Haytham el-Wardany on Why There Are Relatively Few Skilled Editors

By Essayed Taha

Haytham el-Wardany is a writer and translator. He lives and works in Berlin. His latest book, Jackals and The Missing Letters (Al-Karma 2023), considers forgotten expressions of hope within Arabic fables, where animals speak and humans listen, in a moment of post-“Arab Spring” speechlessness. In previous publications, including The Book of Sleep (Al- Karma 2017, Seagull Books 2020, translated by Robin Moger) and How to Disappear (Kayfa ta 2013-2017), el-Wardany has examined the agency and potential of passivity, through regimes of listening and the dialectics of sleep and vigilance amid social protests. Forthcoming is Things That Can’t Be Fixed, a short story collection translated by Katharine Halls. He is the recipient of the Keith Haring Fellowship in Art and Activism 2022-23.

“The editor’s input is invaluable, as it aids the writer in grasping what might only be sensed intuitively during the writing process.”

Can you define the role of the editor? What do editors do? And what don’t they do?

The role of the editor in the Arab book industry has been somewhat unclear, undergoing several phases of development. In the past, the editor often held dual roles as the owner of the publishing house and sometimes even the primary author. Their responsibilities were closely intertwined with those of the publishing house owner, determining what to publish based on the house’s policies and its financial standing in the market.

As time passed, these roles started to diverge, and the editor’s primary function shifted towards approving or rejecting works for technical reasons. At times, the editor would provide the writer with reasons for rejection, while at other times, such feedback might be absent.

Occasionally, the editor would also offer suggestions regarding the title or the organization of various parts of the work, though this wasn’t consistently the case. Presently, the role of the editor has evolved further to include engaging in in-depth dialogues with the writer about the finer details of the work. This resembles the role that friends and acquaintances played, in my personal experience, where I would share manuscripts with them for reading and feedback—a practice I continue to follow.

In your opinion, why is developmental editing important for authors?

Precise editing is, of course, important because editors offer a different perspective on the work compared to the author. The editor’s perspective aims to help the writers unlock all the potential and capabilities within their work, whereas the writing perspective often focuses on staying true to a specific experience reflected in the writing.

Editing seeks to assist the writers so that their work resonates with readers. Writing, on the other hand, sometimes leans more toward the author’s vision than the reader’s experience. The contrast between these two perspectives is, in my view, crucial and highly beneficial. However, it’s important to note that there’s a potential danger in the editing process, which is when it transforms into pushing the writing to conform to a specific taste, follow a particular trend, or imitate successful writing styles from other literary traditions. This turns the editor into a mere instrument in an industry that aims to maximize profit or cater to prevailing tastes, or even serve the market of awards and creative writing workshops.

It’s essential not to exaggerate the concept of development through editing. Constructive development is one that aligns with the logic of the writing in the work being edited and doesn’t impose an external logic onto it. This is the significant challenge in editing, which is why skilled editors are relatively few.

Would you be willing to tell us about a time an editor helped you develop your ideas, characters, etc?

I’ll provide you with two examples. 

In the first example, the editor’s insightful questions and suggestions played a pivotal role. Her meticulous review of the historical sequence within one of my stories led to a comprehensive rewrite and editing process. This process eliminated numerous historical and logical inaccuracies and opened up exciting new narrative avenues.

In the second example, it was my engaging discussions and dialogues with the editor that helped me understand why I insisted on retaining a section that the editor had recommended for deletion or alteration. The editor’s input is invaluable, as it aids the writer in grasping what might only be sensed intuitively during the writing process. Writers often possess an enigmatic understanding of why they choose to write in a particular way. When the editor proposes changes or removals, in my case, it helped me personally understand the significance of that specific portion, something that wasn’t evident to me while initially crafting the work. In essence, the ongoing dialogue with the editor cements the writer’s connection to their work, whether it involves resolving issues or appreciating the necessity of preserving the chosen narrative style.