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Guest Blog: Every Writer Deserves an Editor

By Marcy Sheiner

Every Writer Deserves an Editor. I first heard this while working as editor for a women’s magazine. Because I admired one of our writers so much, I was afraid to alter a single sacred word or strike out one holy sentence of hers. This was very unlike me: I was known as a "slash-and-burn" editor who boldly scribbled across articles with a purple pen and tore through stories with confidence, picking up, discarding and inserting words, phrases, even whole sentences. I unearthed ideas buried under excess verbiage, scrawled questions, comments, strike-throughs and changes across the pages of some of America’s foremost female writers. I trusted my editorial ear and had enormous faith, to the point of chutzpah, in my own abilities.

Thus, when my publisher, who’d frequently been on the receiving end of my merciless purple pen, found me reluctantly dithering with my idol’s column, she took me into her office, sat me down on her famous couch, and told me, "Every writer deserves an editor.”

She pointed out that the writer/editor relationship is mutually beneficial, something I’d sometimes glimpsed as a writer, but that had become obscured by editor stereotypes and jokes. My boss reminded me that the best writers accept and appreciate good editing. It was a lesson I took to heart.

Caveat: It’s true that editors don’t know what they’re doing all the time (not even me). Sometimes we misinterpret an author, leading us to make bad editorial choices. Some editors arbitrarily change words or phrases without rhyme or reason, and don’t hear a writer’s explanations of what she’s saying or why she chose a certain phrase. And sometimes we just get carried away because someone gave us a nifty new pen.

I have been guilty of all the above. My usual intent, however, is to understand what the writer is saying, and maintain her unique voice throughout. My basic goals are to make the writing flow as smoothly as possible, and be sure the author’s meaning is clear to the average reader. If I sense a writer is struggling, failing to say what she means, I’ll talk to her and elicit her truth. I think I do a good job; many writers say I do.

I’ve been on the writing side of this process enough to realize the benefits of good editing. It‘s a privilege to have someone pay that much attention to my work. When I come across an editor who takes the time to weigh the pros and cons of one word rather than another in one of my passages, I’m ecstatic: she is saying my work is important, that what I say and how I say it matters. In a world where writing is too often ignored or trivialized, such attention is deeply satisfying.

Beyond ego stroking, editorial changes are instructive: they teach me how to be more precise, for instance, or how to write more vivid descriptions. When well edited, my story--or essay or feature or review--improves. I could have paid a professional to teach me these lessons or fix up my work—but I got the service gratis. How can I not be grateful?

The writer/editor relationship doesn’t have to be adversarial. Both parties want the same outcome--a good piece of writing. Editing’s gotten a bad rep from power-hungry editors who pull rank on writers, and, on the other side, ivory-tower writers who treat their every word as an untouchable jewel – an attitude that’s usually the mark of an amateur. Professional writers realize they’re too close to their own work to see its weaknesses. They know that any piece of writing can be improved, and that the editor is their advocate--or can be.

Marcy Sheiner

Marcy Sheiner has been writing feature articles, reviews, fiction, and essays for over 30 years. She edited a dozen collections of women's fiction, and has published two books: Perfectly Normal: A Mother's Memoir (Disability Press, 2000) and Sex for the Clueless (Kensington Press, 2001). Her work can be found online, where she maintains two blogs:
Dirty Laundry and Bookbuster

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Flickr photo courtesy of AlaskaTeacher

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