Random Notes on Editing
by Bob Schwartz
1. Whether working on a business report, legal brief, story or even a non-written creation, you have either had the privilege to edit others or have suffered the tough medicine of being edited.
2. All works are improvable. Ask God.
3. There is a difference between edits that are improvements and changes based on subjective sensibilities, though there is a gray area in between.
4. It is easiest to identify improvement editing when the creation is discretely functional and results are measurable, as with some sorts of advertising copy. Some would say readability and clarity fall into this functional category—that is, unless tortured readability is a creative choice and can be handled deftly. Ask Faulkner or Joyce.
5. Voice may be the hardest part of editing. It may also be the hardest part of writing. Even the most technical sorts of work can convey a distinctive voice—you will find this in textbooks, in legal articles, even in judicial rulings. Some writers don’t know abstractly what a distinctive voice is because they just naturally have one. Others work to develop it. That is the dual quandary for editors. If a writer has a voice, or the beginnings of one, you want to cultivate it without editing it away. If a writer doesn’t have much of a voice, there is a risk of the editor—who is often a pretty good writer too—to substitute a different voice entirely.
6. The Bible is the most importantly edited work in Western history, maybe in human history. Speaking of voice, imagine being the one responsible for editing the voice of God, Moses or Jesus. Yet somebody did. These editors took no credit, though it is fun to consider what those acknowledgements might look like. “And finally I’d like to thank my editor, without whom these transcripts of my speeches would not have the power that they do. JC.”