As you’ll know if you’ve been attending our events for a while, Scottish Writers’ Centre has a very fruitful partnership with the brilliant Red Squirrel Press – their book launches are always some of our favourite events, and we’re looking forward to working with them on our upcoming anthology! Elizabeth Rimmer is one of their very talented editors, and Claire Kennedy spoke to her about her editing process, the joys of working for Red Squirrel Press, and how editing has influenced her own poetry. We hope you enjoy this fascinating insight into editorial work!
What first got you interested in editing and what steps did you take to get to where you are now? I was an English teacher by training, and started editing for my dyslexic family – they had all obviously done their homework, but the standard of spelling, punctuation and sentence construction put them at a serious disadvantage. Then I was volunteering in the Chaplaincy at the University of Stirling and some students whose first language wasn’t English asked me if I could correct any mistakes they had made. It made for some very interesting reading – I’ve edited theses on subjects as diverse as publishing in Malaysia, the structures of parish councils in Nigeria, neuromorphic engineering, musical theory for film animation and developing games for iPhones. Then Sheila Wakefield, my publisher, asked me to edit some poetry collections for Red Squirrel Press.
Can you talk a little about your editing process? The first step is to read the collection thoroughly, to get the feel of the poet’s style and technique, and to make sure I’ve understood the themes and the structure of the book. We almost always have to cut the manuscript to within the guidelines (20 pages of poems for a pamphlet, 60 for a full collection) and you have to be sure you’re not cutting something that is essential to the theme or narrowing the range of work unduly. At this point, I like to meet the poet, where possible (sometimes it isn’t), lay down some guidelines for the process, and give some deadlines, make sure my understanding and assumptions are in line with those of the poet, and give some reassurance about what can be a fairly terrifying scrutiny. When we have agreed about what’s in and what’s not, we move to the fine editing – making sure that the poems are in their best possible state, and finally, putting them in the order where they can set each other off to the best advantage. I compare the process to hanging an exhibition (as opposed to painting the pictures) so that my primary concern is to make sure that the finished book feels like the poet’s work, not mine, that it really does what he or she had imagined, rather than conforming to someone else’s standards or taste.
On your website, you say you that whilst you are willing to edit a wide range of texts, you prefer to edit poetry. How does your editing process change depending on what type of text you are editing?
The methodology doesn’t change, but the priorities are somewhat different. Scientific texts focus on clarity and accuracy, not style, and scientists are sometimes less aware of infelicities of expression or more basic errors. There is quite rigid etiquette to follow, too, which doesn’t apply to poetry! Poetry editing is way more geeky – it’s all about the language, and you can be very creative and break rules in a way that would come off as unprofessional in an academic paper, so you have to be very much more adaptable and open-minded.
What is it like being an editor for Red Squirrel Press? And to what extent is the editing process a collaboration between you and the writers themselves?
Working for Red Squirrel Press is a wonderful opportunity. Sheila Wakefield has an exceptional eye for poets who are ready for publication, and I’ve been very lucky with the poets I’ve had the chance to work with – an amazing variety of styles and genres. Sheila and I see eye to eye on many things, and I think we work together very well. As you will see from what I said earlier, the editing process is a very collaborative one – I tend to highlight areas of concern and make suggestions (sometimes, apparently, very forcefully), and let them fix it. If the poet sees what I mean, or has a different take on the question, their edit is always going to be better than mine. You never forget whose work it is, you are only there to make it the way they want to see it in print.
To what extent does editing other people’s poetry inform your own writing? Enormously, and not at all. I came late to writing poetry for publication, with my ‘voice’ and favoured themes fairly well-formed. I tend to write what I write, the way I write it, whatever I’ve been reading, and I used to feel like the wee Kirkcudbright centipede – ‘never intellectualise about what comes naturally!’ But in fact, poetry doesn’t ‘come naturally’, it’s the product of a lot of reading and experimenting and developing your craft, and editing has made me very much more aware of the process. Editing helps me take control of what had been a very intuitive process – I am very much more aware of what I do when I write, why I make the choices of form or structure I do, the effects I’m looking for and how I tell a good line from one that needs work. I can work more steadily now, and slow the process down so it’s less hit and miss.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to begin a career in editing?
I think if you’re going to edit poetry, you should probably love poetry more than editing. It’s a fiddly, nit-picking job, and you have to feel that a good book of poetry is worth the effort!