By Caitlin Kelly
OK, sometimes it’s really horrible.
Some people dread it. Some people fear it. Some people avoid the whole thing, by self-publishing or never submitting their ideas or work to an editor for their professional judgment.
But without an editor, your writing is stuck in neutral forever.
Even if they’re a butcher who adds errors to your copy (yes, that happens) or inserts words you’d never use (that, too) or asks asinine questions (hell, yes), you’re still learning how to write better as a result.
Few things can so quickly clarify your original intent more than
having every word challenged.
Journalism, and commercial publishing, is a team sport. No matter what medium, that isn’t about to change.
Nor should it.
This delicious joke, how a women’s magazine editor would edit a BBC report was amusing every writer I know recently:
A bomb (TYPE???) attack (WHAT KIND OF ATTACK????) on a Syrian (ASSUMING SYRIANS ARE PEOPLE FROM SYRIA? EXPLAIN.) government building (WHAT KIND OF BUILDING?) near Damascus has killed 31 people, (WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EVERYONE, AND NOW WE’RE TALKING ABOUT 31 PEOPLE? CONFUSING.) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. (ARE WE SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE? EXPLAIN.)
Four generals (GENERALS ARE NOT CIVILIANS. CONFUSING.) were among the dead, the activist group said. (SO THE SYRIAN OBSERVATORY FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IS AN ACTIVIST GROUP? NOT CLEAR.)
The explosives are thought (BY WHOM?) to have been placed in the basement (IN WHICH BASEMENT???!!) meaning opposition fighters were able to breach security to get into the building. (SORRY SARAH, BUT I CAN’T PICTURE THIS AT ALL. SHOW DON’T TELL.)
There has been no confirmation of the attack by state media, or by government officials. (THIS IS GREAT.)
What do editors do?
— Clarify and direct the tone, length and content of your story or book
— Help you refine your thinking if the story changes as you’re reporting it
— Offer some helpful sources
— Read your story as the reader will, with fresh eyes and no prior knowledge of the subject
— Add their own questions to the material to yours and those of potential readers
— Brainstorm about the story’s larger context and how yours will be better/deeper/smarter than any other on the topic
— Point out errors in your thinking: assumptions, filters, pre-conceptions
— Help you target your copy toward the needs and interest of their niche readership
— Save your sorry ass from a lawsuit, or several, by noticing, questioning and (if they have staff counsel) getting your material reviewed by a lawyer before it hits print
— Make sure your facts (spelling, dates, attributions, statistics) are correct
— Question your logic and story structure
— Help shape the narrative so that it flows and reads smoothly from start to finish
It takes two challenging emotional states to accept the process of being edited — trust and humility. You have to trust that your editor(s) are smart and are going to help make your story/book better and stronger and you have to have the humility to listen to them.
But you also need enough spine, after a while, to say “No. That sentence/paragraph/wording/structure works just fine as it is.”
At its very (rare) best, the editor-writer relationship is just that, a relationship.
A great editor is a great gift for any ambitious writer to have in their life, even on just one story. I’m still friends, decades later, with some of mine, whose wisdom and tough love helped to improve my work.
If you want a glimpse into an editor’s brain, this is a classic, smart and helpful book for any would-be non-fiction author.