Over her 35-year career in editing, spanning many changes to the publishing industry, Jane Parkin has worked with some of New Zealand’s leading authors. In August we had a chance to ask Jane some burning questions about the industry, her experiences and her editing process.
Q: What are some of the more memorable publications you’ve edited and what are you working on now?
A: I have been working as a book editor for a good 35 years or more – so have worked on literally hundreds of books. But if I think of highlights – some of them have to do with the sheer quality of the work, some to do with the pleasure of working with a particular author or publisher, some to do with particular books that chime with my own interests, politics, sensibilities, some because I simply learn something new. Not all books are memorable, but I’ve probably learned something from every one of them. Over the years I’ve also worked on various ‘non-book’ projects – reports, booklets, promotional material: it’s good to mix in a bit of this, especially as it can help underpin the vagaries of a freelance income. But I always come back to books feeling I’m back to where I belong.
I am currently editing several books, all at various stages of completion – a memoir, some history, a biography. Not nearly enough fiction, though two good novels have come my way in the last couple of months.
Q: So you’ve edited many different types of publications over the years. Do you think it is important for an editor to specialise in a certain form or genre?
A: Not for editors like me who are working in general trade publishing. There’s certainly a place for specialisation in areas like legal or educational publishing, and in children’s books. And certain genres, like science fiction, or romance fiction, or even crime fiction more broadly, should be edited by someone very well read in those genres. I’m not, so wouldn’t know a science fiction cliché, say, if I fell over one! That said, the key to becoming a good editor is to read and read and read – and as widely as possible. Don’t just stick with what you think you’ll like – try new writers in all sorts of genres, go back to the books you always meant to read and never got around to, don’t be embarrassed about reading the odd bit of junk (or something really nerdy) – it’s all really important grist to the mill. And read closely – there’s no shame in being a slow reader if you’re an editor.
Q: How have your editing skills developed with experience? How does your experience editing non-fiction inform the way you treat fiction and vice versa?
A: Certainly, my skills have developed hugely over time. I don’t think I’m any better technically than I was, say, 10 or even 20 years ago; in fact, I’m a lot less fussy about some of the more arcane rules of grammar and the like than I once was. But I think my ear has become more finely tuned, and that’s a key thing in editing – having a feel for the writer’s voice, having a sense of what might be possible for them to do or not do in the allotted time, knowing the questions to ask, knowing when to push hard and when to let something go. There’s not a great deal of difference in my approach to fiction or non-fiction in this respect.
Q: You recently spoke with our class about the craft of editing. During that discussion, you said that every editor approaches a text differently. How would you describe your approach?
A: The writers I’ve worked with would probably answer this best! Probably, though, I’d say my style is quite flexible. I’m really not one to go in boots and all and dictate how a book must be and this is how we’ll proceed: I try to take a lead from the writer (or publisher, when they give me specific instructions), learn about what they want from the process, what concerns they have about the manuscript, and how they’d like to work. Consultation is the key. I’ll have my own views, of course, about what is working in a manuscript and what is not, but my role is to say my piece, then to encourage the author to work on these aspects of the text in a way that’s right for them – to find their own solutions. It’s extremely seldom I’ll tell an author something they don’t already know, so it’s often the case that the author knows the solutions already – they’ve been simmering away, just waiting for an editor or publisher to call them out! It’s one of the magic bits of the editing process. Other characteristics of my approach? Tact, calmness, a good sense of humour, an appreciation of what’s possible – these are all important in establishing a supportive and productive editor/author relationship.
Q: Speaking about the editor/author relationship, you said that the editor’s role is to ‘draw out the writer’. How do you draw the line between helping an author realise their vision and turning a book into something that it isn’t?
A: It’s incredibly important for an editor to have a feel for or understanding of an author’s voice, and to work with that, rather than impose their own view of what the author’s voice (or message) should be. My own taste doesn’t come into it when I’m editing – what I need to do is ensure that the author’s own tone, style, voice are serving the story in the best possible way, regardless of whether I ‘like’ it or not. Certainly, it’s my role to point out inconsistencies, waffliness, dullness, sentimentality, clichés – sins in anyone’s book! – but it’s not my role to make a book something it’s not, or to attempt to ‘correct’ or rework a narrative style that’s idiosyncratic or simply not my cup of tea.
Q: Have the changes in the publishing industry affected your role as an editor (e.g. the amount of time you have to develop a work with an author)?
A: Yes, of course. The work I do as a freelance editor has changed enormously as a result of changes in the industry. There are too many issues to cover here, but time pressure is certainly one of the hardest. Books now are scheduled so far in advance, often before a manuscript has even been sighted – if it comes in a complete mess, it still has to be edited and produced within the original timeframe. That’s tough! I’m also expected to do a great deal more, usually in a shorter timeframe, than I used to do before digitisation became the norm. On top of the structural and copy editing, I’m now largely expected to deliver typesetting-ready copy, and to devote a great deal more time to proofreading, formatting, and so on. I’m old school enough to think that an editor should not be expected to proofread text they’ve been working on so closely – that’s a job for another eye. And also, of course, there’s been the great shift away from publishers employing in-house editors. Some do, but working freelance is now the norm, and it’s much more isolating for editors – I do miss the collegiality and stimulation of being part of team, and I suspect authors, too, miss out on the kind of nurturing that can happen over time when there’s a dedicated in-house editor reading and discussing current and future projects.
Editors learn from other editors, though I suspect this is happening less and less as editors work in a more atomised way. I certainly still discuss editing issues with other editors if and when I need to – there’s nothing like being able to ask, ‘What would you do with such-and-such?’, having a sounding board when something seems a bit intractable. Trouble is, there are fewer and fewer of us to ask.
Q: Some creative writing programmes teach that to be a good writer you have to be a good editor. Do you think the reverse holds true?
A: No, I don’t. A good editor needs to be a good reader. Some editors are fine writers, of course, but those lucky people are blessed with much more than their editorial abilities – writing requires imagination, bravery, drive …
Q: When you’re not editing, what are you doing?
A: Trying to stay away from the computer screen!