The (dirty rotten) urge to edit

You’d think that because we aren’t living in caves, being tribal and territorial, protecting our lands and food and family, that we’ve changed in some fundamental ways.

You’d think that the days of buying into the papacy, putting family members in powerful positions, buying political power and favours, buying answers to tests so that we can graduate with that degree have gone the way of the dodo bird, and that today we live in a meritocracy because we have free(ish) education, we read books, we can become better human beings and we have learned, generally speaking, how to behave according to socially acceptable norms, which is with respect, consideration and regard for other people’s feelings, personhood, creativity.

I think that we have moved somewhat from those old days. Or at least, people are getting caught doing those bad bad things, which is good. But deep within our biological self, there remains the need-for-power-and-the-time-to-prove-it instinct. And some people have found socially acceptable ways to exercise it with a little thing called a red pencil, and a process known as editing.

Perhaps it’s occurred to you that while there are myths explaining why we all speak different languages there’s nothing, not in the 10 commandments or in any of the sutras, that touches on the power, the primal need, the urge, the sublime addiction to editing. Perhaps it’s because this particular expression of power didn’t evolve until the printing press and the growth of literacy.

Curiously, educational systems seem to have forgotten this, since most have neglected to teach people how to spell and how to write clearly because goodness knows, teaching such important basics to kids might interfere with their self-esteem. Our school systems appear to have a policy of waiting until those kids become mutant teenagers — that time of life when a red mark on a paper can be interpreted as a weird badge of honour or trigger a deep depression. Let me say this about that: you failed us school systems. It is perfectly fine to tell a kid she’s wrong, that there are right ways to spell, wrong ways to write. And for the parents out there, adult-up for goodness sake. You can tell a kid she’s wrong in a healthy way, but please, teach her and him and them to spell and put sentences together, will ya?

I could be wrong but it seems as if no one has contemplated in any of our social or moral touchstones or guiding principles how this urge to edit that’s emerged since the spread of literacy has come to be used for good or evil. Sure, there’s stuff about propaganda, but that’s just one aspect of the story of the urge to edit.

Still, if you write for business, you will be edited: media releases, memos, information releases, brochures, business cases, project plans, annual reports: everything gets edited for content and sometimes for style and sometimes for format. What works in print doesn’t always works in digital media, and of course, social media has a different style entirely, although the social aspect has given way to corporatization, which simply means more editing to make sure things are on message. Oh and it’s important to know proofreading is not editing. Two entirely different things.

Writers are not always good editors of their own work, either. If you’ve seen it seven days in a row, you will not see the errors. Once upon a time I liked to edit. Not so much now. People seem to think their every word was dictated by the goddess of words, and should not be changed. Um, no. Even if the words WERE channeled by you from the gods, or goddesses, some editing is required to match the audience. It’s just how it goes.

On the other side, it seems that as many people as there are who want to write, there are many more who consider themselves not only wannabe editors, but good editors.

Have I got news for them. Having the urge to edit doesn’t necessarily confer the ability to edit. Anyone can pick up a red pencil and make marks on a paper. Anyone. It takes strength to resist that filthy, dirty rotten urge, that addiction to cross out a word for one you like better, or move a paragraph because you would not have written it that way. Here’s the thing: being an editor isn’t about how you would write it; being an editor is how the writer can write better and how the editor can help with that.

Being a good editor is as much a skill and talent as being a good writer. And just because people have this urge to edit doesn’t mean the urge translates into anything more than the ability to cross one word out and replace it with another. That is not editing, that’s graffiti; the urge to make a mark, assert one’s presence, one’s power, your voice over another. That kind of editing is not about the piece of writing, making it better, making it stronger, making it appropriate, bringing it to life and helping the writer to grow and be a better writer.  That’s one person’s ego saying “I was here, too”.

Every writer needs an editor and a good editor; ideally, someone who doesn’t approach an editing assignment wearing their primitive brain. Although that editor might be a better one than the editor who offers little more than “ya, I liked your piece…”

A good editor knows the language of editing; can see the whole of the piece and its parts; a good editor helps the writer pull it all together and helps pull amazing writering things out of the writer that the writer can’t do alone.

So the next time you feel that urge to edit, check in: is it a reflex? Necessary? Just because you’re the manager or director in the creative shop, do you really need to add a word or take one away just to prove you touched it? And if the writer did get it wrong, why is that? What can you, wearing a true editor’s hat, do to help the writer get it right? And writer: leave it for a day or two then look at it with an editor’s eye. Your writing will be stronger for it.


About FS

Toronto, Canada. Writing about slices of life, the moments and minor details of which come into awareness or out of imagination and the spaces inbetween.
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4 Responses to The (dirty rotten) urge to edit

  1. Kate McCausland says:

    Great post! It brings back my philosophy days where I had a professor who insisted on what a great editor she would make (truthfully, she makes an excellent point). Even with an “A” she would hand it back with red pen marks all over each page. Granted she made me a better writer in both form and language use.

    • fs says:

      Hello :-). That’s a wonderful experience of an editor for anyone who writes anything. And congrats on the A! I’ve been fortunate: I know some amazing editors, from different backgrounds who’ve taught me lots. And writers I’ve worked with seem to appreciate my editorshipness. (Wordplay — PLEASE don’t bring out the red ink!) I am, being somewhat cheeky: people who’ve trained as, oh I don’t know, something deep and physical and who never read, believing they can edit triggered this wee rant.

  2. Erin Roof says:

    As a copy editor, I really enjoyed your post. And I resisted the overwhelming urge to fix your mistakes 😉

    • fs says:

      Dear Grammar: thank you: I HAD to put mistakes in…. 😉 it would have been evil of me not to, don’t you think?

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