Virginia Durksen recently stated in her blog post The Inner Editor: Reflections on Editing as Mindful Practice that an editor must “respect the writer’s voice and suggest only those changes that serve the writer first, and then the writer’s reader.” Certainly I agree; it’s a big mistake to indiscriminately apply a standardized style so firmly and rigidly that the text loses its individuality and verve.
Unfortunately, though, many documents we editors tackle in our daily travails don’t actually have a writer—or at least not a skilled one. Often, the source is someone who, for whatever reason, does not communicate clearly or well. Worse yet, the editor who works in government or business regularly encounters documents filled with corporate-speak that have been cobbled together by committee.
I was therefore delighted to read the fourth-from-last paragraph of John E. McIntyre’s recent article in the Baltimore Sun. He says that an editor’s essential skills include such things as the ability to
- reduce the length of a text,
- sharpen the focus,
- “get to the damn point up front instead of permitting the writer half a dozen paragraphs of throat-clearing,”
- tone down an overblown and pretentious style,
- ensure factual accuracy and clarity, and
- eliminate jargon.
My interactions with the editing world often lead me to believe that an army of copy editors is busily applying the refinements of punctuation and grammar to documents that should have received major surgery but didn’t.
This is worrisome. Rosemary Shipton, Toronto-based editor of numerous award-winning books, says it best: some houses just need a coat of paint, but others need some walls knocked out or a front porch added.
Many clients send a file to the editor, saying, “It’s all ready for the printer but I thought I’d have you take a quick look first.” So, what is the editor to do? Make a call to suggest getting out the scalpel, and possibly end up out of work? If you take clients at their word and fix the obvious grammatical and punctuation errors, will they notice that the document still doesn’t read well and blame you? What would you do?