Edit and Be Damned

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Editing must be one of the few professions that require no professional training. Even a plumber needs to learn how to plumb before he’s allowed to attack pipes. An editor, on the other hand, just takes up his spanner and blowtorch and starts editing.

Of course there are a lot of different kinds of editors (and I’ve been most of them at one time or another): line editors (known in England as copy editors), newspaper editors, magazine editors, book editors. The skills involved in each case are distinctive, but they all share this same amateur, self-taught quality. Editing is something that you tend to fall into, though perhaps not entirely by accident. Editors are born, not made.

It may be worth stressing this, because editors get a lot of flak from people – especially writers – who cannot accept that anyone should be in a position to turn down a book, or correct their grammar, or in some other way act superior. They are right, nobody should be, except that’s the editor’s job. The truth of the matter is that most editors spend a considerable amount of psychological capital convincing themselves that their judgement is right. The position must necessarily be: I edit, therefore I am an editor. In a realm with absolutely no firm rules against which one’s opinions may be measured, it’s the only thing to do. Thus armed, you have at least a fighting chance of facing the world (or a writer) with confidence.

At the most basic level, line editing or copy editing, an editor needs a technique for judging and perhaps improving a piece of writing. My own has always been to read slowly, ‘listening’ for imprecision, wrong words, failure to track properly. This seems to work; a good writer sounds fine, a bad one bumpy or inept. The rhythm is wrong. It is usually pretty simple to identify the rough spots and either fix them or tell the writer to do so. (My predecessor at Life magazine, where I worked many years ago, had a rule of thumb for

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About the contributor

Charles Elliott has been an editor for most of his now rather long life. He is the author of several books of essays on gardening and garden history.

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