Last year, I received an assignment to edit a self-help book. The goal was to prepare the manuscript for acceptance by the publisher that had contracted with the first-time author to write it—although the expectation was that it would come back for further revision. The job included both developmental editing and copyediting. Developmental editing involves modifying a book’s structure and content; copyediting consists of fixing punctuation, spelling, grammar, and style. I introduced extensive changes at both levels, making the organization more reader-friendly and rewriting virtually every sentence.
After the manuscript was submitted to the publisher, I awaited word of its reception. Five months later, having heard nothing, I checked Amazon: the book would be coming out in November 2014. I took satisfaction in the fact that the manuscript had apparently been accepted. I checked back this month and was able to preview parts of the book (which had received all five-star reviews); I was gratified to see that my changes were intact, from the table of contents to the section heads to the text. Not to overinflate my role, but I made the author seem like a capable writer. Ironically, she never knew my name or that I, as a ghost editor, even existed.
The situation brought to mind some news that emerged in 2010 about Jane Austen—that the words of the revered novelist did not, in fact, come “finished from her pen,” as her brother Henry asserted in 1818. As NPR reported, she “may have simply had a very good editor.” According to Austen authority Kathryn Sutherland, of Oxford University, “The English that she is known for is this polished, printed Johnsonian prose. And it’s not there in the manuscript.” (“Johnsonian” refers to the literary style of distinguished English writer and critic Samuel Johnson, best known for his influential Dictionary of the English Language.)
If Austen was a “sloppy writer” whose books were “heavily edited for publication,” does that mean authors—even beloved ones—don’t have to know how to write well? And it’s the editor’s job, if necessary, to create that illusion? Consider the portrayals of writers in film and literature. They typically experience writer’s block or some other setback related to their writing, become inspired by the struggles in their lives, and triumphantly complete their manuscript. As they type “THE END,” do we think, “Now it’s off to a good editor!”? Rather, we think it’s the end of the story.
We don’t really want to know how the sausage is made.