(With apologies to John Huston and Humphrey Bogart)
I almost didn’t do a post this week due to illness (really didn’t feel like writing anything much). But then I started thinking about editors and editing.
There’s a lot of talk out there, particularly on writer blogs and fora, arguing that editors are unnecessary.
I counter with a few thousand books, novellas, and stories (mostly self-published) that say otherwise.
I’ve been on both sides of this as a writer of short fiction, peer reviewed articles, and a peer reviewed book and as a member of a journal editorial board, a journal editorial assistant, and a freelance content editor (including a couple jobs focused on helping the writer condense essays).
Editors serve a couple important functions depending on the type of editor.
First, they act as gatekeepers (acquisitions editors). This is a good thing. After all, roughly 98% of things that are written are awful. Roughly 99+% of self-published stuff (fiction and non-fiction) is awful (so is 99% of virtually everything). Consider this: Twilight and 50 Shades somehow made it through the editorial gatekeepers, true. But, they are a relative rarity. Imagine just how much horrible writing would get published by Tor, Baen, Random House, etc. if the acquisitions editors weren’t there. Yes, this means a few greats are potentially missed (at least for a time), but it also means that thousands of awful high school wannabe goth “poets” are not inflicted upon the masses.
Second, they act as readers who help writers polish their narrative or argument (content editors). Everyone can improve their writing, but we generally need someone else (not ourselves) to take a look at drafts with fresh eyes and with no knowledge of what we intended to say. I’m sure that everything most writers (myself included) put on paper makes perfect sense to the writer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes sense to the audience. Nor is every scene, character, or argumentative point necessary, although many of us will argue that they are. Heinlein is a great example here. His first novels were edited and form nice, cohesive stories. Once he hit the point where anything he wrote sold, the editing stopped. At that point, his novels became big rambling beasts (Heinlein stated that his writing method was knowing the beginning, knowing the end, and letting the middle sort itself out as he went).
Third, they act as spell/grammar checkers that are much more adaptable and accurate than anything in a word processor (copyeditors). Sadly, the professional, full time copyeditor (not freelance) seem to be dying or is already dead. Like the content editor, they are highly important as an extra set of eyes to ensure that what the writer created: a) makes sense, b) can be understood, and c) is actually what they meant to write. Some like to say, “Just focus on the story, that’s the important part, ignore the mechanics.” To that, I say, no. The mechanics are important. Why? Because without them, clarity becomes problematic. I don’t care how great your story, characters, or argument are if what you’ve written is unreadable because the mechanical elements are fracked/frelled. Copyeditors catch and fix the typos, the missing words, the misused words, the accidental changes in verb tense, and Favorite Word Syndrome.
Does this mean that everyone needs a professional editor? No. But everyone does need someone who is conversant with the language and experienced at critiquing and editing other people’s work. And that is something that takes training and experience (not just, “My roommate’s a first year English major”, which means squat . . . take it from a one time “first year English major”).
Why? Because an extra set of eyes, or two, helps us improve our writing. And, if we don’t improve, if we aren’t constantly learning, then we aren’t really practicing or serious about using the technology that is writing.