This week, Slate.com had an article discussing storied editor Ted Solotaroff and his history with the New American Review.
There is something both exhilarating and vexing about seeing writing in manuscript form (even if the manuscript is on the screen). Editing is really about deciding—you have to decide whether you like the overall voice and content of what you are reading, and if you do, you have to make certain decisions about the internal life of the piece. Editing can be at its most profound when it involves making a vague, almost aphoristic remark that might change a writer's entire focus, and it can be most profound when it entails wrestling with minutia, adding commas or subtracting them and, in this tiny way, changing the whole style and feel of a piece of writing. The malleability of a piece of writing as it is experienced by the reader in draft form makes reading more taxing than it would be on the printed page. But it also brings with it a bump of excitement. It lends a feeling of power and adventure to the reading experience. I assume that this feeling of power—and also, if you are discovering a writer, the vicarious sense of accomplishment and, finally, the bright moment of seeing beyond what is there on the page to what could be there—is what draws people to being fiction editors.
This description is so right, so clearly explaining why my colleagues and I stick with a job that offers long hours, slow advancement, and (let's face it) so-so pay for people living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. The joy of discovery that comes when you read a new project and think This has it, the almost surgical skills brought to bear on a tricky manuscript, and the frisson of pride every time a treasured book earns a good review all keep us going day after day, despite the ever-increasing proclamations of publishing doom.
The article started a flurry of e-mails among my editor friends, talking about our editing styles and our most helpful advice. (An author's idea of "helpful" may differ slightly from ours, as it turns out.) Here's just a snippet of our chat:
Mike Shohl, editor at Citadel, an imprint of Kensington Books, says, "I confess that I like to torture my authors with particularly vague and aphoristic remarks, such as:
“Less mincing of words—more staccato!!!”
“If writing were a color palette, this draft is blue, and we need to make it green.”
Mike is a joker, as you can see by his final example:
“Is there another way to end a sentence other than a period? I feel you use that trick way too often.”
But despite his jokes, I think that sometimes we really do relate to text in that way...haven't we all heard the rhythms of a passage and recognized clip-cloppy spots? (OK, so it's possible that I haven't adjusted the color on any of my mss.) My authors are too nice to complain, but it's not unusual for them to get a margin note like: "This passage is squishy. Poke it with a stick!"
Shannon Jamieson Vazquez, editor at Berkley Books, shares our mutual tendency to nitpick in addition to mucking around with the big picture:
I think I have said “too many gerunds!” And I once took a NYT bestselling author to task for misusing the past perfect throughout her whole manuscript. Of course, first I had to go look up what I meant, and then try to explain it to her, but still.
My most frequent notes in the margins are probably “rep” or “awk,” as explanations for why I have written all over the page.
Margo Lipschultz, editor at HQN Books, also agreed with taking close-up and long range views of material:
"I love editing because it satisfies both the dreamer and the nitpicker in me. I especially related to what Beller said about seeing beyond the page to what could be there. That for me is the very best part of editing—along with seeing/hearing how excited the author is (usually) when you open his/her eyes to the possibilities."
Sometimes, it's good to remind ourselves of why we do this.