As easy as spilling paint …

Writing is a craft. Editing is a craft. And the two are inextricably entwined. One needs the other. Without writers, editors would be unnecessary. Without editors, writers would be, well, lesser writers.

The trick comes in the balance and knowing how editors help—and when they can hurt.

Years ago, when I was a young and inexperienced editorial assistant, I wrote an article on how people blamed computers whenever a mistake occured. The thrust of the article was that people not computers were the root of “computer mistakes.” As one droll tech person once called them: “user problems.” 

Granted, in today’s world of bots and AI, there can be genuine computer screw-ups, but back when I was writing my story, it was people not the computers who goofed up.

In my story, I described the computer as “a gaggle of wires.” My boss—actually, my boss’s boss—objected to the description. He said, “gaggle could only refer to geese.” I argued with him but lost. “Gaggle” was edited out.

However, I was right, and he was wrong. He didn’t understand the most fundamental rule of editing:  DON’T MESS WITH THE WRITER’S NATURAL STYLE.

An editor’s job is to make a writer’s work shine—to help make it the best it can be. It is not an editor’s job to shape a story or a novel in the editor’s own image. But that’s exactly what many editors attempt to do. Editing, they think, gives them license to reshape a writer’s words how they, the editor, would write them.

But that’s wrong. Flat out, wrong.

The best editors know this. They understand that every writer—read that again, every writer—has a distinct style and approach to wordsmithing. For many (particularly beginners) that style is only emerging. Good editors will improve the writing without squelching a writer’s natural style.

I once worked with an expensive NYC editor. She read my manuscript, gave me some general suggestions, but her overwhelming advice was that I should “write a Civil War novel.” 

I tried. I rewrote my entire novel based on her advice and resubmitted it. 

Suffice it to say, the rewritten novel didn’t fly because that was neither my intent nor my style. I eventually returned to square one and finished the novel as I had set out to do in the first place by using my own counsel, the advice of several beta readers, and one outstanding editor who helped me immensely but who did not change my basic style and intent. 

I finished the novel and was happy with it. Based on my reviews, readers were pleased as well. 

Tampering with style is an easy pitfall for editors. I must confess that when I’ve worked as an editor, I’ve made this egregious mistake myself many time. It’s as easy to do as spilling paint. I have edited manuscripts for others as I would have written their novel—and that was the wrong approach. I’ve learned this lesson from both angles—as a writer and as an editor. (Experience is a great teacher.)

Writers need editors, but the trick is to find one who will help improve your writing while allowing your natural style, voice, and intent to shine through.This kind of editing is an art in itself—and an essential part of the writer-editor relationship.

Next time, I’ll tackle finding one’s voice as a writer.

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