An American Editor

March 14, 2011

Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process

Although not usually thought of in these terms, there is a symbiotic relationship between the authorial and the editorial processes. In many ways, it is like the relationship between a composer and librettist. How well the relationship works can determine how good the end product is.

A well-written book is analogous to Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. It begins softly, builds to a crescendo, and adds new characters and plot twists and turns (i.e., new instruments and sounds) until that climactic moment.

To bring off this well-written book successfully, not only must the author have great skills, but the editor must be skilled. To use another music analogy, consider opera. The role of the author is that of the composer; the role of the editor is that of the librettist. In the case of opera, the person credited with the opera is the composer; the librettist, although noted in an acknowledgment, is publicly forgotten. Yet what makes an opera great is the symbiotic relationship between the composer and the librettist.

Consider Léo Delibes’s opera Lakme. It happens to be one of my favorite operas. I especially love the “The Flower Duet,” sung as Lakme and her servant Mallika gather flowers, which was written by the librettists Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille, who are essentially unknown in the opera world. It is the combination of the music and the duet between Lakme and Mallika that makes “The Flower Duet” so extraordinary:

Just as this combination of the known (composer) and unknown (librettist) can combine to create great, memorable music, so the relationship between an author (visible) and editor (invisible) can combine to create a great book.

Unfortunately, with the changes that are occurring in publishing and with the rise of ebooks this symbiosis between author and editor is being strained to the point of near-breaking. Publishers are trying to cut production costs as finely as they can, and too many see editorial work — in the sense of editing and proofreading — as being of ephemeral value. It is no longer uncommon to hear a publisher say that readers don’t complain about poor editing, so they obviously must not notice when editing is missing.

Authors, who with the rise of ebooks are increasingly taking on the role of the publisher, take the same tack but more often emphasize the expense. One author boasted on the copyright page of his meganovel that the ebook hadn’t been copyedited because no one cared and he wasn’t going to spend the money. That might have been okay if the ebook were being given away for free, but the ebook was $8.99! (I read enough of the ebook via a sample to realize it was in desperate need of an editor, so I passed on buying it.)

The authorial and editorial processes are really a single process; different phases of a single process, but a single process nonetheless. We tend to divide the phases of manuscript preparation into separate stages and processes, but that is really more for convenience that a reflection of the reality of the process. The two processes are so intertwined that they should be inseparable and authors should not fear an editor’s input. A manuscript doesn’t become less the author’s work because of editing, but it may become more of the author’s vision as a result of editing. Consider Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and their editor, Maxwell Perkins.

Although Perkins is considered to be perhaps the greatest editor of the 20th century, it is not Perkins who is remembered and revered (except by a few of us editors who know of him), but Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Yet both acknowledged that their books would not have been the masterpieces they were if it hadn’t been for Perkins’s contributions.

Ultimately, my point is that, like great music, great books are collaborative enterprises and when part of the collaborative team is missing, the book suffers, the author suffers, and the reader suffers. Authors need to rethink their stance when they decline to spend money to hire a professional editor, and there is a world of difference between a professional editor and a friend whose job is maintaining a computer network who thinks he/she can edit a book because they have read a lot of books. These differences have been discussed in prior articles; see, for example, The Missing Ingredient: Grammar Skills; Finding a Professional Editor: The Needle in the Haystack Problem; In the Face: eBook Errors; I Published My Book But Readers Keep Finding Errors; The WYSIWYG Conundrum: The Solid Cloud; On Words: Is the Correct Word Important?; and On Words & eBooks: Give Me a Brake! These articles are well worth reading if not previously read, and rereading if it has been a while. Because the author wants to be viewed as a skilled writer, the author needs the help of a professional editor whose skills transcend those of the neighbor who dabbles because he/she reads.

The authorial and editorial process can help a book follow the path of Lakme — from beginning to finale — in creating another memorable “Flower” duet.

6 Comments »

  1. Excellent points, and very well expressed! Thanks for this, from another freelance manuscript editor.

    Comment by Jodie Renner — March 14, 2011 @ 9:44 am | Reply

  2. [...] Professional editors need to better explain our role to authors before we have no role to play at all (see Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process). [...]

    Pingback by On Words & eBooks: What Does It Take? | The Digital Reader — April 11, 2011 @ 5:38 am | Reply

  3. Wonderful, beautiful, and–dare I say–musical post. It encourages me to view my chosen profession, that of an editor, in a different light. Thank you a million times for this.

    Comment by Newton — October 28, 2011 @ 6:22 pm | Reply

  4. Ah, Perkins!

    Comment by Glenn — November 9, 2011 @ 6:34 pm | Reply

  5. [...] working together to create a masterpiece. I know I’ve suggested this before (see, e.g., Symbiosis: The Authorial and Editorial Process), and I have also stated that I consider “The Flower Duet” from Leo Delibes’ [...]

    Pingback by A Musical Interlude: Duets « An American Editor — December 24, 2012 @ 4:06 am | Reply

  6. Well written and very apt analogies. Thank you for pointing me in your direction.

    Comment by Frances Figart — March 12, 2013 @ 1:03 pm | Reply


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