What it's like working with an editor
It's a lot nicer than self-editing, but not very common.
No. 93: What it’s like working with an editor
I miss working with editors.
They are truly a writer’s best friend.
At the moment all seems lost and the only thing left to do is walk outside, fall on your sword, and die, the editor appears in a puff of smoke like a fairy godmother sent to help us see that seppuku—ritual suicide popularized by the ancient samurai warrior class—is not the only way to deal with a particularly stubborn sentence.
Their words are not immediately clear in our panicked state. What do they mean by there are options and this sentence has potential?
Can’t they see this is the end of the road? That there is no where left to go? That, for lack of a better word, we suck?
Then, in a magic flash, they confidently cut an and, move a period from here to there, swap the first half of a sentence for the second. And there is reason to hope again.
Only a miracle could have turned that bumpy road of a sentence into a flowing river. And yet here it flows, trickling softly.
We shall live to write another day.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with editors a few times since I decided to write for my daily bread. Every time, the experience has been sublime.
Really, it boils down to this. Instead of only one (hopefully) tasteful, talented, and deep thinking brain working to make an article, essay, story, or book great, now there’s two.
But it’s not normal, per se, to have an editor at the ready whenever you finish a piece.
Actually, it’s extremely rare.
Unless you’re paying or being paid to write, you probably don’t have an editor. And if neither of these are true and you’re working with an editor free of charge?
Not working with an editor is a-okay. It’s the rule rather than the exception. It’s sort of what writing is all about a.k.a. doing whatever’s necessary to transform plain old words on a plain old page into something more than plain old.
But even so. Working with an editor is pretty awesome when you get the chance.
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The times I had editors?
When I was writing for magazines
When I was writing for newspapers
There were usually two rounds of editing, which I believe is still the standard in the publishing world.
The first round is collaborative. You work with a person bearing the title editor to chop, swap, and rewrite. They help you see what’s working and what’s not, telling you where, as a reader, they’re getting confused, a good indication of where other readers are likely to get confused.
During this process, the editor asks hard questions, offers excellent suggestions, and identifies and eliminates the bullshit. They help you get your piece from a solid seven to an immaculate ten, or as close to a ten as the original work allows.
The master of round two is the copyeditor. And in this second round of editing, you’re completely out of the picture.
To some, surrendering their piece to the fates is as horrible as having their only child forcibly ripped from their arms. For me? Take the kid. Please. In my experience, the child always comes back looking sharper than ever and with a new and amusing grasp of table manners.
Think of those honest people that aren’t afraid to tell you there’s something between your teeth or that you forgot to take the sticker off your new pair of pants, and you pretty much know copywriters. They read your edited piece with a hyperfocus on grammar, spelling, punctuation, missing words, capitalization, factual correctness, etc., catching the nitty gritty stuff that the high-minded writer and editor probably missed.
I look back wistfully on the rose-colored days when I was working with an editor. It was nice to have someone tearing my stuff to shreds on a weekly basis. My writing improved at a lightspeed pace with the constant stream of feedback.
Whenever I finished a piece written with all the gusto I could muster, an editor would quickly show me there was more gusto to be mustered. Usually, that gusto was to be found by getting rid of things rather than adding them. I learned to ditch clichés, kill my darlings, write a proper sentence, and avoid overused and overly pretentious language. To my surprise, people did not write like they did in 1875 anymore.
But the overarching theme from these editing seshes? Far too often, we writers tend to overwrite. It’s kind of in the name, so not exactly mind blowing, but important nonetheless.
We neglect the work of trimming the hedges and pruning the rose bushes, preferring instead to plant our seeds and let our gardens overflow rather than stoop to the level of maintenance work.
If a jungle-like garden is your idea of beauty, fertilize and forget. But from the perspective of editors? An untrimmed plot is unlikely to attract the kinds of hordes that pilgrimage to The Gardens of Versailles, that symmetrical symbol of nature tamed by man.
Sounds simple enough. Do the pruning and you’re good. But here’s the kicker. Usually the stuff that most needs cutting is pretty much invisible to you. Otherwise, you would have done it.
This is why editors rule. It’s also why it’s a constant struggle to write well without the help of an editor.
John Bennet, a longtime editor for the New Yorker who passed away recently, had his own interesting way of describing this writerly blindness. In a recent tribute piece, staff writer Nick Paumgarten recounted a so-called Bennetism.
“A writer is a guy in the hospital wearing one of those gowns that’s open in the back,” Bennet said. “An editor is walking behind, making sure that nobody can see his ass.”
True. Too true. Embarrassingly true. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ve just come to the realization that you’ve been walking around for years showing your ass to the world.
“Only shitty writers need transitions.”
Clearly, then, a good editor is also blunt.
Since both writer and editor share a love and appreciation for great writing, a sort of common ground established when it comes to giving feedback. There is a mutual understanding that a certain amount of snark is not only permitted, but preferred.
This also happens to do wonders for efficiency.
Surely you would agree that This is lame is more actionable than I’d really love if you might try reworking this line. And for the well-oiled writer and editor duo, the pointed terseness is plenty for the writer to work with.
Make not lame.
The editors I’ve worked with would often highlight a sentence, or two, or twenty along with the annotation, Is all this really necessary?
Similarly, John Bennet was known to scratch a red line across whole pages, leaving only the note, “Bla bla bla,” my personal favorite Bennetism.
When I’d go back and read the highlighted lines, I’d realize, Wow, I guess this isn’t necessary.
Which makes you wonder.
What compels us in the first place to be so flowery? And why are we so confident in our floweriness? One day, a line might be the your greatest stroke of genius. The next, you might delete it without thinking twice.
Which, again, makes you wonder.
It’s fascinating the way writing lets us look back on our previous states of mind. When you’re super familiar with you’re writing, it’s almost as if you can tell which paragraphs were written when you were hungry, when you were tired, when you were excited. Most often, the lines are unaccountable. But the point is, what’s good at first is not always good later on. Your Tastemeter is constantly in flux. You have to watch out.
The idea, the hope, is to edit and re-edit and re-edit until you reach a place where there’s nothing more you want to change, no matter which day, or at what hour, or how many slices of salami you’ve had when you’re reading.
This can be done without the help of an editor, but an editor certainly speeds this process along, and as a byproduct, teaches the writer to think twice when writing your first draft.
But, again, if you’re like me a.k.a. without editor, who cares?
Shouldn’t this whole thing be marked bla bla bla?
Maybe. But maybe not.
Knowing what it’s like to work with an editor is valuable, I think, for two reasons.
It can help you become a better self-editor
It can help you know what to expect when working with an editor
Rule number one of working with editors? Don’t take feedback personally. Rule number two? Heed their advice.
Sure, there are some hills you can nobly die on. But if you have a good editor, nine times out of ten, defer. These people know their stuff. They have a superpower you’ll never posses. What is it?
They are not you.
Their vision is clearer because they didn’t write the thing, and this is something rare and valuable and worth respecting.
For all those times you don’t have an editor a.k.a. pretty much always?
An essential skill in writing is learning to wear two hats—the writer hat and editor hat—but only one at a time.
Inevitably, you will end up wearing a stack of two hats like an idiot. I’m the biggest two-hat wearing idiot there is. But if you can avoid it, do that, because writing and editing at the same time turns quickly into a death spiral. How many times, for example, have you had a story in your head but never got past the first scene because you keep writing and rewriting? Welcome to double-hat syndrome.
Coming to a piece as only a writer, or as only an editor, is a skill the takes years to perfect. Having an editor solves this. But since that’s totally unrealistic—especially when it comes to fiction—the better we can get at separating these two identities, the better we will write.
At least, that’s the hope.
Editor or no editor, my plan is the same as it ever was. Keep writing the best I can, and keep reading.
When the hard work is done, I’m confident an editor will appear as the clock strikes twelve, helping me turn my handmade linen shoes into polished glass slippers. ♦
READ: John Bennet, Enemy of the “Blah, Blah, Blah” (New Yorker)