Why writing is like climbing Everest (and editors are the Sherpas)

Hugh Farmar

Hugh Farmar

In Everest, the film about the 1996 disaster on the mountain, the expedition leader says to his climbers: “Once you’re at the top, you’re only halfway there.” He was referring to the fact that a large number of the deaths that occur on Everest happen on the way down. This seems counter-intuitive. Surely getting to the top is the hard part?

Getting to the top of Everest requires huge amounts of financial and emotional commitment and months of a climber’s life. Hiring a company to get you up costs $40k; getting to base camp and acclimatising to the altitude takes weeks; and then there is the discomfort and danger that comes with being in an earthquake zone at high altitude.

No wonder that when climbers get to the top and the euphoria fades, exhaustion can overtake them. Unable to think clearly, they then need the help of a Sherpa to get them down.

Writers have their own mountain to climb. George Orwell described book writing as “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness”. This would sound familiar to the Everest scalers.

It is not surprising that writers, like mountaineers, may run out of steam once they write the final words. The temptation is to think of it as done.

The problem is that they are only halfway there—they still have to come down. In writing terms this means doing the vital task of editing. Towards the end of the writing process, fatigue naturally sets in. The risk is that all the effort is wasted as errors occur that the author does not see, sections may not hang together and what was crisp and clear in the writer’s mind may have emerged onto the page as garbled.

An editor’s fresh eyes can play a key role here. They fill in gaps, put the author back on the right path and alert them to fatal pitfalls. They may not literally save the author’s life like a Sherpa, but it may make all the difference in the end.