What do editors do? I think it’s fair to say that the popular perception of editors—especially among writers who have not worked with one (and maybe a few who have)—is of a martinet whacking away at punctuation and spelling errors and generating ghastly Word documents covered in the virtual equivalent of red ink. Like the stereotyped librarian of legend, this imagined editor is stern, unyielding, and hovering on the edge of cuckoo. Definitely not the kind of person anyone wants to hang out with at neighborhood parties. The files they generate haunt a writer’s nightmares. Oh no, not the Comma Wars!
Well, it’s true, correcting punctuation, spelling, and usage is part of editing. We’re talking about copy editors here, not the many other kinds of editors who work at publishing houses. And the rules governing house style, in particular, often seem arcane. One publisher capitalizes where another does not. One writes out numbers under a hundred; the next uses arabic numerals for everything over ten. Tranquility or tranquillity? It’s anyone’s guess. The invocation of semi-magical authorities—in the United States, these are Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style—has stopped many a writer’s protest in its tracks. Even then, there are always exceptions. The copy editor must remember the rules, not just in general but for each specific house. The baffled author has to hang on and hope it all makes sense someday.
But fixing grammatical and spelling errors is a small part of editing. And thank goodness, because it’s a job that bores most editors, too. We do it—because someone has to, or the publisher looks sloppy—but 450 pages of misplaced commas exhaust the editor every bit as much as they do the author staring at red ants marching through his or her text. After about four hours, my brain starts spinning, and I can’t see anything. My eyes roll around in my head like a Looney Tunes character. I have to do something else for the rest of the day. And I’ve been editing for twenty years.
So editors don’t love punctuation, especially. We love words. More than words, we love language—language as a means of conveying ideas. Developmental editors (book doctors) overhaul fictional prose in a big way, moving entire passages and chapters, demanding that authors observe the basic structural principles of story and characterization. Copy editors (also called line editors) work paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word to ensure that every syllable counts, every thought achieves its fullest and most elegant expression. English possesses an amazing vocabulary, in which a single well-chosen word can encapsulate an image that requires entire phrases in other languages. Although novelists do need to worry about jerking their readers out of their fictional worlds to hunt for a dictionary, used judiciously that vast treasure trove of words—each with its own nuances and connotations—is a writer’s most precious resource. Editors find the word that zings: the verb strong enough to stand without an adverb; the adjective that pinpoints a character; the combination that sounds natural without descending into cliché.
Many editors also write—and when we write, we look for editors who can prune our prose where it counts and add the telling phrase that explains something we’ve taken for granted. Editors who will send our prose soaring into the stratosphere. Because the editor is the author’s first and most conscientious reader. Every single one of us lives inside his or her own head, unable to imagine how the images that seem so vivid to us can fall flat on the page, failing to communicate with someone who lacks our own specific knowledge and understanding and way of looking at the world. Editors bridge that gap.
And now, my secret. Precisely because I am an editor, as a writer I am a terrible editee (to coin a phrase—bet you didn’t expect that!). I hate people touching my prose. When I see those red ants, my skin crawls. I have to force myself to stop and think about whether, in fact, the person editing me has spotted an ambiguity that escaped me, solved a problem I didn’t believe existed with a felicity that I did not (or could not) muster. Sometimes the editor hasn’t. More often, the editor has. Because she cared enough to read my draft, ponder what I wanted to say, and find a better—clearer, stronger, more beautiful—way to say it.
So yes, authors need editors. Not just editors who will fix their commas (although a misplaced comma can completely change your meaning), but editors who love their books enough to free them from the unavoidable constraints of solipsism and let them fly.
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