Sunday, September 18, 2016

Why Should You Hire an Editor? One Word: Potential

Because I’m an editor, you might expect me to be pretty biased when it comes to whether or not people should go through editing. And, well, you’d be right—but not for the reasons you think.

You see, in the far-distant reaches of my brain, I’m also a writer. I truly love the written word—and when those words were written by me, I tend to love them even more. I find myself obsessing over the way I’ve turned the perfect phrase, and thinking that I will never change anything ever again. Ever.

Then I force myself to sit back and look at what I’ve written, and to consider what other people will think of it. And I start to think “Gee, maybe it’s not quite perfect. Maybe I need to just tweak this one little word.” The next thing I know seventy-two minutes have gone by and my Track Changes history shows that I changed the word “said” to:
and—yes, finally—back to said.

That’s not—I repeat not—editing. Okay. Yes, it is, technically. But when you look closer, that may be tweaking, fussing, thesaurus-izing, or any number of other things, but it’s not really editing. And it’s not going to turn my maybe-not-so-bad writing into a Pulitzer prize-winning novel.

If fussing with your word choices is all your editor is doing—giving different names to the deck chairs on your personal Titanic—then your editor isn’t actually editing, either.

A true editor will look at the whole phrase that included that “said” (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend the sentence was: “You know, I love you,” he said.). Then, with that sentence in mind, try to figure out how else to convey the same meaning, without being too literal.

Don’t get me wrong—depending on the context surrounding that declaration of love, any of those speech tags would drastically alter the meaning. “You know, I love you,” he stammered. offers a completely different meaning than “You know, I love you,” he laughed. And it’s important to have an editor who can tell the difference.

At the same time, however, a good editor might recommend something different. Maybe moving the speech tag to the center of the sentence to add a dramatic pause: “You know,” he said, “I love you.” or changing the punctuation “You know I love you?” he asked.

Action might be involved. It could be vaguely romantic: “You know,” he said, pulling her toward him, “I love you.” It could be violently creepy: “You know, I love you,” he said as he tore one last piece of duct tape. Or it could be a heart-wrenching scene of loss: She held him close. “You know,” he said as his eyes began to fade, “I love—“

But, until you start working on editing that one simple phrase—really editing it—and seeing what it has to offer you, you’ll never know. If you simply sit there and stare at your perfect words, you’ll never know what potential they—and you—have. This is where a good editor comes in.

A good editor will show you how to make your writing come to life. She can change your off-hand romantic gesture into a grand, sweeping moment. Or he can dial back your drama and turn it into a rom-com. Either way, your words deserve the chance to grow and discover what they can be.

Stephen Sondheim, in the musical Into the Woods, summed up potential in this way when looking at Jack (of Beanstalk fame) and the cow he traded for questionably magic beans: “The difference between a cow and a bean is a bean can begin an adventure.”

Your words, by themselves, are the cow—comforting, but not worth much on their own. Your words, with an editor, are the beans—full of potential, thanks to someone helping you grow.

You’ve put a lot of work into your words. Don’t they deserve an editor?

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