Let me backtrack a sec. Just so you know, there are a lot of things I do think about when I’m editing a piece of non-fiction. For my job, I pour over articles, letters, brochures, ads, scripts and the like. Here are the kinds of questions I ask myself during the editing process:
Who’s the audience for this piece?
What’s the bottom line—the message—to be conveyed?
Does this truly communicate the message or is it a lot of pretty words strung together?
Is there a simpler way to say it?
Could this be tighter? Is there fluff or useless repetition or verbosity . . . (oops, now I’m doing it!)
Is this the best format for this piece? Would subheads help, for example?
Is there a flow and connection throughout?
Is the tone and language appropriate to the message and the audience?
Is there proper use of grammar and punctuation?
Quite a list, isn’t it? So, what “don’t” I think about? I do not think about the author. Hold on. I should be more specific. Maybe it sounds heartless, but I don’t think about the author’s feelings. Sure, when I’m editing, I do try to keep the author’s intent and style in mind. I don’t want to edit to the point that the piece no longer sounds like the author. But as I’m editing, the last thing I care about is the author’s feelings. It’s not even part of the equation.
Here’s what I care about: answering my list of questions above to the best of my ability so that the end product is a clean, eloquent, effective piece of communication. That’s it. I never once ask myself if it would hurt the author’s feelings if I take out an entire paragraph or reorder the piece or change silly things like utilization to a perfectly fine, simpler word like use. And even though that might sound cold, it’s truly a marvelous thing. Think about it–would you rather have your byline attached to a solid piece of writing or a so-so piece? C’mon. Let me hear you say it. Mm-hmm. I thought so.
Why am I telling on myself? I want you to remember this the next time your work is edited or you’re swirling in a vortex of editor comments. Your editor isn’t heartless. Your editor wants to make your work shine. And sometimes that means hauling out the sandblaster and pick ax. It can be painful at the time. But, baby, it’s for your own good. So, try not to take it personally. It really isn’t about you. It’s about making your work better. And what’s not to like about that?
Just don’t touch “my” work!
Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counselling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, ‘How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?’ and avoid ‘How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?’ – James Thurber