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The Editing Process: What do editors do anyway? A Guest Article

What, anyway, does an editor do when she gets your seriously researched, soundly written, and carefully proofed manuscript? What are his motives, goals, and allegiances? Do they think they know more about your topic than you do after all that research?

I’ve been editing, and sometimes writing, for more than three decades, and can tell you where some of us are coming from.

Early in my career, I heard Ivan Doig talk about the process of getting his book This House of Sky published. It was accepted by something like the 28th publisher his agent (a volunteering neighbor) sent it to.

Then, Doig said, came the editing, which was “like being pecked to death by a duck.”

I immediately went out and bought a coffee mug with a duck on it, to keep on my desk and square away my perspective.

Editors are The Reader’s Advocate

Years later, a non-literary person asked me seriously “What does an editor do, anyway?” Lightning struck and I articulated not only a definition but also my philosophy. “An editor is an advocate for the reader and for the writer.” Her job is to make sure they understand each other.

That means that we have to ask dumb questions sometimes, which doesn’t mean we’re making fun of writers’ works. Or, we can try to fix things we don’t understand, and if we mess up, that’s a good message that the reader wouldn’t “get it” either.

Once I was editing a solidly researched piece on Montana saddle makers of the 19th century. I rewrote an awkward sentence and, when the author saw it, he said I had reversed what he intended to say. He also was kind enough to note that my misunderstanding showed him that the sentence truly needed to be redone.

You, the author, don’t have the luxury of sitting in the room with each of your readers while they read your article or book and ask you questions. We editors try to be all your readers at once.

Editors are on the Writer’s Side Too

But our hearts are also with you creators. Many of us also write, and all of us read fanatically. In fact, the best of us are generalists who know a little about many things–even if just enough to ask those dumb questions that send you back to your research notes for clarifying details. That’s so you’ll sound as good as you should.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is just one of a zillion masters of fiction who couldn’t spell worth a darn. Is that any reason to prevent the world from pondering and enjoying The Great Gatsby? Heck no, that’s why God invented Maxwell Perkins, the legendary Scribner’s editor who fixed such weaknesses!

Besides repairing spelling and punctuation, we solve grammar problems for you. We may suggest reorganizing your nonfiction completely, or ask you to kill off a minor but distracting character in your novel. Sometimes the publishing deal hangs on your agreement with the suggestions, and how well you carry them out. Sometimes we just hope you’ll see the book from the outside as we do.

We’re your first reader, and your “biggest reader,” in the sense of “I’m your biggest fan.” We know how good your content is, and want to make sure it comes through with rough edges filed away. We’re Myrna Loy straightening William Powell’s bow tie in The Thin Man.

For me, editing always includes negotiating with the author. I believe that some suggestions I make aren’t essential (just as I believe that others are). If some of those phrasings or thoughts are totally dear to your heart–okay, they can stay. But I still will mark them up, and ask whether you’re sure you want the text to read this way.

If you give me a good reason for needing to say a thing a certain way, I will agree. Needing to say? That happens in nonfiction when every finely finessed word counts, when the research shows that you have to fudge a statement so because it simply can’t be stated baldly. If I’ve “cleaned it up” to clarity that’s unwarranted, you can tell me, and we’ll take it back to fudge.

It’s We – the Writer & the Editor – Not Just the Editor

When I’m editing a manuscript, I feel very much “with” the author. This isn’t a contest or a grading situation. It’s the two of us working together to make sure this piece is the best.

It is definitely never about making your work sound as if I wrote it. Editors who approach their work with that attitude should be kicked out of the trade.

They’re out there, but definitely in the minority.

One thing I may have to do, though, is apply “house style.” That means that my employer, your publisher, requires numbers under 100 to be spelled out, not written in numerals. Or demands an end comma in a series. This isn’t between you and me, it’s just something you have to put up with to get your article or book published here.

Once I had to cut a fourth of the length from a nonfiction book manuscript, because the author was so enthusiastic about his topic that he just couldn’t stop. I warned him that the manuscript would be shortened, and he feared the worst. But when I’d changed all the prepositional phrases to simple possessives, and made other cuts that didn’t change content, he was delighted. He said my touch was “surgical.”

I was relieved, and still treasure the accolade.

Barbara Fifer is a freelance editor. She’s good; I know because I use her. She can be reached at: bfifer@onewest.net

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • What is your typical process in editing a fiction manuscript? Do you read all the way through the story first, to see how it flows and learn all the ins and outs of the plot, or do you line-edit and make suggestions first? I’m having my novel edited now, and there are parts of the story where the reader is supposed to be curious, as the information about the protagonist comes later. It’s the reverse of dramatic irony. What is typical for an editor to do?

    • Courtney, I can’t answer that… I’ve done it both ways… it sort of depends on the manuscript. I suspect there’s no ‘typical’ process.

  • AM

    I was recently let go from a writing internship this fall – I was one month into it to say the least – after my editor stated that I made too many little mistakes in my articles. I owned up to those mistakes, but at the same time my editor never once told me about them or even told me to correct them in anyway. Now, isn’t that an editor’s job? To make sure that everything that gets put out is 100% correct? Like you stated, it’s a partnership between a writer and an editor, and I can honestly say we didn’t have one. Now, I’m sitting here without a learning experience because he was worried about a credibility issue ruining their business.

  • admin

    One of the very first pieces I sold was, imo, ruined by an editor… that’s almost the only time that’s happened to me. Several have made me look much better than I was/am.

  • I know a few editors you should be teaching. Don’t get we wrong I have had the chance to work with a lot of great editors who have made me a better writer, but I have also encountered a few power trippers to. Oddly enough, it always seems to be the ones with the least power (a junior editor or a content editor instead of a managing editor) who have the biggest attitude towards writers. Anyone else notice that?

    Kate’s last blog post..The Nature of Work and The Idea of Protection

  • Lou Paun

    I really appreciate the way you express the writer-editor partnership. When that partnership works, it really does result in a better book. I’ve had editors who made wonderful suggestions. I’ve had editors who made silly suggestions — and debating those suggestions led to solutions that neither of us would have discovered alone. A really good editorial partnership is almost magical.

    Of course, I’ve also had editors who insisted on stupid changes. When the critics spoke harshly about those passages, my name was in the review, not the editor’s. Maddening! I get furious when a book is not as good as I can make it.

    Editors, like writers, have different levels of competence. I think you have to go into the partnership hoping for the best — because that increases the chance to make the best possible book.

  • admin

    Yep, more or less Jamwes, editors are like people, well they are people, and you’ll get a variation between them but the goals are roughly the same. Glad you liked the aritlce

  • Very good information. Now I know what to expect from an editor when I get to that stage in my novel.

    Jamwes’s last blog post..Hamster Huey and the Gooey Kablooie

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