Why edit before you submit?

Imagine a publisher receiving a manuscript of poems, with a particularly stirring poem on our brave-hearts during the Kargil war that has a line ‘Our loins are roaring in Kargil’. Now, unless the publisher has a particularly refined sense of humour or looks at the line as a metaphorical statement, chances are that the manuscript will find its place in what publishers refer to as the slush pile. And this is not even in the realm of imagination – this is a true-life experience of an editor.

Or consider, you have submitted a manuscript to a publisher with a covering note that says, ‘I hope you will look at this urgently and there will be no soft-peddling on taking a decision.’ Now, it might escape your attention that there’s a world of difference between soft-peddling (you peddle your views … or drugs) and pedalling (which is what you should have used).

Or did you know how often we use a phrase or word incorrectly. A ‘pyrrhic victory’, for example, is not a hollow victory, but one won at great cost. Or consider the words ‘sensual/sensuous’ – they do not mean the same … sensuous means being alive to sensations, specifically not sexual, which sensual connotes.

These are just some of the minutiae of language and grammar that a writer needs to be aware of, necessitating the services of a skilled editor. Editing and proofreading are two different skill-sets and only the best in the business can polish your text to make it worth a publisher’s time to consider going through it.

While writing, an author is more focused on letting her thoughts flow as they come to her. She is not at this point of time, or even while revisiting a first draft, looking at the larger picture. Also, she is often too close to the material at hand to understand how it can be made better in terms of content, language and grammar. The two distinct processes of editing and proofreading fill in the gaps that an author may have inadvertently left.

The process of editing entails overall organization of the material. The editor will ensure that paragraphs are structured well and there is a logical flow from one paragraph to the next, one chapter to the next. The editor will also ensure that ideas / sentences are not repeated and will point out if a particular idea needs better exploration. He or she will also ensure that each sentence is chiselled to its best so that the idea is clear and the text is not too verbose or clichéd.

The proofreading stage calls for a hawk’s eye in catching spelling errors, typos and errors/inconsistencies in names of people and places referred to in the text. You will be surprised how often Atal Bihari becomes Atal Behari. This is also the stage at which the editor addresses finicky punctuation issues that might have been overlooked during the edits when the focus was on structure, content and language. A wrong comma can end up giving a different meaning than what is intended. For example, as Lynne Truss has memorably highlighted, ‘a bear eats shoots and leaves’ gets a whole new sinister take if it says: ‘a bear eats, shoots, and leaves’.

Fiction and non-fiction have their own specific editorial demands. In fiction, an editor will look at the quality of the dialogue (does it sound true to the character, is this how people speak, is there too much dialogue), the arc of a character’s development, visual description of a scene, logical loopholes or use of deux ex machine to salvage narrative contrivances. In non-fiction, an editor’s task will be more geared to working out if the main idea of the narrative is clearly articulated and followed-up, there are no repetitions, and that citations and references are clearly demarcated.

There is no book in the world that is ready to print as-is. The best of authors need editorial support. The editor is often the first objective reader of the book who approaches the material without bias or prejudice (he is not likely a family member or a close friend – though nothing prevents an author-editor friendship). A good editor brings tremendous value to the book through his non-partisan approach. A good author, likewise, recognizes the contribution a good editor can make to the book. At the end of the day, it is important to remember that the book is the author’s – it is she whose writing will be judged. The editor is a facilitator whose job is to ensure a book that is as error-free as is possible. And as they say about films, a good edit will never ‘show’ – it blends seamlessly with the narrative.