by Daniel Sosnoski
In at item titled “Against Editors” at the website Gawker, Hamilton Nolan writes:
In the writing world, there is a hierarchy. The writers are on the bottom. Above them are editors, who tell the writers what to change. This is backwards. How many good writers has Big Edit destroyed?
Nolan’s view is not entirely exceptional. You can find similar sentiments elsewhere on the web, and you’ll sooner or later find yourself working with a writer who views their relationship with you as being purely adversarial.
The two chief routes by which writers come to detest editors are either a misunderstanding of the two parties’ respective roles, or bad experiences at the hands of editors who are unprofessional or uncaring in their approach to the craft. To that end, I advise my colleagues to be kind to authors because all of us are, arguably, representing our profession and we ought to present our work in the best possible light.
If you’re dealing with the first type of writer, one who thinks you are “the enemy,” then you might have a chance to reset their perception of the relationship and get things back on an even keel. Inexperienced writers sometimes think fighting with the editor is a normal part of the job. The second type of writer, who’s had bad experiences being edited, will be bringing that history along and you might have to address it head on.
Getting back to “Against Editors,” a key passage in Nolan’s article is as follows:
Go find a story published a few years ago in The New Yorker, perhaps America’s most tightly edited magazine. Give that story to an editor, and tell him it’s a draft. I guarantee you that that editor will take that story — well-polished diamond that it presumably is — and suggest a host of changes. Rewrite the story to the specifications of the new editor. Then take it to another editor, and repeat the process… You would never find an editor who read the story, set down his pencil, and said, “Looks fine. This story is perfect.”
The gauntlet is thrown
It is a point of pride in my office that we have a tag for documents that says, simply, “Clean.” The meaning is “I have read this document and have no changes.” Admittedly, it isn’t used often, but it is used, and it reassures me that we aren’t fiddling with text merely for the sake of imprinting our own voice on it.
Still, Nolan’s words nagged at me. Could he be right? How could his proposition be tested? Could I make an educational lesson from it? When we reached the end of the workweek, I called an editorial meeting and gathered five editors (in addition to myself) and passed out to everyone a page of raw, unedited copy — 12 point, triple spaced — and red pens.
Here is a sample of that text:
The smaller the office the larger the scope of your influence and the more you will see the direct correlation between your mood and theirs or your attitude toward a patient and how they treat that person. In this sense, leadership and the impact yours has, is all about you. But, isn’t it always?
For the next 20 minutes, we worked in silence. The instruction was to edit freely, but to make no edits that could not be fully justified — “it just looks better to me this way” was off the table.
Three of the editors were fairly new, and three were trained and seasoned. At the end of the time allotted I called halt and most had gotten through two to three pages of the text. We went around the table and each editor read the first sentence (as shown above) and indicated what they marked up and why. For example: “The smaller your office, the larger the influence of your mood and that of your staff upon patient care.” (My edit.)
As we went along, sentence by sentence, a pattern began to emerge: The junior editors were unpredictable. Some rewrote heavily, others lightly, none making the same changes. The experienced editors tended to seize upon the same faults and make similar — but not identical — edits in some cases, and in others the suggested fix was nearly identical.
For example: “I deleted ‘But, isn’t it always?’ as being extraneous to the flow of the text. It was a rhetorical question.”
Most made the same edit. There was disagreement about placing a comma after “office,” but in general you could see that the problem of “theirs” having an undefined referent in the original required a fix. Exactly how that problem should be corrected differed from editor to editor.
In this, I would say that Nolan had a point worth making. In text that is seriously flawed (but correctable), two editors might make different changes, but — and this is key — they will tend to repair the same problem. Much as two mechanics might approach the diagnosis and repair of a vehicle in slightly different ways, the end result will be functional transportation.
About that title
A phrase that Richard Dawkins likes to use in his writing is, “What one fool can do, so can another.” His meaning is that if someone can accomplish something, so can you. The task of editing, however, seems to be special in that, while any competent editor can spot and correct typos, punctuation errors, and adjust copy to meet house style, with text of the sort presented by the problem I assigned my colleagues, I see a clear divergence.
Junior editors see clumsy text but aren’t always sure how to fix it or why. They tend to make changes that could not be readily explained to the author (even if sensible). Experienced editors seem to agree on the same problems and find similar solutions to them. While in my exercise we didn’t all make identical corrections, the act of verbalizing our thoughts was a step toward harmonizing our approach to editing.
Repeating this exercise is definitely in my game plan for staff development. Listening to one another explain our approaches and rationale is valuable in that it gets us thinking the same way about editing. If you work with one or more other editors, I highly recommend trying this for yourself and gauging the results.
In the event you are presented with clean copy, by all means mark it “clean” and know that you did your job properly. Some might argue that not making any changes to a text could potentially raise problems regarding what is being paid for, but that’s a subject for another column.
Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.