An Appreciation of the Art of Editing

Editing is an art.

Before I was a published writer, I worked as an editor of scientific and technical publications in a university laboratory. I came to the job without a strong background in the lab’s research area, oceanography, underwater acoustics and polar science, but with a curiosity about how things work, and a skill for seeing patterns. So I would ask questions about an object until I understood it, and questions about the manuscript until I understood what the writer had intended to say, and then helped the author(s) fill in the missing steps so that readers (often administrators who had long been away from hands-on work in the field) could grasp the intention, the process, and the results.

You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~  Arthur Plotnik

It might not seem as if scientific and technical papers are written from a fire burning inside the researchers, but you’d be wrong. Those who are passionate about their work devote their lives to small aspects of the larger picture. I respected the people I edited, was often in awe of them–and a bit jealous. I wanted to pour my passion into something of my own, as they did. But mostly I enjoyed the work and found it deeply satisfying.

Editing is the same as quarreling with writers—same thing exactly. –Harold Wallace Ross

I began this post just after I’d finished working with my editor’s first pass on The Service of the Dead, the 1st Kate Clifford novel. This part of the process of writing involves a dialogue with the editor. She calls something out, either questioning it or asking for more information, and I look at the passage, puzzling out whether she just didn’t get it, or I didn’t say what I meant to say, or I skipped a vital point, and, as I read, I often find myself wondering just what I did mean. By this time I have gone over the manuscript many times, and it’s been edited by three careful readers. yet there will still be passages that don’t stand up to a challenge. A good editor teases all this out by asking questions that occur to her as she reads.

Step two: I revise, clarify, then send it back. She reads, still paying close attention to the questions that arise as she reads, because quite often clarifying one passage illuminates a slight problem in another.
Editor: Why hadn’t she considered this?
Author: Oh, good point. Fixed.
Editor (or Author): Uh oh, now that she’s considered that, wouldn’t she do this?
And so it goes, back and forth, until we’re both satisfied. In the process, we develop an appreciation for each other’s dedication to getting it right. That’s a good author/editor relationship, and I’ve been blessed with several, including the current one.

So I don’t agree with the quote from Harold Wallace Ross above. An editor who quarrels with the writer has forgotten that he or she is an advocate for the writer. Or, as James Thurber put it so well:
Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ”How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?” and avoid ”How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?” –James Thurber

My editor and I have now resolved the manuscript. Between the two of us we teased out several subtle but rich threads that were there, but hidden. It’s now with a copy editor.

When I described this process to my husband, he nodded. “You’re writing for the reader; the editor is reading for the reader.” He’s right. As I was for the administrators on whom the lab depended for their funding.

But back to my first statement: Editing is an art. There is nothing simple about reading another’s words and gleaning precisely what it is they mean to say, then helping them add or subtract or clarify in order to allow it do say just that. And how to do this with compassion—the scientists often hated writing, suffered over the first drafts, but (most) knew how crucial it was that the report was not only clear, but communicated the brilliance, the significance of their work. Asking them to rewrite was asking a lot. So, too, with a novelist. Our characters come out of our psyches, we pour our hearts into the work, and a novel is a long undertaking. So the editor must not only be gifted in the art of shaping a story and felicitous language, but must also be perceptive, psychologically astute.

So let’s give editors a hearty cheer for working so brilliantly behind the scenes! Time for you to take a bow!


7 Comments on “An Appreciation of the Art of Editing

  1. Candace,
    You have given me food for thought. I edited my wife’s two dissertations, and I now edit her psychology reports. I have always been quite good at leaving it in her style, but the back and forth interplay could be improved. Thanks.

    Another Owen Archer in my lifetime? 😉


    • Hm… predicting your longevity and my unruly muse, not touching that one!


  2. You are blessed to have such a wonderful and sensitive editor. You describe the process all of us strive for with our first readers: a give and take with a smart and insightful –and compassionate–editor. We couldn’t write without them!


  3. Pingback: Sunday Cryptoquote Spoiler – 01/31/16 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

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