So, what is the job of an editor? Is it just to make sure that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed? To be available to do major re-writes? To help come up with and refine a story idea? The answer is all of the above. Depending on the editor and the author’s needs, the editor can simply be checking basic grammar on a finished manuscript, beta-reading and reviewing the basic plot and character development for a first draft, or serve as a consultant to refine your concept into a complete story. Or anything in between.
No matter what the requirements of a specific author, the goal of the editor should be to help the author say what they are trying to say. That means being in tune with the themes of the work, the author’s voice and the obstacles that an author often puts in his own way. Sometimes, this is overuse of a particular word or phrase, inclusion of every idea that comes into his head or simply trying too hard to be descriptive. Every author has his or her favorite obstacles that work their way into a manuscript and it is the editor’s job to flush them out and mercilessly eradicate them.
The editor faces many dangers as well. These include an insistence on a particular style of writing, allowing one’s approval or disapproval of the work’s themes to color the editing, and most pernicious of all, the desire to insert one’s own voice into the manuscript.
There are numerous styles of writing as anyone who has been reading books for a decade or more is well aware. Even if a person only reads contemporary novels, one will notice that certain tropes change, the average ratio of narration to dialogue varies and so on. There is a certain temptation on the part of an editor to insist that a story be written in whatever mode is fashionable at the time. Certainly, there is a lot to be said for this approach. After all, it is fashionable because it sells. However, styles and preferences do change and someone who merely follows the trend will likely miss out on the next one, or lose a potential opportunity to set one. The key here is not to go so far outside the bounds of conventional style that the work is unreadable to a modern reader but to allow the author to play with the boundaries, to see them more as guidelines than absolutes.
Any story has themes, often very strong themes dealing with issues important to the author. Dealing with these as an editor can be very tricky, as many times the editor and author may see the themes in different ways. So, should the editor simply swallow his own opinion and beliefs for the duration of the work? No, I don’t think so. For myself, I apply the same philosophy I use when watching movies. Is the issue being addressed real? Could the situations being portrayed happen? Are there logical consequences that follow from the characters’ decisions? If the answers to those questions are “yes” then I continue with the work. That said, there certainly are works that I would not accept based on the themes at play. For example, I don’t accept any sort of erotica. The point is, if you are contemplating throwing your hat into the editorial ring, spend some time thinking about this and be upfront about your exclusions.
The final problem is that of the editor wanting to insert his own voice. Signs that this is a problem are when you catch yourself thinking things like “I would never do that,” or “absolutely no one talks like that.” Those can be legitimate things to bring up in a manuscript but if those thoughts creep in every page or so you have to ask if the problem is the author or you. To mitigate this, I read works twice, once primarily for grammatical problems and the send time for content. This allows time to get used to the author’s style and get immersed in the story so that when editing things like sentence structure and word choice, I am much less likely to be guided but what I would choose and more by what the author is really trying to say.