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Editing Part 1: My Role as an Editor

I have seen quite a few conversations on the web over time in which the process of editing is questioned and most often misunderstood, so I thought I’d offer you some insights into the way editing should be done and the way I do it.

First of all, we’d better define what is meant by the term ‘editing’. When I’m talking about editing here, I don’t mean the simple correction of language which comes under the title of ‘proofreading’ - that’s almost entirely a different process requiring different skills. All writers should undergo a process of proofreading their work, whether they try to do this themselves (difficult but possible) or get someone else to do it (occasionally expensive). Proofreading is merely the action of picking up unintended slips in the punctuation, grammar, spelling or syntax of a work. Even the best and most practised authors need this done, if only to correct typographical errors. In the process of proofreading, no real changes are made to the content of the story, only to its most superficial presentation using the symbols of the language.

‘Editing’ in the sense I’m using it here means the process of reading, understanding and then suggesting changes to the substance of the story itself. These can be minor changes to clarify, adjust or magnify particular points, all the way up to major revisions of content and style. It’s when editing gets into the latter regions that some writers object, and understandably so: the writer has written something, often from his or her heart, and for the editor to presume to make major changes to it can feel like a profound intrusion.

What makes this worse - and amplifies the concerns of those writers - is that some editors take on their role with precisely that intention in mind: to alter, shape, mould and otherwise interfere with the creative process until what emerges is the story that the editor wants, rather than the unique vision of the author. We can see this happening on a relatively small scale, with editors suggesting changes which transform moods or scenes, all the way up to the grand re-designing of whole works to fit another’s dream. This approach - taking a writer’s original work and remoulding it in significant ways in order to fit the editor’s concept of what the story ‘should be’ - is what gives editors a bad name, and actually indicates a lack of skill and professionalism on the part of those editors.

It arises because of a missing step in the definition of what an editor does.

It’s easy to see how the misunderstanding occurs. The dictionary definition of ‘editor’ goes something like this: ‘a person who commissions or prepares written or recorded material for publication or broadcast’. It comes directly from Latin, ‘producer (of games), publisher’, from edit- ‘produced, put out’, from the verb edere. That gives rise to the impression that it is the editor who is the ‘source’ of whatever the work is - he or she is the one producing it. The writer gets overlooked. It’s almost like we need a different word altogether to describe the true function of an editor.

What then is that true function? As stated above, true editing is the process of reading, understanding and then suggesting changes to the substance of the story itself. The missing step is ‘understanding’.

Many so-called editors bypass that step altogether and go from reading straight to suggesting changes. Their own vision is thus imposed upon that of the writer, creating resentment among many. A true editor must take time to understand the story, to listen to what the author is trying to say, to go right into the depths of things - perhaps even further than the writer has. While that can sometimes seem to produce the same effect as the false editor’s work, in that the overall result is a story which might seem unrecognisably changed in some aspects from the original draft, the nature of the change is entirely different. Instead of imposing a view from outside the work, the true editor has delved into the original vision contained within it and brought it more strongly to the fore.

How can you tell the difference, when working with an editor?

There is a very marked distinction: with a ‘false’ editor, the writer will feel disgruntled, resistive, argumentative. They will resent changes and feel that their work is being fundamentally altered almost against their will. They will grudgingly accept changes, when they do, only by placing faith in the editor’s argument that such-and-such a modification will make the story ‘better’, but without any real comprehension of why. But with an editor taking the proper approach, the writer will notice a recognition (sometimes accompanied by a physical ‘shiver’) of something that they themselves always thought should be there - changes will be welcomed and enlightening; suggestions will seem insightful and supportive. Far from being resentful, they will be glad to take these on board and to implement them. It will seem as though their original vision has been enhanced, clarified, even expanded upon.

This is because a true editor either takes the time or has the skill to understand the story, to perhaps glimpse beneath its surface, and to spot those departures from a fully complete communication which may have eluded even the writer. The result of all this is that the writer feels both relieved and supplemented: the true editor becomes an ally, not an enemy. Even more than that, under the tutelage of a true editor, a writer rapidly gains more understanding of what he or she is trying to so, learns new skills, and is able to spot for themselves weaknesses and strengths in their own work (and that of others) with increasing ease.

In this series of articles about editing, we will see just how technical things can get, but learn a lot about what we are trying to accomplish as writers and how it can perhaps be done more easily and satisfactorily.


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