The Answer to the Editing Question You're Too Afraid to Ask

"No Red Pens Aloud Allowed"

4/1/2016

When I meet people for the first time, during the small-talk phase, I'm often asked what I do. When I explain that I work as an editor, I get a range of responses.

There are the people who simply smile and nod (I admit that I do the same when someone says she's an accountant); the people who say that they'll never link to me on social media for fear that I'll correct them (I won't); and—I admit this is a fairly small group—the people who ask what I edit, and why I do it.

In the rare cases where someone does want to learn more—and if they don't immediately ask me if being an editor means that I truly want to be an author—I find myself caught between discussing the nuts and bolts of the job ("I do a lot of search-and-replace in Microsoft Word") and the fantasy vision of the job everyone sees in movies (the editor who finds the jewel in the rough and turns it into an instant best seller).

While I do, in fact, use a lot of Microsoft Word's tools, they've never launched a best seller for me.

What does that have to do with this column?

Over the next, well, however long you'll put up with me, I'm going to share with you some of that in-between realm where we find all the daily work that I do.

We'll be looking at the broad topic of "What is editing?" and the more personal "Why should you and I care about editing?"

I'm not going to get all Grammarly on you, and I won't be going full-on Grammar Girl (err... Guy), either. Those folks have already claimed their Internet space, and—as an editor—I'm not one to try to push someone off a pedestal. That doesn't mean I won't try to share it, though.

Let's get this whole discussion started with the most basic of questions:

What is editing?

Oh, wait. Did I say that was a basic question? Yeah… That'd be a lie. It's probably one of the biggest questions I could actually try to answer. You see, editing means something different to almost every person you ask—whether they're in the business or not.

If you talk to someone in "traditional" publishing, you'll learn about editors who are kind of shepherds, guiding authors from their first attempts at manuscripts all the way through to their publication dates. And—in that same scenario—you'll find a bunch of subdivisions, like copyeditors, line editors, and developmental editors.

If you ask someone in the print news business, you'll find that editors are the ones deciding which pieces to print and which to leave out. They're the ones who assign headlines and send stories to layout.

And, of course, there are all of the versions of editing that happen in non-language, non-print venues: video editing, sound editing, and the like.

What they all have in common, though, is the very thing that gets me excited to do my job: all editors take an existing product and—in a perfect world—make it better than it was before. The traditional publishing editor creates a book where only pages existed before. The newspaper editor makes sure that stories are presented in a particular way. Video and audio editors take raw footage and turn out epics. Essentially, they're all doing the same thing.

I, however, am not any of those. I don't work in traditional publishing. I don't follow a news cycle. And I can't even get a gif to show up in my email.

via GIPHY

What I do do is sit at a desk for eight hours every week day and work with the manuscripts people pay me to edit. I spend my time making the author's words sound better. Making the manuscript "tighter." Digging for the buried gems of knowledge and brilliance that need one more polish to make them shine.

If you ask me, that's what editing—in any form—is.

And I really love it. I love watching a manuscript come to life with a few tweaks and nudges (and the occasional knock-down-drag-out fight). I like to be able to look at what I've accomplished at the end of the day and feel like I've made a difference.

Okay—if I'm being totally honest—I also spend a lot of time correcting spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors. But that is where some of the most unintentionally memorable moments come into play.

I fully admit that I love finding some of the inadvertently funny-as-hell lines that people have left in their work. I read something a week or so ago about waves "braking" against the shore and immediately wondered what kind of car those waves must have been driving. (To show you what I mean, I'll be sharing some of those quotes along the way, too.)

So what is editing? It's a world unto itself—a world of rules to be learned so you know how and when to break them, a world of intrigue and mystery, and a realm of impossible dreams and amazing realities. It is, in short, a pretty cool way to make a living.

Editing

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Robert Schmidt

Robert Schmidt spends much of his time helping others craft their best work while he searches for hidden treasures.

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