Editing is the most tedious aspect of the writing process. Editors are very particular people. A writer may write well, but without an editor, their words may never reach a committed reader.
Dipa Sanatani, the Publisher at Mith Books, taught me how to edit. For nine months, I sat down with her side-by-side and watched as she slowly went over every sentence, every paragraph and every chapter. There is little that escapes the editor’s eye. She polished the words of writers as though they were gems that had recently emerged from the earth’s soil.
The Writer-Reader Relationship
“Editing is not about the writer,” Dipa says. “It isn’t even about the reader. It is about the relationship between the reader and the writer. Readers who pick up a book are committing to spending eight hours–or perhaps even more–with a book. It needs to be the best it can be to justify that level of commitment. It is not like scrolling through a newsfeed where you’re waiting for something to grab your short attention span.”
“What would you say makes a good read?” I ask.
“That depends on what kind of reader the author is looking for. There are several target audiences for any book. Before I start the editing process, I need to know who the reader is. It always comes down to the relationship a writer can form with a particular reader.”
The Writer-Editor Relationship
“I’ve watched you fall in love with some of your writers…” I say, remembering how Dipa raves endlessly about some of the authors she’s had the pleasure of editing. “How does this happen?”
“I respect writers who’re continuously polishing their craft. I admire writers who are committed to forming a relationship with readers that will last for a long long time.
“There’s a big difference between a diamond that’s recently emerged from a mine and a diamond on an engagement ring in a shop. The engagement ring will mean a lot to the person who receives it. It will always be special–not merely because of its dollar value but what it represents as a gift and a special moment in a person’s life.
“The creme de la creme of writers always strive to create that special moment.”
“I’ve heard you speak of readability a lot,” I say. “What is readability and why is it important?”
“Different people read at different levels,” Dipa says. “Context is everything. There’s a huge difference between writing a fiction novel and writing your university thesis. If you’re writing for the web, a readability score like the Flesch-Kincaid test can be invaluable in revealing how easy or difficult your text is to read.
“If your text is too complicated and hard to understand, people will stop reading. That’s one of the reasons why people dread reading err.. certain kinds of content. On the other hand, if your text scores a very low grade level, users will likely assume that your content isn’t valuable.
“We want to communicate complex ideas as simply as possible.”
“Many books that garner literary prizes are tremendously difficult to understand,” I say. “I studied some of these books in school and it was akin to a visit to the dentist. Why do you think that is?”
“The complexity of the text… the fact that you were forced to read it at school… Perhaps the text was written a long time ago when people communicated differently. It could be a variety of factors.
“Ultimately, it always comes down to the relationship a writer is looking to form with readers. Once we know who the reader is, it really just boils down to creating and building the relationship.
“You were clearly not the reader for the books you were forced to read at school.”
From Book Writer to Book Editor
“What does it take to be successful as a writer?” I ask.
“The same thing it takes to be successful in any chosen endeavour. A commitment to the craft. A commitment to the people who’re by your side as you reach your goal… And a commitment to the people who will benefit from your work.
“Without commitment, it’s hard to reach any goal.”
“I’m now an editor,” I say. “Any parting words of advice?”
“The editor-author relationship is a partnership–which means there needs to be a two-way flow of respect and commitment. The onus is on both parties to contribute equally to the relationship.
“It is quite likely going to be a long-term ongoing relationship… So choose your battles wisely.”