Wednesday, July 25, 2007

An invisible tribe

I concur:
Good editors work with and not against a writer. They calibrate how aggressively they edit according to how good the writer is, how good the piece is, the type of piece it is, the kind of relationship they have with the writer, how tight the deadline is, and what mood they're in. But an editor's primary responsibility is not to the writer but to the reader. He or she must be ruthlessly dedicated to making the piece stronger. Since this is ultimately a subjective judgment, and quite a tricky one, a good editor needs to be as self-confident as a writer.

Most good editors are tactful in communicating with their writers. Bedside manner is important. It isn't so much that writers are sensitive plants -- some are, some aren't -- as that there is a fundamental difference in what each party brings to the table. An editor needs to remember that writing is much harder work than editing. Sending something you've written off into the world exposes you, leaves you vulnerable. It is a creative process, while editing is merely a reactive one.

Of course, some writers are more vulnerable than others. Daily news reporters tend to be like old suits of armor, so dented and dinged by years of combat that they are impervious. When I was an editor at a daily newspaper, I worked with some reporters who had been so ground down by impossible deadlines, column-inch restrictions, and that soul-destroying newspaper specialty of cutting pieces from the bottom that you could replace every adjective in their stories with a different one and they would just shrug. I've also worked with writers who have reacted to my gentle suggestion that one of their precious, ungrammatical commas might perhaps be removed as if I'd insisted that Maria Callas perform "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" as the final aria in Bellini's "Norma." Like a savvy football coach, an editor learns which players need the stick and which the carrot.

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