Editing on the boundary line: to cut or not to cut?

When editing, you sometimes come across terms and phrases which can momentarily take your breath away – and not because they’re creating images of beauty in your mind, but because they’re words which you weren’t expecting to read.

As an editor, it’s your job to protect your writer from unnecessary criticisms, to ensure that their work reflects them, their talents, the message that they’re trying to get across. If you don’t to this correctly, the text may end up distracting the audience with words or terms which the they may seize upon as offensive, leading them to create a noise which will divert attention from the quality of the writing and the message of the writer.

Please explain?

As publisher of Narrator Magazine, we try to bring a wide variety of creative writings to our audience. To do this, we often have to publish items that we, personally, aren’t all that fond of. We also get to publish items that we do find entertaining, amusing, intelligent, or thought-provoking. And we have to publish items that we don’t necessarily think are that good, but which we feel the readers should decide.

The aim of Narrator Magazine is to bring unedited works to the table. We don’t have the time, nor the resources, to edit these works for free, so we do a light proofread, standardise the formatting as much as we can, then publish.

Sounds simple, but what happens when you read a relatively decent story, but get near the end and come across one of those terms that takes your breath away? How do you decide whether to accept or reject? And do you accept or reject the whole story, or do you cross the line and just edit that little bit? Or do you leave it?

The most recent example which springs to mind was a story, set in Australia, which used the word ‘Abo’ (short for ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Aborigine’ – the name used for our Indigenous people).

As a child of the 1960s, this was a term we used often. Australians are notorious for shortening any word or name they can, so on reflection, it is not surprising that the word ‘Abo’ was part of the lexicon.

However, as cultural knowledge and understanding has improved over the decades, this word has all but disappeared from common use. When referring to our Indigenous people now, we use the term ‘Aboriginal’ or the name of their tribal group, and think nothing of it. And it’s funny, you don’t realise how far we’ve come until you’re suddenly thrown back to the 1970s with a term you just don’t hear these days.

So I’m reading this story when all of a sudden, one character turns to the other and uses the term ‘Abo’. I actually felt shock. Seriously – no drama here – I did feel shocked. And then I was disappointed that the writer had chosen to use this term: seriously, how could he risk ruining his story like that? And then I breathed and stepped back and thought it through. The character had said it, not the writer. The character. One character talking to another, privately, under a certain set of circumstances. And in context, it said something about the character, about his background, about the time, perhaps, that the story was taking place. He definitely wasn’t a politically correct, indoctrinated city type. He was definitely a down-to-earth no bullshit type, probably educated enough but nothing fancy.

I thought it through and figured that if anything, it would show how far we’ve come, and that to write honestly, your characters have to be who they are. We can’t spit and polish them so that they don’t offend anyone – who wants to read what a bunch of cardboard cut-outs might get up to? Good strong writing has real characters, people who are true to themselves, and people who are not necessarily politically correct or culturally sensitive or aware.

And so I left it. I published the magazine, and to date, no one has complained. And I’m hoping it will stay that way, that people will read it for what it is, an added dimension to the character’s character, and not as a return to less informed times.

4 Replies to “Editing on the boundary line: to cut or not to cut?”

  1. I have a complaint…

    Just kidding…

    I have the same concerns when I write. If, on a read back, a word or phrase jars me out of the story, then I have to change it – I know, as an avid reader, that there is nothing worse than losing the feel of a story simply due to one misplaced word or sentence.

    I do understand you dilemma – I couldn’t imagine just how hard that must be to go through so many stories/poems and have to make those decisions.

    That’s why we write and you edit, I guess…

    Have a safe and enjoyable Christmas 🙂

  2. Ha ha – my tummy did a little jump for a moment there!

    I have to be honest – after many years of trying to write, I find editing much more pleasurable.

    But yes, it is hard. When we released ‘Running Over a Chinaman’ (ROAC), I pushed hard to call it ‘The Mud Man Cometh’ as I felt this would attract people a lot more (there’s a part of the book where the protagonist is terrorised by a mud statue), but the author wanted to keep with the ROAC title as she felt it really exemplified what the book was about.

    She is right – when you read the book you really understand why it’s called that. And it’s not racist at all – it’s a very old Australian expression based on the awe of the luck of the Chinese and has been used by Henry Lawson among others, but I still believe the book would be easier to sell with a different title.

    At the end of the day, all you can do is advise, although with Narrator there’s no time for that – if we contacted people to discuss how they felt about changes we’d never get the magazine out!

    Thanks for your empathetic comments – most people are very understanding of what we do, but it only takes one who isn’t to undo the effects of the nice words of the others!

    And best wishes to you and yours for a lovely festive season too!

  3. Hi Jenny,
    I am the convener (for 2012) for a Canberra U3A short story writers’ group.

    This is an excellent example of being true to your character and I wonder if you would mind me using it, with your name of course?

    Also thanks for publishing my Ned Kelly story in the Summer edition and my poem in this Autumn issue. I was pleased to see Sallie Ramsay from our group also had a story in this issue.

    Barry McGloin

    1. Hi Barry

      Lovely to hear from you, and thanks for the feedback – always appreciated!

      If you think this post would be helpful for your group then yes, please, use it – and thanks for crediting me 🙂

      It’s great that we’re broadening Narrator’s reach with people like yourself and Sallie – although I do have to tell you, it’s becoming a juggling act trying to get everybody in! We’ve expanded to 60 internal pages this quarter, and I’m wondering where we will have to draw the line. Anyway, it’s a nice problem to have – sure beats the alternative!

      So yes, please go ahead and use it, and thanks again for your support!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.