Editing essentially involves:
a) wrangling unruly words into smooth sentences
b) telling authors all the things they are doing wrong in their writing
c) stifling creative expression by imposing boring conformity on written texts
d) having a licence to act snooty about possessing a superior grasp of grammar
e) wincing a little whenever commas, semicolons or apostrophes are misused
f) establishing happy and harmonious relationships.
If you guessed options a or e, you are partly right. If you picked b, c or especially d, then we need to talk. If you were confused by option e, you’re probably not alone, but actually, that is the correct the answer.
Yes, despite all that fussing over spelling and sentence structure, editing is essentially about relationships.
The primary one of these, and the one I discuss a lot, exists between the author and the editor. There are many reasons why this relationship is important, not least of which is the fact that without authors there can be no editors. Of course the opposite is not true. Although editors need an author’s words in order to edit, authors can cheerfully (if at times inaccurately) write without editors. That’s what makes it a privilege, in my view, whenever an author elects to work with an editor.
In addition to the relationship between an editor and an author, there is also one between the editor and the author’s ideas. While connection and collaboration among individuals is a wonderful thing, an editor must also engage with the ideas in a document in order to ensure they are conveyed clearly and completely. This is where the first relationship can be crucial, as the editor seeks to discern the author’s intentions and helps to craft their written expression.
Beyond this, there is a relationship between the author’s ideas and the readers’ understanding. Having a conscious comprehension of this guides editors in their work. The purpose of most writing is to share insight, imagination or information, and the role of the editor is to amend the text where necessary so this can be done effectively.
And now we get into some more subtle relationships, because an editor addresses the processes that occur between sentences in a text and between words in a sentence. Here, we are touching upon the fundamentals of syntax, those accepted patterns of word order that enable us to express meaning. When coherence breaks down from one paragraph to another or words go awry within a sentence, the meaning of a text is lost. An editor’s job is to fix this by understanding and improving the relationships amid words and sentences.
This leads us to one further relationship, which is between words and ideas. The author’s task is to use the most potent and poetic words possible to articulate an idea. For an editor, the focus is on enhancing the eloquence of words and ideas alike. This is done through a deep appreciation not only of the author’s objective but also of language itself.
From the personal to the conceptual, and from the meaningful to the syntactical, editing is all about relationships. Each one is like a single strand of a intricate web that in its entirety and complexity links ideas, words and people together.
Achieving harmony in each and all of these relationships is what editors do. This is the true essence of editing, and it is what makes our skills so vital and so valuable.
What relationships do you perceive between writing and editing? What do you consider to be the essential elements of these? And you don’t really believe editors are snooty, do you?