I’m a professional fiction editor. And for me, there’s a single guiding principle behind every editorial decision I make.
It’s simply this: I must be able to justify every edit.
We editors adopt the same mantra as doctors: ‘First, do no harm.’ That means we should be careful not to – God forbid – introduce errors into a text. (Okay, it’s not as serious as accidentally cutting off the wrong limb, but still. It’s pretty bad.) It also means we shouldn’t accidentally change the author’s meaning. This is something Amy Einsohn explores in The Copyeditor’s Handbook.
I work with these thoughts at the back of my mind. But I work with my guiding principle at the forefront of my mind. With every comma I insert or every word I change, I ask myself: How can I justify this edit?
If the answer to this question is that it just ‘seems right’, this isn’t good enough. That tells me I’m being subjective, possibly imposing my own style and creative values on the author’s work.
But if I can explain the edit using a nuanced understanding of grammatical and stylistic guidelines while also considering the author’s intentions and voice, I’m confident in the change I’ve just made to the author’s text.
If I needed to, I could add a comment to accompany every single edit I make to a manuscript, explaining exactly why I’ve done what I’ve done. Of course, I don’t do this – otherwise the manuscript would be overwhelmingly bloated with comments, and it would take me around ten times as long to finish a project.
Even so, I will add a comment here and there if I think I’m making an edit the author might question. As well as that, I provide a ‘style sheet’ along with the edited manuscript, and this contains a summary of my editorial decisions.
Being able to justify every edit is what makes a good editor.
That’s why it’s so important to be a well-informed editor. Someone who knows the rules of grammar so they can make judgements on how and when these rules can be broken. Someone who has undergone training and continues to enhance their skills.
I’ve been teaching editing skills for a handful of years now, and the students that worry me the most are the ones that make extensive changes to a section of writing in which there were no objective errors to begin with. When making suggestions around restructuring sentences or changing the wording, we have to be able to articulate exactly why our edits are an improvement on the author’s original text. If we can’t (or if we’ve changed a huge amount of error-free text), this indicates that we’ve overstepped the line.
After all, the novel doesn’t belong to the editor. It belongs to the author. And though we edit with readers in mind, authors are the ones we answer to first.