This winter I had to turn down the chance to teach an introduction to editing course at a local university. But I have since, predictably, been compulsively creating a syllabus in my head. Here are a few items that keep surfacing on my (very incomplete) list of Important Things for Aspiring Book Editors to Know.
- Mechanics matter, mostly. Take a copyediting course, learn proofreading marks, memorize the Chicago Manual of Style.* But understand that we only apply these rules to make text tighter, smoother, and more clear. I’ve had occasion to see over-copyedited text from editors eager to prove themselves correct and worthy, and the result is always the same: lifeless, dull, brittle text.
Too-long sentences can be essential to pacing; grammatically correct semi-colons can kill authenticity in dialogue. It took me a long time to figure this out. There is an immense satisfaction in being right. It takes a lot more skill and effort to apply rules judiciously than to bend every sentence to your righteous will. But your job is not to be right: it is to shepherd text toward its readers with its author’s voice clear, open, and intact.
- Editing isn’t a battle of wills. At least, it shouldn’t be. It should be a collaboration towards a shared goal: the best text possible. That’s not to say I haven’t come to blows with authors about the serial comma. I have. But it was for the text, always the text, always the reader.**
- Editing can be isolating, invisible, and immensely rewarding. This is a glory-less career (unless you find words and books and reading and pages and stories and creativity glorious, which I happen to). If you are someone who thrives on public recognition of your brilliance, perhaps choose a more visible career, such as Sasquatch or hide-and-seek champion.
- Editing can tap your creative brain (till it's dry). Many editors find that their work draws on the same part of their brain and spirit as their creative-pursuit-of-choice. This means that in very busy times, for example, I just don’t write songs. So if you are creative outside of editing, try to preserve time for your own creative pursuits, or you will be pouring all of yourself into other people’s creative work. I mean, you should be, while you’re working on text, but try to build breaks into your schedule. A burned-out editor—I’ll be frank—is a shitty editor. Replenish your stores frequently.
- All the style guides in the world cannot prepare you for the hardest, most important, and most joyful part of editing. Which is, of course, working with writers. Because as much as I keep saying it’s all about the text, you can't really separate the text from the writer; for many authors the text is in fact a dense network of barbed wire running through their bodies.
I cannot continue with this metaphor; it’s going to get too gross.
But writing can be ten times as isolating, a thousand times as creatively draining as editing. Writing is frequently terrifying and pulverizing.*** Showing a manuscript to someone objective (like an editor) can be excruciating, and so much of my editing life has been coaching writers through the emotional work of sharing something so close to them.
Imaginary class of prospective editors, remember that authors are often at their most vulnerable with editors. Be kind, be respectful, be encouraging, be useful, and carry at least ten pep talks and fifteen hankies with you at all times. I’m told a flask of hard liquor doesn’t hurt, either.
**The satisfaction of winning was in no way diminished by the nobleness of my cause.
*** Also rewarding, galvanizing, and transcendent, but writers don’t really need you for those parts.