Why Editors Should Not Be Shot
Do you watch House M.D.? On the third season’s last DVD there’s a short sequence on how some of the show’s cast and crew got a little jazz band together – Hugh Laurie himself at the piano (and yes, he even plays “Minnie the Moocher” for all those Jeeves and Wooster fans out there).
At one point in the sequence, Laurie mentions that, until now, he had been under the impression that producers had the sole responsibility of driving expensive cars around.
I had been under a similar impression about editors. I wasn’t so naïve as to think that they could afford expensive cars, but I was certain that their sole responsibility was to tap writers on the head with their magic wand and turn them into authors. Oh, and they also corrected spelling errors.
As it turns out, editors do actually work; and their work is much different than I had expected.
I need to drop the producer metaphor here and take up a football metaphor.
Lots of people watch football on television or at their local high school. If a young person (let’s call him Bill), who had watched many of these games, decides to play football with some friends, he doubtless has no trouble going through the motions he had seen in previous games: hiking the ball, throwing it, tackling, running.
Perhaps Bill plays football with his friends for years, and eventually feels that he has the talent to play in the professional leagues. He shows up at the door of the local professional team and presents himself as player material.
But he finds that he can’t even get past the secretary. “I’m a perfectly good football player,” Bill tells her, “I always get picked first in games, and they always have me play quarterback.”
The secretary is compassionate and gives him a phone number. “Call this guy,” she says, “He can help.”
The guy turns out to be a bodybuilding coach. He takes one look at Bill and says, “Boy, you gotta bulk up if you want to get into the big leagues.”
It takes years of work, and not just the work of running and lifting weights, it takes precision work. The bodybuilding coach knows how the body works, he knows which muscles need to be strengthened and how. It also hurts. Bill discovers muscles he never knew existed.
“So when I finally have the muscles, then can I play?” he asks his coach
His coach shakes his head, “You have to actually know how to play football,” he replies.
“But I do know how to play football,” Bill says.
The coach writes down a phone number, “Give this guy a call.”
It turns out to be the number of the local high school football coach. Bill has four more years of work ahead of him, learning how the game of football (on the high school level) actually works, with all the rules in place. He starts to see that a huge array of skills and knowledge that he had never even thought of underlie the playing of football. Watching it on television, football had always looked so easy.
Bill graduates from high school, having become an all-state player. He believes he is ready for the big leagues now. But he still has to compete successfully in college – another four years. And then, if he works hard and has a bit of luck, he might find his way onto a professional team, where his learning curve will begin yet again.
During each of these periods in Bill’s training, he had to have a coach. And, as you may know, coaches aren’t there to tell you what a good job you are doing. They aren’t there to tap you with a magic wand and turn you into a football player. They aren’t there to say nice things about you to the reporters. They are there to force you into the painful work of actually becoming a football player. They are there to explode your preconceptions of how easy football is and train you in the skills invisible to the crowd. They are there because they know, in depth, how the game works.
You probably see where I’m going by now. I used to think that learning to write was a solitary pursuit. You read books and sat at your computer typing. Sometimes you would show your work to a friend or relative, and they would say it was great stuff. So you thought maybe, just maybe, you could make it to the big leagues.
However, writing has been around longer than football and it is just as demanding if you want to get into the big leagues. You need someone who knows writing to help you bulk up: learn your way around a good sentence, paragraph, character, chapter and story. You need coaches who are willing to say, “Sorry kid, there’s a lot more to it than that. Get to work.” Then you need coaches to force you into the painful work of learning to actually play the game; and there are a lot of different games in writing, each with its own set of rules and lore.
Editing, frankly, is often about pain – and always about work. A few years ago I signed up for a class with Alane Ferguson, an Edgar-award winning author whose writing I admire. Sadly, she had to cancel. I wrote, asking her why. She said she was in the middle of a “hideous” revision. “I’m not sleeping, just working and slogging and wishing the revision was OVER!”
This from a professional author. I’d bet money that this revision was not self-inflicted; it was doubtless foisted upon her by her editor. But take look at the product. Alane’s work is so finely tuned that it becomes invisible, allowing the reader to fully enter the story. But it did not come without pain.
After reading all this, you’re probably thinking, “I’m not going to send any of my stuff to Sunstone. Stephen sounds mean!” Don’t worry; I’m a very nice magazine editor. I actually do a lot of your revision for you. In other words, the majority of the time I don’t say “Change this and change that,” I actually make the changes (while keeping the “track changes” function turned on, of course, so you can go through to accept and reject the edits). I also try to give commentary on why I make particular revisions so that the author can see my reasoning.
But I’m a great believer in the author’s abilities. A few times, an author has rejected my actual verbiage whole-hog, but has taken the idea behind the words and used it as a launching pad to do some really fantastic stuff.
I love it when that happens. It means I have a real writer on my hands, someone who takes his or her work seriously. I feel like a football coach watching a player I’ve been working with perform a fast break and plow gloriously into the end zone.
In the end, writing and editing are collaborative projects, each flourishing on the commitment, skill, and investment of the other.