In my time, I’ve worked with editors and acted as one myself. Today, I’d like to examine that relationship. It should be one of trust and mutual respect. Editing is long, difficult work and all writing needs editing if it is to fulfill its potential. But an editor can help a writer realize their work’s fullest potential far more swiftly and painlessly.
Oscar Wilde once quipped he spent a morning taking a comma out of a poem, then spent the afternoon putting it back. I’m not convinced he was entirely joking. Nothing can be taken for granted in writing. Every arc needs to be supported by strong scenes; strong scenes by strong beats; strong beats by strong lines; strong lines by strong words.
First drafts are rough things, like a sculpture chiseled into only a general form. And just as a sculptor must continue to chisel away at the marble, so too must the writer edit their words.
In my estimation, this is where the better part of the craft comes into play. It is here the writer works to ensure that their meaning is relayed as clearly and powerfully as possible to the audience. It is during this phase the writer must establish a critical distance – or perhaps it may be better said, attempt to adopt the audiences’ perspective –to make the work what it deserves to be. Writers need to be honest with themselves during the drafting stage; are these sentences flowing? have I properly established and revealed this character’s motivation? is there anything in here that’s unintentionally awkward?
Everything must come under scrutiny, and it is – I believe, generally – the writer who must apply this scrutiny to the early drafts. But while a writer can make a good work great in isolation, that process is easier (and almost invariably produces better results) when the writer has an editor. Even so: early feedback is useful – invaluable, even – but the writer knows better than anyone what they are trying to relate.
Editors offer something invaluable to the writing process: a fresh – and more importantly, professional – pair of eyes. A writer might be able to fool themselves, but they can’t fool their editor. Writers have every aspect of a story in their head when they write. By virtue of their proximity to their work, writers are in danger of believing things to be self-evident. Editors don’t have the context however and can point out when the writer hasn’t related something properly. Likewise, because writers look at things for so long, they are at risk of becoming blind to what’s in front of them. Editors can help save writers from themselves.
And yes, they’re also there to kill darlings, which can be a hard job for a writer. But it’s a necessary good. Darlings aren’t just things the writer loves; they’re good ideas that don’t work, for one reason or another. It can be difficult for writers to recognize darlings; and by definition, the first instinct is to be protective of them – but these are foolishnesses the writer must overcome. And often, editors are just the ones to help them.
Every writer has things they’re blind to, willingly or not. A good editor will do more than fix spelling and grammar: they’ll offer suggestions on structure and tone, of how ordinary sentences can be made extraordinary. They’ll work to strengthen words, sentences, beats, scenes, arcs. They’ll work to bring the best parts of the story out. They are no replacement for the writer, but neither is the writer a replacement for the editor. Working together, they’ll make the work be what it deserves to be.