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Writers write; editors edit

A colleague who posts at a Facebook group for editors recently wrote about a Facebook group for writers on which someone asked about setting up as an editor.

Replies included these: "Always go with your heart and you can't go far wrong." "If you feel competent to edit, you probably are." "I have no degree in English, I just know how English 'feels.' "  

Poor dears. 

Unless they are slavishly imitating some templated form (as reporters write obituaries, police briefs, company earnings reports, and the like), writers indeed rely on how things "feel." Much of writing is intuitive, dependent on the wellsprings of the imagination. You can try to prime the pump by reading other writers or carrying out the ritual behaviors that get you started, but however much you try to think it through, you are waiting for something to form in the conscious mind that emerges from below. 

Then it's just sweaty work, with lots of muttering and pacing and staring out the window, waiting for more to emerge. And it's work done largely by ear, by what sounds right, what feels right.

An editor who is any good understands that, respects that. Editors also have an ear for language and are attuned to what sounds right.

But editing can't be done just by ear. What feels right will only take an editor so far. Your ear alone will not guide you through a grammatical thicket; you have to know grammar, not just what is right, but why it's right. 

I have seen writers, writers working with people who call themselves editors, who go over a text repeatedly and obsessively, changing a word here, tweaking a phrase there, recasting a whole sentence in the other place. Then the text comes to an actual editor, the cold-eyed reader, who discerns immediately that it is about twenty percent too long, that a salient fact or image that would be irresistible to a reader is delayed by six paragraphs of throat-clearing, that a crucial point has been omitted from the chronology, or any of the other scores of things that go awry. 

Feeling (exasperation apart) will not get me far as an editor. I have to be analytical, dispassionate. I have to be as alert to the structure of the whole article as I am to the structure of each sentence. And when the writer demands that I give an account of the sentences I rewrote or the sentences I deleted, "It felt better to me that way" will not cut it, because the writer will reply, "Well I think it feels better the other way." I am expected to produce reasons and persuasive explanations. 

Writing and editing are linked but distinct enterprises, and distinct temperaments are involved. Very few people can move smoothly from the one enterprise to the other.

To set oneself up as an editor is to embark on a lifelong apprenticeship to the craft. 

On Feb. 7, 1980, after the conclusion of a three-week tryout, I was offered a job by The Cincinnati Enquirer and took a seat on its copy desk the next day. For the past thirty-four years I have been applying myself to the craft of editing. I hope to get better at it. 


 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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