This is part of the “How Good Writing Happens” series. Read the introduction here!
Confession: While I love wielding a ballpoint, I hate facing an editor when it’s my work he’s marking up.
It’s so much easier to be the editor than to be the writer whose words are torn apart. As a writer, you become attached to your words. The way you arranged them on the page (or screen) was an incredible organic process. It’s the way they’re meant to be. So why doesn’t your editor understand that? While some editors use editing notation with the same fervor as a viking swung a broadsword back in the day, most make corrections to improve your piece rather than to split hairs and send you to the sanitarium. They mean well. Remember that.
It’s a phrase that I had to mentally repeat daily during my last semester of college. I was enrolled in a feature writing class that I loved, really I did, except for the time between submitting my article to the professor and receiving her feedback. It didn’t matter what sort of comment she wrote in the margin; it could have been a punctuation change. Whatever it was made me see red. Stubbornly, instead of learning from what she, the experienced professional, was flagging in my work, I dug in my heels and snottily thrust my nose in the air. She just didn’t know what she was talking about, I thought. My work was perfect.
After weeks of this attitude, I was so irritated that I began to dread class. I gave myself a talking-to. There was a lot of internal yelling and cat-fighting involved, but eventually the editor within reigned supreme. I reviewed my past work and made the changes she suggested and would you believe that my work got better? They weren’t big changes, as I said, but small things that improved the overall quality and clarity of my features.
Without an editor, a writer is allowed to be verbose and tangential, to forget the argument entirely or to create an argument that makes sense only to him (or her). You may be in love with what you wrote, but that doesn’t make it good and it certainly won’t make others want to read it. As my mentor, Karen Hodges Miller, likes to say, “The greatest writing in the world is useless if no one reads it.” And to get it to the point of readability, someone other than you should read it.
Maybe you churn out good work all on your own. That’s fine, if you’re satisfied with being good. But with an editor critiquing your flaws, you begin to adapt to anticipate their criticism and automatically fix the problem spots you were blind to before. That’s when merely good work becomes great.
Up next in the “How Good Writing Happens” series: “Be a Reading Writer”