A Good Editor (an essay)

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Photo by Titus Haug // Source: Instagram

Not every story is equal. Not every story holds truth, and some stories tell truths truer than those told by other stories. You can claim it’s subjective, but it isn’t really. Not every story can make people weep. Not every story can give people a new name. Not every story can change minds. If more people are offended by one story than by another, it doesn’t take much to deduce that “subjective” is actually an admission of apathy, or perhaps laziness, or perhaps both.

It’s like how tolerance at its core is just carelessness — distant, dishonest, impersonal… But love isn’t passive. It’s invasive. Love doesn’t tolerate. It corrects. Love stirs up conviction. It leads to confrontation. Love isn’t a critic with poor taste and bad judgement. It marks papers in red ink — not to curse, but to build up. Love is an Editor.

I bet that’s why most books aren’t even mediocre at best. Good editors are hard to come by. At least, editors willing to completely restructure the fifth draft are hard to come by. Good editors sacrifice. They might not be paid much, but they care more about the craft anyway. Good editors aren’t discouraged by their price. They’re patient, humble, honest…

It’s not an opinion that writing must be followed by revision. There might be some disappointment. There might be some anger. But it passes. Eventually, there’s an understanding on behalf of the person whose work was butchered that they needed the butchering…

Because it turns out — they’re better now. They’re recovering from their former self. They’re growing in a different direction. They’ve been repurposed. They’ve been cared for enough to have the facts told to them. They’ve experienced the relief that their suspicions had been right all along… They were much farther from the final draft than they anticipated. It would now require a complete shift in thought. They would have to see things from a new perspective, abandoning the one they’ve grown comfortable in. They would have to forget what makes sense to them, and instead consider what makes sense to their Editor. They would have to surrender control for something more substantial: trust.

Too often, editors aren’t worth this risk of full dependence. More often than not, creatives are justified in their decision to work alone. Most people in the editing field take advantage of original thinkers, obscuring their vision and stunting their creativity. Editors have a reputation of bringing them to a breaking point, until they can’t handle any more “narrow-mindedness” as it tends to be called.

But, the fact remains: to be your own editor is a hopeless task. It is full of blind spots and wishful thinking. It is a seemingly smooth path, but where it leads is a cheap confidence. It is uninformed, yet boastful. It is too proud to consider another’s opinion, cautious of what a collaboration might entail… A loss of authenticity, a loss of voice…

It is self-deception at the expense of self. Growth can’t happen by staying in the same mindset forever. After rereading the same few paragraphs all day, an author is forced to admit their perspective isn’t everything they thought it was. At some point, a writer has to come to terms with their limitations. They must face this inability to be better than themselves by going to someone else.

By giving into this justified temptation, they’ll face criticism from the pretentious who would never allow themselves to receive criticism from anyone. They’ll face judgement by those who would never allow their own work to be judged. They probably didn’t realize that the task of an Editor was so controversial. They probably didn’t consider that accepting an editor’s revisions was counter-cultural. They looked to an editor to get better, but neglected the thought that for many, having an editor means they’ve compromised their full potential… Ironically, it’s the opposite that’s true.

Isn’t it the writer’s fantasy that their most recent draft would be returned to them with little to no revisions? This desire lives alongside their original motivation for story-telling, their hidden hope to be known and in being known, to be loved. But how can anyone truly be known without being critiqued? How can anyone genuinely be loved without being corrected?

Evidently, an Editor-less writer is a cowardly writer. He only knows the indoor world of his surroundings. He’s taken “write what you know” to an unhealthy extreme. He’s contemplated everything, except everything he didn’t realize he could contemplate. His will ends with his unwillingness to risk being wrong. He’s too good for anyone to look down on.

_____

It might be asked: “How does one go about choosing an editor?” The answer is long and much like most writing advice, doesn’t seem to work for everyone.

First — settle on a budget, financially… But more importantly, creatively. What are you willing to pay? What are you willing to give up? How much of your old self are you going to take off? How much of a new self are you going to put on? Some would call it “selling out,” but in reality, it is giving up… And on certain days, that can be the right thing.

Second, consider your time. Is there a deadline? If so, look for someone who doesn’t skim lines just to get back to you fast. Look for someone who’s thorough, but who also has so much time that he practically lives outside of it. He’ll reply within a few days. If it takes longer than a few days, you can rest assured it’ll be worth it.

Lastly, find someone who knows what they’re doing. This might sound obvious, but many creatives resort to editors who will tell them only what they want to hear. They would rather fail with praise than strive with critique. The relationship between them is a shameless counterfeit. It’s only the checks they care about. These are the same “editors” that discourage many from looking for one. As long as the client’s clueless, it’s smooth sailing for both of them.

The only reliable editor turns out to be one who doubles as a writer. Find someone who’s been published. Find someone whose work you wouldn’t mind taking credit for. Find someone who will give you good ideas to steal. Find someone who will offend you, but will make up for it in how they’ll change you. Find someone who takes you seriously, and wants to see you succeed. Find someone who convicts and confronts. Find someone who’s invasive and not passive. Find someone who loves instead of tolerates.

There’s much more to look for than what can be included in a three step process, or what can be described in a brief few sentences. The most important decisions always happen over time, through seasons of doubt and days of distress. A part of it happens through careful analysis, by comparing one editor’s resume with another, asking yourself what it is that separates them… Why does he have so many clients? Is it because he tells people what they want to hear, or is it because he tells them what they hate to hear? Is it because he doesn’t charge much, or is it because he’s the best so he charges more than anyone can afford?

The answers to these questions will lead to a decision that will change the course of your writing career. They’ll either tell you that you’re lost or they’ll confirm you’re exactly where you want to be. They’ll either tell you the truth or they’ll tell you a lie. You have to be precise about this sort of thing. It’s what everything comes down to. We aren’t the ones who make the rules, after all. We’re just the ones who inherit them.

_____

 Keep in mind that a good editor gives himself a variety of roles in the life of a writer. This isn’t because the Editor has nothing better to do, but because it is the best thing he can do. It’s his job to aid the writer who believes he isn’t capable of working alone. His self-inflicted task is this: to recreate the created, to bring order to the disordered, to sustain the unsustainable… And there is nothing more unsustainable than the career of a writer who doesn’t accept creative critique.

Before a good editor is anything else, he is a Messenger. He relays reality to the writer, telling him truths so he can know something better than cliches. When he comes across paragraphs of filler, he’s upfront with his client, regardless of how uncomfortable the conversation might be. A decent editor would never say something is fine the way it is. There’s always either something that could be expanded, or something that should be subtracted… But he doesn’t simply point out where the piece has gone wrong so he can move onto his next criticism. When he says something should be cut, he suggests something else should go in its place. If a plot isn’t going anywhere, he doesn’t just say “this plot isn’t going anywhere,” but instead completely restructures the story so it can have a satisfying third act.

His advice might not be gentle, but it’s always wise. If there’s ever a feeling of offense, never assume you should ignore it like you would with anyone else. Assume there’s a point to his message. Assume he’s worth listening to, because he is, and then wrestle with what he has to say. Since it’s his duty to challenge you, never immediately resort to challenging him. There’s reason for his credibility. After all, a good editor is willing to give his life for the rough draft. He spends his days marking papers in red ink to turn subpar writing into something else entirely — despite the offense it might cause the author or the clients it might turn away. Every time an editor returns a draft, he puts his career on the line. His sanctifying work comes with a price, and it is at his expense.

The Messenger’s way of editing leaves no room for a writer’s contrasting convictions. He only stands for the truth he possesses. For instance, a popular belief today seems to be that there’s no such thing as a truly finished piece. By following this philosophy, a writer can take as much time as he likes on a project and even continue to write post-publication. He returns to his work endlessly, making sure everything is as exactly it should be. He thinks that if one sentence were out of place, his entire piece would collapse. Even though there might be some truth to this, a writer should never neglect the importance of his deadline. A good editor knows there comes a time when it is finished. Editing infers there’s an eventual end, however far down the road that might be.

When a writer disagrees with such a thought, his editor reminds him of something he’s not taken seriously enough — editorial jurisdiction. He reminds the writer that since he’s an editor, he’s also a Judge. He enforces the “limitations” of literature, knowing guidelines don’t only set restrictions, but also provide the freedom a writer needs to get through to an audience. As the legal authority, he knows there’s a certain way of story-telling that’s right, and another that’s wrong. He knows there’s one way of writing that debts a reader in time wasted, and another that exempts a reader in life gained. Although his verdicts are often called harsh, it’s more accurate to call them fair. Would you ever want to read a story that didn’t keep any of the promises it made? He’s the one to thank.

Bottomline, a good editor is a Doctor. He enters the worst conditions to make them the best conditions. He diagnoses the illness to deliver the cure. He only asks that a patient discloses their symptoms before they proceed to anything else. Although he knows writers tend to be unaware of every effect of their ailment, he wants to hear firsthand what a client believes the problem with their writing is. However limited their perspective, it’s through this honest self-evaluation that his work begins.

Not long after, the Doctor prescribes an often ridiculed method in the creative field: the abandonment of self. This is the most essential part of the editing process. It’s only when a writer gives up the control he thinks he should have that an editor treats him for weaknesses he’s unaware that he has. It’s by letting go of his work that he’s finally able to experience change. Soon enough, the remedy will kick in, and his aching will fade away. The previously mediocre writer will be healed of his former ideas, and his health will be restored.

At the end of it all, a Good Editor redeems. He redeems both the piece that definitely wouldn’t have sold without revisions, as well as the one that didn’t seem so bad in its original state. Both tend to be improved far beyond the author’s expectations, whether he actually thought his work was fine the way it was, or he mistakingly believed nothing could be done to save what he had created.

Any writer willing to accept his inability to improve himself knows there isn’t any such thing as a piece that’s worth publishing without an editor’s hand. Although he often goes uncredited, he’s responsible for much of the finished product that the author puts his name on. It’s an editor who has the final say on the characters, the climax, the conclusion… Every plot ultimately relies on him.

This is the kind of rest that every weary writer searches for but doesn’t often find. This is the kind of dependence that every independent writer needs but doesn’t want to sacrifice… Regardless, clients know their Editor is trustworthy because they’ve seen his portfolio. They know he’s caring because he cares for those who admit their need to be cared for. If he was indifferent, there wouldn’t be any lines crossed out or themes rewritten — but since the Editor has compassion, the story shifts. Since the Editor chooses redemption instead of condemnation, the writer receives a new creation in exchange for a broken one. Since the Editor decides love is better than apathy, there’s always something for his clients to look forward to… A story rewritten, a writer refined, a reality revived…

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