"...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.