For a long time I thought if you were a good writer that meant that you were also a good editor. After-all they’re basically two sides to the same coin–figuring out how words go together in a clear way so as to express ideas and facts.
But in my time at CambridgeEditors I have learned that writers and editors are in fact mutually exclusive and it takes a certain type of person to be both a writer and an editor. Take for example Maxwell Perkins. Never heard of him? Well we as readers and writers and editors should be thanking Mr. Perkins for his great contributions as an editor.
While he started out as writer for the New York Times, Perkins joined the esteemed publishing house of Charles Scribner’s sons, in 1910. Scribners was most famous for publishing authors who had literary esteem–people like Edith Wharton and Henry James.
It was Perkins that wanted to take a different route by looking for young fresh talent–writers who were basically unknown. Thanks to Mr. Perkins F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, along with countless others, became the legendary writers that we all know and love.
So why am I telling you all this? Well I would say that editing takes a certain amount of patience and meticulous care that writing does not. Perkins had to have had loads of patience to be able to work with the hot-headed Hemingway. But in all seriousness editing is pretty boring work. Every sentence has to be examined and noted. If you don’t think a phrase is clear enough, you have to know why and know how to fix it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through a piece of my writing and found a sentence that made absolutely no sense. I’m sure I’m not alone when find one of these disasters and say to myself, “what the hell was I trying to say?” It’s enough to make you want to rip your hair out.
In times like these I think the difference between writer and editor is most apparent. I will huff and puff at trying to fix a sentence that I know isn’t working. But after five minutes I’ll throw my arms in the air grab another soda and say to myself, “that’s not what I’m trying to say anyway.” A proper editor like Dr. Weiner wouldn’t give up like that.
First of all he or she would know exactly why the sentence wasn’t working. That’s key, knowing that a sentence doesn’t work and knowing why it doesn’t work are completely different. You can have a prima facie reaction that a sentence stinks but unless you can identify the fact you’ve fractured an adverbial phrase you’re not getting anywhere.
Second editors don’t just give up at identifying the problem. They will fix that sentence like their lives depended on it!
Okay that’s a bit extreme but try to understand what I’m trying to say. A writer would rather try to fix a problem the best way he or she knows how–by writing more. An editor is stubborn and fixated on working with what is on the page. They’d rather work smarter not harder. And that’s what they like to do, they enjoy the little nitty-gritty of language–subjects interacting with verbs, comma placement changing the meaning of a phrase–stuff like that. Perkins must have loved Hemingway’s short clipped tone. All this is not to say that editors are boring dry grammarians. Editing takes a great deal of creativity and judgement.
Think about how an editor must take decisive action on how to correct a piece of writing. They have to know what exactly the author is trying to say and they have to figure out a way to make that message come out loud and clear. In a way, the editor has a greater creative burden than the writer.
So when you’re diving into some good literature remember that it’s not just the author who gave you those words. Stay literary, my friends.