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The Goal of Good Editing

It’s a common assumption, and a workable one for now, that a story is always junior to its author. By this it is meant that an idea or opinion held by the writer is, fundamentally, superior to the setting, tone, pace, structure and so on of a created world. If the writer decides to change something, he or she can change it; if he or she decides to leave something as it is, it stays as it is.

However, to get a story which communicates effectively to readers, there has to be some kind of common ground or agreement between the writer and the reader. The setting, tone, pace and structure of a world and a few other things must to some extent be ‘in tune with’ the expectations of readers, or you have a piece of work which might as well be written in a language foreign to that of the reader. That so many readers agree, on some level, with what a writer has written brings about a successful basis for a story in much the same way as writing in the same spoken language of the reader: a tale written in French is going to be almost incomprehensible to someone who doesn’t understand French and a tale constructed in a way totally different to a reader’s expectations is going to be rejected by that reader.

In the act of writing, though, things seem to be the reverse of this: it seems to an author, quite frequently, that the mechanics of his or her story are real, and that a reader’s reality is less important than the author’s personal considerations about setting, tone, pace, structure and everything else. Things look upside down.

The creative freedom of writers depends upon their freedom to alter their constructions and the roles of the things called ‘characters’ in them. But, if they cannot change their minds about these things so that they become communicable, writers become fixed and enslaved amidst self-created barriers.

There is a basic series of assumptions in addressing this. The first of these is that writers can have great freedom - in fact, so long as they remain relatively sane, they desire creative freedom. Another assumption is that editors desire to deliver a greater freedom to the writers with whom they are working. But this must be balanced with an observation of the underlying rules about fiction which permit communication. It’s no good having total creative freedom to write if you are writing in another language than your reader.

The goal of good editing - which at first sounds like a paradox but is a deeper truth - is to bring an individual writer into such thorough communication with readers and their expectations that he or she regains the power and ability of his own creativity.


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