Every Writer Deserves an Editor

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 laughing catstories, 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.

NicodemonThis 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 voodoo dollwith 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.

yellow tea rosesBeyond 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.

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4 Responses to Every Writer Deserves an Editor

  1. Robin Kramer says:

    The best editor I ever had was Geddy at the Woodstock Times. I wish he was still the editor there.

  2. gatos4 says:

    I had a wonderful editor who made me so much better than I was/am. It was like being a dog and being groomed.

    I had another terrific editor who when faced with some bit of writerly bombast used to just read it back in a hoity toity voice. Hilarious. And it worked!

  3. Kate Dominic says:

    Good editing can make such an awesome contribution to a story — and to a writer’s self-confidence. Bad editing can really mess with a writer’s head space and self-esteem. And unlike doctors, who can bury their mistakes, editors and writers get to see those mistakes in print and pixels forever.

    Unfortunately, sometimes the line between good and bad editing can be very fine, especially when it comes to content issues. Those are judgement calls, which means the editor has to use her mind-reading skills–in a two-dimensional setting where she can’t hear the author’s 3D/live speaking voice or get clarifications.

    Which is also how the reader would have to do it.(Yeah, I know that’s a fragment. ) So much comes down to the infamous “communication communication communication.” When the editor perceives something as being unclear, she fixes it. If she guesses the author’s intention correctly — woohoo! The writer will probably be happy. If she guesses wrong, the writer may well take issue (and justifiably so) with having those changes incorporated into the final draft.

    That’s when the communication comes back into play. The writer has to face the fact that, at least in this one instance, the writing just plain Didn’t Work for a conscientious reader — specifically for the editor who’s being the first line public reader for the work. So, keeping in mind that regardless of what one *meant* and can explain or clarify when questioned, the final piece has to stand on its own two, 2D feet. The editor has to face the fact that the changes aren’t working either — at least for what the writer wants the piece to be.

    Very intelligent insights, Kate. Thanks.–MS

    Add to this that the editing correspondence is most likely going to go back and forth in 2D email — where (once again) people can’t hear the intonations or see the body language. It’s easy for both the writer and editor to *hear* negative intent when their work is being changed or questioned. After all, this is Our Work — and someone is criticizing it!

    I’ve worn both an editor’s and a writer’s hat, and I’ve found that, usually, there’s more than one way to fix a content issue. If what the writer wrote doesn’t work for the editor/front line reader, and the what the editor rewrote didn’t fix the problem in a way the writer can live with, then the option behind Door Number 3 is for the writer and editor to work together to find a different solution — all with a deadline looming because, hey, this is the publishing world!

    It can be done, though. One thing I’ve always appreciated with Marcy’s editing (and that of several other really good editors) is that usually, her mind-reading skills are pretty darn good. She catches things the writer is too close to see, and she has a good ear for finding the heart of the issue when something isn’t quite working. On the few times she’s missed, her change has pointed out that no matter what, something needs to be changed — and she’s willing to work with the writer to get the piece back on track in a way everybody can happily live with.

    That gets the best story possible into the book, which makes the book more likely to sell. Win-win for everybody. 🙂

    Best,

    Kate Dominic

  4. Pingback: Writing/Editorial Services | Dirty Laundry

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