Editing Part 2: What the Editor Should Be Looking For
I recently posted something on Facebook to do with a babysitter. You may have seen this ‘doing the rounds’ on social media, but if you missed it, here is the original text in full:
when i was 12 i babysat this girl for a few years and she would come to me and show me her art, drag me by my wrists and point at the pieces she’d made during the week. and she’d be like “do the voice” and i’d put on a sports-announcer olympics-style voice and be like “such form! this level of coloring! why i haven’t seen such perfection in crayola in a long time. and what is this? why jeff, now this is a true risk… it seems she’s made … a monochrome pink canvas…. i haven’t seen this attempted since winter 1932… and i gotta say, jeff, it’s absolutely splendid” and she’d fall back giggling. at the end of every night she’d check with me: “did you really like it?” and i’d say yes and talk about something i noticed and tucked her in.
she was just accepted into 3 major art schools. she wrote me a letter. inside was a picture from when she was younger. monochrome pink.
“thank you,” it said, “to somebody who saw the best in me.”
The reason I’m repeating it here is that I wanted to emphasise the important lesson it contains for writers and editors. An writer’s tendency is to look for things wrong in his or her writing. And many editors take this approach too: they are always trying to find something wrong with the work. In proofreaders, that’s perfectly acceptable of course - a proofreader is looking for technical errors. But the editor - and the writer - must start from a different point if they wish to be truly successful.
What is that starting point? It is the assumption that an individual’s work is always basically and routinely worthwhile, capable of many effects and considerable communicative power.
I’m sure that most writers would like to believe that, in an ideal world, their writing would be powerful and uncomplicated. What both the writer and the editor - if the editor knows what he or she is doing - is striving for is that ideal.
You can’t approach that ideal very closely if you begin with anything other than the assumption above. Start with criticism and you are going to overthrow the writer’s power of creative choice. That’s all he or she had to begin with: that initial creativity is what provided the power, capability and anything else within the work. It’s precisely that power of creative choice which bad editing has often consistently and continuously dismantled by forcing in things that weren’t wanted or removing things that were wanted, over and over and over again until part of the writer becomes apathetic and the work becomes the editor’s rather than the writer’s. You get the individual writer pretty overwhelmed and he or she goes down in confidence and power.
On a technical level, this gets very intriguing. A true editor’s task is often to get the writer to spot those things in the work which the writer hasn’t properly assessed - things which often snuck in ‘under the radar’ of the writer and which have entered the work and been sealed in place as part of it, but which are actually getting in the way of the real message or intent of the thing overall. It’s as though the writer, with the best of intentions, put something there and fixed it in place unknowingly thinking that it was right or that it helped, when actually it hindered.
A poor editor will jump in and criticise those things - and maybe some other wrongly targeted things too - and this is what throws the writer into despair: his or her ‘solutions’ are being attacked and after a while it can seem to them as though they have no clue how to write at all. Some editing experiences are actually calculated to degrade and de-power the writer; others do so accidentally. A good editor then has to pick up all of these moments and return the writer to a position of power over the work.
So apart from the starting point above - that a writer’s work is intrinsically worthwhile in some way - one can add another editing maxim: when the editor criticises a piece of work, in effect he is bypassing the writer and throwing the writer into the passenger seat. A true editor must consult the writer’s ability to assess his or her own work and firmly place the writer in the driver’s seat at every turn.
However, because editors are nevertheless still in the business of deleting errors from pieces of work, they can persist in falling into the trap outlined above: they can get into the habit of looking for things that are wrong and fail to keep their eyes on what is right. That’s what’s wrong with some editors: they are so anxious to find the departures - and quite legitimately - that they lose sight of the plusses. If they don’t look at the plusses that are present an any given piece of work, then they will find it difficult to enhance those plusses.
In other words, some editors start at the level of no quality present and never make any forward progress. They have to realise that there must be some quality present in any given piece of work for it to exist at all and that this quality - whether stylistic, thematic, structural, or whatever - must be recognised and that this is hand-in-glove a part of editing - the recognition of the fact that quality is present in some form.
If an editor only looks for error and only recognises mistakes then he or she will never be able to improve a writer’s work because he or she won’t think that there is any quality to work with. It just all looks wrong to them.
Which leads to a third datum: you can only recognise wrongness against a background of rightness.
True editing is an action by which wrongnesses can be removed from the work to the degree that rightnesses are present. Proper editing is a process of maintaining a viewpoint of quality so that deviations from quality can be removed. The result should be a work which shines with qualities. You are trying to get a high quality work, so you have to encourage quality wherever you see it. You want the writer to wind up in a better state - in a more confident, more capable, less overwhelmed, higher power of choice sort of condition. You want him or her to wind up with more ability.
Don’t look for errors on and on and on; you’ll drive the writer insane and suppress whatever quality was present. Remember this next time you see a writer start to complain and go slower one way or the other. You’ve got to get the writer’s confidence up before you can get sorted whatever needs to be sorted.
If the writer is responsive, cooperative, keen to proceed and excited, the editor knows he is doing a good job of editing.
Then soon you'll be getting letters like the one from the girl above.