Notes from an editor

A newsroom colleague asked me once why I would want to run a newspaper. “To make it better,” I said. He nodded respectfully.

I’m not much interested in running newspapers these days (though I do still write for them on occasion), but I think my answer still applies to editing in general. Why be an editor? To make something better.

I’ve been editing professionally for a long time—copy editing, proofreading, and now moving into developmental editing. I’ve edited breaking news on deadline, fiction and nonfiction manuscripts, movie reviews, and obituaries. I get equally annoyed by typos in books, on restaurant menus, on shoebox packaging, and in TV news crawls. (Every single news channel has typos. This is a bipartisan aggravation.) I analyze while reading. It’s a habit.

I’ve worked with a lot of writers, and in my experience, these are the elements crucial to the success of the writer-editor relationship.

Trust. Though that trust can be unnerving. Frequently I’d tell a reporter I’d tweaked parts of their article and offer to show them the changes, and they’d just shrug and say, “I trust you.” Then I’d neurotically wonder whether I should make them read the tweaks anyway.

They trusted me because they knew I wanted to help them produce their best work. They knew I wasn’t going to change things that didn’t need changing or throw in words they would never use (every writer has a “stable” of words they use most often; if you add words that don’t blend with the rest because they’re too flowery or esoteric, you’ve muddied the voice). They knew I was keeping their viewpoint in mind. And they knew I was neurotic enough to make them read the changes.

Understanding. It’s not just doing your job well—it’s understanding how the other person does their job. When editing a newspaper or magazine article, I knew the reporter had spent hours, sometimes days, collecting enough research to put an article together, and even more hours figuring out the puzzle of arranging the article. When I’ve beta read or critiqued fiction, I’ve kept in mind how much work went into planning out the elements of plot, character, voice, and theme. I respect what it took for the writer to complete their work, and I respect that changing that work might not be easy.

At the same time, the best writers I’ve worked with understood that it took time for me to do my job and that I couldn’t just skim something, run spell check, and call it done.

Knowledge. If I’m not familiar with the writer’s subject matter, I’ll take the time to get familiar, because I think research is fun. (Yes, I’m nerdy. And?) I know what it feels like when the person editing or critiquing your work hasn’t done their homework. During a writers conference held at my college, the critiquer admitted that he wasn’t familiar with science fiction, and proceeded to mumble his way through some vague commentary on my short story. Was my story any good? Probably not. But the critiquer didn’t offer any suggestions for making it better, and I felt out of place for even asking.

I don’t think there’s any shame in looking up something you don’t know, whether it’s about a specific subject or about the conventions of a particular genre. If I don’t have that knowledge, I can’t help the writer.

Ultimately, the writer needs to remember that the editor is looking out for their best interests, and the editor needs to remember the writer is the one whose name is on the story. Egos need to stay out of the process. If the writer and editor work together, they will make the work better.

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