Saying Out Loud is a new recurring column by Chong Lingying — a book publisher, editor, and writer — where she shares her unfiltered views on work, creativity, and the conversations happening around her in Singapore.
She manages Asiapac Books, an independent publishing house specializing in illustrated and comic books on Asian culture, history, philosophy, folktales, and life skills.
In this piece, Lingying talks about the often-arduous (and thankless) job of editing.
What is editing in Singapore, today?
It’s been a while! Please excuse my absence. I’ve been busy editing books at work and other projects, including more editing of personal writing, which leads to this story.
I hesitated to finish this piece, just as I hesitated to call myself an editor, for one reason: editing is a paradox to me.
Even though an editor corrects mistakes, there is no “correct” way to edit a work. Instead, there seem to be many “wrong” ways. Do too much and you might kill the work, the author relationship, or the production deadlines. Do too little and you might as well not do it at all. (Editor’s note: *Shouting from the balcony seats* Yeaaaah!)
And for all of your efforts, there will always be something that you missed. You will wake up to an email from a co-worker, the author, or a reader, asking you why a female character was referred to as “him” on page 6.
It is human to be imperfect, and to create imperfect things through imperfect processes. To edit is to see all of these imperfections, to understand them, and to improve on them. But to what end? To create better work? To create a better world? (Editor’s note: It’s just a job, I guess.)
Before we get to this – what is editing anyway? What is good editing? What is editing in the here and now, in a world that’s flooded with media platforms, formats, channels, and creators? Particularly, what is editing for a Singapore whose media imports massively outweigh its exports?
These questions are important to creatives who undoubtedly spend much of their time self-editing or editing media, as well as those who consume said media. This includes everybody.
All writing needs editing! Photos, videos, and music too! The imagination needs to run wild and free, but somebody has to rein it in at the end of the day. Word processing can be messy work, and somebody has to keep the shop tidy. To smoothen things over. To arrange it better. (Editor’s note: Don’t mind me. I added italics for dramatic effect.)
There’s almost no content out in the world that isn’t edited. And yet, it is in the nature of editing work to be invisible, so that another’s work can shine brighter. What a wonderful thing that there are these countless hands that shape everything around us, while cleaning away their traces. They are the secret-keepers of typos, grammatical errors, expletives, nudity, dead bodies, and everything else that you can imagine. (Editor’s note: No dead bodies were found in the submitted drafts.)
In the book world, an editor might proofread while checking production proofs but they aren’t just a proofreader. An editor might write a lot, especially blurbs and auxiliary content in books, but they aren’t only a writer. There are also many editors who don’t touch the text in a work, like acquisition editors or managing editors. (Editor’s note: I am “managing editor” here but, like many other creatives, we juggle some hats.)
In Singapore, the term, “editor” is used loosely because most publishers and editorial teams here are small. An editor is the external creative partner, who serves the audience and the work. An editor is an essential part of publishing. The midwives of creative labour.
“Editing” is a term even harder to explain. From the acquisition of a new manuscript, to structural edits, to rewrites, to fact checks, to proof checks, to marketing, to new editions, an editor is busy with a book from its very beginning until it goes out of print. Editing is not just these tasks — it’s the overall responsibility, skill, and sensibility to identify the need for such tasks, and to complete them.
Among the editors I have met, the best ones give off the vibe of an… elite soldier. They get in, hit the ground running, and finish what needs to be done. That’s up to their attitude and confidence as much as it is experience and skills. (Editor’s note: For clarity, I did not add this part in.)
Anybody can spot a typo, but that’s not all it takes to be an editor. There are lots of books and courses out there on editing but, really, the best way to learn is to practice.
I picked up proofreading as a primary schooler reading manuscripts that my mother brought home, hunting for typos in exchange for extra pocket money. My childhood training equipped me with the hypervigilance (and hubris) to become a school magazine editor. My amateur editorial career took off in university as I ruthlessly chopped through my friends’ academic papers. (Editor’s note: Lingying has spent more of her life editing than I ever have. Props!)
Spending a few years in the banking industry did even more for my editing skills. My first boss was an ex-journalist who enforced strict editorial standards from day one. Keep the text tight, effective, and accurate. Regardless of how inconsequential the document, errors were absolutely forbidden. This helped a lot when I had to draft contracts and term sheets for equity derivatives. Typos are embarrassing and damaging for all of us, but they can also land bankers in jail.
When I finally started working at a book publisher, I was ready to start annotating stacks of paper and PDFs with a red pen. But you know what? Manuscripts don’t come ready-made. It was going to take a lot of work to get even close to that stage.
I found that most of the time, being an editor is, weirdly enough, talking. There were afternoons and phone calls with the blind author, Tan Guan Heng, reading out paragraphs of his novel that we were revising for a new edition, and writing as he dictated. There were meetings with children’s book authors, going through the illustrator’s mockups.
Meetings, phone calls, and long coffee sessions are all part of editing. Editing is about making decisions as a team. And sometimes, inevitably, making those decisions for the team. (Editor’s note: We had coffee before publishing this, but the conversation eventually deviated to other unrelated topics. This is my fault.)
It gets stressful but I found some help: in more reading. Not the style guides and editing articles, that’s all the boring stuff.
Read everything you can get your hands on, just to stay in touch with the global superconsciousness of the readers you serve. Learn from other editors. Read books for children. Books for adults. Books from different countries. Books in different languages. Books for readers with special needs. Books from another era. Magazines, newspapers, Twitter, even Reddit. (Editor’s note: Plenty of aspiring writers are covertly hanging out at r/relationships, the eternal writing prompt zone for lovesick weirdos.)
Don’t just read. Watch, and listen too. Music editing is fascinating, and for most popular songs there are many b-sides and edits available online. I am constantly wondering about editing in video, music, and even video games. What do different editors do? How do our unique and different processes enrich our understanding of media? What can we all learn from each other in our approach towards humanity? (Editor’s note: *Shouting from the balcony seats again* Thelma Schoonmaker! There’s plenty to learn from mixing engineers, too.)
This is what’s on my mind now, after spending the past few months almost entirely editing the Return of the Condor Heroes Collector’s Edition Boxset. It’s been more than a year managing editorial work on this project and I’ve re-read its thousands of pages more than twenty times by this stage.
I feel that pain which I’m sure all editors know well. Knowing that as I approve things for print, I inevitably also approve the mistakes that slipped past my grasp, the team’s grasp.
But maybe being an editor isn’t about being perfect. It’s about dedication to a work and its readers. It’s all about time. Before a work has seen the world, it’s the editors who have spent the most time with it. Sometimes, more than the creators themselves.
And to end, well, editing is a process that doesn’t end. Like all creators and editors, I’m obsessive-compulsive about it. I just can’t let it go. You’ll have to pry this story out of my decomposing hands as I stubbornly attempt to rewrite it for the fourth time since January. (Editor’s note: That’s what happened. Sort of. There were no decomposing hands guarding the absolutely dead body-free draft.)
“It’s not terrible, but it could be better if…!!!”
On top of editing the behemoth Return of the Condor Heroes Collector’s Edition, the Asiapac Books team has been busy writing articles, hosting livestreams, producing videos, and for the first time ever, voice acting!
This summer, we are releasing an audio drama adaptation of the comic book, Sacred Guardians. Not only did writer Aydeel Djoeharie write and direct the entire audio production, he is also the voice of several minor characters including at least one demon.
Our editor Viency voiced a curious passerby, while I voiced a refugee whose town was destroyed by demons. Voice acting is difficult to pick up but thankfully, I had an immense well of deadline anxiety to inspire my performance.