Editors are often practical people, and this goes double for editors who also run their own businesses. We worry about how to do things. How to automate tasks to speed things up. How to calculate what to charge. How to charge more. How to punctuate a sentence. How to spell a word. How to rephrase an awkward sentence. How to attract clients. How to stay in business. But I often think, too, about what makes us most useful, and I’m certain that when the machines come for our jobs (if they haven’t already), what will set us apart is none of these practical abilities. It’s the things we have that the machines don’t.
Although being an editor can – and should – encompass all of the things I mentioned above, becoming the kind of editor clients will seek out and hire again and again might be about the more intangible stuff. The feeling for words, which can only be acquired by reading and listening to the way language is used by all kinds of people. The knack of knowing when to intervene and when to let it be. The eye to find what to change or cut to alter the balance of a sentence for the better. The lack of ego, and the love and respect for beautiful expression.
Anyone can be an editor. But not just anyone (or anything) can be a really good one. That takes judgement and taste. That takes vision. That takes art.
I’m like everyone – sometimes I get bogged down in the practicalities. How many words can I do in an hour? Am I doing well enough? Is the fact that I haven’t found anything to change in four pages significant? Why have fifty people emailed me? Why has no one emailed me? If I make that style decision, what will happen? Should that comma go there? Will my client shift the goalposts halfway through the job? Have I forgotten the bibliography? Can I stop yet and have a cup of coffee?
Last week I took a couple of days off, and I was lucky enough to be briefly in Manhattan, not thinking about editing at all. With my husband I walked along the High Line, an urban park on an old elevated railway track in the West Side of the city. I often edit books on architecture and urban design so had read about the project in various places over the years, and I had wanted to visit for a long time.
It didn’t disappoint. Obviously New York City is an arresting place, with almost too many things to look at and do (especially if you only have 36 hours!). But the High Line was hands down the best thing I experienced there, and I’ll be thinking about it for years to come. I was very moved that there was this public space of great beauty and integrity, designed for everyone to use (accessible by lift), looked after by volunteers. I feel a bit tearful just thinking about it! I hope one day I’ll be able to go back and walk along it again; it was that special.
But what does this have to do with editing? Well, it reminded me what people can do when they work together: what humans can achieve. How a clarity of concept carried through with love and care to its logical completion can produce a thing of lasting meaning, usefulness and beauty. And you know what? We can help to do that, in a small way, when we edit a piece of text.
Start with what’s there
The High Line was built in the 1930s to transport industrial goods through the city. After it closed, a local resident and activist went to court to challenge its demolition, and later a group of residents advocated for its preservation and reuse. The design team was chosen through a competition, and the finished park uses the original structure and has a planting scheme inspired by what grew along the tracks in the years following the railway’s closure.
I used to approach an editing job thinking: ‘What must I change?’ If there’s one thing I’ve learned in twenty years, it’s to start out instead by asking: ‘What should I leave?’ It’s too easy to think that editing means ripping everything up and starting again, the way we think it should have been done in the first place. More artful is to discern the original vision, and work with that. What is the author really trying to say? What’s the underlying truth? How can we make it clearer to the reader?
Find the thread
The High Line’s concept is summed up in its name. It’s a line, and it’s high. Everything about the park reflects this simple truth, and it’s what makes it such a stunning work of design. The concrete deck expresses its linearity. Benches and seating areas all continue the visual flow. There are views on to the streets below and the buildings the park passes. The line remains unbroken for 2.3km.
Often a book will have a thread that runs through it, and identifying this can help with making all kinds of editorial decisions, from the macro (Will it have sections? Chapter names or numbers? Will it be read through from beginning to end or dipped into? Is it even a book?) to the micro (Should I use serial commas? Is it z spellings or s spellings? Do captions take full stops or not? Double quotes or single?). Not sure which way to jump? Then return to the thread and see if it helps you decide. What does the reader want or need? What did the author intend? For almost any question of style or execution, if you return to the original concept you may find your answer.
Use your taste
One of the things that makes the High Line such an inspiring place to be is the planting. It’s the small details of the carefully pruned trees, the neatly positioned plants. The shrubs that are happy to be there, that just look right. (And many of them happened to be in bloom when we were there, too.)
In editorial circles, I think the idea of good taste is not given enough airtime. Yes, we have briefs to follow. Yes, there are constraints. Yes, we should defer to the author where possible. But surely, the thing we’re actually being hired for, and hopefully being paid good money for, is our taste? We need to have the confidence to say (even if under our breath): ‘Look, this would be so much better if we did it like this.’ And then just get on and do it. Turn the phrases, make them right. Fit it together, polish it up. Take pride. And later, return the work to the client and have them sigh with deep relief and trust and simply murmur: ‘This looks great.’ (I can dream, right?)
See the other side
We’re used to moving through cities at ground level. It’s amazing how invigorating it can be to experience them from a different perspective. You feel detached from the everyday world, and yet you can see so much more of it. The city shows you an entirely different face. Suddenly, you’re a voyeur.
Part of what makes a good editor is the ability to see the world from another point of view. Not everyone speaks like you do (even in their heads … especially in their heads). Not everyone shares your opinions. You need to inhabit, for a short time, another consciousness. Channel the sensibilities of your author. Infect yourself with their humour. Roll in their vocabulary. Learn something! Have fun.
Make art – or at least, be a small, quiet part of it
What really makes the High Line (I think, from my couple of hours there, early on a Friday morning), is not the physical structure, or the careful planting, or the impressive buildings that sprout up all around. It’s the people. The people who had the vision to make it happen. The people who maintain it. The people who visit it, locals and tourists alike, who animate it. It’s a collaborative work of art.
And coming back to my original point, about editing – it is my firm belief that no one gets to be a good editor by following a set of rules. Instead we need to be artful, bringing all of our sensitivity and creativity to a project, and seeing where we fit in the bigger picture, where we fit in the team that makes a book or a website or any other kind of project that involves text. We need to read things that aren’t in our usual field, and we need to do things other than read. We need to feed our imagination to do our best work. And we need to remember that what we do can help make the world a better place, in a tiny way. Pride in our work helps in the creation of beautiful and useful things – and beautiful things, things that are shared, can add much-needed meaning to our existence in these turbulent times.
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998. Before that she trained as an architect, and still likes working on architectural book projects. She went to New York and expected to get a short story out of it, but instead she got a blog post.