Friday, 12 July 2013

Thoughts on Writers and Editors and the Ego Collisions Thereof

[Note: This was originally a post I made on a writers' forum a couple of years. It's far enough removed in time that I can approach it as an editor instead of as a writer, which is kinda cool, considering the subject matter.]

Q: How many editors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Only one, but he has to rewire the whole house.

Q: How many writers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: "But why do we have to CHANGE it?"

     I've worked as a writer and an editor at various times, and so both of these jokes ring true for me. 
The apparent conflict between writers and editors is maybe not inevitable, but it's highly likely considering the nature of the roles, and in particular I think it's often a result of the mindset of the writer. We writers  are in the business of expressing ourselves, of crafting an insightful piece of prose to delight and enlighten our awestruck audience. In the natural order of things, we expect to have people read our stuff and be better for it. However, this also tends to attract personality types to writing who are motivated by this sort of adulation: writers have voracious egos. This makes us naturally resistant and resentful to criticism, even (perhaps especially) when it is well-founded. It also makes us especially sensitive to editorial feedback, and likely to focus on personality issues. "Why can't editors understand what it's like to be a writer?"
     But it's not an editor's job to understand what it's like to be a writer. In fact, it's very much the editor's job not to understand the writer. As a writer, I'm much too close to my own work; I know exactly what I'm trying to say, so I have no trouble reading and understanding it. But I am not my audience, and that's why I absolutely need a set of fresh eyes, the eyes of someone who does not understand me, to read my work and see what understanding comes off the page. Ultimately, as writers, our job is not to be understood and empathized with and admired as human beings, but to be understood through our writing alone. The text is all there is, and complaining that we aren't understood is really just an admission of failure as writers.
     Since editors must also be skilled writers to some extent (i.e. they have a high degree of competence in structuring clearer sentences), they too are subject to the very same sorts of ego issues with respect to text. And all writers have their own approaches to grammatical issues and so on, so there will inevitably be conflicts between writers (including editors) over the best way to express a particular idea. There's just no getting around that; it will always happen. In many professional contexts, it's the editors who have the final say, so they have the power, and naturally we poor writers will lament about how unfair that is.  But in my view, it's a very few people who get into editing because they crave power, or their egos need to be stroked by showing everyone how much better they are at writing than writers are. Yes, it does happen, but for the most part, we writers are already predisposed to see it that way, whether it is so or not.

     And we editors need to take that into account. As editors, our job is to help the writer be as brilliant and articulate as she thinks she already is. The goal is to preserve the author's own voice, not to impose the editor's own. My greatest successes in editing have been those moments when I've been able to take the text, rearrange things a bit to improve clarity and flow and reduce the length by 20%, and have the author look at it in dismay and say, "But you didn't change anything!" Even when I've rewired the whole house.

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