The Sanctity of the Writer-Editor Relationship

There’s an unspoken pact between writers and editors.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Recently I rewatched Mary Norris’s Ted Talk—for possibly the 20th time—and, as always, a new gem stood out to me. Norris, former New Yorker copy editor, touched on the writer-editor relationship:

There is a pact between editors and writers. The editor never sells out the writer, never goes public about bad jokes that were cut or stories that went on too long. A great writer saves an editor from her excesses.

Listening to this quote had me nodding along in agreement, and it made me want to explore the writer-editor relationship further for the sake of my clients—or for potential future clients who are currently hesitant about working with an editor.

Writers, especially new writers, may think that sharing their work with an editor will “out” them as a…bad writer. Someone who doesn’t deserve to be among the ranks of those who call themselves scribes.

That’s why I want to share a key lesson I learned early on in my career as an editor:

Everyone needs an editor. Everyone.

It matters not in the slightest whether you are a naturally strong writer or even a great editor! Whatever you wrote can be improved by another pair of eyes, and further still by a pair of professional eyes. I’ve been a professional editor for eight years, and I still ask others for feedback and edits on important work.

As someone who also writes, I take great comfort from this lesson. I no longer fear criticism of my written work because I know every writer receives criticism. It’s just part of the process.

I’m not embarrassed by the “faults” in my writing because I’ve seen it all as an editor—and I am being completely honest when I say that I don’t judge as I edit. I never think, Oh, jeez, a dangling modifier, don’t they know anything about syntax? or Wow, that’s a major plot gap, how could they have missed something so egregious?

Furthermore, I never assume writers don’t know the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc., if their work includes such an error.

Editors know that writers encounter all kinds of obstacles in the writing process: deadlines, heavy workload, lack of inspiration, low expertise in the topic, simply having lived with a piece of work too long to be able to see it clearly…

The act of writing is challenging. What’s more, writing and editing use two different brain modes, as Anupam Krishnamurthy says in his post “Separate your writing from your editing”:

Our brain alternates between working in the diffuse mode and the focused mode. The diffuse mode is responsible for open, creative thinking.… The focused mode…helps us determine logic, structure and sequence.… For a given task, the brain can be either in the focused mode or the diffused mode. Mixing up our writing and editing causes us to switch between these two modes, breaking the flow of our thought.

For writers to get the words on the page, they have to release the unrealistic goal of making it perfect the first time around.

What writers need to know about editors is that we have a profound respect for you. Because it takes determination and creativity to write. Editors react to the text. Writers create it from nothing.

This lays the foundation for the writer-editor relationship.

A little client love from a book author

The editor never sells out the writer because that would just be…blind to the writing process.

The writing process is a cycle of prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing on repeat until the work is the best version it can be.

Just as our private thoughts are not who we really are, incomplete drafts do not determine the writer. What matters is what we put out into the world: the final draft.

Editors understand that, which is why it doesn’t faze us to make even hefty changes and suggestions to a writer’s work—be it a manuscript, blog post, thought piece, anything.

Some writers may struggle with the idea of ownership when it comes to their work. If an editor gives me tons of feedback or makes lots of changes, is the work even my own at that point?

Yes, it is.

The writer is the creator, and the editor is the reactor. And the editor will never share what the excesses, gaps, or errors were in the drafts because, frankly, it doesn’t matter.

To get to know me a bit better, and for more copyediting tips, follow me on Instagram @pristine.editing.services, Twitter @PristineEditing, and Pinterest @PristineEditing. You can also sign up for my quarterly email newsletter on my website, or do so by requesting my free style guide template!

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Jaime L. Brockway

Copy editor with 8+ years’ experience. Former National Copy Chief of Time Out North America. Semicolon lover, despite what Kurt Vonnegut said.