"Correctness...is not the be-all & end-all of editing." The Art Of Editing, 3

Helen Moffett, Efemia Chela and Bongani Kona and SSDA's intern, Catherine Shepherd are all involved in the SSDA/Worldreader Editing Mentorship. In the third edition of the series, they talk about what they've learnt editing a collection with stories from 9 different countries and that draws inspiration from even more.


Editing in the African context is fairly unique. The writers of our fair continent travel in their writing, creating complex stories that rarely draw on just one place, one generation, one lived experience or language. As an editor you have a responsibility to keep an eye out for the changes in tone and slang. There are 54 countries that make up Africa - so there's nothing homogenous about the writing you will be encountering. 

During the fellowship we noted it was important to place the story's own voice as well as its characters in the proper context. Hopefully the writer will have done the proper research, but if something sounds strange. Look it up and then draw it to the author's attention. 

Related to this is the issue of over-editing:

"It's a tricky balance to strike but the best editors are tightrope walkers." - Bongani Kona

"Books that have been stripped of their local flavour and language, make for a boring read. It can be difficult to parse particular words into "standard" English. So in quite a few cases they should just be left as they are - okada, trotro, lobola, counterback.

I think you should trust the reader to be invested enough in the story to gather meaning from the surrounding words. Or Google it." - Efemia Chela

Helen Moffett adds:

My pet peeve is editors who “correct” local idiom & vibrant dialogue. The Queen’s English is not required for most characters.

The editor in Africa must be sensitive to variety of Englishes reflecting/representing multilingual societies.

It's a similar thing with correctness; it is not the be-all & end-all of editing. Consistency is sometimes more important. What does have to be correct is the Internal logic of story. Even short stories can have plot holes or contradictions.

Cathy's experience of the mentorship is slightly different and she explains what that entails:

I'm dealing with the e-book for the young writers that entered Migrations. It's well on its way as I am feverishly editing some powerful stories written by young African writers still in high school, under the guidance of the talented writer and literary critic Karina Szczurek.

Editing is definitely a big responsibility but like the actual art of writing,  the more you do it the easier it flows. There are some hard and fast rules in the editing game but I got some good advice about things that don't follow those rules.

"Follow your gut," Karina Szczurek told me before I began to chop, suggest and rearrange someone else's baby.

Worldreader is sponsoring the first SSDA Editing Mentorship Programme. Next week in the final edition, we talk about tying up loose ends. 

"...your work must remain invisible to the naked eye." The Art of Editing, 2

Helen Moffett, Efemia Chela and Bongani Kona and SSDA's intern, Catherine Shepherd are all involved in the SSDA/Worldreader Editing Mentorship. More information about it can be found here. In the second edition of the series, they discuss the role of the editor, writer/editor boundaries and how to navigate them.


To lead us in here is a beautiful analogy of the role of the editor:

"In a small office on the fourth floor of the building I work in, is a Senegalese tailor with gold-rimmed spectacles, Mr. M. Over the years, I’ve dropped off various garments with him, all needing a mend of some kind and within a day or two, Mr. M. has returned them looking as good as new. 

It’s no surprise then that I draw parallels between Mr. M and my own work as an editor-in-training.

Editing, I think, works the same way: lonely hours in a dark room mending stories.

And much as each garment has to be treated differently, each story requires different levels of intervention. Sometimes it may just be changing the order of a sentence or it could require deleting entire paragraphs. But everything is done in the service of the story and like Mr. M., your work must remain invisible to the naked eye." - Bongani Kona


The other fellows echo Bongani's sentiments: 

"Don't fall into the trap of rewriting someone's story. It's unfair to you as an editor - you don't get credited. And it's unfair to the writer - it doesn't give them a chance to work on THEIR story and get their words out. It's their vision. They have to take responsibility for their story.

Don't be the midwife that snatches the baby from the mother and flees!

Give suggestions:

  • Encourage more research if their characters are weak
  • Correct obvious grammar issues but enquire about issues of tone
  • Raise concerns about plot development and character arcs

If what the writer needs is an intensive rewrite and reworking, they should hire you as a ghost writer NOT an editor." - Efemia Chela

Helen's Moffet's take:

"Never impose your own voice.

Your job as an editor is to become a writing chameleon

To blend into the author’s text. But you’re also the reader’s representative. You are their eyes and ears. Your job is to ask: how will they respond to this story?

In terms of the editor's role, I find fact-checking is a much neglected element of editing. Part of being an editor is raising red flags about suspect facts. In a story I edited once, the writer had a ship sail from Suez to Khartoum – via sea. Er, no. Not geographically possible."

Efemia adds: 

[Fact-checking] is especially important if you're writing about a place people know. Nothing irritates me more than having been somewhere, reading a book set in the same place and the author getting it wrong. It's my pet peeve and so many authors are guilty of it. GRR!!! It's jarring for the reader. Yes its fiction so they suspend their disbelief but a patently obvious error ruins the narrative for them.

Speaking of pet peeves, Catherine raises one of hers:

"The repetition of the same word used again too soon. Our brain likes to repeat a concept without us even realising what we have done. I stumble over repetition easily now when editing but it must be one of the most natural writing errors we make in the beginning as writers. So as an editor that's something you need to point out."



Worldreader is sponsoring the first SSDA Editing Mentorship Programme. In next week's Art of Editing, the Migrations editing team discuss the challenges and privileges of editing in a multi-lingual context like Africa and more.