Should Editors Be Able to Write?
We editors talk at length about different kinds of editing and who does what, and we generally assume that we’re working on a text written by someone else. Together with the author, we massage the content, the structure and the presentation into the best possible shape for its intended readers. But should we also be able to rewrite or even write original material as needed? In other words, should editors also be writers?
Most of the books and articles about editing, as well as the discussions on the various editing chat lines, suggest that editors should draw missing context and information from authors through skilful questions and comments. In that way the entire manuscript is indeed the work of the writer. There’s even suspicion in some quarters that creative writers do not make good editors because they have a tendency to take over the project, to impose their own approach and tone of voice on the author’s work.
Let’s look at two real-life scenarios that commonly occur in the editing world:
In the first one, your tradebook author is lagging seriously behind schedule, and the publication date is fixed. She’s just one chapter ahead of you, in fact, so you’re receiving fairly raw drafts. Fortunately you have an outline for the book, so you can judge how each chapter fits into the overall structure.
Your choice is clear: You can edit in the usual way, correcting, suggesting a few stylistic improvements, querying points of detail and commenting on possible reorganization within the chapter or the need for vivid descriptions of events or characters in the narrative. Unfortunately, the chances of the author having the time to deal with your comments and queries are slim, so the book will appear as a tidied-up version of the original draft.
Alternatively, you can rewrite the passages of flagging prose yourself, do some research, fill in the missing context and interesting detail in a style that captures the author’s voice, and send the author the edited text for a quick review and approval. It is still her book, and in all probability it will meet the schedule and prove successful. Everybody involved with the project will be happy — and you will have brought credit to the profession of editing.
The second scenario relates to those legions of authors who are not natural-born writers. To name but one group, many of the experts in government, corporations, cultural institutions or the local kennel or photography club become authors because of their knowledge, not their ability to write. How should editors deal with them? Much will depend on what these clients want from their editors, but if they hope to communicate with readers who aren’t experts, creative editors can at least guide them with specific suggestions to fill gaps they have identified and assist in rewriting difficult passages so a broader audience can understand them.
Similarly, scores of self-publishing authors are full of hope but have little writing experience. They need help at all levels of editing — the structural, stylistic and copy editing outlined in Twelve-Step Editing — as well as advice about the mechanics of publishing, graphic design and promotion. Once again, editors who have some experience themselves as writers will be particularly useful to these aspiring authors.
Many excellent editors have no desire to write, or to assist their authors with writing or rewriting. Obviously, the ability to write is not an essential skill for editors. But for those who enjoy writing fluently and well, this talent is a valuable addition to their professional portfolio — and one that can lead to further enrichment of their own careers as writers or ghostwriters.
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