Over Editing and The Creative Process

Editors are often great at what they do and they are an essential cog in the editorial machinery, but sometimes editors are not so great. Sometimes editors become micro-managers. Sometimes editors over edit, again and again, without justifiable cause, because a writer said something in a way, they themselves, would not have said it. Over editing puts artistic diversity at risk and is one of the greatest detriments to a productive editorial process.

Over editing makes writers wary of submitting their work for publication, it makes writers lose confidence in their artistic abilities (stylistic and technical) and it stifles the diversification of distinct voices that speak to the multitude and variance of the modern human experience. Media outlets employ multiple writers for the sake of having multiple voices that appeal to widely disparate demographics. If all those diverse voices are channelled through one outlet, an editor who over edits work, then the voices coming out on the other end lose their authenticity. They become voices that sound too similar, saying things that are all the same. A unified voice is not the same thing as an identical voice.

I doubt there is a writer out there who hasn’t come across at least one editor who over edits. I do work as an editor. I myself, have fallen into the trap of over editing. It’s easy to become carried away. One of the best skills you can hone is to detach yourself from another writer’s work. To look at it objectively and pinpoint problem areas, that is a skill that helps everyone. Re-writing for the pure sake of style smothers artistic expression and creates hostility  in an environment that should be creatively productive.

Would you paint over another artist’s canvas?

Imagine if I was a painter and the curator of the gallery who displayed my work came along and said, ‘You know, I think this colour would have been better here, and if I were you I would have used a different brush stroke there… can you just move for a second.” Then, in the blink of an eye she’d whipped out a brush and palette and smothered a unique and irreplaceable utterance of my soul in fresh globs of angry pigment, obscuring the reality of my voice.

How would you react to that? With resentment? Anger? I would. I do. I boil inside when my work is over edited. I hammer at my keyboard and send scathing private messages to my Facebook gal pals about how I hate her hate her hate her (or him). I scribble nasty comments on my pages, envision stabbing said editor in the eyes with my vicious pen. After my initial rage burns away I’m left feeling empty, with a single unanswerable question hanging in my mind.

Why?

Why was your sentence, your new sentence, which spoke my ideas in the most unfamiliar of words, so much better than mine? It wasn’t grammar, I know my grammar was fine, if not impeccable. It was that my voice and your voice didn’t mesh. When you read my words, you only heard how your words would say it. You ruffled your feathers because I express differently than you. Then, you took your mighty pen and scribbled all over my text, inserting yourself—your voice—into my story. And, when I ask, when I am direct, the answer is always the same: I don’t see what you’re talking about, it looks fine to me.

Working with an editor should be about polishing, improving and clarifying your writing. It should be a mutually positive experience. It should not leave your writers feeling neurotic and emotional. It shouldn’t be disheartening and disempowering. The worst feeling in the world is receiving an email from an editor who has a history of over editing your work. Before you even open it you know whatever it says will be negative, know whatever you’re about to read printed on the page will be written with a voice that’s unrecognizable.

Grammar. It’s important. A sentence can’t possibly convey an idea accurately to a reader if it isn’t constructed properly. If a sentence is poorly constructed, the meaning can become twisted or the sentence can be construed in multiple ways, depending on how it’s read. Editing for grammar, that’s good. Verbosity. It’s, well, verbose. Words, for the sake of words; sometimes writers get carried away with language. Editing to make a work more concise, that’s good. Cohesion. Connecting paragraphs and ideas in the best order is important. Editing for smoother movement through a text, that’s good. The inverted pyramid. The subject and the most important bits first, because modern readers have a tendency to lose focus. Reorganization can have great benefits to a text.

Editing to rip apart a writer’s works, to extract their specific and purposeful choice of words, and insert your own words, your own voice, to make yourself more comfortable, that’s wrong. That’s bad. Your writer’s experience is unique, he or she brought something to their article or story that you could never have imbibed in it, and when you start meddling with their language and their imagery you impede the transmission of their intended message to it’s intended audience.

This is not a hate on editors. Editors are good. Editors make our writing better. Editors can be a guiding force that push their writers to greater heights. However, we should remain vigilant against over editing. Writers are artists too and there is nothing that protects our work from a micro-managing editor, except the singular choice to withdraw our story, or article, from publication. That’s not enough.

p.s. do you like my nod to Iain Banks?