by Cornelia Grey
The editing stage – for many writers, it feels harder than actually writing the bloody book. While I am no exception, I find essential for one specific reason: I’m not a native English speaker.
As some of you might already know, I’m Italian, and I moved to London about four years ago to attend university. That’s when I started writing in English, and I have to admit my first attempts were rather disastrous. It wasn’t so much because of mistakes, but rather because of how my Italian language infiltrated my use of English. I remember, when I handed in an essay about aesthetic theory, that my tutor told me that it read like ‘one of those French philosophy books where no one actually understands what’s being said’: the sentences were long an convoluted, the tone extremely formal with lots of big complex words. Italian, French and Spanish already tend to have long sentences, and while the latin-derived words of the English language come easy to native speakers of these languages, they sound obscure and far-fetched to everyone else. In addition, we are taught that, for academic writing, we should be as formal as possible: which, in those languages, means to make sentences even more convoluted and with super-fancy vocabulary. That writing style was completely normal for me: it was unintelligible for a native English speaker.
This problem translates to fiction writing, too. My sentences are forever lengthy; while they might not be grammatically wrong, they have unconventional structures, which sound odd to native English speakers. Also, I tend to use lots of latin-derived words, because they’re very similar to common Italian words: it was only after annoying many a reader that I realized that they sound like pompous purple prose in English. For example, concupiscence = concupiscienza; perspicacious = perspicace; malediction = maledizione. The almost synonyms lust, smart, and curse don’t come naturally to me, and before someone pointed it out, I never even suspected that my choice of words might be unusual.
These Italianisms aren’t my only challenge. I harbour a burning hatred towards prepositions, that I never seem to get right; I tend to mix up idiomatic expressions, or to try and translate Italian ones and end up with stuff that doesn’t really make sense. But most of all, I have issues with the little details that are conventions rather than actual rules – the ones that aren’t technically wrong, but sound wrong anyway. And the thing is, I can’t see these mistakes: I need someone to point them out for me. I can’t tell if I sound Italian, or if I’m making someone sound like they’re from Dublin rather than from Manchester or Alabama. These are all nuances of the language that can only be picked up living immersed in it. I know them perfectly in Italian: but while I’ve been living abroad for a few years, I’m definitely still struggling with them in English.
Which is why I know I need good editors. I’d like to make a comparison with a situation I often noticed in class. I just completed a degree in Creative Writing, and I noticed that a number of my fellow students took issue whenever they shared something in class and the tutor critiqued them. Some pitched a fit about how the tutor was evil and mean and cruel; others ranted about how the tutors were presumptuous arses, because you can’t say that something is wrong in a creative piece, and that’s what they wanted to write so how can anyone say that it’s wrong; some complained that the tutors should just point out what works in the pieces, never the negative, in order not to discourage the frail spirit of creation fluttering in the students’ timid souls.
I never really understood this attitude. We were all paying handsomely to attend these classes and be taught something; why would we want to do it if we were so hellbent on rejecting any critique, since we are perfect already? I believe I have the same approach to editing. I like learning, I like being taught: I’ve always liked school. Now, the English language is a subject I’ve been studying for a long time, but I still have a lot to learn. Even in university, no tutor ever took the time to go through a piece of writing with a fine-toothed comb, pointing out every mistake in the use of language; they didn’t have the time. Which is why I see editors like my new, shiny teachers, with a whole new wealth of things to teach.
The crucial point about editing is, I believe, that authors need to be able to trust their editors. I used to believe that anyone who was an English native speaker could explain the secrets of the language to me; after carefully considering how most Italians suck at their language, and a very disappointing performance from my English classmates at a very basic editing module we had in the second year, I realized that that’s not necessarily true: so I became very selective about who I seek writing advice from. There’s only two of my classmates whom I ask for advice regarding plotlines or sentences; that’s because they’re the two people whose writing I admire, two people that I think have something to teach me, two people that, I really believe, know what they’re talking about.
Of course, you can’t choose your editors, so I’m always a bit apprehensive whenever I start working with a new one. I don’t have concerns about their capability, of course – I’m worried that I’m going to find someone who won’t be ruthless with me, maybe out of fear of upsetting me, maybe thinking I’ll pitch a fit if too many edits are suggested. These days, I’m working with Storm Moon Press on the edits for my upcoming novella, The Ronin and The Fox – when I opened the document and saw all those red comment balloons, I was ecstatic. Such thorough editing is a goldmine for me.
Propositions, sentence structures, expressions that sound too modern, or too Italian, or just don’t sound quite right in English – the editor caught them all and took the time to explain in detail the conventions I obviously wasn’t aware of. That’s the easy part of editing: I blindly trust everything she said, so I accept the change, ponder on the correction, file it away for future perusal, and carry on. And then there’s the part that actually requires me to make changes myself: development edits.
From what I’ve heard, I suspect that the writing community is quite divided on the topic – some approve of dev edits, and some don’t. Personally, I love them. Of course, while I don’t feel ashamed about my English mistakes – I know those are unavoidable – this is the part I spend cringing and facepalming because I just can’t believe I missed that plot hole, or made a scene so awkward, or wrote a particular detail without properly researching and got it horribly wrong. But damn, it’s better for me to cringe now in the privacy of my Word document rather than have the mistakes brought up for everyone to see in a review!
This is also the reason why, when I’m working on a story, I talk a lot about it with my trusted friends – somebody who’s not so immersed in the story, someone outside my head, views things with a greater clarity and can usually pinpoint mistakes or weak spots a lot better than me. I also believe that I take these edits so positively because I’m used to having my writing hacked to pieces by the teachers – I’m used to considering myself a student, and I feel that my writing is in constant evolution, a neverending learning process, and that I can’t advance on my own. Or maybe I can: but I can advance in longer leaps if I have a teacher – or an editor – to poke me.
Cornelia Grey is the author of Apples and Regret and Wasted Time and The Ronin and the Fox. She can be found on Twitter @corneliagrey.