Recently, James Harbeck, a friend and fellow editor, invited comments on the qualities essential to a good editor, and Henry Fuhrmann, another friend and fellow editor, remarked that he thought empathy was an essential attribute.
I think Henry is right. A good editor must be able to say with Terence, “Humani nihil a me alienum—nothing human is alien to me.” Editors must perforce deal with writers, a tribe of diverse personalities subject to particular anxieties and uncertainties, with understanding.
A writer has no secrets from an editor, who sees the writer’s weaknesses and shortcomings as well as strengths and accomplishments. The good editor becomes the friend who can speak frankly but not harshly. I tell my editing students that your editor is the person who taps you on the shoulder as you are about to step to the dais to receive your award to tell you that you have a strip of toilet paper trailing from your shoe. It’s certainly embarrassing, but at least it’s private. Your editor will try to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public.
But, of course, there is more.
An effective editor must be widely read, because only wide reading will yield an appreciation of the possibilities of written language and acquaintance with adept practitioners. Wide reading is also the source of indispensable general information. An editor cannot know too much, and there is no telling when some remembered detail of history, literature, biology, geography, music, film, or popular culture will prove serviceable.
The good editor also becomes adept at balancing conflicting interests. The editor must strike a balance between the competing requirements of the writer, the publisher, the subject, the occasion, and the reader—and it is too often the reader who gets neglected in these operations.
And while good editors are firmly grounded in the conventions of formal English grammar and usage, they are also sensitive to register, knowing when to insist on the formal and when not to.
The good editor is like the surgeon who understands that every procedure that opens up a human body carries with it the hazard of damaging something previously sound. Every editor’s keystroke bears the risk of introducing an error. And, deeply Augustinian, editors understand that all of us, editors included, are born with an innate propensity to error.
Also like a surgeon, an editor does triage, identifying what must absolutely be fixed, what can be fixed after the urgent matters are dealt with, and what can be let go of, given that human energy, time, attention, and life are finite.
Last, the good editor is anonymous, caring for more the text than for the writer’s— or editor’s—ego.