Dear Editor

The other day we were talking about the role of a good editor.  Not a copyeditor, though they’re nice, too, but a good developmental editor.  Someone who can say “Um, yes, wasn’t that character a girl 30 pages ago?” or “I think you’d be better served by moving chapter 6 up some,” or if you were Stephen King’s editor, “It’s really great until the end and then it kind of seems like you aren’t sure how to wrap things up.”

It’s hard to explain to folks what a good editor does and so they’re kind of becoming a dying breed.

But a good editor is your most intimate reader.

And, to me, that’s the thing about writing. It can’t be separated from reading.  They are, I think, actually different parts of the same act.  And having a reader who lets you in on his end of things, if you’re a writer, is invaluable.  It sucks and it’s hard on the ego, but it’s invaluable.

I don’t know if we’ll have publishers like we do now, so it’s hard to know if we’ll have editors.

And I’m a little sad about that.

Until I think of you, dear reader.

We do out here in public what used to be done in private.  (Isn’t that part of the joke of this Vanity Fair thing? That they are shaming her, not only by editing her, but by showing work publicly that we perceive of as being done in private?)

I push; you pull. Things that aren’t clear are made clear or fights ensue.

Ha, I can’t remember where I was going with this.

I want to talk about how intimate it feels to edit someone.  But I don’t want to talk about how I came to feel like a whore.

So, let’s just leave it at that.

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9 thoughts on “Dear Editor

  1. I love to edit. It is intimate- to let someone put themselves out there to actually look for the blemishes on you and try to smooth them over. And yeah, not just the spelling mistakes and comma splices, but the right word and better rhythm, like sticking it in gymnastics.

    Risking the conceit, even editing yourself, when you’ve let it get cold for a time and you pick it back up, almost like it’s the work of a good friend. And that line you needed or that symbol that pulls the example and idea together perfectly and two things converge to one. Then, thankfully you know it’s done and you can be proud. It reminds me of that scene in Barton Fink after he’s finished his script and he’s gone to the dance where all those brutish ignorant Navy guys are. You’re embarrassed for him when he brags a bit too much “I created something. I’m a creator!” but you’re really with him ’cause you know where it’s coming from.

    Geez, I seem to embarrass myself here. OK. Sorry, I’m done now.

  2. My best friend and I “met” online about ten years ago when she was looking for a fiction editor and I offered myself up. She says I made her cry with a diatribe about how to use commas. I don’t remember this, but hey, 10 years later we share a lovely house in Nashville (a long way from home and where we started) and still edit each other’s writing encouragingly.

  3. I’ve done a fair bit of editing of all sorts of things and my first question is always about how the person would like their work edited, because that matters. Some editing is straightforward; some is more nuanced. I like to make sure I am going for nuance when I am supposed to.

    crackerjackheart: The diatribe about commas cracks me up because it reminds me of the time I was editing a friend’s book and noted in the margin that he seemed to have an ambivalent relationship with punctuation.

  4. I wound up getting out of editorial when I started to feel like that. I think it’s an occupational hazard, like the OCD stuff about pens.

  5. I’m best at structural editing. I get this partly from teaching freshman composition – students tend to arrive at college believing that their prose is muse-inspired and lands fully-formed on the page from beginning to end. Even if they don’t think they are good writers, they are pretty sure they cannot write any other way. So it’s my job to look at their stream of consciousness and find a thesis (usually near the end, when they finally realized where they were going), find the main points, suggest alternate outlines, explain how different organizations will present arguments differently.

    I like that, but I love doing it for my colleagues in the womens’ studies research seminar and for my monthly writer’s group, among people closer to my age and education. The works are much longer, more complex, require a lot of attention. I do find that I fall in love a little with all of the works in progress, maybe because it is intimate like you said. One needs to become acquainted with a piece from beginning to end to find out where the real beginning and end is.

    By the way, to people who love writing and editing, I highly recommend forming an informal writers’ group. Meet every few weeks, have some wine, and dig in to each others’ brains. It’s so satisfying.

  6. I think I’m already seeing the effects of this in a few new non-fiction books I’ve read recently. I have encountered a few works that left me with too many “But what about x?” questions, too many “I don’t think you considered this related issue” thoughts, in addition to issues of organization, things I think a good editor would and should have improved through feedback.

    “That they are shaming her, not only by editing her, but by showing work publicly that we perceive of as being done in private?” – That there is a lot of work done in private by editors, and that it might be kind of embarrassing to let your work out there and have this done publicly, has been part of my argument when I’ve heard it suggested that peer reviewed journals should have the peer review and editing done publicly, online, by volunteers (like in a blog/commenters manner). It’s a lot of work, requiring skill, and it would be hard to depend on blog commenters or the like to do it thoroughly on a volunteer ad hoc basis. It would also be a record of how unready many, many people’s writings are for public consumption on the first try, I don’t think people writing for tenure necessarily want to subject themselves to that. It seems like an okay idea, but only if you don’t have a thorough understanding of how much work or how valuable good editing really is in improving the product.

  7. I’m like tanglethis — I can show someone how to reorganize a book or article really effectively. And I can sometimes help out with the right word or whatever. But I hate, hate, hate editing someone else for style. Especially if that style is idiosyncratic or personal in some way. I may like to read it, but being asked to fix it (“please keep it sounding like me, but don’t let it get too distracting”) is awful, because I never know what the limits are.

  8. that’s what worries me most about the shrinking role of traditional publishers. they provide a real service to the world that no one understands. because people think that writers just write and it comes right out of their fingers in perfect form. I am surrounded by books that prove otherwise.

  9. Publishers have been underpaying and downsizing their editorial staffs for years; when I interviewed for a (non-entry-level) editor position 3 years ago at Simon & Schuster, they offered me something like 24k–to live in NYC! Well, if I had a rich family or husband, maybe. They even said my editing test was by far the best they received, and the person I would have been working for really wanted me. But I didn’t want to live under a bridge, so no dice.

    Hardly anyone understands what editing is or what editors do, aside from fix spelling, and hey, you have software for that, right? Add to the fact that almost everyone thinks they are a good writer, or simply doesn’t care about quality. I told my husband some days I feel like a really good buggy whip maker right after the Model T took off.

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