Good Editors are a rarity – why?
Most writers despise editors (and vice versa), and not necessarily for personal reasons! Writers reach into a bag of endless possibilities with their words, while editors limit the viewpoint of a piece with style guides and strict language rules.
You can see how easily the animosity rises with two functions that, when put together, naturally unfold a never-ending process of continuous friction.
But how do you resolve the tension?
Communication is crucial – or lack thereof.
“Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it if it were my piece?'” (James Thurber, quoted in The New York Times Book Review, December 4, 1988)
One of the biggest issues between the writer and editor is the lack of communication. Editors must maintain excellent communication and relations with each writer. It makes everyone’s job easier. A good editor communicates expectations for a project with clarity and provides a clear picture of how the writing piece should look when finished. This not only affects the manner in which work is processed but also affects the outcome of the project for the client in the long run.
Without good communication, the writer has no idea what’s wrong with a piece of writing and continues to make the same mistakes that the editor must constantly fix. Or the direction of content is completely wrong — not because the writer did not deliver as asked, but because the editor did not outline the intended expectations properly. This is something like the editor “assuming ignorance” of the writer, and writers absolutely hate it. Each person ends up blaming the other, even if nothing is said.
Most writers pour massive amounts of time (hours!) and effort (complete mental attention and focus) into a piece of writing and feel absolutely defeated when an editor assumes they don’t know what they’re talking about! The best writers choose each and every word wisely and can sometimes even recite the original work word for word, so don’t assume they won’t notice.
Rewriting vs. Editing vs. Copyediting – yes, there’s a difference!
“The bad editor loves to plunge right into the copy, making immediate marks that brand the copy as part his or hers. A better way: Before lifting a pencil or depressing the keyboard, read an article all the way through, open your mind to the logic of the [writer’s] approach, and offer at least minimal courtesy to the professional who has dripped blood for it.” (Carl Sessions Stepp, Editing for Today’s Newsroom. Routledge, 1989)
Some “editors” confuse the function of editing with rewriting. There is a reason why assignments are granted to a writer, and that’s because they have the experience and expertise to make a sound judgment on the direction of writing, the audience, and other important factors (such as search engine optimization) that must be taken into consideration when producing a writing piece.
When an editor that is not well practiced or experienced with a subject edits a piece by rewriting, they may not even realize how the entire structure, flow, and appeal of the writing is sacrificed. Sure everything can be simplified, words erased, but that doesn’t make it better writing or more suited to the intended purpose. But editing is about language rules, not so much writing. Editing is just that — the application of grammar rules, style guidelines, and branding controls to meet the client’s content marketing request. It is not, however, the rewriting of entire sentences and paragraphs without the consent of the writer.
This is especially true when the writer’s name is presented directly in the piece. To a writer, the name is a lie (because they didn’t write it and don’t much appreciate the credit for something they didn’t write or looks nothing like the original piece). Excessive modifications to a piece should be brought to the writer’s attention before publication.
In addition, copyediting is a practice used by marketers to improve the marketing and advertising quality of a piece. If, for instance, you are assigned to write a “native advertising” piece for a company, the content must not only remain “natural” for the website in which it is featured but must also satisfy the intended purpose of the client’s original request.
Copyediting is used to serve this function, as copyeditors improve the writing content with SEO keywords, Calls to Action, and eye-catching, storytelling visuals that invite the reader to interact with the writing piece. Storytelling practices in copywriting help transform abstract ideas into concrete circumstances relevant to the reader through tangible and familiar examples. Content marketing copy must be much more conversational, possessing a flow and providing useful information to have an effect on the audience.
The final say – only a good editor AND writer should have it.
“[M]ore than being good writers, editors must be good critical thinkers who can recognize and evaluate good writing — or can figure out how to make the most of not-so-good writing. . . . [A] good editor needs a sharp eye for detail. We need to be organized, able to envision a structure for an article when one does not yet exist, or to identify the missing pieces or gaps in logic that are needed to make everything hang together.” (Mariette DiChristina, “Science Editing,” in A Field Guide for Science Writers, ed. by Deborah Blum et al. Oxford University Press, 2006)
The “final say” in writing often goes to the editor. But what happens if an editor is less prepared to make a judgment on the writing? It’s important that the managing editor of content is also skilled in writing, not just editing.
Some editors take enjoyment in “modifying” little things, here and there, and sometimes everywhere, that fit within their own biases according to personal opinion. Since the writer is the one who wrote the piece, they must be the expert on the material provided. When an editor is not an experienced writer or lacks expertise on the material and makes modifications to a writing piece, the final product may actually end up at a much lower quality than when you originally started. This happens quite often, and once again affects the client the most.
Friction with intention must be avoided.
“The ideal editor brings out the best in a writer. Lets the writer’s voice shine through. . . . A good editor makes a writer feel challenged, enthusiastic, and valuable. An editor is only as good as her writers.” (Sally Lee, quoted by Ronald P. Lovell in Free-Lancing: A Guide to Writing for Magazines and Other Markets. Waveland Press, 1994)
What happens when an editor and a writer do not communicate? Friction, anger, and resentment. The duration of editing can get agonizing. The process quickly turns into a source of frustration. Not to mention, anger may be inspired by the unintentional and uncommunicated lack of “writing quality”. In addition, the writer may notice the presence of resentment reflected in selective editing, and the editor may notice a revert back to the original content when changes are requested.
Every person involved in “creative” tasks must start on the same page and maintain better communications for a much smoother content production process. In the end, a lack of communication between the writer and editor just creates friction (and with intention!) for everyone, and the quality of the client’s projects suffers as a final result.
Avoid the loss of “art” for something more “mainstream”.
“Good editing can turn a gumbo of a piece into a tolerable example of good reporting, not of good writing. Good writing exists beyond the ministrations of any editor. That’s why a good editor is a mechanic, or craftsman, while a good writer is an artist.” (Gardner Botsford, A Life of Privilege, Mostly. St. Martin’s Press, 2003)
This is something an artist would understand. Do you really want to be a sellout? Most people don’t unless the incentive is overwhelmingly potent. It’s hard for writers to envision the outcome of a writing project, work for hours with a single piece throughout the writing process, then submit it only to have an editor dismantle the entire work in a fraction of the time it took to write it.
One of the largest qualms writers have with editors is the act of sacrificing the flow in cadence and rhythm or even the “underlying message” of writing for something more boring, mainstream, or meant to cater to a wider audience. Most readers are intrigued by great writing, yet less impressed by the “same old thing” seen every day. It’s important for editors to allow for more “character” before they go generalizing or casting judgment on the way in which all writing “should” appear. There’s a time and place for every type of writing.
The perfect editor respects the writing process.
“Writers need to know you respect their ownership of a story. Resist the temptation to start writing an improved version. That’s fixing — not coaching. . . . When you ‘fix’ stories by doing instant rewrites, there may be a thrill in showing off your skill. By coaching writers, you discover better ways to craft copy.” (Jill Geisler, quoted by Foster Davis and Karen F. Dunlap in The Effective Editor. Poynter Institute, 2000)
In the end, you don’t necessarily have to be a superstar writer or even an experienced editor to be a good editor. You must only respect the writing process, then success in communicating with writers will soon follow.
Creative work requires a person to sort of “give up” a part of their soul in return for the “work”. So no need to butcher the final work, since writers often take the gesture personally — and it hurts (much like something that’s physically painful for anyone who needs help imagining). The more passion a creative professional pours into their work, the more they care about what’s to come of it once it disappears into the internal workings of the production team upon completion.
Therefore, editors need to take the time to think like writers in order to gain a clear understanding of editing practices that allow them to receive the best work from their writers given the intended purpose of the piece. In need of a more efficient content management system?
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