This is another editorial process post, to follow on from last week’s post about knowing what to question. I’m aiming these toward writers and editors alike.
It inevitably happens that an editor slips up and doesn’t look up something they should, and makes an incorrect assumption–or an incorrect correction. Editors are humans and are subject to as much human error as writers are. Sometimes we just miss something, and sometimes we forget the difference between Things We Know and Things We Think We Know. Sometimes a writer is ambiguous, and the Thing We Think We Know is actually the writer’s intent behind a phrase or word or line.
We soothe writers and remind them that we’re on their team, helping them to make their manuscript better. We repeatedly urge them not to take corrections as a strike against their egos.
But when editors make mistakes, we have to show the author that we can also walk that walk. It’s not the editor against the author, battling out who “wins” this change or bargaining over a beloved phrase. I’ve worked with writers who have said “I’ll let you remove [this thing that doesn't work] in exchange for keeping [this other thing that doesn't work, that I'm really attached to.]” I’ve worked with writers who have “kept score,” awarding themselves a point each time I agree to a STET. It’s easy to fall into that competitive trap, so the tone of the interaction with the writer is also a very important thing to be aware of while editing.
Sometimes, editor and writer will disagree about what “making a stronger book” takes. When that happens, encourage discussion, understanding, and compromise. Most of the time, the thing the writer is trying to preserve isn’t even the thing I have a problem with, and a solution exists that can make both of us happy. My edits are always suggestions. Sometimes when I point out what’s wrong, my suggestion springboards the writer to find a solution that’s an even better fit. Sometimes my suggestion displays a lack of understanding of the writer’s motive, and that’s a good thing to find, too. We can work with that and figure out what made it unclear, and make sure that ambiguity is removed before the book gets to the readers.
What we can work with, in a contested spot, is rational explanation. If you can show me why you did it your way, I’ll happily accept your way. It has nothing to do with begging, pleading, threatening, or bargaining. As an editor, I’m the manuscript’s advocate, and the reader’s advocate. The best service I can do for a writer is to not let their emotional investment sway me.
I’ll say again: as editors, we are the manuscript’s advocate, and the reader’s advocate. We cannot allow ourselves to give in to the ego battle, or to champion our changes just because we’re emotionally invested in them.
It’s the editor’s job not to let our emotions or our pride rule, because it’s the author’s right to.
If you’re trying to take cubs away from a protective wolf, you can’t expect her to understand that you’re just doing a vet check to make sure that the babies grow up strong, and that you’ll give them right back. She may know it, but her protective instinct is stronger than her rationality.
A writer has probably had to defend his/her desire to write against a lot of people who have tried to attack it or who just simply don’t understand. It’s natural for a writer, especially a newer writer, to knee-jerk to criticism and get defensive. It’s up to editors not to rise to the attack.
Editing has no room for sour grapes. We have to be professional and accept that we’re not perfect either. Writers are pretty good with words, and often do know what they’re doing. There’s nothing wrong with a writer being right. I second-guess and double-check, but I don’t go into an edit assuming that anything unfamiliar to me is wrong. I look for the logic and right in it first. And if I learn something new, like that fish can be tickled or that “never mind” is two words, I try to learn it gracefully, without lashing out. I consider it just another thing that I know I won’t have to look up again.