This is what I do

When people ask me that sum-up-your-life-in-one-response question, “What do you do?” I respond with, “I’m an editor.” Most people have no clue what this means. They smile, their eyes glaze over, and they nod and say, “Mmm-hmm” and then change the subject. A few people crack jokes about how they “have to be careful about letting you read anything I write now”–they must think I’m a red-pen wielding goon squad of one, hunting down their grammatical errors and misused commas and giving them the thrashing they deserve.

I don’t do that. It’s true that being a professional editor has very much altered the nature of reading for me: I have a heightened appreciation for well-crafted prose, and poor writing or errors in a text can distract me from the author’s point. Professional writers ought to know better. (Professional publishers, too. Whenever I read J. K. Rowling’s work I have to restrain myself from showing up at her publisher’s office and yelling at them: “Hello? Did you temporarily lose command of the English language when you edited this?”)

Of course I cut nonprofessional writers some slack. When I read friends’ writing, for example, typos and whatnot still jump out at me, but I don’t point them out. If my friends have hired me to edit their work, though–or have specifically asked me to put on my editorial hat while reading it–then I will tell them what I think. But I’ll be nice about it. After all, they are my friends.

And they are writers, too. It’s hard for any writer to let someone else review his or her work. Only a truly egoless person can do this without any insecurity. When I started grad school, participating in a writers’ support group was a new, unpleasant experience for me–having people rip through my own error-infested writing. It’s hard, I think, because writing is such a deeply personal process. The words you put down on paper are the children of your mind, and you want to protect them. But when you are too close to your own words, it’s helpful to get distance from them–through another pair of eyes. I can read my own text repeatedly and still miss things. But when I read someone else’s work, I often zoom in on spelling errors, unsupported arguments, awkward phrasings, and the like right away because the text is new to me and because I’m not attached to it (and therefore more able to see its faults–and strengths, too).

Every once in a while, an article about why editors are important and why publishers who want to produce good material should let editors go over it appears on the Internet, and word nerds worldwide rejoice. A new article in this vein appeared a couple of days ago in Salon: “Let us now praise editors,” by Gary Kamiya. I’ve been mulling over my own thoughts on the subject for quite some time now, and it’s interesting to see that he raises some of the same points I have, particularly when he discusses writers’ very personal defensiveness of their work in the face of editing.

When people ask me, “So…what do editors do?” I used to respond with “I fix other people’s bad writing.” I think that’s a decent, albeit shorthand, description of it. But perhaps a more fitting response is “I’m the reader’s advocate in the publication process. It’s my job to make sure that the writer’s ideas and words are comprehensible to the reader.” I wonder how many people would get that. Maybe I’ll try it and find out.

3 Responses to “This is what I do”

  1. jdon 26 Jul 2007 at 9:18 pm

    I should’ve guessed by the quality of your posts here (always a delight to read–but is it a bit sad to be pleasantly surprised by good writing? Shouldn’t proper sentences be the norm, even in this day of IMing and text-messaging “LOLs” and “BRBs”? But perhaps that’s for another post) that your work has something to do with writing. Thenagain, I could’ve also just as easily guessed something techy! In any case, it’s good to know. :)

    Love how you describe a person’s writing as the “children of your mind;” I never thought of it that way but totally get it! For me, blogging has definitely helped ease me into feeling better about putting myself “out there” (the blogosphere is both comfortably and creepily nebulous).

    All in all, well said, friend! Thanks for sharing, and so eloquently.

  2. Marshaon 27 Jul 2007 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks so much, JD! Although I do have both “formal” and “informal” styles of writing, I’ve refrained from letting “LOLs” and “BRBs” and the like infiltrate the latter. Heck, I still write out most numbers (rather than use numerals), too. I just think it looks nicer. :) I’m still better at parsing other people’s writing than my own, though. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve looked over an old post of mine and found tons of typos and whatnot.

  3. Monicaon 05 Aug 2007 at 4:52 pm

    I want to be an editor, and I’m currently trying to start a career in the field. Seeing if I can be an assistant anywhere, to get my foot in the door – you know. How did you get into editing?