Editors as vandals

Conscious of how writers, especially new ones, sometimes feel about having their work critiqued and edited, I recently prepped one of them as follows:

"I've started to do some editing, S____, and to get a sense of how much work might be done on the text. I'm going to email what I've done so far, but beforehand I just wanted to put it in context ... as I know from experience that editors often end up being seen as vandals rather than advisers at this stage, and I don't want that to happen here. My approach is similar to Brendan Barrington's, editor of the Dublin Review, who was asked by the Irish Times recently what kind of editor he felt himself to be; and answered:

“Thorough, I think. Sometimes to a fault. I think I’m ambitious in that I’m usually not satisfied with a piece that’s perfectly fine. I’m always looking for little ways of making it better. Sometimes that means cutting things out of it but other times it means sending the writer away to develop or clarify or sharpen something. Editing feels a little bit like archeology or sculpting, working with a big piece of granite, and chipping away at it.”

What reaction does this provoke from writers? “I frequently get comments to the effect that ‘I’ve never been edited like this before’, and sometimes one might sense a slight edge of irritation. But mostly it’s positive in that good writers enjoy being edited. They enjoy the interchange. They may not agree with all my ideas and that’s absolutely fine, but the encounter is valuable, and they value it.”

The client, thankfully, was understanding and pleased with the work:


Thanks. I understand exactly what you are doing and of course like all authors one always feels a slight sense of irritation when somebody corrects what you have written. My skin is fairly thick.

I have looked at your suggestions and like most of them! I have incorporated them into a revised text... I want this to be a success and so I am delighted with most of your suggestions. Please continue with the two chapters and we will talk."


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