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Monday, March 1, 2010

Keeping Things on the Straight and Narrow

This morning I was editing a manuscript for a book intended to be both practical and inspirational. The chapter I was working on focused on having spiritual belief. And I found myself in conversation (electronically, via Track Changes Comments) with the author, feeling unconvinced by the author’s discussion and asking questions readers might ask in order to “go there” with her.

That got me thinking about the editor’s role, which I believe is to reflect the reader’s unfolding experience to the author. The author is the expert on his or her world, but that very expertise can cause a blind spot about the reader’s world. The editor’s job is to align the worlds of author and reader so they can enter each other’s experiences. When things work as they should, both are enriched: most authors who are well edited say that the process not only improved their book, but also deepened their understanding of their subject, and satisfied readers extol the rewards of reading well-written books.

That philosophy of “being the reader” keeps me on the editorial straight and narrow: if an edit falls under the rubric of my personal preference (“I don’t agree with this,” or “here’s how I would write it,”) I consider it an invalid edit. If it falls under the rubric of reflecting the reader’s experience (“I’m confused by this statement because it contradicts the one just above,” or “I don’t understand the leap of logic between this paragraph and the next one,” or “I think there’s a risk of losing the skeptic in this section; here’s where the thread of logic seemed to disappear,” or “This is the first time we’ve seen this term. What does it mean?"), then it’s valid and worthy of the author’s consideration. It’s an approach that keeps the ego out of things and puts both the author and me squarely where we should be: in the service of the subject and the reader.

Copyright (c) 2010 by Toni Sciarra Poynter


  1. So well put, Toni. I've often edited books on topics about which I know fairly little--financial management, for example, or arms control. But I know enough to be able to tell when the average reader is likely to be confused. Then I say to the author, "Explain so that I can understand it!" If he or she is able to explain it so that I can understand, then I am confident that most of the other dummies out there will get it as well!

  2. 100% agreed! If something's not clear to me, I trust that there are plenty of other people it won't be clear to either. The editor's job is then to help make the material clear, or to ask the questions that will enable the writer to clarify sufficiently.

    In the area of personal style and taste, I will often rewrite a sentence or paragraph or line of dialogue if I believe that the tone or rhythm of the language is off. I then explain why I've done so and give the author the choice of taking my change or not. Ideally, I am able to amend in the voice of the author so that I don't impose my own voice or style into his or her book.

  3. I think you've gotten to the heart of the editor's role in your post, Toni. I would echo Karl's and Nan's comments. I always told my students in my Editing Workshop at the Denver Publishing Institute how important it was to avoid taking over the book--which is after all the author's--in an excess of zeal and that the editor's job is to help the author say what he wants to say in his own way.