Editing 101: What Editors (Should) Do

by Ed Davis on May 4, 2015


May 3, 2015

*After I’d edited one of her essays, a new writer-friend asked me what a good editor does, giving me a chance to reflect on a skill I’ve picked up over the past forty years, one which I take for granted but shouldn’t. The e-mail below excerpts a correspondence I had several months back with her, which she’s kindly allowing me to share.

Dear Barbara:

I think it’s time I answered your wonderful e-mail of a couple weeks ago. I’ve thought a lot about what I need to say—and what you might need to hear about what it means to be an editor. It’s so much more than capturing grammar errors, over-stuffed sentences and paragraphs. Today I couldn’t say it better than you did: it’s the ability to “bring out, in the most attractive, readable way I can, the essence of what [the writer is] trying to say.”

Of course an editor must have an array of skills—punctuation, grammar, etc., plus diplomacy (and that’s mainly humility, a quality it took me years to acquire). But the ability to shape a piece of writing tops my list. Imagining what belongs where and pointing out what should be the true focus of a piece can change everything. Maybe you haven’t quite mastered this ability to shape yet, but you will. (More about that later.) First, I want to respond to some of your e-mail’s other points. You said,

“Perhaps I was finally able to hear it, understanding the price that I have to pay if I am to answer this call [writing]. I have always wanted some guarantee, that if I gave it all, that I would be rewarded with publication. Acknowledgement. Admiration. What if I pour everything into it and fail?  It’s an old story . . . I did not know until this minute that the shift that your words made in me is that, finally, I see that that if I write, only that, I cannot fail.”

That’s a brave paragraph; you should return to it often. Writing comes with a cost that you must be willing to pay for immense rewards. But as the Rolling Stones so eloquently sang, “You can’t always get what you want/but if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.” And the breakthroughs that are possible . . . wow. Back to your words, Barbara:

“I think what you did to [my essay]‘Geography’ was wonderful. And I love the last sentence you composed to bring the whole piece together. Is that a job that I can look for an editor to do?”

Not every editor, but I’ve gotten excellent editing from talented, generous friends as well as strangers, who have made crucial contributions to my work, especially when they get to the heart of things (without which grammar and punctuation don’t matter much) when they’ve helped me shape my story.

For example, Susan Bright, late editor of Plain View Press and publisher of my second novel, The Measure of Everything, did none of the copy-editing or even grammar editing that West Virginia University Press did with Israel Jones, but she told me this about my novel: “Instead of the plot unfolding in strict chronological order, why don’t you begin the story when it’s pretty far along, just a few chapters away from the climax, then backtrack to the ‘beginning,’ interweaving chapters in the present and past until the past catches up with the present?” That’s shaping! I continue to be pleased with Measure’s structure. (Also, she suggested but did not mandate the change. I appreciate that.)

I believe that editors should be as ego-less as possible—and some are far from it, seeing their way as the only way. When I edit others, I reserve the right to be wrong, even though my instincts tell me I’m right. But that’s for the writer to decide, for the edits must resonate with the writer—and beware of editors who believe otherwise. However, such inflexible folks can still teach us—and enhance our own humility.

Barbara, I don’t care whether you’re able to edit my work as deeply as some of my other long-time readers. Eventually you will. You’ve certainly got the gift of writing—and while editing is, perhaps, another gift entirely, you’ve got the positive attitude and motivation necessary to learn to tease out the “essence,” to bring your own and others’ work into full bloom. If I can help you become a better self-editor as well as editor of others’ work, I’ll be a happy man.

Your friend in writing,


P.S.—May I recommend an unpretentious paperback, which I used as a text in Advanced Fiction Writing: Browne & King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Much of what they say pertains to creative nonfiction as well.

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