Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Function of an Editor

"The function of an editor is to prevent a writer from making a fool of himself." --Kathryn Harrison, quoting Bob Shacochis
That's my all-time favorite description of the job. It gets the point across when I'm trying to explain to the uninitiated just what it is that I'm doing when I'm gripping my editor's red pencil. Defining the job of "editor" can be difficult, since editors do so many different things.

There's the managing editor -- the boss, oftentimes. There's the acquisitions editor, who is principally concerned with finding and signing up authors. There's the production editor, who traffics materials between the editorial office and the production department.

But, said Adolph Ochs of the New York Times: "The most useful man on the newspaper is one who can edit."

He said that in 1925. To paraphrase him these days, I would say that the most useful person in any publishing venture is the one who can edit -- who can recognize and correct errors of all sorts, from mechanical and grammatical to factual and logical.

From The Art of Editing, by Baskette and Sissors, comes this passage that I've long admired:
One may describe the duties of the editor, but no one can analyze how an editor works, anymore than one can describe how a poet composes a poem. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, came close to defining one obligation of the editor -- "to improve an essentially well-written piece or to turn a clumsily written one into, at the very least, a readable and literate article, and, at the very most, a beautifully shaped and effective essay which remains true to the author's intention, which realizes that intention more fully than he himself was able to do. He cares about the English language; he cares about clarity of thought and grace of expression; he cares about the traditions of discourse and of argument."
That quote touches on so many aspects of the editor's job:
  • The work is creative.
  • The work is individual. Each editor's approach to the task is different.
  • Editors have obligations to both the writer and the reader.
  • An editor must respect the author's intention.
  • An editor's job is to help the author.
  • Editors sweat the details.
On those days when I make the mental switchover and I'm writing instead of editing, I'm comforted by this observation from L. R. Blanchard, an old newspaper exec:
"No man is qualified to be his own editor. No matter what his reputation, his writing will benefit from another's look."
And that's why I've become such a regular participant in my critique group. I've come to realize that I don't have to write it right the first time. I get it as close as I can on my own, and then I take it to critique for another look. My critique partners are my editors who are helping me to improve and shape my writing.

Here are a couple of other quotes that reflect my personal editorial philosophy, whether I'm editing another writer's work or getting editorial advice about my own stuff:
"The essence of editing lies in helping the author say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it." --Betty Ballantine
"The editor must not in any way at any time attempt to edit the book so that it will be written the way the editor would write it if the editor wanted to, or could, write. The editor must learn to edit in the writer's voice, think the writer's thoughts, achieve the writer's perspective." --Gerald Gross

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