Explaining the invisible

Sometimes it’s hard to explain what an editor does to a world in which 99.9 per cent of people think we just correct spelling mistakes, but let me try.

I moved into a house a little while ago; a Victorian house in a conservation area with seven original sash windows. They have slender Douglas fir frames and pleasingly undulating glass – very nice windows, if you like that kind of thing. However, I ignored them for a few months; they seemed to do what windows should do – I could see through them; they let in light; most of them opened if necessary, even if they were a bit stiff.

It was only when one of the cords snapped that I thought about getting someone in to fix them. I hoped that we could just replace the cord, but we ended up having all seven windows serviced, and one of them extensively renovated. Afterwards, from a distance, they looked almost exactly the same. But up close the difference was remarkable. They had been draught-proofed, so the wind didn’t whistle through them any more and they didn’t rattle when a heavy lorry passed by. Rather than having to be forced, they were able to glide open smoothly and quietly. Both parts of every window worked like a dream. Although they are now an unobtrusive part of life in the house once more, the work we had done has fundamentally changed the experience of living here.

Some of the work carried out was subtle and gentle – a bit of re-puttying here and there; some priming of the woodwork. Other work was more brutal, involving ripping out of entire frames, splintered timber, excised rot and jettisoned strips of lead that had been used in the past to cover up damage. I didn’t know exactly how the work was being done (although it had been itemised and agreed beforehand), but it was clearly highly skilled and not something I could do for myself.

All of the work was carried out quickly and efficiently, with minimal disruption – by two calmly confident craftsmen with a demeanour that reassured me I was not spending an awful lot of money on nothing. At the end of the job they gave me back something that was better than I could have imagined at the start: a set of immeasurably improved windows that nevertheless had exactly the same charm as they did to begin with.

I believe this is analogous to what a good editor should aim for.

So if you give me a project – be it the textual equivalent of a tiny bit of sanding down and priming, or the full ripping out, taking apart and renovation, I would hope to perform the same level of service for you. I will identify exactly what you need, do the job efficiently, confidently and to a high standard, and return something to you that is in excellent working order, yet with all its original character intact.