The man who started a thousand ed board wars.
I’m writing a novel… kind of.
I’ve been editing my partner’s novel as he writes it, slowly, chapter by chapter over the past year. Naturally, the question of what role editors play in a work can’t help but pop up. As is the case with the under-populated group of book reviewers, editors are often writers in disguise, always skirting the risk of inserting their own style into an unwilling text—see the infamous Carver/Lish debacle.
There is a blatant anonymity to the editing process that can define it. You never see a long list of thank-yous to editors or early readers at the end of an article—they were almost certainly there, editing and influencing nearly everything we read, and yet are never meant to be seen. It’s a fully behind-the-scenes operation, doing our best to make the work appear as though it drifted fully-formed from the author’s mind to the reader’s eyes. For the most part, editing is a labour of love—love for the writer, their work, or just literature in general. Of course, publishing houses and large magazines employ professional editors, but below that level many editors go unpaid and unrecognized. Though perhaps the love of respectable (read: paid) work is a more pragmatic love.
True, editors receive recognition in the back of the books they’ve worked on, but I’m referring to the unseen work of those editing articles and blog posts, first drafts of short stories and poems. I’ve been in many workshops, played the role of both editor and victim, and I’ve witnessed people honing their talents in editing over years. The ability to functionally string words together and the ability to recognize when it’s not being done right is a seriously enviable skill, both in and outside literary sects.
There are slews of articles lamenting the death of the skilled and devoted editor in large publishing houses, which are tending now to value speed of production and marketability over artistry. It’s tempting, no doubt, to go down this path. Editing is slow, hard, intentionally invisible work. Working with an author on an unfinished piece or a first draft can feel a lot like writing in itself. You’re looking at the work as something wholly malleable, something you’ve been invited into with the power to change it and, depending on the level of engagement with the author, the process can even seem a little like co-writing.
Of course, I’m not calling for editors to be valued as equal to the author, but perhaps better credited. Like writing, editing is work that we love—arduous but rewarding. As poet Josh Smith once explained to me: if you were a truck driver and you loved driving trucks and you were really great at it and people really valued your work, you would still expect to get paid.
For the many talented and devoted editors out there working out of love, there is a deep satisfaction knowing you’ve truly helped to improve both the work and the author. There is reward in the pride of seeing a piece you’ve edited achieve success and for its author to receive the praise s/he deserves. The force of a good editor may be invisible, but it is undeniable. I feel so incredibly indebted to the great editors in my life. They’ve shaped not only the pieces of mine they’ve edited, but the way I think about and edit my own work. They have become that little nagging voice in my head—in a good way.
This is why we edit. We truly want the work and the author to be the best they can be. This is why I give time every day to talking with my partner about his novel, to editing endless drafts and re-drafts, to discovering and falling in love with these characters right along with him. And perhaps, for some bragging rights: Hey, see that line? Yeah, I told him to keep that.
Thank you so much to all the otherwise unacknowledged editors of this article:
Mark Jordan Manner
Andrew F. Sullivan
Jessica Bebenek is a Toronto poet and writer with work appearing/forthcoming in The Rusty Toque, [PANK], Steel Bananas, The Flying Walrus, and Uncharted Sounds magazines. She is the founder of the micro-press Loose Ends Press and published her first chapbook, I, Family, this past spring. She lives downtown with two pet rats and a prose writer. www.JessicaBebenek.com