What makes a good editor?

Had a splendid chat with the Megan Geuss the other day, which got me thinking about work. And thinking about work means I post it here, so there you go.

We were batting around ideas for a sentence, trying to figure out if a particular turn of phrase was too clever to keep. (I know you’re sitting at the edge of your seat waiting to hear this story come to its conclusion. She decided to kill it.) Of course, this is the question of the ages. Does anyone (besides other writers/editors) appreciate a particularly witty turn of phrase? At what point will we sacrifice immediate readability for what could be a more entertaining read? Basically, how am I supposed to do my fucking job?

I should probably lay out where I’m coming from, briefly: I’ve been writing about tech and games for about 11-12 years now, starting with a few years blogging (before we called it that) for MacGamer.com, and then a few years of freelancing features for the Escapist (mostly while in school). Eventually landed an internship with PCWorld which turned into my first proper Editor job, and now I’m editing Game Developer.

When I was mostly on the writing side of things, I very rarely bothered to edit my stuff. (That’s my editor’s job, right?) I’d pound out a draft, give it a quick look, send it out, and when I got it back with comments and edits I’d never even look at the thing unless they had queries for me. Now, after having class-changed from Writer to Editor, I consider that the height of self-indulgence. Something best left for blogs (like this one), really.

As an editor in a professional capacity, I think I’m supposed to make things more readable; to bring everything interesting and useful in an article out to the forefront as much as possible. To prevent a writer’s words from getting in the way of what she is trying to say. That frequently means getting rid of clever turns of phrase, delicious puns, and generally “killing darlings”, as Megan put it.  To me, those are ultimately expressions of ego–a writer’s way of saying LOOK AT ME, I’M SO SMART–and those rarely have a place in the publications I work for.

During the Mike Daisey/This American Life beef (remember that, years ago?), I remember reading an interesting (though flawed) article that is basically on how modern journalists are terrible writers. Not in a strictly mechanical sense, mind you–the author isn’t saying “learn your darn grammar, kids, and never let me see you use ‘irregardless’!”. He’s just saying that modern journalism is mostly written to be really boring, and expose all the salient facts by leaving nothing else in there to get in the way. An article is good if it is about something interesting, or contains useful information, nothing more.

All the editing work I’ve done has been for PCWorld’s How-Tos and Game Developer (which is mostly how-tos), so I typically choose my writers based on their ability to produce interesting/useful information, not on their ability to produce well-written works (as it turns out, most of these guys aren’t writers by trade, so words are usually things that get in the way of what they’re trying to say). I end up killing a lot of darlings.

On the other hand, I’ve personally gotten the best feedback when I write with flourish (and don’t edit it myself). I suspect this is because I am writing for venues in which the author is part of the appeal of the publication itself, rather than an interchangeable information delivery mechanism; people never call anything I wrote for PCW “well-written” because no one reads PCW for the quality of the writing, just the quality of the information. Insert Credit and the Escapist were both venues in which an author’s quirks and personality are embraced as part of the draw of the site (and I should probably add that former Escapist editor Russ Pitts and Insert Credit founder Brandon Sheffield are both given to expressive, whimsical writing with plenty of flourish themselves), so jacking off into a text editor and sending it over is a bit more forgivable. This is the “answer” I’ve found for myself, anyway.

-pm

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One Response to What makes a good editor?

  1. John White says:

    I subscribe to the news vs editorial distinction in this case. I want my news to be news – direct, to-the-point, informative, and unbiased. Plenty of tactics exist for journalists to write engaging stories without injecting ego, novelty, and superfluous information into the story. If I want you to blow a load into my eyes, I’ll read your editorial, which is intended to be soaked in dominant and self-indulging spunk.

    Frankly, the answer pivots on your audience; think FOX news vs MSNBC which are both largely broadcast editorials geared toward inflammatory content to ensnare their audience. Whereas, you and your colleague miss Guess are both sophisticated consumers of literature and news. You could probably blissfully swim through in-depth newsworthy articles that boast literary merit.

    Alternatively, I found this blog post through a re-tweet of miss Guess, and wouldn’t have otherwise. I belong to the impatient and hurried crowd that embraces the 140 character limit which forces even the editorial writers to get to the point. If you get my attention, then I’ll give you my time and read your feature or follow-ups.

    If I want to cuddle darlings you haven’t slaughtered, I’ll pick up a real book that has the appropriate space and time to develop them. If this article was really about finding ways to be appreciated as a good writer, or to offer something in the way of literary value, then I suggest you follow in Hemingway’s foot-steps, short of the suicide.

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