Imagine you’ve built your dream house, painstakingly installed a lot of custom cabinetry, and have finally painted the living room. The walls are a creamy white, the ceiling a distinctive sky blue. You’re just about to carry in a new recliner and settle into it against the far wall, under that darling bay window, when your favorite architect arrives. Looking around with more of a frown than you expected, she tells you that the living room would be a whole lot more pleasant if you replaced that sky blue ceiling with a skylight. And while you’re at it, maybe you should convert that bay window to a sliding glass door, so you could more easily move onto the outside deck?
Fortunately, words are easier to add and subtract than ceilings and windows, and most editors are more tactful than this particular architect. But like a good designer, the best editors are able to see not only what’s already on the page—they know how to enrich a story by removing one key piece or adding a link to another.
The reason editors can see these potential improvements is because they work from what I call the middle distance: they are able to step back and see the work from the target audience’s perspective, while simultaneously knowing enough about the subject matter to edit it accurately. An editor can’t be as in love with the topic as the writer is. But she also can’t be so far removed that the topic isn’t familiar.
Writers operate within a world that colors their language. I speak sailing, so for me, “hiking” means leaning out over the windward side of a boat and “fall off” is a steering adjustment. For fishermen, “chum” is chopped-up fish tossed overboard to attract not yet chopped-up fish. For powerboaters, “WOT” means Wide Open Throttle, their favorite setting.
And that’s just two examples picked at random from within the marine industry. There are many, many words and abbreviations that mean one thing to a specialist and something else entirely to the rest of the world. Soldiers and Afghanis think “ISAF” stands for International Security Assistance Force. Sailors read it as the former acronym of World Sailing. Both are right.
Editors must understand the language of both the writer and their target audience—and where there’s a gap, span it with a bridge of words.
For me, making what’s on the page into the best it can possibly be is pretty straightforward. When presented with an existing collection of words and ideas, it’s easy to pick out what’s really important—even when it’s unintentionally buried halfway down the page, below a lot of unnecessary pontification or detail. Move that key idea to the top… follow it up with a bunch of supporting statements… make sure there’s a logical conclusion… and bingo! Another reader will now be able to follow the writer’s thought process.
The difficult part of editing is seeing what’s not there yet—having the vision to realize that adding the word equivalents of a sliding glass door would connect two parts of the existing story, making it deeper, more relevant, and more easily understood by the reader.
I’ve written before about the Editor Within, and ideally every writer should have this ability to refine a first or second draft into something close to finished. But only an external editor can operate from the middle distance—not so in love with the topic to forget what the audience doesn’t know, yet still comfortable in the world that makes this particular story special.
Editors provide a link between writer and reader. The best ones will tear out a story’s unnecessary ceilings and replace the darling bay windows, as well as suggesting entirely new rooms when needed. Whether we are writer or reader, we don’t know what we don’t know; fortunately, editors—at least those with the bridge-building perspective of middle distance—do.