Every writer deserves an editor. I first heard this sentence when I was working as an editor of a women’s magazine, and the moment came for me to edit a column by a writer whose work I had long admired. At that time I hadn’t been published all that much, so when I found myself sitting behind a desk with one of my literary idol’s words in front of me, my pen froze in mid-air. Who was I to edit this awesome goddess of literature? How dare I scribble my trivial comments across her holy sentences, or strike out one single sacred word? What if she didn’t like what I did to her column? She had a rep for being devastatingly ‘clever.’
No timid little comma changer, I was proud to be known as a “slash-and-burn” editor. I scribbled boldly over copy with a purple felt pen. I tore through short stories, features and columns with fervor, confidently picking up, discarding and inserting words, phrases and even whole sentences. I had enormous faith, to the point of chutzpah, in my abilities. I trusted–as I still do–my editor’s ear to know when the rhythm was disjointed. I was a wiz at unearthing ideas buried beneath excess verbiage. I had no compunction about scrawling questions, comments, strike-throughs and alterations across the pages of some of America’s foremost female writers.
And so my publisher, who had herself been on the receiving end of my merciless purple pen, was stunned to find me paralyzed by my idol’s column. She took me into her office, sat me down on her famous couch, and said, “Every writer deserves an editor.”
She told me that the writer/editor relationship is not adversarial, but mutually beneficial. Though this was something I’d vaguely suspected from my experience as a writer, it had been obscured by stereotypes, jokes, and the grousing of other writers. Now I was reminded that editing is a gift the best of writers accept with grace and appreciation. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.
This is not to say that every writer should always take all of an editor’s changes as gospel. To begin with, not all of us know what we’re doing at all times (not even me). Sometimes we don’t get what an author is trying to say, and we make changes to fit our misinterpretation. Some editors arbitrarily change words or phrases for no discernible or defensible reason. Some don’t listen to the writer’s explanations of what she’s saying, or why she purposely chose a certain word. And sometimes we just get carried away, slashing and burning because someone gave us a nifty new pen.
I have been guilty of all these sins. In my usual practice, however, I try to stick to my credo, which is to preserve an author’s intent and maintain her unique style. My primary aims are (1) to see that the writing flows smoothly, and (2) be sure the author’s meaning is clear to the average reader. When I sense a writer trying to say something but not succeeding, I talk to her and elicit the deeper, often darker, truth. I think I do a good job—at least, most writers tell me I do.
Any editor who does her job well has a right to regard her work as a gift. That is why, when a writer rejects an editor’s suggestions, or becomes confrontational, we sometimes feel hurt or even offended. This hasn’t happened to me very often, but it has happened. One writer whose story I edited for an anthology sent me a nasty letter with a full accounting of every change I’d made, including commas and semi-colons. She’d organized them into categories of ‘arbitrary’ and ‘off-base’ (none, she declared, were necessary). I never worked with her again. (Come to think of it, could it be fear of future rejection that keeps writers from confronting me? For all I know they get together in tight little groups and stick needles into a Marcy voodoo doll.)
I’ve been on the writing side of this process enough to know the benefits of good editing. I almost always enjoy being edited: it‘s a real privilege just to have someone pay that much attention to my work. I can hardly believe my luck when I happen across an editor who takes the time to weigh the pros and cons of one word rather than another, or considers whether to use a dash or a comma. She is telling me, “Your work is important. What you say and how you say it matters.” In a world where writing is so often ignored or trivialized, such attention is deeply satisfying.
Beyond ego stroking, editorial changes teach me something, whether it’s how to be more precise or how to make a scene more vivid. The most significant benefit, of course, is that my story–or essay or feature or review–improves. I could have paid a professional to teach me these lessons or to fix up my work—but I got the service gratis. How can I not be grateful? I still remember my best editors and how they helped me develop as a writer.
Both sides of the editorial process need to remember that the writer/editor relationship doesn’t have to be adversarial, that in fact it’s inherently positive. Both parties want the same outcome–a good piece of writing. Editors have a bad rep because of those who are power-hungry and pull rank on writers.
On the other side, some ivory-tower writers treat their every word as an untouchable jewel. That attitude is, more often than not, the mark of an amateur. Whenever I’ve encountered this type of writer, she turns out to be previously unpublished. Professional writers know they’re too close to their own work to see its weaknesses. They know that any piece of writing can be improved, and that the editor is their advocate–or can be.
- Why editors (still) matter (blogs.forbes.com)