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Guest Post by Caroline Beaton

Editors are writers.

This is good news.

Because they’re writers, editors ideally grasp basic grammar, flow and how to skirt buzzwords, adverbs and cliches. As writers,editors dissect phrases and painstakingly rearrange them. They seek clarity and precision in every word.

It’s also bad news.

Writers have pet peeves, preferences, unique voices, bad habits and egos. As a result, editors can be persnickety about making something “just so,” even if it’s contrary to the author’s vision. At best, editors’ creative biases leak benignly into the writer’s work. At worst, past publishing traumas and insecurities haunt each piece they try to “remedy,” causing them to overwork or over-critique your piece.

Because writers see editors as authorities (as they often are, with influence over what’s published), incidental power dynamics abound. Once entwined with a certain editor, it can be difficult to recognize if they’re damaging your work and even your well-being. Here are some signs you’ve found a keeper:

1) The best editors write.

If your editor isn’t actively or occasionally writing and getting published, ask yourself why not. We already established that editors are writers, so if they can’t get their own stuff published, they probably can’t get yours published, either. Would you take cooking advice from a self-professed cook who hadn’t prepared food for anyone in years?

Editors who write stay off their high horses because they’re constantly immersed in the trials of publication themselves. They know it’s hard. When editors are active in the field instead of just calling fouls from the stands, they’re more humble and better able to relate.

At the same time, editors shouldn’t write your stuff because:

2) The best editors are not construction workers.

If your piece gained words while you were away, get out of the relationship. Editors should play Tetris with the building blocks you provide. When they dump confetti atop your solid castle, they’re showing off and don’t have your best interests in mind. Great editors want you to come through.

On the other hand, well-intentioned deconstructionists can become butchers. Though Raymond Carver’s first editor, Gordon Lish, played a key role in Carver’s initial fame, the degree to which he cut Carver’s stories—by as much as 50 percent—made Carver resentful and embarrassed. Lish’s incessant trimming ultimately ended their relationship.

Great editors, in short, leave heavy lifting to the writer. The author should govern major content changes while the editor guides smaller design work and helps them articulate what they’re trying to say. This is why:

3) The best editors are psychotherapists. 

Good editors don’t put words in your mouth (even if it sounds better that way). Instead, they ask questions; they try to get to the bottom of the scene or message. They help you see your piece in a different light.

Here are some examples of what editing psychotherapy sounds like:

“It seems to me like you’re trying to convey ______. Is that right?”

“Can you tell me more about that?”

“Help me understand this.”

“I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say. Can you explain?”

“This really grabbed me. Say more!”

And of course: “How do you feel about that (scene, part, sentence, transition, character)?”

In this way, great editors are like Harry Potter’s Mirror of Erised: they help us see both what we lack and what we most want our work to express. But this kind of dungeon digging can be aggravating, so:

4) The best editors are nice.

As an editor for elephantjournal.com, I sometimes get submissions prefaced by, “Be as critical as possible. Tell me exactly what I did wrong!” I admire such vulnerability, but tearing the piece apart doesn’t actually help anyone. Remember? I’m just a writer! I have perspective and editing skills that may make stuff successful, but that doesn’t mean I’m always right. Many editors and producers have, in fact, been fatally wrong. Before the Beatles got famous, they auditioned for the production company Decca Records. Decca rejected them on the basis that, “The Beatles have no future in show business.” Great editors know that arrogance makes them both unkind and more likely to mess up.

Overly critical editing also signifies laziness. It’s easier to say what’s bad about writing than what’s good about it. But pointing to what authors did right gives them a better revision guide than outlining everything they did wrong. In other words, framing critiques around “more of this” is more helpful than saying “less of that.”

Great editors respect your work, even if it’s not yet where it needs to be. They are willing to work with you and see multiple solutions. They don’t mind you backseat driving because it’s your car. But they also know when to lay down the law:

5) The best editors are ruthless.

Great editors kill our darlings even when we can’t. Though they communicate before changing key parts or removing large sections of text, they won’t let just anything by. Their standard is impossible and they constantly challenge you to meet it. When you’re getting too heady or self-important, they’re not afraid to say, “This part sounds a little self-involved.” When you’re off track, they’ll tell you, “I got lost! What are you saying?” Great editors, in sum, won’t take your crap.

Of all the above, this characteristic causes the most contention between writers and editors. Elephant’s writers, particularly the regular ones, routinely challenge our edits and/or feedback. It hurts to be told “no”; it also hurts to have something you sweat for shredded. But tough love is essential. An editor without spine is just a cheerleader. By and large, Elephant’s writers ultimately thank us for pushing them.

When you have a “flawless editor” who you “never disagree with,” ask yourself if he or she is helping you grow.

If you’re already working with someone who failed this test, remember: “Great editors do not discover nor produce great authors; great authors create and produce great publishers” (John Farrar). Set the bar by communicating with your editor what you want out of the relationship. Hold your editor accountable by asking specific, pointed questions and checking in regularly. Don’t let yourself be bullied into silence, but make sure your editor isn’t either. If there’s still tension and multiple editors have seen your piece, be honest with yourself: is it them, or is it you?

 

Caroline Beaton

Caroline Beaton is a Denver-based freelance writer and an editor for elephantjournal.com. Her articles and fiction have appeared in The Denver Post, The Aspen Times, Yoga International and The Commonline Journal, among other places. Get in touch with her at www.carolinebeaton.com or via Twitter @cs_beaton.

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