Why We Need Editors

I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ve done my share of grumbling about editors. Sometimes more than grumbling; raging and swearing.

What?! I revised it twice for you and now you’re turning it down?!!!

No, I can’t cut that scene. It’s the key to the whole story.

If you like it so much, why do you want me to rewrite it?

Guess what writers do when they get together? They complain about editors. (On the other hand, I imagine that when editors get together they complain about the crazy authors they have to deal with.)

Writers may grumble about editors all they want, but the truth is, we need them. What do editors do? To put it bluntly, they keep authors from making fools of themselves. Often we will rage about an editor’s suggestions. We’ll fight tooth and claw all the way to keep from making those changes, only to admit when the book finally comes out that the editor was probably right.

Not that editors are right all the time. There are still plenty of changes I regret making. However, on the whole, they are more often right than they are wrong. A good editor is worth her weight in gold. Take good care of your editor. Make her look good, and she’ll make you look good.

To my mind, the most thankless kind of editing is copyediting. It takes a special person to do that. You have to go through the whole manuscript, word by word, checking spelling, punctuation, and every fact and date. I’d be carried off to the funny farm within a week if I had to be a copy editor. And I’m no copy editor’s dream, either. Half the time, if I’m not sure about a fact or a date, I make it up. I tell myself I’ll look it up later. But I never do.

The importance of editors came home to me today as I was reading Keith Richards’s autobiography, Life. I’m a Stones fan from way back, so I was salivating over all the juicy stories and gossip. Keith is terrific when he knows what he’s talking about, but every now and then he’ll drop a real howler. Like this one:

“Our thing was playing Chicago blues: that was where we took everything that we knew, that was our kickoff point, Chicago. Look at that Mississippi River. Where does it come from? Where does it go? Follow the river all the way up and you’ll end up in Chicago.” (Life, p.236)

Well, not exactly. The Mississippi doesn’t go anywhere near Chicago. It’s on the other side of Illinois. Follow the river all the way up and you won’t end up in Chicago. You’ll end up in Minneapolis. It’s a great town, but hardly a citadel of the blues.

That’s why we need editors–to keep our stories, our characters, and our rivers running straight.

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