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An Editor’s Brain

I never used to like reading multiple novels simultaneously. There was something about how I became immersed in the story that was tainted, diluted or confused if I dived into different books, splitting my empathy between disparate characters in separate times and places.

I suppose the idea is logical, to a degree, but it’s actually almost impossible not to read multiple novels simultaneously in my line of work. For a while I stuck to one novel at a time for pleasure, and I was dipping in and out of things all the time for work as an in-house editor, but it didn’t seem to matter because the books I was editing were so different from what I was reading at home.

Then I began to write a novel myself. This might have complicated matters, but the imaginative process is different, so it didn’t seem to clash. When I began my MA in creative writing, I was reading between six and ten extracts from different writers’ work each week for workshopping, as well as working on my own novel and producing shorter writing projects alongside that. I began freelancing during this time, so I would occasionally have a week or two where I was copy editing a novel on top of everything else.

I had to draw a line in my brain. It was very easy to slip into copy-editing mode with the extracts for workshopping, and workshop mode with the manuscripts for editing. It’s a common problem for freelance editors who line edit, copy edit and proofread. The different stages in the editorial process require different levels of intervention, and sometimes you have to editorially bite your tongue.

My method of working when I have an edit in is to sit down and get it done in one big chunk with as few interruptions as possible. Part of an editor’s job is to remember stuff. This might be the spelling of a character’s name, or it might be that a particular breed of dragon has no sense of smell, or that when the spy escaped from prison it was dawn. As you’re reading, you don’t know what will become relevant. It is only when those very same dragons sniff out the novel’s hero that your editorial alarm bells need to go off.

I’ve long been amazed with the human capacity to remember stuff. Most people’s brains must be a jangling mess of passwords and PINs. When I worked in an office, I needed one password to get into the building, another to log into my computer, another to access the invoice-processing system, another to access a client database and another to operate the photocopier. I’ve half a dozen passwords or more to log in to various websites, as well as the code for my burglar alarm and several bank card PINs.

Apparently, your brain develops a greater ability to remember if you practise. There have been studies of the brains of London black cab drivers, as well as the brains of piano tuners, which show how new neural pathways develop to accommodate our needs. I’m sure a study of editors’ brains would show something similar; we’re a pedantic, pernickety lot.

Since having my daughter over a year ago, I’ve thrown my one-book-at-a-time rule out of the window. I never know when or where I’m going to have a moment to sit down and read, or how long that moment will last. I have a book on the go in my bedroom, one in the living room and I have two that I’m midway through on my Kindle, which lives in my bag. So far, I haven’t noticed any ‘diluting’ effect. The only effect I’ve noticed is that, if the book’s a bit rubbish, I’m more likely to put it aside and read other things rather than feeling obligated to plough on to the end.

I’m also, for the first time ever, copy editing two things simultaneously. Or, rather, I took one urgent copy edit in the middle of a less-urgent one. I feel a bit bad about it, as if I’m doing a disservice to the less-urgent edit (although I’m pretty sure that’s just me being over-conscientious). I’m rather hoping my brain’s neural pathways have developed enough to cope with the break. Who knows how an editor’s brain works? Perhaps giving the opening section of the story time to sink in will mean I do an even better job than usual.


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