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Rosemary Shipton

Should Editors Be Able to Write?

Writing with quill

We editors talk at length about different kinds of editing and who does what, and we generally assume that we’re working on a text written by someone else. Together with the author, we massage the content, the structure and the presentation into the best possible shape for its intended readers. But should we also be able to rewrite or even write original material as needed? In other words, should editors also be writers?

Most of the books and articles about editing, as well as the discussions on the various editing chat lines, suggest that editors should draw missing context and information from authors through skilful questions and comments. In that way the entire manuscript is indeed the work of the writer. There’s even suspicion in some quarters that creative writers do not make good editors because they have a tendency to take over the project, to impose their own approach and tone of voice on the author’s work.

Let’s look at two real-life scenarios that commonly occur in the editing world:

In the first one, your tradebook author is lagging seriously behind schedule, and the publication date is fixed. She’s just one chapter ahead of you, in fact, so you’re receiving fairly raw drafts. Fortunately you have an outline for the book, so you can judge how each chapter fits into the overall structure.

Your choice is clear: You can edit in the usual way, correcting, suggesting a few stylistic improvements, querying points of detail and commenting on possible reorganization within the chapter or the need for vivid descriptions of events or characters in the narrative. Unfortunately, the chances of the author having the time to deal with your comments and queries are slim, so the book will appear as a tidied-up version of the original draft.

Writing with quillAlternatively, you can rewrite the passages of flagging prose yourself, do some research, fill in the missing context and interesting detail in a style that captures the author’s voice, and send the author the edited text for a quick review and approval. It is still her book, and in all probability it will meet the schedule and prove successful. Everybody involved with the project will be happy — and you will have brought credit to the profession of editing.

The second scenario relates to those legions of authors who are not natural-born writers. To name but one group, many of the experts in government, corporations, cultural institutions or the local kennel or photography club become authors because of their knowledge, not their ability to write. How should editors deal with them? Much will depend on what these clients want from their editors, but if they hope to communicate with readers who aren’t experts, creative editors can at least guide them with specific suggestions to fill gaps they have identified and assist in rewriting difficult passages so a broader audience can understand them.

Similarly, scores of self-publishing authors are full of hope but have little writing experience. They need help at all levels of editing — the structural, stylistic and copy editing outlined in Twelve-Step Editing — as well as advice about the mechanics of publishing, graphic design and promotion. Once again, editors who have some experience themselves as writers will be particularly useful to these aspiring authors.

Many excellent editors have no desire to write, or to assist their authors with writing or rewriting. Obviously, the ability to write is not an essential skill for editors. But for those who enjoy writing fluently and well, this talent is a valuable addition to their professional portfolio — and one that can lead to further enrichment of their own careers as writers or ghostwriters.

 

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15 Comments on “Should Editors Be Able to Write?”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    Being able to write is indeed a «valuable addition» to an editor’s skill set. My work with government, academics and experts in various fields involved exactly what you describe. That’s why I said for years that I was not really an editor. I thought what I did was some other sort of activity.

    Even so, when I edited the Canadian editors’ newsletter, Active Voice, and asked EAC members to contribute articles, I was surprised that quite a few said they were not writers.

    I worry that armies of copy editors out there are taking text that is still too raw and simply applying a style guide to it. Garbage in, garbage out.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      Essentially, editors are trying to make the published work as good as it can be, so the more skills we have, the better we will be in our profession. As I remember from your days with Active Voice, Anita, you were a very good writer indeed …

  • Anne Brennan

    says:

    Heck, yeah!

    Magazine editors do this all the time. So do textbook editors. (I’ve worked extensively in both genres.)

    That’s not to say editors need to be GREAT writers. We don’t need the kind of imagination that generates innovative ideas, fresh metaphors, and compelling turns of phrase. But we do need to be skilled craftsmen, with finely tuned ears and excellent understanding of both the rhythm and the mechanics of language. We need to know how to tighten text, connect ideas, create good flow, and target pieces of writing to specific audiences. It’s not enough to simply ask our writers to do it–sometimes we have to show them how.

    Writing and editing require two different skill sets, and apparently two different types of brain wiring. I don’t think you need to wired as a writer to be an editor . . . but you sure have to understand those who are.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      Yes, magazine editors need to be multi-skilled and able to work to tight deadlines, while textbook editors often get involved in both research and writing. They provide excellent models for all editors, whether we work for trade publishers, nonprofit organizations, governments, or self-publishing writers. Thanks for your insights, Anne.

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    I hope we get comments from people with different points of view. Over the years I’ve heard many people say that editors should edit, not write – that they should draw the needed response from authors through leading questions and comments. Some editors argue that they have neither the time nor the budget for anything other than basic editing. There’s also a feeling among many readers that they want every word to come from the «author,» not from anyone else associated with the book or article – especially with memoirs, for instance, or with publications associated with a well-known expert or celebrity.

    Do you share some of these reservations? Let’s get a discussion going …

  • I have had contracts for which I was initially hired as an editor that ballooned way beyond that scope. If I had not been comfortable writing fresh copy to fill gaps, and even becoming a somewhat project manager, the clients would have never completed their projects on time. My initial editing background was in journalism, and copy and desk editors often end up writing stories, usually to extremely tight deadlines (often in minutes or, at most, hours). That was invaluable experience. Blank pages rarely make me nervous, I just dive in, start machine-gunning prose, and massage it later as time allows. Mind you this isn’t editing literature :-).

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      You sound like a good man to hire, Paul. Yes, the more skills and talents we have in our portfolios, the better professionals we will be. It would be interesting to share stories about how we expanded our skills and forged ahead into new areas – by registering in courses, accepting challenges and learning from experience, volunteering, reading, or discussions on editorial chat groups.

      • Anita Jenkins

        says:

        I expanded from writing into editing. Hence my tendency to say I was «not really an editor.» I was amazed to hear people talking about such things as em dashes and en dashes, and assumed this lack of knowledge disqualified me as an editor. But I sure could fix a document so people could read it and understand it – in a hurry too.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    What Paul said. Although I am not a journalist. Again I also did not edit literature.

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    The big question, when editing crosses over into rewriting and writing, is whether the editor is actually able to do what you’ve described: to adopt “a style that capture’s the author’s voice.” That sounds so simple, but in practice it’s so hard.

    It takes a particular blend of skill, judgment and self-restraint to write what our author should have written in a way the author would have written it, rather than just writing the way we would write it. When I teach structural and stylistic editing, some students demonstrate that blend from the get-go. They follow in the author’s footsteps, carefully copying voice and style, cadence and vocabulary. In the end their contributions blend invisibly into the text. Others edit as if they’ve been let off a leash, romping through the prose, leaving their own distinctive footprints everywhere.

    I’d say that editors don’t need to be good writers so much as they need to be careful forgers, and I’d argue that those two abilities are not the same.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      I’ve had the same experience in the classroom as you have had, Frances, and I can appreciate how upsetting it would be for authors to work with editors whose suggestions for rewritten sentences and paragraphs or for new text do not blend seamlessly into the manuscript. However, some editors can clone a writer’s style very successfully and, in the pressure of schedules and budgets, this skill can turn a mediocre publication into a very good one indeed. As Anita said above, professional editors should do more than apply a style guide to a raw text. Would you agree that they should also think about structure and style – and, if they know they have the ability, be prepared to do extensive rewriting and writing as well?

  • Frances Peck

    says:

    Naturally, well-rounded editors need to think about structure and style as well as copyediting, and yes, it’s wonderful if they can offer writing and rewriting — as long as the client is open to that level of editing and to being rewritten. I’ve worked on projects where I’ve been told in no uncertain terms to leave the structure and style alone. The document has been reviewed and revised umpteen times and has at long last been approved; all that’s desired now is a copyedit. The text may really need reshaping, but it’s not going to get it.

    Situations like that aside, any extra skills an editor can bring to the job are surely welcome: writing, layout, design, marketing. But do I think those are core skills for an editor to possess? No.

    • Rosemary Shipton

      says:

      Yes, the «committee as author» is always very difficult …

      One reason I’m interested in the topic under discussion is that almost every time I teach substantive or stylistic editing, I’m asked, «How do I know how far to go?» It’s a vexing question, especially for new editors or editors who are working in new areas or for new clients. The parameters seem so clear for copy editing, so uncertain for the other two levels of editing. Any line between stylistic editing and rewriting is obviously blurred. I think it’s important for experienced editors to compare notes, and I hope that our musings prove helpful to editors fairly new to the profession.

      I know many writers are extremely grateful to editors who expand the definition of editing to include rewriting and even writing too, when it is needed. They regard them as partners in the published work, not only as editors. So yes, Frances, these contributions may not be core editorial skills, but like project management or familiarity with graphic design or electronic publications, they are very useful skills for editors to have.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    The editor needs to make it clear to the client that the document is «not very good,» even if he/she is not allowed to do more than copy edit. Otherwise, the users complain about not understanding or having difficult reading it, and the producers say, «But we had it edited.» Not realizing the error of their ways.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    This is apropos to the things Rosemary talks about in all of her contributions to this blog.

    From the acknowledgements in The Establishment by Owen Jones: «Firstly, a very special thanks to my editor, Tom Penn. … He hammered the text into shape, challenged and prodded me, and often seemed to know whatI was trying to say better than myself.» (I suppose the copy editors will be quibbling about the way ‘myself’ is used here!)

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