Why editors are like the smiths of old

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

London is seeing a revival of interest in ancient artisan crafts and smithery. Today there are spoon makers, globemakers and blacksmiths operating commercially out of workshops in and around London.

They are following in the footsteps of the medieval artisans who filed, soldered, forged and cast raw metal and wood, repairing, restoring and creating practical utensils and beautiful objects. They practised their trade in open air workshops with tools such as hammers, chisels and anvils.

Ye olde apprentice would have started as young as 14 and lived with his master for up to 14 years. William Shakespeare’s father was a master glove maker, and had apprentices living with him. In the mornings young William would have been sent with the other apprentices to collect the chamber pots of the local villagers, as urine was a key ingredient in tanning. The house, also the workshop, must have stank.

Once the apprentice had reached a certain standard he would graduate to journeyman and would be paid a wage. If he later started a business of his own that would make him a master.

The modern day apprentice editor may start older (around 25) and their training take less time but thanks to higher education and technology it is no less rigorous for that. They start on simple texts, written by native English speakers, with little tricky restructuring necessary. They learn the nuts and bolts of editing –  learning what is important to the author and reader and how best to make the message clear.

The journeyman or master editor takes the harder to understand texts, that may be riddled with errors, structural defects or incomprehensible parts; the author may have struggled to express themself; or they may have used phrases that simply make no sense or could even cause embarrassment to the author. The editor will whittle, mould, sculpt and polish, going through as many ‘passes’ as are needed to ensure the text becomes fluid and concise, and often at high speed.

When done well, this reveals the message with shining clarity. Whereas before, a reader might have scratched their head at meanings or even given up after labouring through leaden prose, now reading is a breeze. Like the smith of old who worked with metal, the modern editor uses the modern tools of PC and internet to turn the raw material of words into practical and beautiful texts.

At Research Editors we think of editing as a craft – contact us to see how we can help you