Letter to a novice editor

In response to the claim that no two editors will edit alike, the unstated corollary being that all editorial decisions must be equally good

Well, it’s true that no two editors will come up with exactly the same solutions. Each editor will bring individual sensibilities to the work, as well as different ranges of experience, different schooling.

But in terms of the passages we’ve been reviewing, where the issues center primarily on glitches of sentence construction and logic (along with other small lapses of grammar or punctuation), any two editors with sufficient experience and training should for the most part be spotting the same issues. It is only their solutions that may differ. So the two diagnoses should closely converge, even where the exact remedies might not. The more rewriting involved, the more likely they will not. (The deeper the level of edit, in other words, the more interpretive the work.)

Any remedy proposed, though, should solve a problem, and it should solve it well, without introducing other problems of a different nature. And, of course, where there is no problem — where the mechanics are sound, the meaning clear, the style and voice appropriate for the context — the original should be let stand.

What I am looking for is recognition of which sentences or passages in a piece pose a problem, an understanding of what that problem is, and a solution that neatly solves the problem without introducing other issues. As well as a recognition of what, in any given context, does not pose a problem and need not be changed.

Editing requires two sets of skills. The first is top-notch writing skills. The more versatile, the better. The second is the necessary companion to that: training in the principles of grammar, usage, and syntax (light to medium copyediting), in the principles of sentence construction and its effects (heavier copyediting, line editing), in the principles of narrative and expository cohesion (developmental editing), and in the principles of editing itself. And, naturally enough, recognizing when each is called for. (Again, the levels of edit. So important to be clear on.)

Of course, writers must possess that first set of skills as well, but not necessarily the second. Some writers are able to write well just by the feel of it, but editors cannot go on the “feel” of things alone. Yes, they must have a feel for the language — that is essential. But it doesn’t stop there. Editors must also understand the nuts and bolts of it, like an engineer. It is this that enables them to see a problem clearly, to articulate that problem, and to remedy it. It is this that enables them to distinguish between a passage that has a problem, and a passage that does not. To distinguish, that is, between a passage that is not written well for its own context (subject matter, audience, writer’s goals, publishing environment, desired writing style) and a passage that isn’t phrased the way the editor would have phrased it.

Ah, yes, there’s that. Editors must strive to clear their minds, to some extent, of their own preferences. Without a discipline to follow, without guiding principles, this is much harder to do, and “editing” can quickly devolve into revising everything to sound the way that you yourself would have written it. Not editing then, but simply making changes. There will always be some of this, of course: we can none of us entirely escape ourselves. But the editor must try. She must try to separate knowledge from preference, applying her skills in service of other people, other purposes, other writing styles.

Only then is she truly editing.