Monday, January 3, 2011

Editing: Cooperative Effort or Problem Finding?

Editing is one of those things that is a staple of the publishing industry, but what is its purpose and how should it be handled? We’ve all heard stories of editors who went through a manuscript and changed just about everything. We’ve also heard authors talk about how they look forward to working with an editor because they know that writing is a cooperative effort and their manuscript will be improved with the input of others. Personally, I think that is mostly aspiring authors trying to impress agents with how grown up they are, but they say it nonetheless. My question is, should we even be looking at editing in that way?

Publishers Want Good Work

If you want to make a publisher’s day, walk into his office with a flawless manuscript that includes a great story and the name of a well known author on the cover. He’ll love you even more if it is already typeset and ready to go to press. But walk into his office with a great story that still needs quite a bit of editing and he’ll pass. As far as publishers are concerned, editors are and always have been a necessary evil. No publisher is sitting around thinking about how much he likes seeing editors improve the work of authors. That’s the sort of thing editors talk about, but their bosses would rather see more manuscripts come in that require no editing at all.

An Example From the Software World

In software engineering, we have this concept of a Software Product Evaluation (SPE). The purpose of this evaluation is to find problems before the software is released to the user. Because of safety concerns a SPE is much more intensive than the editorial process for a novel. With some SPEs, three to six software engineers will sit in a room and go through the documentation and code line by line. Every line is examined and there are many times the number of lines in a software program than you’ll find in a novel. But the software engineers aren’t looking for ways to make the code better as much as they are looking for things that will keep the software from doing what it is supposed to do. When they find those problems, it is sent back to the programmer to figure out how to fix the problem.

I Like It Better This Way

From what I’ve seen, there are a lot of editors out there who have the idea that their job is improve upon the author’s work. Maybe they don’t like the way the author phrased something, so they edit the manuscript. They seem like they are on a mission to make it better. Whatever the editor’s pet peeve is, if the author does it, the editor wants to change it.

If It Were a SPE

If we handled editing like a SPE, the editor wouldn’t be allowed to make changes to the document. Instead, he would just point out the problems. If he saw a word usage problem, he would point it out and the author would have to figure out how to fix it. If he thought the plot was weak in the middle, he would tell the author and the author would decide what to do about it.

One of the things about a SPE is that sometimes they come back with the statement, “no findings.” After looking at the work, the people involved found nothing wrong. That doesn’t mean that the programmer did everything like they would have. What that means is that they see nothing in what the programmer did that will prevent it from doing what it is supposed to do. If we applied that to editing, there would be times when the editor would send something back and say, “no findings.” After looking at the manuscript, he didn’t see any misspellings. He didn’t see word usage problems. He didn’t see something that would prevent the reader from understanding the story. He might have liked the story to have a happier ending. He might have preferred the author had used fewer adjectives. He might have preferred to see more of a particular character. There may have been a few style choices the author made that he didn’t like, but he had no reason to believe that it would hinder the communication of the story to the reader. He had no findings.

To put it another way, in this view, it is not the job of the editor to impose his style on the story. There should be no difference between the story produced by an author who has done an excellent job of self-editing and one in which an editor found issues to mark. An editor doesn’t improve the story, but the editor identifies mistakes made by the author. These aren’t things the author never considered but they are things he might have noticed on his own, given enough time. Given this understanding, when the author looks at the editor’s comments, if the author doesn’t agree that what the editor has identified is a problem then the author has the right and obligation to leave the work as it was. If the publisher doesn’t believe the author is talented enough to know what is best, then they shouldn’t have hired the author.