I once read an article by a former Cabinet Minister and now a prolific writer in which he criticized editors as frustrated writers, apparently forever determined to alter his prose to satisfy their own limited creative urges. If those are the sort of editors he’s experienced, he’s right to be annoyed. An editor should never do anything to interfere with the writer’s creativity and the sense of what is written.
I’m in the fortunate position of having been a writer, a re-writer, an editor, a copy-editor and a proofreader, as well as self-publishing my own book, so I can appreciate all points of view on the matter – and I’m also familiar with the boundaries of each role.
I remember reading the editor’s comments when he worked on my book Cancan!, which was originally published in 1998. As an author, you’re very proud of your work and it does seem a little intrusive to have someone picking at it and pointing out errors or ambiguities. But I swallowed my pride and had to admit he’d done a very good job. Acting on his suggestions, I re-wrote a few passages and the resulting text was in far better shape.
When I edit someone else’s text myself, I aim to keep the sense of a sentence or paragraph, and I’ll never alter something just for the sake of it. The writer is the expert and the argument or description must still feel like theirs. I only change the wording if it needs to be clearer – and sometimes I’ll ask the author if I’m unsure what they meant to say.
Most text for publication is written in a formal way but occasionally the writer or publisher prefers the informal style, with contractions and even slang terms. This informal blog is an example, although I still find it hard to use slang! If you want me to edit your work, I can fit in with whatever style suits you.
It’s always better when you write something – whether business letter or legal document, novel or scientific thesis, newspaper article or celebrity biography – to get somebody else to read it as well (my wife has read this!). The “second pair of eyes” approach is so important: what seems to be in clear and plain English to a writer, can be ambiguous or even incomprehensible to other people. Readers don’t like mistakes. As a 14 year old, my daughter spotted a glaring error in a very well-known novel that has sold millions – some spoken dialogue was attributed to the wrong character. Somehow the editor had missed that – well, none of us is perfect!
Oh, by the way, if you spot a mistake in this website, it will of course have been put there deliberately.