nine or ten other books, an advance copy hits your desk and you jubilantly cry, “My baby is here,” having forgotten the agony you went through to deliver this one.

That’s it really. Nothing to it. Probably explains why even the stationary boy gets more money than an editor. Or why the State Library of Victoria can advertise the position of journal editor and unashamedly say it’s a voluntary appointment; no remuneration.

But that’s another story…


Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.

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The Drunken Odyssey is a forum to discuss all aspects of the writing process, in a variety of genres, in order to foster a greater community among writers.


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