Heroes & Villains — Good & Bad Editors

George R.R. Martin calls editors “the writer’s natural enemy,” but some of these pros are great. What sets them apart from their thoughtless counterparts?

Photo by Trey Gibson on Unsplash

Picture the scene: You’re at home in the kitchen. After toiling for hours to prepare a gourmet feast, it’s time to down that trusty wooden spoon. Sure, your dish might need a pinch of this and a dash of that before serving, but it’s pretty much done. Happy with the day’s culinary efforts, you pour a celebratory glass of wine and take a load off. Then in comes your partner, who tastes the food, grimaces, tips it onto the floor, and squirts bleach on top — all before commanding, with a smile, that you “fix it.”

You wouldn’t stand for it, would you? No, I didn’t think so. But this is basically what happens every time a writer turns in work to a bad editor, with no choice but to suck it up — that is, unless we want to lose future commissions. Though, what exactly do I mean by a bad editor? And how does a bad editor differ from a good editor?

At this point, I should state that good editors are really the only editors. Bad editors aren’t editors at all. They’re mere charlatans with no business sticking their greasy paws all over any writer’s words, and they should quite literally give up the day job. The problem is, you’ll find these fiends in every corner of the literary world. So, for the sake of this blog, let’s call them bad editors and the saints they impersonate good editors.

By now, I’ve dealt with plenty of both, and I can spot either from a mile off with ink splashed in my eyes. Oddly, it’s taken the unspeakable terror of dealing with the villains to fully recognise and appreciate the heroes. Let’s get the former out of the way first.

Bad editors

Bad editors enact the above scene again and again, carrying around egos so huge they make Gordon Ramsay look like a timorous beastie. They wield far more power than they should, and they certainly won’t let the lowly scribes at their mercy forget it for a single second.

Bad editors are thesaurus-happy narcissists. Just to knock us down a peg or two, they’ll readily knock words off a page and into the bin, replacing them with unappetising synonyms. Just for the craic, they’ll take a perfectly decent draft and cake it in red, a colour that’ll make any writer’s eyes bleed.

When bad editors set about their butchery, swelling their sense of self-importance, they plop their own style and ideas into a piece. As a consequence, the flavour of sentences, paragraphs, sections, or whole damn chunks go right down the pan — along with a writer’s unique voice and spirit. And they’re so brazen, they wouldn’t deign to offer even the weakest of justifications for their sickening hack job.

By stealing the show like this, bad editors often neglect a key part of their actual role: correcting any of the basic spelling or grammar errors to slip through the net. But hey, it’s not their name above the door, so why would they give a hoot about all those trivialities that merely hamstring good editors?

I’m seething here, so it’s about time we moved onto the champs of the industry.

Good editors

More Delia Smith than Gordon Ramsay, good editors are an entirely different kind of creature. They’re real pros with a passion for their craft and a strong grasp of both the writing and editing processes. Demonstrating an almost saint-like courtesy, they’d be mortified to act out the scene described at the start of this post.

Choosing partnership over power, help over hindrance, good editors are sous-chefs and not critics. They’ll swoop in to sample a writer’s slightly bland stew of words and punctuation, praising their literary deeds while simultaneously animating the product with their own special war dance.

A dollop of refinement here and a spoonful of objectivity there, good editors seek to whip up something much scrummier — without the end result tasting like it was them slaving over a hot stove all day. They’ll leave you with notes too, clearly explaining major changes and offering handy tips for infinitely better future efforts.

Good editors are as scarce as hen’s teeth. Find ’em and keep ’em and you shan’t regret it for a single second!

As for the best ways of dealing with bad editors, your guess is as good as mine. I continue to suffer fraught working relationships with a few of these rotters, so my door is open to any pointers for a happier coexistence. I’d also love to hear about your experiences with editors of all kinds, and how they compare to my own, so feel free to slide into my comments.

In the meantime, a distant ping tells me I need to collect my microwave meal from the kitchen — the only red you’ll see over that inedible atrocity is ketchup!



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