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 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, 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!”