Editing is a tough task, and many editors unequal to it. At least in my experience.
I’ve worked with a variety of editors in a range of publications, from free tabloids to daily papers to tony lifestyle magazines. I prefer the editors at the dailies, I think. They don’t mess with the writing much. They don’t have time. Your piece gets assigned to you, you send it in, it gets vetted for length, grammar, style, and libel, and it gets printed. If your writing stinks when you send it in it stinks on the printed page, unless they find something better to swap in.
Magazine editors are different. They see it as their job to make the writing better. This is not inherently a bad idea, much of the time. Even the best work by the most talented writer could benefit from having a dispassionate eye turned on it. And the vast majority of the writing with which editors work is not, to put it mildly, the best work of the best writers. As it is difficult to land a job as an editor unless one is at least a mediocre to passable writer, most editors — aside from those in the upper echelons of publications with healthy budgets — spend most of their time working with absurdly mixed metaphors, incomplete statements, tooth-grindingly bad cliche written by people less skilled than the editors themselves.
And so the editors become accustomed to rolling up their sleeves and fixing things. They get so used to it that many of them think that they’re not doing their jobs unless they fix things. This need to fix things becomes independent of the existence, or lack, of anything in the writing that needs fixing.
There is, in the general field my writing tends to occupy, a prestigious and pretty magazine which out of a healthy regard for future potential income I will not here identify. The magazine prints some of the best-known writers in the field. Getting column inch real estate in this mag is widely regarded as a coup in my genre, providing a measure of immediate name recognition among the coffee-table ecorati. I’ve spoken to a few of the pub’s editorial staff, and each of them has said — with not a little not-very-well-hidden pride — that “we make our writers work.”
That’s all well and good when it comes to research, chasing down interview subjects, meeting deadlines and requests for a rewrite if necessary. But what these folks meant, it turns out, is that they make “their writers” turn out rewrites even when it isn’t necessary. They actually meant this as a point of pride, that they put themselves, and their writers, through unnecessary work. One friend who wrote for them a few years back, a notable environmental writer, was asked for four complete rewrites of his article. When asked for a fifth rewrite that would essentially have restored his originally submitted draft, he withdrew the piece from consideration.
That’s almost preferable to the practices of most magazine editors, though: at least the Prestigious Rag has the writer do her own surgery. Most editors wade in with the machete on their own. If they do not actually introduce egregious errors into the piece, you are lucky. That happens more often than you might think. More commonly, they make what seem pointless changes. Swapping an “and” for an “as well as,” for instance, and then changing the “as well as” in the subsequent sentence to an “and.” God forbid the writer uses a rhetorical trope like repetition for emphasis, or antimetabole or chiasmus, for they will rewrite it to read “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask whether you might owe your country something.” They will lard lean sentences with useless information, which phenomenon Ron refers to as “how much does the bridge weigh?” (Long story.) They will interrupt strings of alliteration with dependent clauses. They will violate the music.
In short, they will take writing from any of a hundred disparate sources and make each piece sound as if the same mediocre writer was responsible for it. Whole volumes of magazines, years’ worth of issues, every piece sounding as if it were written by the same committee.
I have never seen the point, myself. Thankfully, I am not the only editor who feels this way. A writer’s voice is a precious thing. Over the last two decades I’ve spent editing writing from the insufficient to the sublime I have cuisinarted precisely one piece in such fashion, and it needed it and I had no other text to fill the hole for which it was slotted, and I pledged never to work with that writer again.
I have rarely had a budget to pay writers, and I am a rather demanding reader, and I still have had more occasion than I can tell you to run articles in nearly the state in which the first draft was delivered. Sometimes a piece just comes in ready for press. Why on earth would any editor in his or her right mind alter a comma that didn’t need altering?
And the same approach, on a fractal level anyway, pays off with writers who aren’t as practiced, or who were not quite as diligent in preparing the piece. It is almost never necessary to go in and futz word by word. If a stretch of text is awkward, it is almost never necessary to the piece: the awkwardness usually comes from the writer’s not knowing what to say about that paragraph’s subject. If the problem can’t be fixed by changing a key word or making a bent sentence whole, excision is almost always sufficient, whether you’re looking at a dependent clause or a whole chapter.
An advantage of this method is that removal is less jarring to the writer than is turning awkward stretches into something else. The writer will recognize writing that is not her own, but often won’t miss what you’ve taken out.
This is even true for the first and last paragraphs of a work, despite the common position in the newspaper biz that one does not change a first paragraph overmuch. This is called “messing with the lede” and it is done only when unavoidable. But new writers often write buried ledes: it’s as if they take a couple paragraphs’ worth of warming up the fingers, knuckle-cracking, before they start writing the real piece. When I work with a piece that starts out awkward or vague, one of the first things I do is look for a good starting paragraph halfway down the page.
And likewise at the far end. Having built up a head of steam, many writers go on past the point where they ought to have stopped. What follows is usually redundant, often trite, sometimes even condescending to the reader in that it hammers home conclusions that are obvious.
A good piece of writing is like a good life. It should have a point. It should be at least moderately interesting. And when it is time for it to end, it should end: dragging it out benefits no one. You are given material with which to work. You figure out what the point is. You make it as graceful as possible. When the point of the material has been fulfilled, you look for an ending.
You look for an ending, and it is almost always obvious where that ending should be, and though the unpracticed often feel the urge to soften it, a good ending is of necessity abrupt.