Separating Personal Preference from Productivity in the Editing Process

The personal and the artistic have always gone hand-in-hand; each artist, writer, musician, and even gardener brings their own personal skills and perspectives into their work. The same can be said of editors, who have a crucial role in bringing manuscripts off the paper and onto…well, different, more official paper. But an editor’s balance between personal and professional is different from the writer’s.

We all have preferences for the kind of stories we want to read and see, and we also have preferences for how we want them to be told. An editor’s job is to find the sweet-spot between their own feelings and what they know will be the best method or mode for the story. This is true in all aspects of editing, from developmental editing to line editing and proofing, from the editing done in literary journals to the editing done by presses like Ooligan. Editors must balance their own vision for the book with the vision of the press and the author’s vision. Failing to do so can drive a wedge between the author and editor and damage the all-important author-editor relationship.

Editing involves exposing harsh truths, making tough decisions, and facilitating collaboration. So how can an editor—especially a new one—make sure that their decisions, suggestions, and occasional “wing-clippings” are fair?

The answer lies in the ability to separate what we want a story to be (which is subjective and infinite) from what the story and author needs. If an editor prefers to read happy endings, then too bad. If the story needs, deserves, and will be best and most authentically served by a less-than-happy ending, then this is the direction the editor should push the writer towards. Similarly, if a writer loves to use metaphor after metaphor, it is the editor’s responsibility to step in and let them know if it’s working for the manuscript or not.

An editor should know the story inside and out, but they must also avoid the snow-blindness that sometimes afflicts authors who rest their hopes and passions on their work. Editors can do this by asking themselves questions that are motivated by objective reasoning instead of personal preference.

Does this metaphor really strengthen the image/message, or does it bog the story down?

How many intentional misspellings or grammar errors by this character are too many?

Will this [word choice, scene, flashback, etc.] productively complicate the story, or will it just confuse the audience?

Of course, we can never completely separate all personal biases from our work, but questions and actions based on an objective view of the manuscript will create a better end result. The inverse of this approach is a lazy form of editing that simply says, “I don’t like this. Cut it. Change it.” This form of editing creates feelings in a writer that tank collaboration, which is the engine of publishing. It does a disservice to the editor, author, and audience all at once. It is harder—and more rewarding—work to separate the wheat from the chaff of one’s own opinions and perceptions and question and evaluate our prejudices in order to nurture a manuscript into the best it can be.

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