Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Invisible Tweak of the Excellent Editor

During my college course in creative non-fiction, I often wrote pieces that verged on the confessional. Humorous essays on being a "control freak", mournful essays on first loves and far-from-last disappointments, I wrote with an eye towards becoming the next David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell, self-deprecating but never self-flagellating. Yet as much good reception came from my fellow writers, my professor's spot-on advice was almost always the same: "Kill your darlings." Take away that final declarative, summing-up sentence at the end of nearly every essay, trust that you've made your point with the reader, and leave it at that. She was right, of course, but I still have that tendency to add a little excessive flourish, a habit I've never been able to fully kick.

The editor's responsibility is much like that of a good director: take your performer, help them to give out all they possibly can, and then help them to trim away any unnecessary flash or fat. Agents may put writers on stage, but editors teach them how to clean up their act. Yet delivering criticism to a writer is no less delicate for an editor than it is for anyone else. Sure, it's the editor's job to make the work as good as possible, but how must an author feel when it always feels like the editor is "killing their darlings?" When confronted with a page of red lines and rejected ideas, I imagine a writer would find themselves quite reticent to accept their editor's recommendations. After all the work of writing the damn thing, now it has to be tweaked and tweaked, over and over again?

As I work my way through a major editing project, I'm having trouble distancing myself from what I imagine will be the author's ultimate response. When he sees I've questioned the clarity of a given sentence, will he think I'm calling him illiterate? When I recommend he add something to a less-than-fully-flavorful concept, will he think I'm trying to rewrite him? Surely many authors are well-primed to receive this kind of criticism--no good writer achieves success without receiving criticism from either teachers and professors or through a handful of rejections. This is all meant to stiffen the writer's spine--as many have said, "A published writer is a previously unpublished writer who kept submitting." But once the contract is accepted, a false sense of security could always sink in. Just because we've signed it doesn't mean it's all done...just because you've gotten the role doesn't mean the audience will give you a standing ovation. The writer has to be receptive to criticism, but also to be certain of what they want.

So it's the editor who has to be supremely diplomatic and to choose very carefully what they're going to suggest. And ultimately, the best editorial commentary is the kind that disappears once the book is produced--it is so seamless and well-placed that it is as though it came directly that way from the author. (My high point of directing theater in college was when someone approached a former actress I'd worked with and praised her performance while completely ignoring me. That was the point--if I did my job well, you didn't notice any directing at all.) An editor can't change the content of the book, she can only shape and trim, sparingly, to honor the author's original intent. And carefully, when absolutely necessary, she has to find the author's "darlings" and pin them to the wall. All in the name of good writing, of course...

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