Whenever writers try to get anything published, they encounter editors. By that time, they should have already been editing it themselves. Writers and editors have a complicated relationship. I’ll share some quotations in a bit.
On the bright side, editors will catch that glaring error writers have missed in a dozen sessions of proofreading. That is, of course, in the case of writers who actually proofread before sending something off.
I’m thinking of one particularly embarrassing error of fact I notice in print that I wish the editor had noticed earlier. But editors have also found spelling errors and instances where I apparently tried to rewrite a sentence and got distracted, never to notice again.
English has weird spelling, but it also generally has one and only one correct spelling of a word. Punctuation, on the other hand, has various principles about which people disagree. Sometimes passionately. If a writer who hates a lot of commas works with an editor who loves to add commas, they might come to blows. Maybe literally.
Most writers appreciate much of what editors do, but not everything. I came across an amusing article that claims editors are writers’ natural enemy.
- Writers send queries to editors. Then after a long wait, they must send reminders into the same black hole.
- Writers send manuscripts to editors, who eventually reject them and send them back.
- Once they have accepted a manuscript, editors will tell writers to trim a quarter of the content so it will fit the paltry space the publisher allotted.
Some writers have enough vanity to believe that their deathless prose doesn’t need editing. Every editorial change brings exquisite pain. But I am of the opinion that writers ought to be their own first editors.
I come by that opinion honestly. I’m the son of an editor. My father was a giant in the field of industrial psychology—a very large fish in a very small pond. His professional writings got him enough attention to get his own entry in Contemporary Authors.
I only copied that one entry, but I’ll assume it has a standard format. After the usual kinds of biographical information, entries in that multi-volume reference work conclude with “sidelights,” comments by the subject of the bio. Here’s how Dad finished his contribution:
. . . I do not write well, [but] I can revise more patiently than many of my colleagues. The literature in my field is full of barbaric misuses of language. Although I often contribute to the abundance in my own writing, I find such delight in the purging effect of revision that I’ve become an editor. Maybe the old slogan about teachers needs revision: those who can wrote, do; those who can’t, edit! – Robert M. Guion
Or to express part of the same thought in a single line,
It is perfectly okay to write garbage — as long as you edit brilliantly. — C. J. Cherryh
Of course, you can’t edit what you have written until you have written it. Writers are notorious procrastinators.
You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page. ― Jodi Picoult
Ernest Hemmingway must have believed in self-editing. Why else would we have this quote from him?
Write drunk, edit sober. — Ernest Hemingway
Writers’ quotations about editing
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”
― Mark Twain
“Writing is like riding a bike. Once you gain momentum, the hills are easier. Editing, however, requires a motor and some horsepower.”
― Gina McKnight
“No author dislikes to be edited as much as he dislikes not to be published.” — Russell Lynes
“The first draft is black and white. Editing gives the story color.” — Emma Hill
“Only God gets it right the first time and only a slob says, “Oh well, let it go, that’s what copyeditors are for.” ––Stephen King
“Editing. It’s like dieting; except a lot more violent.” ― Leya Delray
“Editing a written text is a collaborative enterprise that commences with the other parties commenting up the author’s initial ideas and it can include technical assistance in correction of grammatical mistakes, misspellings, poorly structured sentences, vague or inconsistent statements, and correcting errors in citations. Editing is as much as an art form as writing a creative piece of literature. A good editor is a trusted person whom instructs the writer to speak plainly and unabashedly informs the writer when they write absolute gibberish.” –– Kilroy J. Oldster
Writers’ quotations about editors
“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” — H.G. Wells
“Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.” — T.S. Eliot
“Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” — Blake Morrison
“A good editor doesn’t rewrite words, she rewires synapses.” — S. Kelley Harrell
“Authors who moan with praise for their editors always seem to reek slightly of the Stockholm syndrome.” – Christopher Hitchens
“A real editor isn’t just someone you work with; he’s your guide.” ― Ariel Levy
“You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you, and we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” — Arthur Plotnik
“It has been our experience that American houses insist on very comprehensive editing; that English houses as a rule require little or none and are inclined to go along with the author’s script almost without query. The Canadian practice is just what you would expect–a middle-of-the-road course. We think the Americans edit too heavily and interfere with the author’s rights. We think that the English publishers don’t take enough editorial responsibility. Naturally, then, we consider our editing to be just about perfect. There’s no doubt about it, we Canadians are a superior breed!” — (Jack McClelland in a letter to author Margaret Laurence, dated May, 1960)
“There is nothing more refreshing for an editor than to meet a writer or read a query that takes him completely by surprise” ― Betsy Lerner
“Why isn’t the manuscript ready? Because every book is more work than anyone intended. If authors and editors knew, or acknowledged, how much work was ahead, fewer contracts would be signed. Each book, before the contract, is beautiful to contemplate. By the middle of the writing, the book has become, for the author, a hate object. For the editor, in the middle of editing, it has become a two-ton concrete necklace. However, both author and editor will recover the gleam in their eyes when the work is completed, and see the book as the masterwork it really is.”
― Samuel S. Vaughan
A word of encouragement about editorial rejection
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” — Barbara Kingsolver