Last week, I had my first editing class at the university. We were given an anonymous text and told to edit it. I went in heavy-handed, red spewed across the page like spilt blood. I thought that the more I changed the better I had edited. Mistake.
Once we had all shared our decisions with the rest of the class, we were told the author. Hemingway.
I had ripped his published writing apart – throwing in full stops and crossing out the abundance of ‘and’s that littered the page, internally debating the oxford comma and striking out a whole phrase (oops). I hung my head in shame.
We were then told the truth about editing: it is damn hard.
Does the editor have the right to change the text to his own preferred style? Has the author done this nonsense on purpose or can he just not write? What is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’ writing anyway?
For the past year I have been editing an aspiring writer’s work and the changes I made were done because I thought I was improving the writing. But was I? No. I was making the writing how I would have written it, with no regard to the author’s voice and style. It was so easy to get carried away with the pen that I didn’t leave time to question why that particular sentence was written that way or how the author wanted their character to come across to the reader or… well, the list goes on of things I didn’t consider.
What I have learnt:
The role of the editor is not to rewrite – it is to help the author write what he means to. The editor understands the audience and helps to provide clarity, improve the rhythm and flow of the text, and critique constructively. Of course, grammatical mistakes and punctuation errors occur and can be easily fixed, but the nature of the writing must be discussed with the author before drastic changes are made. There is no need to take the Red Pen of Insult to the page when you can query the author on issues you’ve found. There are times when standard written English should be applied and times when the quirky and unique approaches of the author should be left to tell the story just so.
All is subjective, and the editor and the author will not think alike on all issues.
In my opinion, the most important factors to remember when editing a writer’s work are respect, intuition, and communication.The editor should respect the author’s style and strive to improve the text while maintaining the voice, just as the author should understand the editor’s expertise in the area and accept that they know more of what a reader wants – that is their job after all. The editor has the difficult job of deciding what they should change and what should remain untouched – that is where intuition comes in. No two editors are alike so it’s often a case of going with your gut! Lastly, both parties must communicate their thoughts to one another and query decisions they disagree on or are unsure about.
Both the editor and the author want the best out of their work so the relationship shouldn’t be seen as ‘editor vs author’, no matter how it may sometimes feel. If unsatisfied, find someone else to do the job. (Unless you’re self-editing, in which case I wish you good luck.)