The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.



27 responses to “The Art and Science of Editing

  • francisguenette

    Reblogged this on disappearinginplainsight and commented:
    Gotta love those hard working editors out there. Eric J. Baker really nails the qualities that make a good editor shine in this great post. Enjoy!

  • nrhatch

    Agreed! Now about that dangling modifier in paragraph 13 . . .

  • livelytwist

    Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

    Roger that. Now to find that editor . . . 🙂

  • Jill Weatherholt

    It’s great to see you, Eric. I’ve missed your posts and thought you might be on tour with the band. 🙂
    I haven’t worked with an editor at this point, but your post is a great guide for the future.
    Wishing you the very best in the New Year!

    • ericjbaker

      Hi, Jill. Happy New Year.

      Alas, no world tour. Just a heavy workload at my day job taking up a lot of mental energy I used to devote to blogging. Job security comes at a price sometimes!

  • 1WriteWay

    Spot on, Eric. During the brief time I earned some extra $$ by freelance editing, it was a pleasure to feel I was helping another writer, not comparing myself to her. My goal was indeed to bring out the best in what I was editing and sometimes even to teach since most of my “clients” were ESL students. But your point about the inevitable comparisons that writers make with each other’s work also is what makes me nervous about giving my work out to writing groups and/or beta readers. I’ve had my writing (both fiction and nonfiction) critiqued by writing groups before, and it always frustrated me trying to weed through the often conflicting feedback. It makes working with ONE person much more attractive.
    Oh, and Happy New Year!

    • ericjbaker

      Beta readers have helped me more in terms of focusing my writing plans than improving my actual writing. The critiques are often highlighting flaws I suspected we re there anyway. I might invest a lot of time and effort into a piece and am reluctant to give it up. Having another writer say “This isn’t working” and then enumerating the reasons why–however unpleasant!–often provides the push to let it go.

      The problems I’ve had recently with beta reading involved one reader loving it and another hating it, and a third “kind of” liking it. So I’m at a crossroad now.

  • Kevin Brennan

    Interestingly, the editor for my first book did diddly squat — a few brush strokes. It was the copyeditor who really made the difference, and I’ll always value what she did for the book. Plus, she got it.

    Good to see your smiling face again, EJB!

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. It’s too bad about that first editor, though it all worked out. I probably should have added that a good editor is committed.

      I’ve been rather busy in my day job of late, which is cutting into my blogging time/motivation. Thanks for stopping by to comment and reminding me why I write these things in the first place!

  • Sue Archer

    Love this, Eric! I think you’ve really nailed the qualities of a good editor. I’ve recently been through a substantive editing course (otherwise known as developmental editing), and I lost count of how many times it was stressed that the writer’s voice is paramount. I think it’s a true art to weave in editorial suggestions that bolster the writing without ripping it down. I love that collaborative aspect of good editing, where you are teaming up to make things better.

    And good to see you back! I’ve been missing your posts.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks. I wish I could be around WordPress more often, but sometimes life doesn’t cooperate.

      I’ve never taken a formal editing course. In college I edited friends papers and found I had a knack for it. In 2005 I got a professional editing job in a corporate environment and have been doing it ever since. For me, with any skill, it’s repetition and hours of practice.

  • uju

    Very insightful as always, Eric. Wondered what had happened to you for sometime now 🙂

    Happy New Year, and thanks for being so supportive in 2014. WordPress stats monkeys named you (and of course Timi) and top commenters. I appreciate the time and effort you’ve put. Thank you 🙂

    Now off to find that editor.

  • Richard Leonard

    Very true… But I’ll never sell enough books to pay off my editor… ARRGGHH!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Happy New Year, my blog brother!

    Good thoughts regarding the qualities and the importance of a good editor. I would add that a good editor should have strong communication skills for the purpose of helping a writer understand the necessity of specific changes, especially those that might be hard for the writer to take. I speak from experience in this from back when I was writing my thesis.

    Personally, I don’t consider all writers my competitors; just the ones who write in my genre (and write it well!)

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Respectfully disagree. Proofreader – yes. Eyes on work – beta readers – yes. Anything above that: it’s MY job.

    To paraphrase A Few Good Men: I can’t handle the feedback.

    I used to want that, crave it. I couldn’t afford it when I needed it most – so I learned to do it myself. Now the need is gone – I will sink or swim on the merits of the work.

    Arrogant? Not meant to be. Just the facts. My writing process does not admit other people.

    I keep reading these posts – and I like yours, so it isn’t personal – to see if I’m being stubborn, stupid, or simply clueless. And I can’t shake the feeling that, for me, it couldn’t be helpful.

    Probably just old.

    • ericjbaker

      Respectful disagreements welcome. Even disrespectful ones, provided a good zinger is involved! 😉

      Your creative process is yours, and no one has the right to tell you you are creating incorrectly. Write on. 🙂

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