Editing–not re-writing!

  • Really good writing is a genuine art. I’m currently lapping up The Best American Travel Writing 2016 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.) and had one of those moments word lovers experience, like a brilliant flash of colour in the mind’s eye, as I read a sentence from Gretel Ehrlich’s article, “Rotten Ice”:

“Below us, a cracked elbow of ice bent and dropped, and long stretches of open water made sparkling slits cuffed by rising mist.”


A friend asked me the other day about my work as an editor. He wondered whether I spent a lot of time thinking of ways to express people’s writing better. It’s a valid question, and a concern for most writers when they work with an editor. The short answer is a big NO. Just as the medical practitioner’s Hippocratic Oath includes the concept of “first, do no harm”, the professional editor must preserve the author’s voice. That means a number of things: maintaining the tone (or attitude) of the writing, ensuring the author’s intended meaning is not lost or changed, and making sure our personal preferences don’t affect our editing decisions.

For instance, in the sentence cited above, suppose I personally want nothing to do with alliteration. Ever. The appearance of “sparkling slits” might make me grate my teeth in revulsion, but there is nothing grammatically incorrect about it. In fact, these words paint a vivid and accurate picture of what the author is describing. (For the record, I love alliteration. See?)

We may be asked to offer our advice on re-wording certain sections of the manuscript, or watch out for specific author tics they are trying to avoid, but most copy edits involve polishing the mechanics of the writing; correctness, consistency, and clarity are the goals.

Editing is a collaboration between author and editor. Each is an expert with their own skills, and a good rapport between the two is of the utmost importance. If everything falls into place, an excellent piece of writing that gives readers goosebump moments will be the result.