Editing and proofreading don’t enjoy the glamorous image of writing. They’re kind of like the siblings to the star. Sometimes you see a picture of, say, Nicole Kidman posing with her sister at a movie premiere in one of those magazines you only admit to reading at the hair salon. They look somewhat alike, but one is clearly less glossy than the other. Editing is the rarely seen sister. But without editing, most writing would look quite different. (Perhaps a better analogy would be the star posing with her hairdresser, but now you know too much about my low-brow reading habits, anyway.)
When I edit, it’s a privilege to help improve someone’s writing. When I write, it can be a privilege to be edited. But it’s a rare privilege to be edited by someone who actually knows what they’re talking about and can convey suggestions for improvement in specific, tactful terms. For example, on an assignment I took to write a newsletter, the copy for the events calendar section came back with a reviewer comment: “Where did the info for these events come from? Please change.”
This is the opposite of good editing – it insults the writer and gives no direction on how to improve the content. Blunt, nonspecific, unhelpful, uninformed comments are exactly what professional editors are trained to avoid. And it gives me no small measure of joy to give my clients a better editing experience than what is usually afforded me!
When I’m editing, I love catching all those little errors: typos, inconsistencies, factual errors, bad usage, deviations from the style sheet. I take pleasure in reducing the number of times in the world that “impact” is used as a verb (most of the time it should be “affect”) or weeding out wordy, redundant expressions. These little things make up for the sometimes tedious cleanup of
maybe thousands hundreds of stray commas, hyphens, and apostrophes from a manuscript.
I also take pride in knowing my boundaries in editing, that is, what is out of my scope to change on a particular job, even if I would have written it differently. Yes, we want to improve a thing, but like doctors, we also must avoid doing harm. And we are constrained always by time and budget.
Editing is invisible to the reader, but transparent to the writer and to the rest of the team. Editors often work alone, physically, but are almost always part of a team and a process. Others will see our work, and will question it, and we have to be prepared to explain every single change. Luckily, I am not often asked to defend the removal of a comma, but I need to supply a (specific) reason if asked. And then I get to display my nerdy command of style guides and writing conventions and arcane references. “Did you really want to talk about punctuation?” I’ll say, excited. “Because we can talk about punctuation.”
I don’t always win the battle for minutia, but I’m willing to at least spar a bit on a point where I think it will really affect the reader. That’s who it’s all about, after all, the reader to whom I am mostly invisible, except when a typo shows up in a headline and they invoke me, crying out, “Where was the editor?!” Most likely I was down in paragraph 5 checking a crucial fact and confirming and correcting the spelling of the subject’s name, and the headline may have been rewritten hastily after it was out of my hands. It’s a good thing no one ever died of a typo.
The joy of editing is neither in the glory (non-existent) nor the blame (world’s funnest game), but in the craft. We do our magic, the red ink is scrubbed away, and then we disappear. Until the cheque arrives, and the next project begins, and my eyes are needed once more.