“You made copy-editing seem like such an important and elevated pursuit,” wrote Peter Sibley, a colleague at the Arizona Daily Star, regretting my absence from this year’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.
Well, it is.
It is a service to the writer. Writers have in their heads what they mean to say, and it doesn’t always arrive intact in text. Competent editing draws out what is essential and clarifies it. Beyond that, all of us who write are fallible, prone to minor and embarrassing errors of fact, orthography, grammar, and usage, and all of us benefit when a practiced eye runs over the page. And there is finally this hard truth: We are not necessarily the best judges of the quality of our work. We need someone of sound judgment to advise us what works and what doesn’t.
It is a service to the reader. The reader, who is not present, is the party most likely to be overlooked in these operations, but without the reader there is no point in the writing. Editors are the reader’s vicar, there to give voice to the reader’s interests and preferences, which may well be at odds with the writer’s. If the writing is cloudy and opaque, then the reader will likely give up the chase for the information contained in it. If the approach does not meet the reader’s needs, then it doesn’t matter how elegant the prose; no one will proceed to the end of it.
It is a service to the publication. Some publications have forgotten this. Editing, to them, is a cost center, a frill, a layer or “touch” separating the reader from a direct encounter with the writer.* These days, the word editor appears in job descriptions about as often as scrivener. This is misguided. As you have already seen, the editor protects the writer from himself and works to ensure that the reader will keep reading the product. But wait—there’s more. Editing protects the publication from embarrassing errors of fact and English usage, which informed readers—the ones you most want—notice and scorn. Editing, when permitted, can protect the publication from plagiarism, fabrication, and libel, which are not only embarrassing but expensive.
Editors are quality folks. I know. I was present at the creation of ACES, and I have met and worked with editors by the hundreds. They are content to work anonymously, in the interest of clarity and precision, for their writers and publications. And, because recognition and reward are scanty in this enterprise, they take their reward in the satisfaction of doing good work. I can tell you this as well, from more than thirty years’ experience: The best writers, almost without exception, are the most appreciative of editing. You should be too.
*Do you really want that? Does the writer?