Rogue Ink

July 3, 2008

Good Editors are Overrated

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 5:58 am

Usually, when I write copy, there’s a built in editor. This editor is generally referred to as ‘the client’ and really hates it when you make editor jokes at his expense. You are not allowed to get all huffy and ‘artistic’ (which we evidently pronounce with extra ‘ee’ in our ‘tis’, the better to demonstrate the sarcasm that those quotation marks imply) with the editor, because you are not William Faulkner with a brilliant new style of prose and the editor does not have to keep the comma where it is lest the millennium go out having never seen sound, fury, or absurdly long run-on sentences. The client is an uber-editor, and even if he is wrong, he still gets to make the change. Why? It’s his copy. He paid for it. He gets to be the editor.


When I write my own copy, I get to be my own editor. This sounds delightful. Theoretically, myself-as-editor would simply pound myself-as-writer manfully upon the back, offer writer-self a cigar and an inch of good whiskey, and tout me as the greatest thing in English literature since the invention of the word ‘coitus’. Editor-self would overflow with praise for the superbly chosen verb in paragraph three, which so perfectly expresses the unique qualities of my character, and writer-self would shake her head modestly and say, “Well, really, it’s the simplest thing in the world to choose the right words for yourself, but try doing it for another character.” And editor-self and writer-self would share a hearty understanding chuckle, and settle back in large armchairs, loosening their ties.

I am not sure why all my editor-fantasies take place in the roaring twenties, but they do. I believe Dorothy Parker is to blame. I keep thinking of her and Robert Benchley and their editor hatred, and their tiny office of which she said, “One square inch less and it would have constituted adultery.”


My fantasy, sadly, is not true. I blame myself for not smoking cigars. I cannot edit my own work because I never know if it’s any good. I need an editor. I need at least one other person to bounce a few words off of, else I start to get metaphysical. Is this a good word or a bad word? Is there really a good and a bad? Is there such a thing as a word, if you really think about it? Does the word ‘word’ really connote wordiness if it has to define itself? If you eat a hot dog with no bun, is that an inappropriate breakfast? Who shot JFK? Do my shoulders look square in this shirt? Does one really need to put pants on in order to get the mail? Why is it that you can never use the word ‘biscuit’ in a solemn context? (Try it: the biscuit died horribly in a brutal Nazi attack. Somehow still funny. I do not know why this should be. What is funny, anyway? Is humor simply the rubber glove we put on before the prostate exam?) And on and on it goes.

I need an editor. A good editor steers me clear of words like ‘prostate’, provides a deadline, and fine-hones the edge of prose. When I write something passable, the editor asks that it be made tighter, a little funnier, a little more professional, a little more excited, a little more cowbell. The editor is like that guy who wanders into the kitchen just before a perfectly delicious soup is about to be served out, tastes it, and asks mildly, “Don’t you think just a tad more salt?” (Or tarragon, or whatever. The bastard always knows what the damn soup needs.) Whereupon the cook tastes it, knows that the soup is quite good, but that, damn the man, he’s right. Tarragon it is.

No one at the table would have ever known the difference, but the cook knows, and the guy knows, and since the guy is the one holding the cook’s prize collection of anteater skulls hostage, the cook does what the guy says, secretly resenting him for being right.

Picking an editor.

When it comes to editors, you have three options: good, bad, and average. We’ve already covered bad editors – they’re your clients. Now, you say, using the power of logic at your command, clearly good is better than average, you need not tell me why. Carry on! For I shall find myself a good editor forthwith. But I say unto you Nay, my friends. Nay not. For the good editor will lead you astray.

Good editors

Good editors are scary. Good editors are people who have seen prose that would level mountains in their day, prose that would make Attila weep and Mussolini reach for his handkerchief. Good editors have a fiendish command of grammar and syntax and can recite (with footnotes) any section of the Chicago Manual of Style in a three part harmony while juggling particularly slippery koi fish with their toes. Good editors will, ruthlessly, make your copy as good as it can possibly be without an angel appearing in the blue heavens wielding a trumpet like it means it this time.

Nobody wants to hand their work over to a good editor.

Now, the good editor will make the copy spectacular, it’s true. The trouble is, the good editor is a judgmental bastard. The good editor knows the difference between splendid prose and mediocre prose and he knows with meticulous precision exactly where you fall on that scale, and I will tell you right now it is not where you wanted to be.

The good editor is that friend who, when confronted with the age-old question about the jeans and the relative corpulence of one’s gluteus maximus, will respond not with the gentle, “A little, yeah,” but with “if you simply set aside half an hour a day for exercise for perhaps six months the extra four and a three-eighths inches of flesh on your hips would diminish and the jeans would look quite nice, I believe, at that point. Tell you what, go off for six months and try it and let me take a look at what we’ve got then.”

What we will have then is a fat rear and a couple hundred empty pints of Ben & Jerry’s. You don’t want to ask that friend about your butt. You don’t want to give them the shot. Good editors, I am firmly convinced, get fewer clients than average editors, because good editors do not make their writers want to stab themselves in the face before they would offer up writing to be criticized.

Average editors

Average editors, on the other hand, don’t always know exactly what’s wrong with the writing. They might say it feels a little too moody, or a little off in this section, or that this seems redundant. They don’t know the answer, and they can’t give you any advice on how to avoid getting there, but they can usually point to the section that’s not working, and they can tell you why.

Average editors fix things halfway. They offer a sentence difference that communicates better than your original, but their sample sentence is blessedly mediocre. This gives you, the writer, the chance to translate, to reassert yourself as a master of the craft. The average editor is basically the sidekick to any hero. Remember how Robin would say “Holy Onion Rings in Special Sauce, Batman!” and then Batman would suddenly realize that the answer to everyone’s problems, particularly the Joker’s, was a deep-fried onion ring of crispy goodness? That’s what the average editor does. The average editor does not save the world. The average editor merely offers the random expostulation that somehow triggers Batman into action.

I have an average editor. She’s a great woman, and very smart, but she doesn’t know more than I do about my craft. She can just see it from a different angle, and she can tell me if it looks fat. Which, apparently, it does. I’m going to go fix that. My way. My way, I should tell you, does not involve a half-hour of daily exercise. It does, however, involve onion rings. And Bon Jovi. Aw yeah.

Good editors never let you listen to Bon Jovi.

Subscribe here and now and in the afterlife in butterscotch heaven, Batman!”



  1. I am so glad I’ve got this on my feed list. (:

    In my small experience self-editing doesn’t exist. I’ve never edited something by me. I have, however, edited something that some guy left in my bottom drawer a month, or six months, or a year ago that sounds suspiciously like something I might have written but certainly couldn’t be, oh no, because otherwise I’d be self-editing (incidentally I didn’t know that needed a hyphen until now) and that Is Not Allowed.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a Good Editor, I think I’d be put off the whole experience if I had. I’ve had a lot of Terrible Editors, which is entirely my fault; you don’t advertise your stuff on a site like deviantART and expect the people that take up your request for critique to be literary geniuses. Fortunately I’ve built up a good list of about half-a-dozen Average Editors, whom I can turn to and press my stuff on and hope they’ll be ambiguous as hell so I can take their words and twist them into something more.

    Great article as usual!

    Comment by toothsoup — July 3, 2008 @ 8:30 am | Reply

  2. Can I be horribly annoying and say you appear to have cut some words off the start of the second para under the heading “editing”?

    Although you may have done that on purpose. (I thought the number you had in the title of the post about things to do before going on blog-vaycay was on purpose.)

    I don’t mean to be annoying.

    But I am currently editing for a living so I can’t help it.

    Feel free to ban me from your comments.

    Wicked post, but!

    I’d like to think I’m an average editor, as I don’t actually know what a particple is, etc, but now that you’ve said average editors are the ones you want… it seems like I’m being arrongant by saying that.

    So true about editing your own work, though. The Roaring Twenties were so hot.

    Comment by Sunili — July 3, 2008 @ 8:33 am | Reply

  3. I’m a good editor with clients and a bad editor with friends, simply because I know I’m a good editor and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So when someone says, “Hey James, tell me what you think of this, would you,” I generally end up saying, “Hm. That last sentence there is a little passive… otherwise, it reads nicely.”

    I mean, damn. I’m a WRITER. I know how hard it is to write one’s own work. I know that when writers say, “I want your opinion,” they really want to hear, “Please don’t tell me I suck as a writer, because I already think I do.”

    It’s just the way we are. Quandry.

    However, the movie Bon Cop, Bad Cop was excellent and considering I could star in the duo’s lead role as one single man, I shall take my Good Editor, Bad Editor and say that…

    I need more coffee.

    Comment by James Chartrand - Men with Pens — July 3, 2008 @ 9:56 am | Reply

  4. Tei,

    Giggling through the whole thing. You have such a fine way with a sentence, and you know my fave folks Benchley and Parker. That’s how I like to start my morning.

    I thought the number in the title yesterday was on purpose, too.

    “The good editor is that friend who, when confronted with the age-old question about the jeans and the relative corpulence of one’s glutius maximus, will respond”

    … that you spelled “gluteus” wrong.

    ‘Cuz she loves you.

    And ‘cuz she narrowly escaped being an English teacher. And ‘cuz she’s a pain in the… rear.

    No more editing. I shall return to being a fawning minion forthwith.

    I know what James means, though. Clients pay for honesty, and sometimes that’s rough. I ask first whether friends/family want me full strength or just as appreciative buddy. Then when they say full-strength, I know they really mean appreciative buddy, so I go gently anyway.



    Comment by Kelly — July 3, 2008 @ 11:50 am | Reply

  5. @ Kelly – Ha, I have a friend who calls often to ask me what I think. I always ask, “Do you need me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you need me to give you my thoughts in general?” Some days she picks one. Some another. Sometimes she asks me for both.

    She said, “It’s good that I can call you and get exactly what I need for the moment so that I can hang up and know what I have to do.” Makes me laugh.

    Comment by James Chartrand - Men with Pens — July 3, 2008 @ 1:14 pm | Reply

  6. Horrified that I am your average editor. May not be able to edit. Ever again. Send it to Elise.

    Comment by Rebecca — July 3, 2008 @ 1:20 pm | Reply

  7. Hmmm, I feel you’re goading me, yet surely you did not write this post with me in mind. 🙂

    Truthfully, I haven’t a clue whether I’m a good, average, or bad editor. Many times it depends on the job (the subject, the writing, the type of editing required, etc.). There are clients for each one of those categories: some demand you do more (stop being so average), others suggest you don’t have to do so much (stop being so good), still others don’t have a clue what you even did, if anything at all (are you bad? I don’t even know).

    I don’t believe good editors are bad, if they know when to be flexible. I also don’t believe there is any such thing as a perfect editor, of course (which sounds dangerously close to a good editor). Even good editors will always be learning, making mistakes, stumped by something. Even the pope needs a confessor.

    I guess I just have a few rules for myself: know the basics, at the very least, look it up if I suspect something is wrong but don’t know the right answer (which I often have to do), leave the writer’s voice alone, respect a writer’s comments and wishes (if reasonable) and also the house style if there is one. For corrections other than grammatical, suggest rather than presume.

    And so on.

    In the end, if you’re happy with your editor, she’s good. I can’t imagine you settling for less than that! 🙂

    Comment by Steph — July 3, 2008 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  8. James,

    I took a look at a novel for a buddy, and gave her the buddy level edit after asking first. She came right back and said I wasn’t rough enough, and she’d be back for the Good Editor job. Now that’s a friend. Took a few knocks and wants to see if I can really dish it out.

    I can. 😉

    Until later,


    Comment by Kelly — July 3, 2008 @ 2:09 pm | Reply

  9. That “Good” editer thing. ( See how I put it in quotes?)
    I worked for him. It was awful. He was bad. The reason, and Steph nailed it, he really couldn’t take his ego out of anything. His voice, his flair, style, his opinion of arrangment and feel of every piece was superimposed on each clients work. I could…not…stand…it. But it is true that he knew that Chicago Manuel of Style by heart. I think he slept with it if you want the truth. (God knows who else would have slept with him.)

    Comment by wendikelly — July 3, 2008 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

  10. What am I? You send me your copy. I sent it back. Then you disappeared?

    When is the housewarming? I’m coming to Boulder, but only briefly. Really briefly, as in probably only a few hours on both the 16th and then the night of the 19th until the evening of the 20th. Really all I want to do is go sit by the creek and let the light filter over me through those beautiful trees at Eben G. Fine.

    I miss it. I may be back soon.

    Comment by MonstersMama — July 3, 2008 @ 5:55 pm | Reply

  11. Well done, my denizens. You have successfully found the two errors that I intentionally left in the copy just so you, too, could play the editor game. Well played indeed. I am deeply proud of you all.

    Less so of me, though. The missing ‘I’ was just a weird formatting fix, but I have no idea how I managed to misspell ‘gluteus’. It’s not like I don’t use that word often enough. I’m living in frickin’ Boulder with workout happy teenagers.

    Toothsoup: I do not know who you are, but you can come around and say nice things about me anytime. Also: awesome name. So intrigued by the entire concept of Tooth Soup.

    Sunili: You didn’t miss much, darling. It was just an ‘I’. My bad. When I transfer back and forth from html I sometimes accidentally nick some of the paragraph off too. The Roaring Twenties WERE hot. Bad booze, though.

    James: We can play Good Cop Bad Cop anytime you want, sugarbiscuit.

    Rebecca: Honey, Elise is an average editor too. The good editors are the ones who want all your prose to be chained to the Chicago Manual of Style and to kill your own particular voice. I love your editing. ‘Swhy I let you fucking edit. Privilege as we all know that task to be.

    Kelly: Nope. I’ve just taken to writing these things too late at night. I thought if I didn’t get back on the bandwagon y’all would come and lynch me or something.

    Wendi: Hey, don’t knock the Chi-town Manual. My University invented it. Bless their hearts. However, it can be misused for evil, much like the Bible, and this is what Good Editors do.

    Taravitch: You can’t come only briefly! I miss you! We’re not doing the housewarming yet. It may not be for some time, so don’t fret your pretty head. I’m not moving along with the renovations fast enough, and I don’t really care right now. Call me, sweetheart – it’s weird telling you all this in a blog comment. I mean, I know it’s my pub and all, but it’s like we’re making out in front of everyone. Again. Like we do.

    Comment by Tei — July 3, 2008 @ 8:45 pm | Reply

  12. Ooh goody, more dating tips! *scribbles note to self*
    1. More math
    2. Remove Manual of Style from the bed

    I wouldn’t lynch you, for reasons I discussed a couple of posts ago. And also because I want you back alive, and that would sort of defeat the purpose.

    Until later,


    Comment by Kelly — July 3, 2008 @ 11:01 pm | Reply

  13. Yes Kelly, that WOULD be a good dating tip…take it out of the bed NOW. 🙂
    The red pen too. 🙂

    Comment by wendikelly — July 3, 2008 @ 11:09 pm | Reply

  14. Tei, will you be MY ededitor?

    Comment by RhodesTer — July 4, 2008 @ 2:34 am | Reply

  15. Wendi,

    The red pen, too? You mean I can’t even CORRECT ERRORS???

    Dating. UR doin’ it wrong.




    Comment by Kelly — July 4, 2008 @ 1:27 pm | Reply

  16. Firstly, Lizbeth has actually laid down the law and told me I am never, under any circumstances, allowed to have Bon Jovi’s babies. Unrelated, but your last line reminded me.

    Secondly, I disagree with almost all of this. But then I’m lucky enough to be related to a scary-ass harsh-as-fuck, amazing editor. Who also calls me his “sweet pumpkin princess” and takes me out for coffee while he rips to shreds all my babies. So I grew up with the, “This is crap! Total steaming pile of monkey shit! The kind with smelly little bits of undigested food still in it! But we can fix it.” But besides that, well, I just think that editors can’t be esteemed highly enough. Getting a perspective other than your own is, well, invaluable. In almost any endeavor. Why do you think I keep you around? I mean, ya know, besides the amazing lesbian intercourse. Being able to hear other opinions, be it on your writing, or on your choice of footwear, or lifepartners is nearly always worth it, even if you don’t necessarily ultimately agree with said opinion.

    Thirdly, I clearly need more to do at work…

    Comment by Tessa — July 17, 2008 @ 3:57 pm | Reply

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