I saw a tweet this morning from the proprietor of an editing service who said, “Editing should be a positive experience! Never settle for less.” A prompt response came from @paulwiggins: “Never hire me if all you seek is a positive experience.”
I agree with Mr. Wiggins. Nobody enjoys being edited. You don’t enjoy being edited. I don’t enjoy being edited.
It is maddening when you are badly edited, and there are people out there who purport to be editors who have no ear for register or cadence, who mulishly adhere to bogus rules, who will slice and dice and recast and reshape and writer be damned.
But being well edited is worse. It is humbling, and you can’t indulge in righteous anger.
In Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill describes a New Yorker writer’s reaction to receipt of galleys “with scores, perhaps hundreds, of penciled hen-tracks of inquiry, suggestion, and correction.” The article will be improved, but the writer “will be pitched into a state of graver self-doubt than ever. Poor devil, he will type out his name on a sheet of paper and stare at it long and long, with dumb uncertainty. It looks — of Christ! — his name looks as if it could stand some working on.”
We are all mortal, and a good editor will identify the marks of our mortality, our typographical errors, our lapses of grammar and usage, our wordiness, our irritating tics, without posting them in the public square. But a great editor will go beyond the small change of micro editing and shine light on larger issues as well.
The late Dudley Clendinen once gently posed a series of questions to me about material I had written for an in-house newsletter. What was exactly did I mean there? What was the reader supposed to understand by that? Why did you do that? And as his smooth baritone queries continued, gently, relentlessly, it came to me that he was showing me that I was not as funny as I thought I was. The newsletter got better, but those questions are green in memory.
For some writers, working with an editor is like going to the doctor. The doctor can see that you’re cheating on your diet, you’re drinking too much, and you don’t get any more exercise than a three-toed sloth. And you know that the doctor sees all of that. You don’t have any secrets from your editor, either.
If you have a good editor, you won’t be savaged. You will benefit. You may even find some satisfaction in collaborating with someone who sees what you mean to do, sometimes more clearly than you yourself do, and helps you to get there.
But just as Dorothy Parker is supposed to have said, “I hate writing. I love having written,” you will not love being edited as much as you will having been edited.