What Being a Writer Has Taught Me About Being an Editor (and Vice Versa!)
I’ve been reading since before I knew how.
According to my mother, I often pored over picture books, spouting gibberish and pretending I was reading aloud during my toddlerhood. I had the alphabet down pat when I arrived for my first day of junior kindergarten. The first time my mom took me to a library, I walked out with two tote bags full of twenty or so books.
Really, it’s no surprise that I went to school for English and writing, or that I pursued writing and editing in a professional capacity.
As a writer, I’ve offered writing and editing advice as a guest on several blogs, published a few creative pieces, written several instructional e-books on English grammar, and drafted many long-form stories. I’m rarely not writing, even when my writing is held tight to my chest, meant only for myself.
As an in-house editor at Scribendi, I’ve edited over 3,500,000 words in the last three years, revising documents from every field and by writers of every skill level. I know how to maintain an author’s voice while providing the necessary corrections and suggestions to help the author improve the writing they want perfected.
“...skill sets for writing and editing, so intertwined and yet so vastly different, can inform each other.”
What I hadn’t realized until recently was that the skill sets for writing and editing, so intertwined and yet so vastly different, can inform each other. Indeed, I’ve learned much about being a writer and writing from being an editor and editing, and vice versa.
What being a writer has taught me about being an editor
The importance of an author’s voice
As an editor, it’s easy to accidentally make a client’s document your own, if you’re not careful. You might think, "This sentence would be much better if it were written like this" or "Adding this sentence would really improve this paragraph." You might even think, "I’ll just delete this part because it doesn’t add much."
What’s wrong with this is that writers cherish their voices. This makes the job of an editor even more difficult, because not only must they correct all the errors in writing, but they also must maintain the author’s voice. We all have our own writing voices, and, as a writer, I can say that we want nothing less than an editor changing our voice during editing. It was one of my biggest fears in submitting one of my manuscripts for professional editing.
“...good editing means making an author’s writing the best it can be—not forcing your own idea of what writing should be onto a piece of writing.”
What I learned from my fear of an editor changing my voice is that good editing means making an author’s writing the best it can be—not forcing your own idea of what writing should be onto a piece of writing.
The necessity of the revision process
Let me be frank: when a good editor has decimated your document, marked up your writing with the dreaded red pen, and left you nothing but bits and pieces of your original work, it’s painful.
I once submitted a manuscript for professional editing and received feedback that would require major edits that could take months. Although I thought my draft was pretty clean (after all, a professional editor had written it), I quickly realized I’d only been through step one of the revision process—the first draft—and much rewriting awaited.
It became clearer to me that editing is a necessary part of the writing process. Although I’m an editor and my writing is pretty clean, I am not special. Everyone can benefit from editing.
The final say on any word is the author’s
Editors want to perfect writing. It’s in our coding. We look at a piece of writing and draw out every way it can be improved. That includes clarity, flow, tone, structure, content, and much, much more. We might suggest massive or minuscule edits, knowing that, once all are accepted, the document will be perfect and ready for submission.
Simultaneously, writers have their own ideas about writing. They might discard necessary edits simply because they feel the writing sounded better before editing; whether it did is sometimes subjective. It is also sometimes objective. Writers with a concrete idea of the form of their writing may be stubborn to change it, and writers who despise the editing process may be too lazy to.
“In the end, what writers change is completely their say. That’s how it should be. After all, it’s the writer’s name on the writing, not the editor’s.”
When I submitted a manuscript for professional editing, I implemented many of the suggested major revisions. I also discarded some, whether I believed the editor was suggesting a subjective edit, I felt the writing was better in its first draft, or I just didn’t feel like making the change. In the end, what writers change is completely their say. That’s how it should be. After all, it’s the writer’s name on the writing, not the editor’s.
What being an editor has taught me about being a writer
The writer’s obligation to serve their readers
Many beginning writers struggle with adhering to document writing conventions. For example, a scientific researcher might not know how to structure his or her first research paper. This is a problem because such papers follow a fairly conventional format (i.e., Abstract, Introduction, Methods and Materials, etc.) that readers expect. When such a paper does not follow this format, the writing does not serve to promote the reader’s understanding.
Similarly, some veteran writers struggle with the notion that their writing is for readers. As an example, I write many poems just for me. A problem would arise if I chose to submit such poems for publication because these poems were not created to serve readers. Thus, readers would probably struggle to understand them, and these readers would benefit very little from reading these poems.
“...knowing writing conventions and writing for readers are very important aspects of successful writing...”
As an editor, I’ve seen both issues many times. Both signal that the writer has failed to meet the aim of serving the reader. As such, knowing writing conventions and writing for readers are very important aspects of successful writing; without either, writing fails.
The need for constructive criticism
Editing often involves criticism. Such criticism should always be constructive, but in some cases, editors still risk offending writers. After all, much criticism is difficult to hear. We all want to be good at what we do, and hearing we need to improve on weak aspects can be difficult.
However, a good editor does not avoid communicating criticism constructively simply to spare the feelings of a writer. If the writing could be improved, thus improving the writer’s craft, it’s much better to share criticism.
As an editor, I know this. As a writer, I have struggled with it. It’s not fun to hear that you’ve failed to successfully craft a sentence, paragraph, or even a full document. Like the heavy revision that can come with editing, criticism is both an inevitability and a painful part of being a writer. However, it is one that allows us to improve. Taking criticism seriously, not personally, can allow a writer to go from mediocre to great.
The notion that only what is on the page matters
It doesn’t matter that the concept of your story is flawless, unique, and relatable unless you can communicate it in writing. Only what is on the page matters. Your ideas can be the best of the best, but if you cannot get them on the page, readers will never know.
“...for your story to stand out, how you tell it is far more important than what you say in it.”
What you have to say in writing may be totally irrelevant if you cannot say it in the right way. How you say something is always more important than what you say, especially in a world of adaptations, sequels, and reboots. According to many, originality is dead. That means that, for your story to stand out, how you tell it is far more important than what you say in it.
Editors focus on crafting writing that says what it has to say in the way that makes the most sense (and is the most correct). From editing so many client documents, I learned that form is just as important as content (if not more!).
Being a writer taught me how to be a good editor, and becoming an editor taught me how to be a better writer, in all these ways and more. While the skill sets are intertwined in many ways, they are inherently different, and each can motivate the other, as I’ve seen in my career thus far.
Our practices can and should inspire each other. If you’re an editor who doesn’t write, I encourage you to try writing a short story. If you’re a writer who doesn’t edit, I encourage you to offer to do so for a friend or family members. (Based on the frequent editing requests I get from my own friends and family members, they will definitely have something that needs editing). It’s possible that you’ll learn a lot, just like I did.
Plus, we could always use more editing writers and writing editors in the world. After all, who better to tinker with the written word?
Jes D.A. is a magician and a mechanic; that is to say, she creates pieces of writing from thin air to share as a writer, and she cleans up the rust and grease of other pieces of writing as an editor. She knows that there's always something valuable to be pulled out of a blank page or something shiny to be uncovered in one that needs a little polishing. When Jes isn't conjuring or maintaining sentences, she's devouring them, always hungry for more words.