Editing Personal Diaries for Publication by Cormac K.H. O’Malley

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Cormac O'Malley

Cormac K.H. O’Malley

There were many issues involved in publishing ‘Nobody’s Business’: The Aran Diaries of Ernie O’Malley which might be of interest to anyone who reads a published diary or who might be interested in publishing one.

First of all, the diary has to be discovered and properly identified. At this stage, though one might think about whether publishing a diary is worth the effort, one is not yet in a position to answer this difficult and quite personal question until there is a far more definitive manuscript. So, this decision can be delayed until later in the process.

Another question which comes up early on is whether a personal diary – and especially one which is labelled ‘Nobody’s Business’ – should ever be published, but with the enthusiasm that any project generates, one also can easily put this aside until later but it should never be forgotten.

This particular diary had to be transcribed from Ernie’s famously terrible handwriting into a tamer, typed manuscript that had exactly the same order and typographical errors as in the original. Page numbers were included for more ready identification of the location in the original text. Should the author’s minor doodles or illustrations also be included or merely a reference as to their existence? Again, a later decision. At this stage one needs to find someone with a knowledge of the subject willing to help with the work.

Eventually, the typed manuscript starts to look like a final version of what was written. Then one has to transform the typed version into a publishable version and this involves substituting simple elements such as an ampersand with ‘and’ so that the diary is more reader-friendly. Where appropriate if a word is missing, an appropriate substitute it would be inserted in [parenthesis] so that the reader knows that that word has been added. The objective here is to make an accurate and comprehensible, readable manuscript.

The next stage to add value to the diary is to insert footnotes for each concept or name that would need an explanation. By inserting a footnote, the reader can get the additional information which helps give a better exploration of the background of the diary, the writer, and the times when it was written. As one is editing, one thinks about the subject matter of the diary and what might help illustrate the diary and thus give a more pictorial impression of the contents of the diary.

As the subject matter of the dairy becomes more clarified, one should think about involving a co-editor, who might know something about the specific subject or subjects of the diar. The co-editor would help with the content of the footnotes, in giving them meaning, character and substance, and the co-editor could hopefully write an introduction which could place the diary in the relevant social and intellectual context.

After one is sure that there is some valuable substantive content in the diary, one should look for a publisher. I was most fortunate as my publisher, Antony Farrell of The Lilliput Press, had previously published two volumes of my father’s letters and thus his diaries could be almost considered a natural extension from his private letters. By the act of writing and mailing a letter to a publisher, an author does expose himself publicly to the recipient in a manner different from a diary as a diary, by its inherent nature, is a private document.

As the work progresses, one discovers all the inconsistencies in any personal diary: the references to an item by different names, the use of capitalization for words which might be used with an initial capital at the time of writing (the Army, Church or Government) but not at the time of editing (army, church or government). There are sentences which drift off to nowhere and perhaps should not be included. There are words which, after much scrutiny and consultation, cannot be understood, and are so critical to a sentence that the sentence should ultimately be deleted entirely and replaced by an ellipse …  There is dialogue – quoting of people – but with no quotation marks and all in a run-on paragraph, and how such speech should be represented with proper grammar and separate lines, with the occasional insert of [,’he said’] to help make the exchange more meaningful. There are the ‘silent’ additions to text such as the full details of the dates.

Ultimately, when one is ready to send a ‘final’ diary manuscript to a publisher one must revisit the text and eliminate references to the internal pages numbers of the diary as these are only confusing to a reader. By this stage, one has answered the question of whether any text included in the original diary should not be included. Each editor will have to apply his or her own standard to resolve this question as to whether there should be any deletions at all. One does need to be aware that there might be some people still alive who are referenced in the diary and any publisher will insist that the author be fully financially responsible for a libelous action against the publisher. One should change the common expression caveat emptor – buyer beware – to ‘diary editor beware’.

In the case of The Aran Diaries, I found it helpful early on to prepare my own working index with page references to the original diary pagination. Thus, I could pull together in one spot the references to a common matter and double check them for consistency of treatment.

One of the rewards of an editor of a private diary notebook is to participate in the evaluation of the diary’s purpose and overall content and then making the positive decision to share such work with the public. No doubt, each editor runs into specific issues, but I hope I have hit upon some of the general concerns.

(c) Cormac K.H. O’Malley

About Nobody’s Business: The Aran Diaries of Ernie O’Malley

Nobody’s Business: The Aran Diaries of Ernie O’Malley presents new insights into the contradictions and complexities of the mind of Ernie O’Malley, one of mid-twentieth century Ireland’s foremost cultural critics. In 1941, 1955 and 1956, the former revolutionary leader and author of the acclaimed memoir of the War of Independence, On Another Man’s Wound, visited the Aran Islands. While on the islands, O’Malley kept diaries recounting his daily conversations and interactions with other visitors and islanders including Elizabeth Rivers, with whom he stayed on one occasion, Charles Lamb and Sean Keating. The diaries, devoid of sentiment and often highly critical, reveal his views on art, literature, history and contemporary Irish life and international affairs as well as his thoughts on the economic, religious and daily life of the Aran islanders. His unvarnished observations on the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of life in post-Independence Ireland make his diaries absorbing and provocative. Edited with introductory essays by Cormac O’Malley and Roisin Kennedy and an afterword by Luke Gibbons, Nobody’s Business: The Aran Diaries of Ernie O’Malley offers fascinating insights into the mind and opinions of a key figure in Irish cultural nationalism.

Order your copy online here.


About the author

Cormac K.H. O’Malley co-edited with Richard English Prisoners: The Civil War Letters of Ernie O’Malley (Poolbeg, 1991) and edited Rising Out: Sean Connolly of Longford (1890-1921) by Ernie O’Malley (UCD Press, 2007). Cormac is an international legal consultant based in New York City and is the son of Ernie O’Malley.

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