The editor's frailties
Since l’esprit d’escalier* haunts us all, I’d like to add a piece about the editor’s limitations.
The greatest limitation for an editor is the inability to get beyond whatever level of quality is inherent in the text. “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it,” said Anthony Trollope. When I said previously that much of my work over the years has been to take the execrable and leave it merely mediocre, I was hardly exaggerating.
But similarly, the editor is trammeled by the limitations of his or her skills. That is why it is essential for you, if you work as an editor, to be honest and clear-headed about your own defects as a craftsman.
If, for example, you tend to go too fast and miss details, you will need to find some way to compensate, perhaps by requiring one or two additional readings before letting go of the text. Or if your tendency is to edit too slowly, perhaps you need to set yourself a deadline for each text you pick up.
One hazard to dodge is rigidity. Every time I see some colleague genuflecting before the Associated Press Stylebook (that compendium of sensible advice, inconsistent practice, and laughable shibboleths), I cringe. Every time I see an editor lovingly cataloguing pet peeves, I shake my head; of course we all identify irritants, but I wonder how many important things get overlooked as editors tend to their fetishes.
Then there are the troubling evidences of unexamined assumptions about usage. I too have been guilty of making editing decisions on the basis of something I read once in a book or article, or heard someone say once, without investigating to determine whether it had any validity.
At the worst, there’s the temptation toward one-size-fits-all rigidity, the uniform coat of battleship gray slapped on every text, the ultimate hazard of collective unexamined assumptions, blind adherences to rules real and imagined, and obsessive-compulsive control. Don’t go there.
*The French “spirit of the staircase” is sometimes translated as “staircase wit,” the comeback you think of on your way out the building, the additional remark you wish you had made at the time.