My friend, Anne Devereux, wrote a very sensible post on her blog today on why we need editors and what their role should be. I agree with her completely. (Update: the experience detailed below is mine, not Anne’s… her blog, which you can access by clicking on her name, is about the great utility of an editor and what they can do for you. My story is in the ‘what they perhaps shouldn’t do’ category.)
I had a nasty experience a few years back with an academic work that I actually pulled from publication when a copy editor went a little overboard with the re-writes. Instead of tweaking my words so that passages would read better (which this person did quite well), the copy editor also re-wrote a whole section. I was sent the edited copy for review. It highlighted, through strikeouts etc., what changes had been made (although as it turned out, the copy I got didn’t actually have all the changes that had been made, which I realized when I found an error, a date that didn’t coincide with one in my original).
I discovered, when I reviewed the version with strikes, that in one section, there were twelve pages of solid strike-outs. Not a word here or there, but every single line.
Not only had my voice been lost, but so had important content. Historical information was lost as well as context; occasionally, dates were wrong. Trying to untangle the mess took weeks: I finally gave up in frustration.
A good editor, I think, helps you to see what’s missing. Plot lines that have gaps, characters who should be underplayed, those points in time where your protagonist disappears without explanation.
After all, they have the objectivity you lack, after you’ve read and polished and honed your words for months or years, to see what you can’t quite so easily assess anymore.
You have to trust them. Once I found one major error in that particular work, I knew I had to check each sentence in case there were others (which there were). Who has the time?
It should be easier with fiction, but I imagine it can be just as painful to see those words you struggled so hard to choose wind up on the cutting room floor.
At the end of an editor’s comments, you can feel pretty beaten up. But I like to think of it as the way you hurt after a chiropractor has finished twisting you around, or after a painful session of acupuncture. After the discomfort goes away, you feel and look better.
And so does your book.