What Is an Editor?
Instead of pre-publication filtering (editors) we now have post-publication filtering (some done by machines, some by humans). The High Priests who decided what could be published in the first place are now reduced to checking the spelling and grammar.
For someone with a finely nuanced understanding of science journalism and writing, Bora Z of A Blog Around the Clock demonstrates a remarkably narrow view of what an editor does. True, it may not all be his fault. The notion that editors are little more than gatekeepers with red and blue pencils is widespread.
Of course, this point of view is most prevalent among people who have never worked with an editor. To find it in someone who has worked with academic editors and editors of the anthology he stewards is a bit surprising. I don’t know whether he’s never worked with a good editor (doubtful but sadly possible), hasn’t paid enough attention to the details of that interaction, or is glossing over the knowledge to make a point. Or, knowing Bora, maybe he’s just being provocative and waiting for someone to call him on it.
I’m calling him on it now, not just because I am an editor, but because I’ve had the privilege to work with some good ones.
So, what does an editor do? Well, gatekeeping has certainly been part of the historical function of editors. There’s a lot of crap out there, enough that it’s been worth paying people to keep us from touching it by accident. Bora is right, however, that this is an activity that can be largely crowdsourced, at least to the point where it is unlikely to continue to be a paying job for all but a very few people. Enough of us love to point and say, “Ooh, look what I found,” to keep people who want just the good stuff occupied for years.
It is also true that editors attend to spelling and grammar. This tends to be the purview of a special kind of editor, though–a copyeditor. “Spelling and grammar” also doesn’t come close to scratching the surface of what a copyeditor does.
My next step is to begin my first editing pass, which is a painstakingly slow phase. During this pass, I will create a design memo, a manuscript table of contents, and a style sheet (a list of all names, terms, spellings, hyphenations, capitalizations, grammar styles, etc.); keymark items for design; verify all facts; flag for myself any items that I feel the author may have been inconsistent on; look up all spellings and word usage I’m even remotely unsure of; verify all foreign-language use to the extent that I can; apply consistent style guidelines (such as the use of a serial comma, if that has been requested); and query the author on any awkward or unclear phrasing, change of terms, inaccurate facts, inconsistencies, or numerous other things I may find.
This is the best, most comprehensive description of fiction copyediting I’ve seen. Seeing just an excerpt is totally insufficient. I strongly suggest you read all of Deanna Houk’s post. As you read it, consider the resources and work required to apply that same attention to detail to things like scientific reporting or stories about real places the copyeditor has never been.
So much for “spelling and grammar.” What else does an editor do?
Editing requires the strange ability to stand in the place of the audience and the author simultaneously. As an editor reads a piece, whether it be a story or a journal article, they have to understand what the author intended to say without losing track of not just what one individual reader will take away, but how the piece will come across to readers with varying experiences and levels of understanding. The outsider’s perspective shows them the weaknesses in the piece, while the insider’s perspective allows them to make suggestions for improvement that are consistent with the author’s intent.
Writers are closer to their material than anyone else can be. They had better be, or there’s no point in them writing it. This means that they know intimately how topic X and topic Y, or action B and action C, are connected. That’s great for the writing, but it creates a problem when writers are trying to evaluate what they’ve written.
The phrase most commonly heard at my critique group, aside from, “Thank you,” and, “Nooo! I don’t want to go to bed!!!” (our host has small, very social children), is, “Didn’t I put that in there?” A writer can set a piece aside for a period of time to gain some perspective on it, but barring some strange amnesiac condition that still allows them to write, they’ll never have the perspective of a person who didn’t go through the process of writing it, even years later. And on the internet, who has years?
The average audience member, on the other hand, not only doesn’t know what the author was intending but doesn’t care. They’re just not that invested in the work. How much effort are they going to be willing to put in to help an author clarify their meaning when they can just move on and read something else? If they can be bothered to comment about a problem, they’ll generally pick the low-hanging fruit–grammar and spelling.
When an audience member does care, there’s no guarantee that their interest is in making an author’s intended meaning generally clear. Global warming deniers are almost certainly going to read the coverage of the new climate paper, but do they want it understood? No chance. They’re all too likely to look for real or perceived ambiguities that they can exploit to undermine the impact of the study. The same thing happens to fiction writers who cover difficult topics. They will run into readers who will interpret things in a way that furthers their own agendas. Ask anyone who’s ever written a rape scene then been confronted with inexplicable reviews.
Photo by Sean M. Murphy
No, the author needs someone on their side with the proper distance from the writing to see it clearly. However, this isn’t enough, or any friend would be able to fill the role. An editor needs to go beyond wanting an author to succeed. They have to be able to set aside their own goals for a piece in favor of the author’s, let the author’s style overwhelm their own while they work. And they have to do this while still keeping the needs of the audience(s) in mind.
Do all editors achieve this ideal? Of course not. But the fact that some don’t, or that some don’t even try, is beside the point. This is the role of an editor. When it’s filled, it makes a difference and not just to the audience.
Sure, a writer with a good editor looks better than one without. Audiences can focus on content instead of surface distractions. There’s even more than that, though.
An editor who truly is on the writer’s side and acts as an effective proxy for the audience creates a safe place in which a writer can learn and take risks. When an author is writing for immediate, unedited publication, it is much easier to rely on subjects and styles that are comfortable and have received a good response in the past. Knowing that someone else will see the work before the slavering crowds get a hold of it makes it easier for authors to try something new. It can be remarkably comforting to know one person is willing to tell you your work is crap–but only when it really is.
Handholding may be the part of an editor’s job that gets the least attention, but it’s still important. Editors are there even when the audience fluctuates. When writers get obsessive over the skills they’re trying to master, and they do, editors are there to remind them of all the things they’ve already got down pat. Editors are there to brainstorm when a writer feels blocked or stale. And editors are there to kick writers in the butt when they try to coast.
Editors can even be there to tell people that they are writers. Before we started Quiche Moraine, I would notice writers online. These were people who consistently had interesting things to say in comments or on social networking sites, and I thought they should be blogging. I rarely said so, though, because building a blog to the point where people pay enough attention to make the feedback rewarding takes a nontrivial commitment. Besides, why would they pay attention to me?
It’s different when I can offer them a chance to blog here. Their commitment is much less, for one thing, but more than that, being a gatekeeper offers me the chance to open gates. When I tell someone they can write, they listen. When I tell someone they should write for Quiche Moraine…well, I’ve been told, “Not right now,” and I’ve had people say, “Yes,” who haven’t followed through yet, but no one has said, “No.”
Someday my inbox will instantly fill with posts from all these people who have found that magic convergence of topic that motivates them, time to write and belief that people want to hear what they have to say. I will cower in the corner, drink heavily as I contemplate the work ahead of me, then rejoice, because I will be able to claim responsibility for a small part of that belief.
In the meantime, the writers I do work with are taking themselves and their writing more seriously, while still having fun. This is why I do this.
What will change as content creation moves further online? Not a whole lot, really.
The biggest difference I see is that relationships between editors and authors will flatten out more. I can tell Mike that I want to see a post on the work he does toward increasing inclusiveness in local politics. I can try to persuade Greg that his job is to tell me stories all the time. If you look at the content here, you’ll see that neither of these happens. I give suggestions, not assignments. I get them too, since I’m also a writer.
Neither Greg nor Mike is very experienced as an editor (although Greg is starting to fully understand that his academic experience is applicable), but that doesn’t stop either of them from giving me valuable feedback. Just as critique groups sprang up everywhere as soon as fiction writers got online, I think we’re going to see more bloggers getting together and at least exchanging their weightier pieces for critique before posting them. Not the day-to-day stuff necessarily, but the posts in which they really want the content to come through.
It may seem confusing that I talk about critique as editing, but one of the other changes I think we’ll see is that editing will stop being an all-or-nothing proposition online. We’ll see group blogs where everything has to pass muster with the group but is otherwise as the author wrote it, and we’ll see the small networks of independent blogs I just spoke about. We’ll see some authors give up a degree of control in exchange for not having to worry about polishing or promoting their work and others who want every change tracked for their approval.
All of them will find editors to suit their desires, except the writers with whom no editor wants to work. The hard part will be figuring out what the editors get out of it. It’s not a job that pays well anyway, except for the high-prestige gatekeeping jobs, so that won’t be as much of a barrier to editor involvement as figuring out how to get editors the appropriate credit. Good editors are mostly invisible. It’s only when we screw up that readers notice we’re here. But a writer who has no income to share with an editor is going to have to share something.
So when Bora decides, some day in the future, that he wants his spelling and grammar checked because it’s working for all the cool kids, he’ll be able to get it. In return, however, he’s going to have to learn how to tell people just how valuable that editing is.
This entry was posted on Friday, April 24th, 2009 at 6:19 am and is filed under Stephanie Zvan. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.