What Editing Is--And What It Isn't

The silent partner of every remarkable writer is an editor. Though writers--myself among them-- complain about, curse, and butt heads with editors, the truth is that we need them.

As a writer and editor, I've walked both sides of this street. I've had my writing substantially improved--and horribly butchered--by editors. As an editor, I've occasionally offended or annoyed the writers whose work I sought to clarify and improve. I've also had writers thank me for the subtle reinforcements and revisions I've given their work.

Editing can be a thankless job. It's almost always anonymous. The best editing never calls attention to itself, and is thus invisible to the reader. It can be so subtle that the writer himself doesn't notice the changes. With a non-professional writer, editing can feel more like root canal surgery. The editor pulls awkward phrases, compound sentences and wrongly-used words out of the original text. He tries to bridge the gaping holes with clearer, more readable text.

The endgame is to make the writer's work shine--and to make the reader's work a breeze. Well-edited text is a joy to read. Our eyes skate across its words and sentences with minimal effort. Better yet, we retain what's said. It affects us, informs us and brings us knowledge, thought, laughter, empathy or righteous anger.

Every editor has his or her set of "tics." The pursuance of these pet peeves--and the editor's solutions--becomes the invisible signature of their work. As more writing comes from un-professional sources, these bugaboos can distract we editors from the core of our work.

For example, one of my pet peeves is the incorrect usage of "it's." This is rampant in modern writing. I see it in newspapers, magazines, on billboards, TV screens and the Internet. It's, used any way except as an abbreviation of it is, can make me see red.

I invite you to take note of how many times you see the wrongly-used it's in an hour. You'll be surprised how common it is. I sometimes fear that it's is here to stay. It is in no danger of wearing out, er, it's welcome.

Though I feel I'm correct in my dislike of it's, I remind myself that this is not what editing is all about. The rules of grammar, syntax and spelling are all important. There is more to good editing than being a traffic cop. Some of editing is instinct; some is learned behavior, finely honed from experience.

When I edit another writer's work, my central concern is making him or her look good. I read the original draft several times. As I read, I try to ascertain what the writer says, and how well they say it. There is a voice in all writing. My job is to find it and make it sing.

It's no joy to extensively rewrite another author's work. At times, it's my only option.

Last year, I copy-edited several articles for a now-defunct magazine that covered the world of military simulation gaming. To put it politely, there wasn't one pro writer on the magazine's staff. The quality ranged from enthusiastic amateur to what I call the non-writer. It was among the hardest work I've ever done as an editor.

Non-writers are common in the world of communication, education and technology. These individuals are experts in a field of often arcane knowledge. I don't dispute the authority of their know-how. But it is one thing to be the master of a subject, and quite another to write well about it.

It takes 10 times the labor to make a non-writer's work readable. I feel like a literary landscaper. I uproot great mounds of tangled verbiage, prune overgrown sentences, and re-distribute them so they can be understood and digested.

Non-writing is often hard to comprehend. It doesn't scan well, and its poor technique often sabotages the writer's intentions. All I can do, ultimately, is to get a grasp on what the author wants to say, and try to say it more clearly for him.

The enthusiastic amateur (hereafter, e.a.) is a slightly better writer. They always have a sentence or two that surprises me. It's well-written, clearly organized, and intelligent. This class of writer tends to lean on cliches and pet phrases. They also typically over-use adjectives such as "amazing" and "hilarious."

(These are, indeed, the two most abused adjectives in the English language. Point to ponder: if everything is amazing and/or hilarious, then nothing is amazing and/or hilarious. Please consult your thesaurus for an array of useful options. Give these two tired words a deserved rest!)

The trick in editing the e.a. is to bring consistency to their work. Their manuscripts combine sharp sentences with meandering ones. Their points range from acute to obtuse. They'll impress and depress me in the same paragraph.

In all editing, the joy is in finding the golden mean--the sweet spot between under- and overstatement. When I can achieve this, and preserve the best of the author's individual voice, I have done my job. If not, the writer will notice--and not be happy with the outcome. He or she will, possibly, be the only person in the world to take note of this failure, but they will see it.

It's a painful feeling to see your words mistreated. It makes you, the author, want to confiscate every printed copy of the newspaper, magazine, newsletter or brochure and bury them.

I never want a writer to have this feeling. Nor do I want them to agonize over poor choices in words, syntax or structure. As an editor, I want the writer to take pride in their work, and to want the world to see the final product.

Nobody knows that I've contributed to the writer's success. As I mentioned earlier, even the writer may not be aware of what I've done. That's fine. If the writing communicates--if it compels a casual browser to take the time to read it--we've all done our work well.