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?)