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On editing

I do understand, believe me, that early praise can make later criticism less bitter; nevertheless, it’s not my job as an editor to be particularly easy on writing—not yours and epecially not mine. My job, rather, is to poke a writer’s work in myriad places to discover where its wounds have been bandaged well and where it’s bleeding profusely. Sometimes I find that the work’s just ticklish. I poke it, it giggles; still, I poke it more, sometimes a little harder than I should just to make sure. Those works are pleasures. They also are rare. Decapitations and amputees can be unpleasant to see, but they’re at least easy to diagnose and, generally, easy for a writer to fix—they either start the process of writing a new head, or after rummaging around in the morgue they discover a leg or an arm that can be reused, and the whole is usually the better for it. The worst cases are when all a work’s fingers and toes have been cut off at one time or another and left scattered or even patched back together with little more than scotch tape. It’s not that any one of the injuries is bad in itself; rather, it’s that all of them together compound the work’s pain such that even the slightest effort to figure out where to begin makes it scream in pain. In no small way it’s death by papercut, and unfortunately, there is no fixing it by privileging a thumb over a pinky: both have to be ripped off and both sewn back on in their respective proper places. When I get one of these, it’s hard not to want it to be DOA, and I wonder how the writer isn’t ashamed of not having done better. Such is an awful time to be an editor, especially to be one who hasn’t the luxury of rejecting a writer’s work. It’s difficult not to resent the piles upon piles of extremities and the yards of tape in which I am left standing by the end. I imagine it’s difficult, too, on the writer’s part, not to resent his editor for being so exacting. But there are few things that I am more certain of than that a writer’s work will be better for my having read it, so I never apologize for the bloody mess. Nor do I take pride in it, which is my definition of the difference between confidence and arrogance. Instead, I hand it back, explain what I can, and hope that, if I see the work again, the writer either took my advice or, after rejecting it, found another way to make the work whole. What I dread most is to think that the writer might ignore my work altogether, might go away and retape its fingers and toes much as they had been taped before. More than being rejected, being ignored feels like a repudiation of my time, my effort, me—and I try not to think of it.

 

Comments

Long Live the Green Pen!

When I started teaching I went blue, to sort of adopt a color of my own, but I always carried my green-pen award with me. Alas! It’s since been lost. What I’ve never been able to shake ever since then is the fact that I can—and often do—fill acres of pages to explain precisly what I see. I like to killed myself grading 40–50 essays at a time.

It might be good to qualify that in my position, I often see work that’s closer to first draft than even most editors where I work see it. I’d much rather see it later, but I don’t have much choice.

Hmm. . . on the rare occasions that I’ve been edited, I’ve often felt, upon getting a marked up manuscript back, that the editor’s work is a repudiation of my time, my effort, and me—so it goes both ways. I often look at things I’ve written and cringe slightly—there are so many places where the writing could have been clearer, crisper, tidier, less parenthetical—and thus I like to think that I’d take more graciously to being edited now. But I also do not write very much now, so it’s hard to say.

Be glad that (hopefully) you got edited in such a way to try to preserve your voice. At work I have to turn most writing to a mostly neutral voice; I have no doubt that the writers feel repudiated, but that’s the nature of the beast. I get much better vibes and much more appreciation from freelancing.