Ethics and editing

A middle-aged couple who called themselves “grey rovers” asked me to help them write a book about their road trip through Africa. They showed dozens of photos and were burning with enthusiasm to have their story told. “Greys can do it!” they said, “there’s nothing to be afraid of!” I sent them away to write down whatever they could remember about their emotions, interior life and relationship (the mirror of their outward travels). They should draw from their diaries, then come back with something drafted.

My point was there are any number of travel books and one-dimensional tales of trips, but very few that project real meaning from the experience. For a retired couple adventuring through Africa, the sense of wonder, tinged with fear, and the rediscovery of the self, would really be the story to tell.

This couple crossed Libya just before it all went up in smoke and they spoke very warmly of the welcoming attitude of the people. Petrol was unbelievably cheap and their guide ensured that they got to stay in communities where the natural hospitality of the Libyans shone through all the desert dust and pain of Gaddafi’s tyranny. It was an inspiring story I would love to wordcraft, though the couple has not come back. I hope my advice to go away and write was not ignored, or that I did not scare them off!

That kind of work for a ghost writer is not unethical. What one is doing is extracting the best bits and putting them across in a style and tone that conveys the excitement and interest of the trip. Happy to do it – for a fee of course!

There is a fine line – well, not so fine actually – between editing someone’s work and completely writing it for them. And within the complete write there is another division: between taking a person’s ideas, and actually creating those ideas for them. What ethics should an editor apply in these ambivalent situations?

Work which is to appear under the name of the “author” must surely be based on that author’s own experiences, research and thinking. Let’s take the academic thesis for example. Now if someone comes to me and asks me to “edit” their thesis but in fact, as it turns out, they want me to think it through, provide basic ideas, do a lot of the research, and finally write and edit the thing – to me that is totally unethical and unacceptable. I have refused to do this in the past and will refuse again, even if offered handsome fees.

It’s different when someone can’t write very well but has a lot to show and tell of a life well lived. There, rewriting of a rough script, or ghost writing of the entire book, is surely acceptable. It’s a common practice to base the final text on extensive interviews. Or perhaps combine this with news cuttings, speeches and presentations given over the years.

The big thing about writing for others is that you can remove yourself and your own opinions and hang-ups from the writing job. That’s very energising. It frees one to look at the words and rebuild the meaning in a lively and objective way. I suppose that is what is meant by professionalism in this field: giving a candid, effective service with no personal agenda.

From my own attempts at writing autobiography on my life as a Riverman and a journalist, it has never been easy. I find myself second-guessing every sentence. In spite of teaching students never to do this I go back over every sentence to rewrite it, before the mood of the piece is fully formed. The habit is destructive because it brings you to a halt.

Writer’s block bulks large. Oh, the horror, the horror! But I’ll get there. I too have a good story to tell!



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