“Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
What is the role of an editor? The answer is both simple and complex.
Simply put, it is someone who checks copy for errors in grammar, punctuation, clarity, etc. More deeply, a good editor helps the writer present the information or ideas in a clear and concise manner.
Anyone who writes with the view to being understood, respected and, possibly, making a buck or two should appreciate the value of a good editor, despite what the writer’s ego may think.
As a fine arts writer, I am always convinced that my “final” draft is clear and insightful. Then I give it to someone to edit and, inevitably, one part is met with something like, “I’m not exactly sure what this part means.” Of course you don’t. I know what it means because I wrote it and I have education and training in the subject. But now I know I need to re-write it or add some background to make it clear to everyone. The editor has done exactly what I need her to do.
I am the advisor to the student newspaper at Lamar University, which means I edit a lot. I have the great fortune of being able to take my time (unless they miss deadline) with each student, and I see my editing sessions as an important part of their education as a writer. In the professional world, the editing is often done without the writer being present and they don’t see the changes until it is in print.
I would say that more than half of the process consists of me asking, “Why?” or “What does this mean?” or “Who said that?” or “What has this got to do with anything?”
(By the way, when editing I always read out loud, which the new students say they find embarrassing, yet they almost always hear the mistakes instantly, and maybe they need to be embarrassed — public humiliation can be a valuable learning tool).
My reputation, unfairly, is that I am intimidating. I think that just means I point out the errors in logic, or the gaps in information. Some of the younger students complain that I have butchered their stories, when in fact their storytelling is incomplete and needs more work. The point is that they should ask themselves the questions when writing, meaning I have to ask fewer and fewer. Nothing makes me, and the student, happier than reading through, making a couple of minor suggestions (no story is perfect) and walking away with a “Good, Print it.”
The most important thing to remember about editing is that it is not my story, it is the writer’s story. My own compositions have a distinctive voice and I would not want the editor to change it. The editor is not there to co-opt the story, but to help the writer’s own voice be heard. The benefit my students get from face-to-face editing sessions is that they get to re-write in their own way, so it still sounds like them.
Of course, one must be one’s own editor, but even the best need a little help now and again.
“I’ve found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it.” — Don Roff
Next: How much is an editor responsible for content?