My last post illustrated the work of a good editor, whom I’d define as someone so attuned to your writing that she can help you say what you mean more clearly and more eloquently than you’ve so far been able to do for yourself. I often tell my students that a good editor will make you want to propose marriage.
An editor can be not so good for a variety of reasons, one of them being that she’s more interested in justifying her job than in helping you improve upon your prose or poetry. In other words, an undesirable editor is someone whose suggestions usually interfere with your meaning and fail to enhance your style. This sort of editor imposes her wishes about what and how she thinks you ought to be writing, rather than stand at a remove, assess what you want from your writing, and then facilitate your accomplishing your goals. This kind of editor will make you want to tear out your hair. I find myself having to work hard to remain calm and kind in her midst.
The less than gifted editor typically has a narrow view of what a piece of writing ought to be. The writing should theoretically conform to a certain approach and style, but the formula she’s imposing may well have been drained of vitality and interest because it’s been followed so doggedly. Most readers who pick up a piece of writing in the first place are looking for a spark. It doesn’t have to be a bonfire, but it needs to be a flash of something original, something different. A good editor will recognize that spark in your writing and let it shine for a moment.
In a commissioned piece I was recently drafting, I referred to a picture of a woman, shot from above, who appears to be “luxuriating on a cushiony mattress.” The editor working on the article changed the wording: the person looks “as if she were on a luxurious mattress.” Although I didn’t feel that inquiring about this change would be worth the effort, I wonder if the edit resulted from wariness that the reader would balk at the verb luxuriate. I don’t think that even a reader who’d never seen the word before would have trouble figuring out what it meant from the context. The preference for a strong verb over a weak verb, moreover, is a lesson from Writing 101. Granted that the revision eliminates a pesky adjective (cushiony) the stronger verb in the original sentence is its own selling point, and it gets converted in the revision to its own pesky adjective (luxurious).
I won’t be proposing marriage to this editor any time soon.