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Every Writer Deserves an Editor

The following is another of the columns I wrote several years ago for The Erotic Readers and Writers Association, with a touch of revision.

The Political Made Personal

Every writer deserves an editor. The first time I heard this sentence was as Editor of On Our Backs magazine. One of our columnists was Pat Califia (and she was Pat, not Patrick, back then). Califia was the first writer I’d ever read who openly and intelligently addressed the issue of power in the bedroom. Before moving to California from the East Coast I’d read and re-read her anthology, Coming to Power, and it had a profound affect on me.

Several years later, when I found myself sitting behind a desk with Pat Califia’s words in front of me, my pen stopped mid-air. Who was I to edit this awesome goddess of the sexual cutting-edge? How dare I scribble my trivial comments across her holy sentences, or strike out one single sacred word? And what if, dear goddess, she didn’t like what I did to those words? I’d heard about her famous whip collection.

I was known as a “slash-and-burn” editor, and was proud of it. No timid little comma changer, I used not a soft No. 2 pencil, but heavy black or neon purple ink. I tore through short stories, features and columns with a fervor, confidently picking up, discarding and inserting words, phrases and even whole sentences. I had enormous faith, to the point of chutzpah, in my editing abilities. I trusted, as I still do, my editorial ear—it tells me when the rhythm is off, and ferrets out ideas struggling to emerge from between the lines. I had no compunction about scrawling questions, comments, strike-throughs and alterations across the pages of America’s foremost lesbian sex writers.

And so publisher Debi Sundahl, who had herself been on the receiving end of my merciless pen, was stunned when, long after quitting time, she found me still sitting at my desk, paralyzed by Califia’s column. She took me into her office, sat me down on her famous couch, and told me, “Every writer deserves an editor. Even Pat Califia.”

typewriter.jpg  To understand this sentiment, one must accept the writer/editor relationship not as adversarial, but as mutually beneficial. Although this was something I’d vaguely suspected from my experience as a writer, it was frequently obscured by stereotypes, jokes, and the grousing of other writers. But editing is a gift, one that the best writers learn to receive with grace and appreciation.

This is not to say that every writer should always accept all of an editor’s changes as gospel. Unfortunately, not all editors know what they’re doing. Often times they don’t get what an author is trying to say, and will alter the writer’s meaning to fit some misinterpretation. Or they do get what the writer is saying, and alter it anyway to fit their own agenda. Some editors arbitrarily change words or phrases for no apparent or tangible reason. Some don’t listen when the writer explains what she was trying to accomplish, or why she purposely chose certain words. And sometimes we just get carried away, slashing and burning because someone just gave us a nifty new pen.

I have been guilty of all these editorial errors. In my regular practice, however, I try hard to preserve an author’s intent, as well as her unique voice, or style. My primary aim when editing is to make the writing flow smoothly, and to make sure the author’s meaning is clear to the average reader. When confronted with a story in which I sense the writer trying to say something more, but not quite succeeding, I talk to her and try to elicit the deeper, often darker, truth. I think I do a fairly good job; at least, that’s what most writers tell me.

Any editor who does her job correctly has earned the right to regard her work as a gift. That’s why it can feel hurtful, even offensive, when a writer rejects an editor’s suggestions, or becomes confrontational. This hasn’t happened to me very often, but it has happened. One Herotica author sent me a nasty letter with a precise accounting, by number, of the changes I’d made to her story, organizing them into those she thought were arbitrary and those she thought off-base (none, she declared, were necessary). I never worked with her again. (Come to think of it, could fear of future rejection be the real reason most writers don’t confront me? For all I know they get together in tight little groups and stick needles into a Marcy voodoo doll.)

I’ve been on the writing side of the editorial process enough to know the benefits of good editing. I almost always enjoy being edited: to begin with, it’s wonderful just to have someone pay that much attention to my work. When an editor weighs the pros and cons of using one word rather than another in one of my passages, or spends a moment considering whether to use a dash or a comma somewhere, I’m thrilled. She is telling me, Your work is important. What you say and how you say it matters. In a world where writing is all too often ignored or seen as trivial, this kind of attention is deeply satisfying.

Beyond ego stroking, editorial changes usually teach me something, whether it’s how to be more precise or how to make a scene more vivid. The most significant benefit of good editing, of course, is that my story–or essay or feature or review–ends up being better. I could have paid a fortune to a professional editor or “book doctor”—in recent years this literary sideline has mushroomed –to teach me these lessons or fix up my work. But I got these services gratis from the editor at the newspaper, magazine, or anthology. How can I not be grateful?
I’m not tooting the editor’s horn in order to garner praise and adoration. I’m writing this to point out that the writer/editor relationship does not have to be adversarial; in fact, it is inherently positive in that both parties want the same outcome–a good piece of writing. Editing’s gotten a bad rep from, on one side, power-hungry editors who pull rank on writers, and, on the other side, ivory-tower writers who believe that every word they produce is a precious untouchable jewel. This kind of attitude is, more often than not, the mark of an amateur. Any time I’ve encountered this type of writer, she turns out to be previously unpublished. Professional writers realize they’re too close to their own work to see its weaknesses. Professionals know that any piece of writing can be improved. They know that the editor is their advocate–or can be.

When I finally got over my fear of Califia’s words, I was able to edit her like anyone else. As I do with those writers who’ve been publishing a long time, I called to review my changes with her rather than surprising her on publication day. At one point she re-wrote a sentence, telling me each new word over the phone. An erotic thrill shot through me as I thought to myself, Pat Califia is dictating to me.

Writers and editors need to respect one another, and to learn from their working relationship. I look back at some of my editors and realize how much they helped me develop as a writer. And, as an editor, I’ve learned a lot from writers. One of these was Pat Califia.



2 responses »

  1. Great piece, Marcy. A true writer-editor *relationship*, even a temporary one, is a rare gift that leaves both parties richer for it. One of my most treasured moments as an editor came when I worked for a chain of weekly newspapers near San Francisco. One day, a bright young reporter who was leaving for her first job at a daily approached my desk and handed me a manila folder. In it was every note I had ever written to her about her writing. I was stunned. She thanked me and said she was a better writer because of my input. That was flattering, of course, but the important thing was that it reminded me that every stroke of the editor’s pen has an impact not only on the piece at hand but on the writer as well.

    P.S.: Thanks for your comments on my “Five tips for every writer” post.

    Tom,You’re absolutely right–and good for you for mentoring writers in your role as editor. We are the unsung heroes of the written word!–MS

  2. I wish I had the talent. Excellent article!


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