The journalism program I attended offered an opportunity to pursue your inner Ernest Hemingway and spend a semester studying creative writing. At the same time, I took an internship at the Humber School for Writers Literary Agency. The Agency shopped the completed novel and short story manuscripts of students who’d completed the correspondence program around to publishers. As an intern, it was my job to read the submitted manuscripts, write a short report and determine if the work was ready to be represented. Despite the fact that all works had been reviewed and revised under the direction of an instructor (a published writer), many of the manuscripts I read were not close to being a finished novel. A few of the manuscripts showed a glimmer of being a publishable novel, strong plot, lovely use of language, compelling characters, etc. These were the ones that would be sent back to the writer for further revisions before being sent to potential publishers. Despite all of the revisions, the manuscripts that did get accepted for publication still received a thorough work over from an editor. I’m happy to say that at least one of the manuscripts I read did get published and did well in terms of sales.
Editing, especially from a professional editor, was integral to helping these manuscripts by first-time authors get published. So I was dismayed to read a story last week about the reduction in the number of editors at the major Canadian publishing houses. The economic downturn is, at least, partially to blame. Publishers are tightening the belt by laying off editors. The publishers can’t afford to spend hours editing a work before publishing it. This means that writers must now often resort to hiring their own editors in order to get their work closer to publication, and this makes it even harder for first-time writers to get published.
The number of publishing houses and editors are shrinking at a time when a growing number of writers are enrolling in creative writing programs. I’ve attended many writing workshops, some very good, but the most common question from my fellow students isn’t “how do I improve my writing?” but “how do I get published?” People are desperate for publication and with the growing number of print-on-demand and digital publication options, it is easier than ever to get published. But what about the quality of these published works? Some are good, but most are awful. Most of these works, just like the works I read at Humber, needed an editor to point out where the story could be improved, or shouldn’t have be published at all. It may be easier than ever to get a work published, but that doesn’t mean serious readers should have to put up with poor writing.
However, the lack of editing skills doesn’t stop at fiction writing. In my profession of corporate communications, I have interviewed and worked with many journalism and public relations students or recent graduates. Time and time again, I’m presented with work riddled with grammar and spelling errors. The students and recent grads get huffy when I return their writing covered in red marks. They have been told by their instructors that they are good writers and it comes as a nasty surprise when I tell them to rewrite their work, sometimes two or three times. Many journalism and public relations programs don’t include copy editing or basic writing skills as part of the curriculum. It is becoming harder and harder to find students or recent grads with the right skills. More than once, I’ve had to send a new hire to what I consider a remedial writing or copy editing course. In the age of instant publication on social media sites and instant gratification, I rejoice in the few students who still really care about quality writing and take the time and care to write well.
The lost art of book editing is also discussed in a recent Guardian article.