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Book editing used to be one of the dark arts, but a recent spate of articles and blog posts has brought the profession into the limelight. The person widely acknowledged to have started the public debate is the Guardian‘s literary editor, Claire Armitstead (above), when she voiced her frustration at the standard of book editing. Andrew Motion chimed in with his comments on judging the Man Booker: ‘Not nearly enough novels get the editing they need.’ (Those with longer memories may remember James Naughtie saying much the same thing last year.) Even the BBC has got involved.

However I bookmarked an article by Liz Thomson on the London Book Fair website back in January on ‘The Lost Art of Editing’, so perhaps this isn’t such a new complaint. Liz gives a valuable perspective on the editorial process from within the publishing industry. While her conclusions aren’t as downbeat as the article title suggests, she admits that: ‘While the best authors recognise the added value a good copy editor brings to their work, the skill is under-valued, training largely inadequate.’ At around the same time, Stephen Guise (former editor at Little, Brown, now freelance) took a bleaker view, asking ‘Who’d Be an Editor?’: ‘In the future there’ll be fewer editors in-house, and less editorial experience further up the greasy pole. Not only must this have an effect on the quality of books published today, it also suggests the question: to whom will the editors of the future turn for advice?’

And indeed, to whom will authors turn? In this regard it’s cheering to see a novelist (Ed Hogan) openly praising his editor (Francesca Main at Simon and Schuster): ‘Francesca’s comments on The Hunger Trace were illuminating. So much so, in fact, that my first reaction was to get a bit upset! Once I started work on the changes, however, I realised not only how vital they were to THT, but how they would change the way I approached my work in the future.’ Ed goes on to say: ‘I don’t think any of this stifles creativity. Having someone you trust at the other end means you can experiment a little more, safe in the knowledge that you’ll be told if it doesn’t work.’ Sam Leith is another grateful author, but has slightly more mixed feelings about the editorial process: ‘The experience of being line-edited is awe-inspiring, professionally heartening and completely horrible. No hostile reviewer can be as withering as a friendly line-editor.’

Perhaps the last word should go to another editor, Alex Bowler at Jonathan Cape, whose blog post sheds light on why some of us got into this profession in the first place: ‘There is a rich and serious pleasure to copyediting which goes beyond those of the pedant … When you’re lucky enough to have the time to copyedit well, you develop a unique, intimate knowledge of whatever it is you’re working on; you start to see patterns, structures, traits, secrets, and feel that for a week or so you’re closer than any reader in the world to the strange, alchemic magic that makes a book great.’

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