The Agreeable Editor: A Walking Paradox

I recently heard an editor say, “There’s only one phrase you need to know in the editing business, ‘Okay.’ ” That seems fine on face value, but being agreeable doesn’t get you far. You want to advocate for the audience, not the writer.

Writers don’t know best. I sound like a zealous editor when I say that, but don’t forget that I’m a writer too. I expect the people who edit my work to know what’s best for the audience. (And yes, someone edits everything I publish, outside of blog posts. Everyone needs an editor.) I expect my editors to know my audience better than I do. I expect them to challenge me.

I stopped editing for a company at one point because they thought I was too aggressive. I figured that they thought I knew best, and that’s why they hired me. I was wrong. They wanted me to gently coach the writer into reducing the word count, and carry out the writer’s will. I thought they wanted me to translate the author’s words–to make the writer applicable, not make the writer happy. In retrospect, I could have been clearer on objectives, eliminated assumptions, and spent more time building trust with the writer. I’m not sure if it would have made a difference in this scenario, but it would have been worth the try. Nonetheless, I learned something–here’s what I learned.

Most writers don’t want a real editor; they want someone to fix their grammar. It turns out that most people are not interested in creating a book that people will read front to back; they’re interested in expressing their thoughts. And, they value every one. Who can blame them?

I think every thought I write matters, but most of them don’t. Not everything you write is good. Not every thought or idea you have is important. You need an editor to tell you which ones matter and how to best phrase/structure your thoughts. (Grammar matters too, but that’s the last step.)

This is why I’m not in the business of being agreeable. Being agreeable is boring, and unproductive. You have to care about the audience first. If they aren’t happy, no one is. It doesn’t matter how important you think your words are if no one reads them. Editing is an art, like many things. And art is subjective. A good editor is very good at being subjective–at knowing what’s best for the subjective audience.

So my thoughts, as an editor, on this post: It could be better. Why? No one edited it but me. I bet my editors have five critiques waiting for me. I look forward to hearing them.

How do you balance editing/being edited with what’s best for the audience?

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