Over the years, I have worked with a lot of editors myself, and watched a lot of my friends work with others. Some have been better than others; some have just been a better fit than others. But they all do pretty much the same thankless, undervalued, and misunderstood job…which is most especially misunderstood by people who have yet to get published.
It’s not really surprising. For those who are not yet published, editors are the evil, unappreciative Dark Lords who reject writers’ brilliant, deathless prose over and over and over. They are the gatekeepers whose job it is to sort through massive slush piles and find the diamonds therein – and each and every aspiring writer believes that their manuscripts are the diamonds. One has to think like that, really, in order to persist in the soul-deadening process of submitting again and again, after receiving rejection after rejection.
All too often, however, beginning writers can’t shift gears once they get past the gate. They fail to realize that gatekeeping is the smallest part of an editor’s job. They’re convinced that every comma and period, every letter they’ve written, is perfect and golden as it is, and they continue to view editors as The Enemy, and resent – or refuse outright – to even consider any of the editor’s comments or suggestions. I’ve run into quite a few such people over the years…and I’ve seen the “works of genius” that they consider too perfect for any editor to improve. And frankly, they’ve all been terrible. You can practically use the attitude as a diagnostic for horrible prose.
Writing is a skill and a craft as well as being an art. And the art can be destroyed all too easily by insufficiencies of skill and craft. Art can also be improved by close attention to skill and craft. A good editor can point the way. They’re not writing tutors, of course; the writer has to do the work him or herself. But a writer who has an editor has presumably acquired writing skills on his or her own already (enough, at least, to warrant the offer of a contract from said editor). It shouldn’t be that hard to keep going with a few editorial pointers to help, especially with all the material that’s available on the web these days.
An editor’s primary job is to make each manuscript the most effective, best, most readable, most wonderful piece of work it can possibly be, so that it will sell millions of copies and both the writer and the editor will look good. Editors don’t always succeed (especially at the million-copies part), but they have had lots of practice at seeing subtle flaws that may have escaped the author because the author is just too close to the project. They also have a lot of experience in judging what works and what doesn’t work. That is their artistry.
Being human, editors also make the occasional mistake, which is why you can argue with them. But if you are going to argue, you really, really need to start by listening and thinking about what the editor is asking for, first. There is very little that is more embarrassing than confronting one’s editor in righteous indignation over some outrageous editorial demand, only to realize halfway through the argument that the editor was right all along.
Editors are not the enemy. Inadequate writing skills are the enemy.