Posted by: philsteele | February 24, 2011

All cut & no paste

I wonder if reviewers of children’s information books realise just how much is left  OUT of  published books,  or indeed  how many planned titles never see the light of day?

Commission for omission is no bad thing.  Part of the  skill in writing for young readers is to know how much to leave out.  Often that is  why humble freelances tend to be chosen for writing rather than the academics (who are generally retained as subject consultants, bless them). We like to believe we can see the wood for the trees better than they can.  A more likely explanation is that our understanding of the subject is permanently arrested at the level of a 10 year old.

Well, any good editor values judicious use of the delete key.

Moving on towards less happy territory, another reason for omission is provided by the cruel economic realities of publishing and production in the 21st century.  ‘We can only have 32pp or 48pp, not 64pp.’ (Well, brevity is no bad thing, this could be an interesting challenge…) ‘ ‘The design will be dictated by the cheapest, preferably free, photographs.’ ‘We can only afford re-use artwork.’  Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice when it comes to quality.  And, coincidentally,  put an illustrator  or picture library out of business.

The next process of omission is a common source of frustration, leading to yawning gaps in the catalogue. Asked to suggest a new list of titles for a series, one comes up with some exciting new  ideas and topics.  None of them are taken up. It’s just the same-old-same-old… mummies, dinosaurs, you know the stuff. So Africa always means the trans-Atlantic slave trade, never the exciting stories of the ancient kingdoms or the  Swahili coast. Rome  generally means the empire, not the republic. Byzantium or Mesopotamia – where? The Khmer or the Polynesians instead of Aztecs or Incas? Forget it. There are several reasons for this. No co-edition is possible without big bucks from overseas publishers, especially those in the USA. So following the lowest common denominator of international schools curricula is always deemed to be the safest option. Too many publishers seem to be risk-averse and hostile  towards (or ignorant of) wider horizons. They choose only the most obvious topics.

International co-publishers can also attempt a kind of censorship of  UK-originated content. Beware of Bible-belt publishers – my refusal to amend texts about prehistory to suit the creationist agenda  is a sine qua non. US publishers can be notoriously prudish, too. Try writing a series on the human body with no rude bits, even a ban on pictures of breast feeding! Commercial pressures, familiar in the newspaper industry, can also be applied on occasion: ‘You cannot say that because we are about to do a publishing deal with such and such a  company.’

'Snip! Snap! Snip! The scissors go; And Conrad cries out "Oh! Oh! Oh!' Struwwelpeter or Merry Rhymes and Funny Pictures (English editions from 1848)

With  co-edition work, cultural differences and misunderstandings can lead to puzzling omissions and inclusions. These provide much hilarity along the way, as does mutual ignorance of animal species. Wasn’t it the 1996 film of 101 Dalmatians that had raccoons chasing around the British countryside? Actually, this is quite a serious problem. The commercial desire for globalised uniformity can erode those local and regional minutiae with which children can identify.  Hey, if we can’t show cars driving on the left or right in a picture, we’ll show them in the middle of the road (just like Ynys Môn on a Saturday night, as it happens!).

The earnestness of some overseas editors can also be a stumbling block. In a children’s book about Canada I was once briefed to put in a panel about ice hockey.  In heavy ink the editor scrawled words to the effect of:  ‘The author  has failed to point out the dichotomy between ice hockey as a violent contact sport and Canada’s  reputation as a peace-loving nation.’ Silly me!  I too can leave out even the most salient facts, it seems.

Out and out political censorship does happen, but it is pretty rare. Bearing in mind the current ousting of dictators across the Middle East, I should not make light of our own good fortune in relative freedom of expression.  Even when  dealing with authoritarian countries one can be surprised. I’ve written books mentioning Tiananmen Square which were printed in China, for example. In the apartheid era I remember one South African firm asking a UK co-publisher not to feature black kids and white kids on the same spread. (I’m not joking). The entire UK staff was ready to walk out if any such nonsense was sanctioned, which thankfully it wasn’t. Generally, UK editors, packagers and publishers will put up a staunch defence of an author’s text.   Not so long ago, I withdrew from writing a topic book about money and its history,  because I was asked not to mention poverty or the fact that some nations are poorer than others. (Under the new orthodoxy, you see, a rich man can bypass the eye of the needle and go straight to the kingdom of God. A poor man is simply a shirker failing to grasp the rich business opportunities before him).

I am at the moment writing a current affairs series for older children, dealing with some very contentious political issues. This could be prove to be a minefield of international susceptibilities –  I hope not literally.

So there are good cuts and bad cuts – and I’m not talking  politics here, although the headline to this week’s blog does seem to sum up current government policy.

When I started in publishing, the term  ‘cut-and-paste’ was literal,  involving repro, scalpel and Cow-gum. And Tippex up to the elbows. Now I can just press a button on the Mac and delete this whole blog.  Oops! Where did that go?


















  1. Oh, well said, Philip. I hate to see lazily produced children’s non fiction, thrown together with ill fitting clip art and scant regard for the importance of bringing facts alive. Luckily, as a writer/illustrator, I have the luxury of deciding the ratio of words to pictures – the more pictures, the fewer the words so the harder each word has to work. I loved books as a child and still remember words and images from books I read then. Children deserve as good as we can give them.

  2. How interesting! And a bit, well, depressing. Even fiction has similar constraints though, write historial fiction set in the Tudor period or during WW2 – great! Write it during the Wars of the Roses or Chrimean War and the red pen will be wielded.

  3. A brilliant article, that could actually be a book in itself, with many more examples. Here is one from my own experience:

    After I had been working on Captain Britain for Marvel Comics for about a year I drafted a story which made reference to the conflict in Northern Ireland – then spilling over to a bombing campaign on the mainland – trying to avoid favouring one side or the other.

    I wanted it to sympathise with kids living there caught up in the conflict. It revolved around a sad, true story, which seemed to epitomise the tragedy of the province, of two children who had met and become friends while away on holiday.

    But when they returned home to Belfast they realised that they came from opposite sides of the divide — one Protestant and the other Catholic. So when one visited the other’s neighbourhood he was attacked.

    Captain Britain, flying overhead, on a mission that was part of the overarching storyline, noticed this and came down to break up the fight. That was the sum of it.

    First of all, artist Alan Davis, who lived in Corby where there was an Orange (Protestant) population, refused to draw it. In response, I changed it into an allegory and made the names into anagrams –– e.g., Belfast became Fablest. This cut no ice with Davis. The editor scrubbed out every reference to Northern Ireland. The bland story that appeared seems just to be about gang warfare between rivals in different blocks of flats.

    It was ahead of its time (1982) –– eight years later, in the overtly political Crisis comic, Fleetway was to publish Garth Ennis’ True Faith, about the Troubles. But even that graphic novel was scandalously withdrawn from sale, following complaints.

  4. I only ever have time to leave brief comments on blogs – but I just had to say this was a great post and had me thinking.

  5. Ah, so true… I have whole files of projects that will probably never see the light of day because they are not “the same as the latest best-seller only different”. But I suppose the commercial side must be considered, or nothing would ever get published because all the publishers would go out of business.

    As for Mesopotamia… this was the reaction from a young reviewer to my second Wonders book The Babylon Game: “Weird”.

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