Thoughts on Editing, and That Pesky Axe

I’ve always been an editor.  I’m probably a better editor than I am a writer.  Only recently have I become quite serious about advancing my talent in this area into a full-time professional job, and consequently only recently have I discovered an ugly truth:

Writers hate editors.

Since I am both a writer and an editor, it is often difficult for me to see what someone who just wants to write sees about the editorial process.  If you aren’t careful, you can isolate yourself from a writer so completely and so permanently that you never work together again.

Therein may lie the key word, together.

The writer works alone to produce his or her work.  Then the editor works alone to review the work for issues that stand in the way of the most complete, effective product possible.  When you return an edited piece to a writer, you must hand it gently, and kindly, and with a clear understanding that the outright corrections and strong suggestions are not a commentary on the person who penned the original words.  This is very difficult to do, and requires a two-way relationship.  I can do everything I know how to do to deliver constructive criticism well, but if the writer is defensive or completely unable to view his or her work objectively, things are not going to work.

Jim Kelley has a good article on some of this difficulty.

Unfortunately, the craft of cutting is undervalued in a world where writers are paid by the word. And it shows; you don’t have to look very hard to find padded work in print. Yet clearly it is precision which separates the journeyman from the master. Perhaps the way to grow as a writer is to shrink your manuscripts. Or, as Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch so memorably put it, “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it whole-heartedly and delete it before sending your manuscripts to press. Murder your darlings.”

The concept of “kill your darlings” (as an agent paraphrased at the James River Writers conference this month) is a spot-on metaphor for how writers feel.  I know the feeling.  I’ve written pages that I love, and yet they do not support the story well.  Sometimes it’s not even a series of pages, it’s a beautiful paragraph to which you are very attached, that you believe expresses something important and reflective of your identity.  The hard truth is, if it doesn’t belong there, someone has to ax it.  It’s not usually the writer, it’s the editor who gets blood on her hands.

I take seriously the joy of writing.  I would never deliberately squash the happiness of someone who is discovering the satisfaction and self-awareness that writing can bring to life.  This is a two-way relationship though — I have a role, and the writer has a role.

Old Yeller would not be the same story if the boy who loved the dog most hadn’t been the one to pull the trigger.

Love your writing enough to know when something has to change.

(What are the qualities of the best editors you’ve had?  The best writers?  What do you think contributes to a writer’s ability to hear an editor’s advice, and what helps an editor be effective with writers?  Are there just some things that won’t ever evolve past a certain point?)

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Editing, and That Pesky Axe

    • That’s fair, and very diplomatic. The editing process is tough, and of course editors simply offer their perception of what will strengthen a work. They are not always right, and writers have to learn how to know the difference between emotion and just a different gut feeling about what is the best course. Sometimes a writer’s gut feeling is the best way to go in the long run.

      Thanks for your comment!

  1. I have felt irritation toward editors who have brought a single-minded vision to the critique process, who want to argue about a word choice more than help me grow the process, or who insist on belaboring a point when I was at a place in the process where I couldn’t yet fix said point. Another author at the JRW conference, Kathi Appelt, said that she finds she most resists the advice that she most needs to hear, and I have certainly found myself there as well. (Though it’s a place you can only see with great hindsight.) So I try to keep an open mind.

    • Great points. Editors need to see the whole work, which includes who the writer is as a person and how he or she views the world. Timing of feedback is important, too. Your hindsight comment is true for both writers and editors.

  2. The magic usually happens in the edit in my experience – no-one writes a good first draft, and multiple drafts/edits produce huge improvements. Yes, it’s hard when a collaborator deletes your favourite sentence, but sometimes you’re really too close to something to be able to see it clearly. Love the phrase “murder your darlings”!

    • Ha! Thanks for that. It’s true, as Anne LaMott quipped, everyone writes a “shitty first draft.” We just do that, we have no choice. You helped me see this in a new way, perhaps I need to be more clear up front with some of the writers who share their work with me that we should just get that out on the table. “The first thing you write is going to be pretty bad. That’s normal. Don’t get upset when we have to talk about how it needs help.”

  3. First, I love your writing, so I can only conclude that you’re a genius editor :). Seriously. I hate editing until it works, in other words until I’ve finally realized that my writing is better for having been tightened and tweaked, by which I think I mean eviscerated. Unfortunately, the lag time between the editing and my realization of its merit can be kind of long. And I’m only talking about self-editing. I hate myself when I edit myself (I’m doing it now), so part of me thinkings that it would be wonderful to find a new object for my frustrations, say a third person editor. I’m half-kidding. I think it would be a relief to be able to turn to someone else for help in the editing process.

    • You know what kicked this off for me was finding this from my beloved Mark Twain: “How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember with charity, that his intentions were good.”
      – Letter to Henry Mills Alden, published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, November 11, 1906, pg. 3.

      Pitch perfect Twain. I found this link, too, which contains some great history of what it was like trying to edit the man’s work (can you even imagine??):

      “We had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing,” Griffin recalls. “I can feel the wind of the wing of madness tousling my hair, just remembering it.”

  4. I, too, think I’m a better editor than writer. In my own writing, I’ve noticed that phrases or sentences that make me exceptionally happy tend to be the ones that need to go. Especially when it’s a particularly brilliant metaphor- those are the real stinkers!

  5. Pingback: My Story Deconstruction: Or, How Can I Blame the Lilac Bush? | Esse Diem

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