Editing the Editor

Although I’ve now spent most of my career working as an editor, I graduated from college with the idea that I would be a writer, and I vacillated between the two roles for many years. I still take on the occasional book or magazine article. As a result, I’ve had the opportunity to both edit and to be edited. As an editor, I find that having been edited is helpful; but I find that having been on the other side of the red pen is even more helpful to me as an author. I’ll admit, the first time I saw my words edited by a professional editor I was horrified. The red slashes. The unnecessary (as I saw it then) deletions. The rewritten sentences. What did this say about my writing? Had I failed? Was I terrible? Should I just pack it in and find a new calling?

Every instinct in my young writer’s mind was to be outraged and to refuse to accept any of the edits offered. I threw a fit. I didn’t see it as constructive criticism; instead, I saw pure criticism. But I was wrong. Not long after my first painful experience of being edited, I wrote an article for a magazine whose policy was to incorporate edits without sharing them with the author. When the article was published, I was surprised by how smooth my writing was. The transitions were seamless and everything was so clean! I congratulated myself on being so awesome. Then I had a nagging little thought: the article actually seemed a lot better than what I’d originally written. In fact, I didn’t remember creating those wonderful transitions at all! Of course, that was because I hadn’t. Upon re-reading my original article and comparing it with the published version, I saw that while it was largely the same article, the published article had been polished. It didn’t sound dramatically different, just … better.

The experience opened my eyes to the process every good article and book goes through before it makes it to print. A great piece of writing rarely emerges whole from its writer; rather, its creation combines the expertise of a number of players.

Not long after the publication of that article, I was offered a staff editor position, where I learned the art of editing. I learned the goal of a good edit—it is not to re-write an article or book or to change a writer’s words. The goal of a good edit is to allow an author’s voice to better reach its audience, and to allow a reader to better absorb the intentions of its author. After many months, I reached a moment of success when a writer told me that I edited with a sword rather than an ax. I was thrilled.

Because I’ve vacillated between writing and editing throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to edit many writers and be edited by many editors. I’ve worked with editors who edit with a sword, and editors who edit with an ax. I much prefer those who edit with a sword. I prefer an editor who explains large changes but confidently makes the smaller changes that work to help my voice be better heard. I don’t like working with editors who make very few changes; it makes me feel as though they are not taking my work seriously. I love to work with an editor who makes my work sound even more like me—the me that is unencumbered by an awkward sentence or misplaced modifier.

As an editor, I love it when a writer asks me to help make their work better. That’s what I’m here for. I don’t want to change their voice—I want to clear away the clutter so that their voice is better heard.

Despite my reluctant start, nowadays, I love being edited. I can’t wait to see what a great editor can do with my work. I know that if I’m working with a good editor the result will be not different--just better.