I’m going to rant today. Indeed I am. This one’s been coming on for a week or so, ever since I read a quote from an author who I used to count among my favourites. Note the “used to”. She used to be the first name I mentioned whenever I was asked for a favourite author, or even just an author worth reading. I loved her books and her style and sometimes found myself influenced by it myself. That’s all in past tense now.[ETA: Just to clarify, it’s been a looooong time since this author was my favourite; I wasn’t turned off them or their books by the quote below. The main purpose of the above paragraph was merely to reveal one of the biases that might have affected my rant.]
So I have a bias, I suppose. And since this rant is about editing, my icon will hint at my other bias. I love editing. I believe there’s not a single writer out there who can’t benefit from a good editor. Not. A. Single. One. And I may be only a humble beta but I still feel a thrill of pride when I read over a revised draft from one of my writers (I’m very possessive of them) and think that I helped a tiny bit in bringing that to life.
It feels like magic sometimes.
But I’d like to get to my point eventually, so I shall stop rambling and instead include the quote that inspired this rant. (I’m not going to name the author, as I believe their identity is irrelevant. Several of you will most likely be able to identify the author, though. n.b. Although I mention J. K. Rowling towards the end of this rant, she is not the one who wrote the original quote.
“In a way I love editing... editors always want to reduce words by cutting incidents in a book, but each step is a point of careful trajectory so to cut a step is to simplify, to de-complexify a journey and I much prefer the far more time-consuming business of cutting single words from sentences, or rearranging sentences to get rid of a couple of words. That way you retain the complexity of a book - of a journey.”
Ah, where to start? Firstly, may I object to that generalisation that editors like to remove incidents from stories without reference to those stories as a whole? Because any editor who does that is most certainly not doing their job properly.
I doubt that’s the case, though. If an editor suggests an incident should be cut, then it’s usually for a good reason. Perhaps it’s just not necessary. Perhaps it overwhelms a more important scene. Perhaps it’s in the wrong spot. Or maybe it’s self-contained enough to deserve a separate story or book of its own. But here, the author is almost implying that editors just choose scenes at random and remove them; that the editor is the enemy of the story and has no respect for it. Here’s where my bias kicks in, for I find this insulting. An editor’s job is to take a story and to make sure it’s the best it can be. To imply that they have no care for the story and are prepared to suggest things that would injure it is not only fallacious, it’s downright immature.
Let’s remember that any good edtior will allow you to argue your point. If you can sit there and say “This must stay because [insert damn good, unassailable reason here]” then your editor will most likely be impressed and may even concede the point. An incomparable editor will not only concede the point, they’ll also sit down and work with you to make sure your damn good, unassailable reason has even more impact than you could have hoped for.
I’m going to preface this next statement by re-asserting the fact that I’m a writer, too. I even have a degree that proves it (for what it’s worth...), along with several achievements in writing competitions. In short, I’ve been writing since I was roughly five years old.
That being said, I do not believe for one minute that you can seriously edit a story simply by cutting single words from sentences or re-arranging them. It is not possible. It’s certainly possible to refine your style that way. And it’s certainly possible to round off the structure of a short story that way. But it is no way to edit a book
and it is no way to edit AT ALL. It’s like painting a masterpiece two inches away from the canvas and never stepping back to look at the painting as a whole. Sure, it sounds lovely and painstaking and terribly artistic to edit by removing single words but it ignores the fact that a book is more than just the way it’s told - it’s also the way it’s structured. You can have the loveliest sentences in the world... and they’ll do you no good if you don’t have a plot. Or if your plot, your “journey”, is flawed and badly-constructed.
Finally, let’s look at that last statement: “That way you retain the complexity of a book - of a journey
”. There’s complexity and there’s over-writing - it’s important not the confuse the two. What looks like complexity to one person is another person’s pointless ramble and a reason to put the book down, unsatisfied and unfinished. There’s also complexity and pointless side-plots: one’s good, the other can destroy what could be a great book. In my opinion, a prime example of that is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
. Were I J. K. Rowling, I don’t believe I could ever forgive my editor for letting that book be published in the state in which it was released to the world. Half of the book was vital; the other half was an author having fun in the world she had created. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that - I wouldn’t want to take any of the small joys away from writing - but there’s no excuse for leaving it in the finished product. Rowling was just lucky that her legions of readers were just as keen to revel in that world, too. It could have been a great book; instead, it was just acceptable. And all because verbiage was mistaken for the “complexity of a ... journey”.
I worry that young writers who still hold this author in awe will be swayed by these words; that they’ll believe editors are omgsoevil and are the enemy of every good story. They’re not. They’re the impartial voice. They’re the eyes that can see the flaws we can never see as writers. Even at our harshest, we writers are still too close to our stories to always know what’s good for them. And if we know our story inside out, then it’s like a well-trodden path: no matter how wildly it diverges from our destination, no matter how many pointless detours it involves, it still feels like the right way to travel. And to carry this metaphor a little further, an editor is the guide with the map who can point out the side-trips that add nothing and the trip around the base of the mountain that’s quite unnecessary because there’s a path that cuts right through here
. They’re on the same side as writers after all.
Here endeth my rant. Please, argue or agree with me - I welcome all debate. Do you also think you can edit one word at a time? Or would you welcome an outside voice to point you in the right direction with your writing? I want to know it all.