I was directed recently to this post on Salon and it made me think of an experience I had while I was still an editor with Berkley.
As I’m sure many of you can relate to, whenever I visit family back in Minnesota, I find myself led around from event to event so parents and grandparents can show off who they’ve been talking about for so long. Yes, it’s a little like being a show pony, but it keeps the troops happy, and let’s face it, that’s what it’s all about. Well, at one of these events I ran into one of my high school’s English teachers. While I had never personally had a class with Ms. X, I had been referred to her my sophomore year (I think) for help with my previously confessed horrendous grammar skills. Let me just clarify that it’s not that I can’t speak and it’s not that I can’t write. I think I do both quite sufficiently. It’s that I can’t diagram a sentence, I don’t have the first clue when it comes to direct objects, and when forced to think about grammar while writing, I’m guaranteed to make a mess of things.
Anyway, back to my story. Ms. X was very excited to see me and wanted to pick my brain because, not surprisingly, “she’s always wanted to write a book.” So she took me to a quiet corner to talk about my job, at which point she said something along the lines of, “it’s amazing to me that you can become an editor when you don’t know anything about grammar.”
When it comes to publishing there are people who have the job of making sure your grammar is in tip top shape (your copyeditors) and then there are editors.
What I said to Ms. X was that my job wasn’t about grammar and punctuation, but about what makes a really good book and what can make that book shine. And then came the zinger. I couldn’t help myself. I said, “Truthfully, I think schools spend far too much time teaching things like how to diagram a sentence and not nearly enough time teaching kids how to actually write.”
At least I shut her up.
Like the author of the Salon article, I have the utmost respect for editors, both copyeditors and acquisition editors, but it’s the acquisition editors who really are amazing people. With one read of a manuscript they can pinpoint exactly what you’ve been struggling with for months and give you a boatload of ideas on how to fix it. A really good author/editor relationship is a true collaboration. The editor has the ability to take your book, an already great book, and make it truly amazing. She’s not at all worried about commas (that’s someone else’s job) but wants to make sure that your characters are true to themselves, your plotting is strong and tight, and that this book is even better than your last.
When asked how I got my job I always say that I don’t think editing is something that you can be taught. Certainly it’s like any talent you can learn and improve, but good editors also have an instinct. They know in their guts what a good book is and they get a niggling in their stomach when something is wrong.
So what exactly do editors do? They make books shine.