You can divide any given population into two distinct groups: cat people or dog people; Republicans or Democrats; Neil Diamond fans or Neil Diamond haters.
For editors, it’s no different—there are Writers Who Edit, and Editors Who Write.
Whichever one you are is irrelevant for the most part, except when it comes to dealing with writers. For fun, I sent out a mass email to colleagues past and present asking them which type of editor they prefer and why. They had some pretty interesting opinions … as writers often do.
Most writers want an editor who will improve—rather than overhaul—what they’ve submitted. Inversely, most editors want writers who are also mind readers. It ain’t gonna happen!
“I prefer an editor who just tightens up and polishes what I’ve given,” says June Dollar, who wrote a story for Southern Breeze about boiled peanuts, a Southern delicacy. “Don’t take away from the flavor. The editor’s job is not to rewrite the story the way he or she would have written it.”
According to Mississippi-based writer and author Marlo Kirkpatrick, if the writer has done a good job to begin with, suggestions should relate to how a good article could be improved—“adding a sidebar, getting an extra quotation from a source with a differing opinion, etc.”—rather than suggestions or rewrites needed to correct sloppy work.”
“A good editor knows how to present his ideas, not rewrite the piece or even present his/her solution,” wrote Deb Burst, an award-winning, Louisiana-based writer. “Plain and simple, an editor’s job is to edit–guide the writer to crank out the best possible copy in the writer’s own voice.”
Deb also made an interesting parallel between writing and parenting that I thought was especially relevant. Like both parenting and editing, the challenge is knowing how much is enough. “Too much [parenting] and you have a child with no self-confidence or sense of accomplishment, constantly told that their work is never good enough. Too little parenting offers no real direction and a child that craves knowledge and guidelines.”
Kathie Farnell, a former lawyer who left those legal briefs behind to pursue freelance writing, says that vague instructions (“Add more flavor”) don’t do anyone any favors while yet another editor’s oddly specific instructions (“Take out that comma”) didn’t really provide much guidance.
As for me, I consider myself one of those “editors who writes.” I’ve worked with the other type of editor and—like my colleagues have alluded to above—the result was a good article that had my byline but I didn’t really recognize it upon publication. It’s not a good feeling; it’s like you’ve been scolded in print.
If the writer understands the assignment from get-go then there should be very little work on the editor’s part. I’ve queried writers about the usual things like “What does that mean?” or “Who said this?” or “needs a conclusion” or “take out that comma.” But in the end, while it is your publication, it IS the writer’s voice that should be heard. Otherwise, why would you hire them in the first place? Editing every story the way one person would write it will eventually result in a magazine more akin to a colorful textbook.
Deb concluded her e-mail with the following: “Editing, writing, and parenting is a lifetime of learning; we never really finish the gig, we just keep getting better. With a little luck we’ll run into a handful of good editors/writers in this wordy kingdom and leave a legacy of brilliant copy.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself—and I only edited it for punctuation!