A constant question among professional editors is “What is the editor’s role?” There are lots of aspects to this question, but one that has recently made the rounds is this:
Is it the editor’s role to say it better if how it is already said is understandable, clear, accurate, not misleading — that is, imperfect but…?
I have pondered this question many times over my 31 years as a professional editor, yet it has come home to roost once again in recent weeks. Editors have been asking on different forums whether something the author has written (said) can be rewritten (resaid) in a better way. Sometimes it is clear that a restating would be greatly beneficial; other times I wonder why resay what the author has already adequately said.
What the author has written may not be the best way to say something but if we accept that clarity is the key editing job, then the second best way to say something, if it is the author’s way, should be sufficient. Too many editors believe they must make changes to justify their fee, and that is wrong. Have you never come across a chapter that is sufficiently well written as to need no editing? I have and in those cases I send the author a note saying how well written the chapter is and that I saw no sense in substituting my word choice for her word choice when her choice did the job.
This will, to some editors, fall under the rubric of “do no harm.” But it isn’t harm about which we are speaking. Rather, it is seeing an adequate choice that could be made better but still not so memorable that it will be repeated decades later by an adoring public (the “Ask not what your country…” and the “I have a dream…” type of alterations where the mundane becomes the unforgettable) and deciding to leave it as is.
The idea that “I can say it better” and should do so for the client is a flawed notion of our skills and our role as editor. First, whether I can really say it better is opinion; how can we objectively determine that our clear statement is better than the author’s clear statement? Except for ego, we cannot. This balancing is different when what the author has written is confused or difficult to understand or causes a reader to pause and wonder what he just read means. But in the instance where the reader does understand what the author has written and doesn’t pause to ponder meaning, there is no justification for the editor to rewrite.
When we believe that we can say it better and should do so, we change our relationship with the author. We proclaim ourselves the arbiter of correctness, yet we debate amongst ourselves word choice and correctness. It is similar to how we view style guides (see What Do Editors Forget Most Often? and Editors & “Professional” Resources: A Questionable Reliance). We tend to put them on a pedestal and forget that they are collections of opinion and suggestion, not necessarily the best way to do something. And that is the key to answering the question of whether we should say it better. If it isn’t clear-cut that our way is much superior to the author’s way, then we are just substituting one opinion for another opinion. We tend to value our opinion more than the author’s because — it is our opinion.
A difference between a professional editor and an unprofessional editor is knowing when to substitute one opinion for another opinion. It is the ability to recognize levels of clarity (not all clarity is equal) and determining whether the clarity of the author’s writing is sufficient or if it needs a boost. Too often editors misread the balance and decide that “I can say it better!”
Not too long ago I was asked to reedit a book originally edited by someone else. The author was very unhappy and the publisher wanted to determine whether the original editor’s edits were necessary, if they were necessary were they an improvement over the author’s original, and whether the editor missed important edits by focusing too much on text the editor thought “I can say it better” and rewrote.
It was an interesting experience. The reasons for the author’s displeasure did not take long to become evident. In rare instances, the editor wisely made changes; in most instances, the editor misinterpreted the balance — the author’s original text may not have been memorable (but then neither was the editor’s contribution), but there was no mistaking what the author was saying. There was no stopping and pondering.
What the editor clearly sought was perfection (a very elusive goal); what the editor “created” did not come close to that holy grail. It was not that the editor did a “terrible” job, it was that the editor failed to improve the author’s writing, failed to bring greater clarity to the writing, and failed to understand the editor’s role and appreciate its limitations. In other words, the editor thought her opinion as to how best to make a point was in fact how best to make a point, when it wasn’t any better than the author’s opinion.
Most interesting was what the editor — in my opinion — failed to rewrite. There were several instances where she should have said “I can say it better” and done so, but didn’t. Yet we fall back to the big bugaboo: Why is my opinion any more valuable or accurate than her opinion? I do not know if my alternatives were truly better than the author’s — I certainly think they were — but I do know it was problematic to leave the author’s writing as it was because of the difficulty in determining what he meant. (For a discussion of clarity, see Editing for Clarity.)
Professional editors are able to draw that line between improving and not improving writing and not cross it often. Just because we can say it better does not mean we should. The editing a professional editor does needs to balance against the author’s voice; only when the balance tilts toward improvement should we upset it.
Richard Adin, An American Editor