Why editors have claws

An explanation of why editors have claws and are evil, but why good editors are evil in a particular way that leads to a better story.

Note: this column originally ran in the Publishers Corner of the blog of the Association for Mormon Letters. 

Editors are evil. They’re monsters: vampires who suck the life out of your manuscripts; werewolves who tear your stories to shreds; zombies with vacant stares who repeat the same vacant phrases (Show don’t tell!) while at the same time sucking out your brains. No, scratch all that — editors are mad scientists. They kill your story, cut up your corpse, sew on various mismatched limbs from who knows where (or actually make you sew them on) and then reanimate it with their own evil green energy. No, actually editors are mummies, desiccated corpses wrapped in strips of first and second and third drafts who bar the way to the treasure, which gleams just beyond the pyramid door. And if you try to get past them, they will clutch you in their fetid embrace and curse you and confuse you and turn your journey of self-archeology, your textual discoveries, your personal excavations into a scene of horror and self doubt.

Or to state it more succinctly: Editors are evil, and they have claws.

I should know — I’m one of them. But I’m also writer. I know the pain of the editor’s claws.

The first news release I wrote as young PR pro came back to me with so many red marks it looked like a typographical massacre. And that was just a news release — not a piece of fiction that I was personally invested in. I can still conjure up the raw feelings of some of the feedback I received from the Irreantum editors on “Speculations: Trees.” And those were minor things. And, of course, looking back both of those editors were right.

Editors, or at least good editors, are almost always right. Knowing that, though, still doesn’t always make things easy on the author.

In the writer’s eyes, by the time a story reaches an editor is a finished thing — a corpus, a text, a complete product, a story that has been told. Mentally, that separation has to exist. The author has to feel like the work is done in order to cut it off from the process that has gone into it and send it on its way. At some point the thing has to be done.

For many writers, cutting the story loose is a painful process, but they do it, they create that separation, and then with trembling arms they offer the creation up to the editor who callously rejects it (despair!) or accepts it (joy!). But then, once the joy of the acceptance quickly fades (as it always does), hands it back to you all clawed up and expects you to fix the poor thing up again.

An author often sees those claw marks, those tears in the text as wounds. It’s not unusual for one’s initial reaction upon receiving an edited manuscript back to think: What happened? It looks like it’s been mauled. This is especially true when it comes to marks that are deeper than the basic plastic surgery one expects (e.g. the proofreading, the corrections for style and punctuation) — those marks that we call, cruelly, “developmental edits” (um what? it wasn’t already developed?).

But the editor doesn’t see those tears as wounds. They are gaps to be filled. They are slashes at the pupae or the husk or the shell that help the text slough off its old self and be born as its more beautiful self. They are necessary. Which doesn’t mean that they are always easy to inflict, because editors — good editors — are sometimes like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: at war with themselves. Good editors have to constantly resist the urge to rewrite and instead find ways to prod the author to find the fixes for him or herself.

Although I had edited many works (both fiction and nonfiction) prior to Monsters & Mormons, I had never edited so much fiction in so little time. And sometimes I found myself being evil — keenly aware of the pain I was inflicting, but doing it anyway.

Bad editors aren’t evil. They are clumsy. Or blind. Or tone deaf. Or arrogant. They try to refashion the story in their own image. Or, even worse, they are just clueless. They don’t see what’s wrong with the text or they misdiagnose it.

But good editors (and I hope that I am one) are evil. They are unsparing with their pen, not afraid to wound, and, if needed, wound deeply. Good editors have claws. I suppose I could go for a surgical metaphor here, but that’s not quite right — good editors aren’t quite so clinical and sterile. They rip and bleed and as they do so, they also feel the wounds. They feel the wounds because they are aware of what they are asking. They ask anyway because they can see the text in ways that the authors can’t. Whether it’s for reasons of audience or coherence or aesthetics or genre or clarity or characterization or continuity, good editors capture the author’s vision for the story and then force him or her to stretch it and grow it.

When the process works, the end result is satisfactory. At which point the editor, job done, retracts his claws, steps back into his cave and lets the author parade the finished, fully healed, beautiful thing — the story — out into the streaming, warm light of day.