The invisible hand of the editor

No one writes it perfect the first time. That’s why there are editors in the world. When I was young and just starting out as a writer, I found it upsetting to have my work edited. I was happy with the words I’d chosen, the sentences I’d crafted, and the structure I’d placed my ideas into. Who did the editor think he was, changing my art?

In my defense, I was young and inexperienced, I had never edited someone else’s work at that point in time, and the context in which I was writing was the federal public service, not known for its light hand with an edit. “We don’t use that word here,” was a phrase I heard early and often in that particular job. Ah, bureaucracy.

Looking back through more than 15 years of experience, I’d call that setup “how NOT to edit someone’s work.” Yes, writing needs to be edited – see the first sentence of this post – but it shouldn’t strip out all individuality, verve, and soul. That experience shaped my goals as a copy editor more than I realized until I stopped to think about it recently. It occurred to me that I strive to make my edits as invisible as possible: in reading a piece before and after I’ve edited it, it should still essentially feel like the same piece of writing.

What I try to do is remove anything that might pull the reader’s attention away from the content and the meaning within the piece, allowing them to read and understand perfectly on the first pass. That means fixing typos, grammatical errors, and sentence structure. Occasionally I move a sentence or paragraph to improve flow. I don’t try to shape it into something that I might have written, or change the tone or meaning – at least not without the author’s express permission or at their request. Editors can do all of that, but we shouldn’t do it without being asked.

Some valuable tips to follow when trying to edit invisibly:

Tone. If the piece generally has a neutral tone, don’t alter it so that it reads more negatively or positively towards its subject. This means being careful about word choice. “The Honda Civic is a reliable car” is a neutral phrase, whereas “The Honda Civic in unfailing in its reliability” is a bit hyperbolic (and might be seen as sucking up to the brand).

Level of language. If the author is using mainly short sentences and words, don’t insert a bunch of multi-clause sentences and big words. “Evil” is just as good a word as “nefarious” or “reprehensible” so there’s no need to upgrade words to try to make the piece feel more complex.

Style. This is sort of nebulous, but if you read a piece and it gives you a certain impression of who the author is as a person and what he or she wants to make you feel, try not to take that away in your edit. An article composed of short, snappy sentences and a lot of action verbs, with a clear thesis up front, written in the active voice, delivers a completely different feeling to the reader than one filled with long, slow sentences in passive voice that withholds key pieces of information until the end of the piece.

Note that all of the above applies to copy-editing and stylistic editing; substantive editing will call for a heavier hand and may involve significant changes to the original text, but this type of editing is generally done upon the request of the writer, and expectations are managed on both sides.

So next time you find yourself asked to “look over” a piece of writing, remember: someone made that. To them, it’s something crafted, and they’re probably proud of it. So while it definitely won’t be perfect just as it is, it’s important to treat it as gently as you would want someone to treat a piece of your own writing. Polish it up and make it shine – but make sure not to leave too many visible marks.

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