Editing: Discovering the Heart of the Writer

by Esther Elizabeth Suson

Editing is its own kind of high. As the supposed final voice on the manuscript, a bit of smugness might creep in. If the motion has become too mechanical, we stop reading in breathless anticipation of skillful wording and hard-hitting sentences. Instead, we live for that casual flick of the pen that says, in every curl and slash, I am in control.

While “grammar Nazism” is surely required of good editors, the heart of editing something else altogether.

We Wouldn’t Edit Mark Twain the Way We Would Merriam-Webster

We could let a copyeditor at Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, with all the Chicago Manuals of Style he or she could ever want. However, we wouldn’t in the least want to. The flavor of the intonation and wild slang untainted by any grammatical rules would not have the power they do, to draw readers into the towns and onto the river, without the thousand apostrophes, misspellings, and atrocities against grammar that characterize his writings. The experience, unique and saturating, would be lost.

In this case, we would only probably edit for clarity of thought and scene – the reader still has to be able to understand what is happening.

Admittedly, I love copyediting rules. More than just clarity, they are reason and justification for every slash of the pen. It’s a head-inflating experience. I have heard an author defend his manuscript with tears in his voice, and told him that if no one took his error-filled writing seriously, his heart did not matter.

However, my role had not been to pick apart his sentences and re-wrap them in pretty little packages. I should have listened and learned what he wanted to say, and made it clear for him and his readers.

To Find Words, We Need More Words

One of the struggles for copyeditor or editor is finding the words which accurately convey what the writer wants to say. This means not only having a ready vocabulary to hand, but also a mental box of all the different ways one may put a sentence together for optimum clarity of thought.

For me, most of that comes from reading. But what happens when we’re stuck in a room with a sudden request for copyediting help, and we are editing right next to the writer?

In that situation, while editing a workmate’s copy, the temptation was strong – to just take over and restate everything in my own words, in a way that made sense to me. But that would have been disrespecting my role and disregarding hers. I wanted to move on with the project and get back to mine – seconds were, literally, ticking away. However, I didn’t know what to write, how to write what was in my content writer’s heart.

Simply out of frustration, I leaned my head on one hand, turned it sideways to her, and asked her how she felt about the paragraph she had just written. Not limited by the written word, she described every thought and emotion over, in, and beyond what she had written.

Ah. I understood why the words “gain” and “lose” had to be kept, why one had to be said directly after the other. This is what editing is, I thought. Not the brightly colored page markers and tabs, not the avid attention to every detail that just might distract the the reader from the main point. It was about the absolute commitment to preserving the heart of the writer, while engineering the bridge of words that connects the writer to the readers.


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