Shakespeare had some help: editing and the myth of the solitary genius writer

Red pen sitting upon a corrected page

A writer friend who’d begun teaching her craft at a university once advised me that, with my experience, I could teach ‘editing’, pronouncing this word as if naming Milo Yiannopoulos.

Because that’s a subject close to my heart (editing, not Yiannopoulos), I was miffed at her acid tone. But typically, my response came to me hours after the conversation as I tried to sleep that night: The work of editors, I thundered indignantly in my mind, is invaluable to written culture. Good writing is most often far more collaborative than you’d imagine. As a writer, hasn’t an editor saved you from at least an embarrassing typo at some point, if not a gaping plot hole or a demonstrably false assertion?

My friend’s dismissal of my profession is partly informed by editors’ tradition of self-effacement. Book editors are often contractually bound to stay tight-lipped about their work, and traditionally aren’t acknowledged anywhere in a book. According to legendary US editor Robert Gottlieb, this is because the reading public wants to believe that every word of their favourite author’s books flowed unadulterated from the writer’s mind to the paper.

That’s rarely, if ever, the case. Even the best writers are faced with a gargantuan mental task in writing a book and, like the rest of us, they get tired. They make mistakes. They suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’, as cognitive linguist Steven Pinker calls it – when writers know a subject so well they unconsciously assume too much knowledge on the part of their readers. This means that, as Ernest Hemingway supposedly said in his succinct fashion, ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’

Writing is both highly a highly democratic and accessible practice, and a specialised field with a vast body of technical knowledge. Anyone with minimal education can write, but the rules and principles of grammar are many and, because they sprang from human minds and changed continuously over the course of aeons, are as messy as hell. Grammar was dropped from the Australian curriculum in the 1970s, so split infinitives and dangling modifiers became the domain of specialists, including editors. Which means everyone has misconceptions about our language. (Including me. I won’t tell you how recently I still thought that ‘most’ meant about 75%; it doesn’t. Why did I think this? I don’t know. It was probably a guess made in childhood that hardened into a belief and hung around for far too long into my adulthood.) And that makes editors essential, as guardians of the standards by which ideas are communicated.

Writers needn’t be concerned with dangling modifiers, you say. Writers are prophets, sages, conveyers of universal truths about the human condition. Surely such a near-mystical ability as good writing can’t be reduced to a collection of hoary and confusing ‘rules’. It’s all about the ‘crackle and fizz’ the words make when they’re assembled on the page, as a writer once told me. Leave crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s to the technicians; writers pursue more noble ends. Was Toni Morrison fretting over the placement of commas when she wrote Beloved?

Well, maybe, as it happens, because she was an editor before she was an author and she no doubt learned a trick or two from her first career. Many writers and readers are wary of any attempt to delineate what they prefer to regard as a near-divine gift that cannot be taught. ‘Did Steinbeck go to writing school?’ I was once asked, to which I responded (again, only later that night, and only in my head), Even Shakespeare’s prodigious talent can be explained partly through his acquisition of linguistic techniques described millennia earlier by classical scholars, as revealed by Mark Forsyth in The Elements of Eloquence.

Morrison and Shakespeare are above all storytellers, you say, and that ability can’t be taught. But storytelling, too, is firmly within the editor’s wheelhouse, and it can be taught. Stories are so ubiquitous and fundamental as to be invisible, but book editors must know their conventions and tropes. And they must be able to inhabit imagined worlds and assume characters’ personas in a way that puts Arya Stark’s Many-Faced God to shame. In the words of John E McIntyre, editors ‘collectively [present] the whole world and all of human experience to our readers’.

I suspect my writer friend’s disdain for editing might have something to do with the notion of originality – the writer’s possession of it and the editor’s lack of it. But if writers paint pictures with words, fiction writers can be said to be largely tracing the outlines of their forbears – embellishing a feature here or there or experimenting with colour a little – but essentially reproducing the great works. Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots relates his research into the patterns that underlie all stories, finding that, yep, there are fundamentally only seven stories that western storytellers continually relay to each other. In Into the Woods, John Yorke cites screenwriter Charlie Kaufman’s avowed aversion to the traditional three-act structure of stories, and then describes the ways in which Kaufman’s screenplays adhere strictly to this very structure. And Shakespeare? It’s been revealed that he borrowed from other sources to a degree that would be considered plagiarism today, and the scholar Eleanor Prosser has found that ‘Somewhere behind the Folio … lies a conscientious and exacting editor.’

Accomplished entrepreneurs routinely attribute their success solely to their own hard work or talent, ignoring the ingenuity of the town planner and the labour of the council workers who paved the roads they drive to work on, and the skills of legislators who crafted the business-friendly regulatory environment they thrive in. Similarly, writers often disregard the texts that came before their own and made them possible. Film critic AO Scott points out in Better Living Through Criticism that ‘all art that is recognizable as such is in some degree about other art. Every writer is a reader … driven by a desire to imitate, to correct, to improve, or to answer the models before them.’

My writer friend works mostly for newspapers, so her editors likely have one eye on their résumés while they try to do what used to be the jobs of four people. ‘They leave the typos in,’ she told me. ‘Well,’ I said in reply, this time aloud, ‘maybe you should study editing.’

Tony Ryan is a freelance editor and Grattan Street Press’s sales lead. Tony Ryan






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