Copy-editing: Is it a skill?

I wrote a blog recently in which I mentioned finding a copy of a Norman Douglas novel that had belonged to Roger Senhouse and was covered in Senhouse’s meticulous and minute pencil script. The extent of his annotations suggest he was a fearsome proof-reader, not to mention a bit of a pedant. I suppose he would have to have been, being a central figure of the Bloomsbury group as well as one of the founding members of publishing house Secker & Warburg in 1935 when the then moribund Martin Secker was saved from bankruptcy. The other week I was reading the brilliantly irreverent and slightly indiscrete memoirs of literary agent Giles Gordon, Aren’t We Due a Royalty Statement? (1993) and in it Gordon confessed that he couldn’t read any book without having a pencil in his hand, and I’m the same. Perhaps the best annotator of books was the litterateur cum politician Michael Foot – I am lucky enough to own one of his many reference books on his beloved poet Byron. The book is a veritable blizzard of frenetic pencil markings. There’s a man who enjoyed a good book!

The point of my blog today is not to discuss marginalia, scholia and annotations, but rather ask if proof-reading and its more strenuous sibling copy-editing are skills for which you should pay money. Writing from experience, it seems to me that most people are reluctant to accept that their work might need an extra helping hand and a few people might even think that copy-editing is a necessary, if parasitical, evil – here I am, I have written the great opus of my generation and someone wants to charge me money to copy-edit it, God help me!

Pride might enter into things here, but I think it’s rather a more crudely financial matter – most people will hope that a friend with a good eye might proof their manuscript to save them the expense of getting in a professional to do the job. In the hierarchy of people involved in writing and publishing, proof-readers and copy-editors are at the bottom, like the symbiotic birds seen on the huge pachydermic rumps of rhinos. But they perform a vital function: they enhance credibility, respect for words and language, and celebration of the medium of writing. For this reason, what they do deserves to be seen as a skill worth remuneration. I have been in the position before of tugging the forelock to people about to publish something, pleading with them to let me proof their work for a small fee before they do. The few times I have offered these services, they have been refused and the printed book has been sent to me for review (in most cases for free, of course). (In fact the culture of reviewing books for free is enough material for another blog). You can already guess that the mistakes left in the book frustrated me. It might be schadenfreude, but I kind of delighted in reading the book only to count the obvious mistakes it contains. It amazes me the number of errors and solecisms that do make it into very reputably printed books.

I can see the issue from both angles – being an author as well. I know that when I am deeply immersed in something I am writing, I become the least critical person to read my own work and I need someone else to tell me where I am going wrong. Very few authors have the critical distance necessary to read their work in the cold light of day. I think we have to accept our fallibility – rather like asking for help with anything. But most people will either waive the services of a good copy-editor altogether or expect that someone will do it for them for free, as a favour. I realise the arts, and scholarship, suffer from financial investment, but of all human activities, the creative arts also seem to have this in-built assumption that people / practitioners will do things for free simply because they are just grateful to be doing what they love.

I even wrote as much in a blog the other week that I think sometimes the test of commitment is the removal of rewards. I was talking more about the prize culture fever that has gripped UK poetry. What I was getting at was that the test of a poet’s dedication to their craft should be the removal of incentives such as gongs / prizes / laurel leaves. My point with this blog is that even the stable-hand who mucks out the horses in order to be close to them is paid something. Even if the best copy-editors would not necessarily choose copy-editing as a career, they do revere the written word and need to find their way to be closer to it, to perfect it, while still managing to keep themselves afloat.


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