I’ve been hard at work over the last few months editing a novel, which meant blog posts fell by the wayside. It seemed difficult to provide exciting updates on the quiet, hugely time-consuming activity that is editing. This the polishing of what you hope will be a gem: it is not the volcanic activity that produces the rock in the first place. But then I asked myself, who wants a lump of rock? Isn’t writing more about the shaping, like sculpture is more about the chiseling than the lump of marble? When I thought back there was no moment when writing ended and editing began. In fact, now I come think about it, I was editing in some shape or form from the beginning.
Wanting to find out where editing itself began, I read an account of editing’s history in The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Once I’d done that it became impossible to think of editing as just some adjustments you make once the real work is finished. The first editors were medieval monks, human photocopiers, whose mundane job it was to copy out religious texts. They relieved the monotony by designing extravagant drop caps. These fancy first letters of chapters illustrate not only a letter of the alphabet, but a thwarted creativity which had no other outlet. Nobody would presume to set themselves up as an editor for the Almighty; nobody, that is, except for a few monks who couldn’t help themselves when they came to a passage that could do with tidying up. No doubt this was done in a spirit of great humility, just making the words clearer, you understand, so that readers would appreciate the religious wisdom all the better. Nevertheless, in practice medieval scribes began what we now know as editing.
Editing is the confidence to believe that we the reader also have something worthwhile to contribute. At first it was a tweak here and there. Then in the middle of the fifteenth century came the advent of the printing press, which meant the scribe could not simply copy out texts any longer. That was done by a machine. The only thing left for a scribe to do was to expand their role in shaping words. Into the sixteenth century, with printing technology widespread, the role of editor was almost that of author. In an age with few writers, editors, many of them working in the great cultural centre of Venice, became literary celebrities, finding works of the past to publish in copy-edited forms with introductions for contemporary audiences. It was then, of course, a small step, to going the whole hog and writing the damn words yourself. In this way the rich literary scene we enjoy today was born.
So in a sense writing began with editing, with the belief, that we as readers should have the confidence to give as well as receive. Writing is really one long edit, from the first word to the last.