national anthology of the best undergraduate writing 2014

On Editing as Distinct from Writing or Don’t Blame Me for the Terrible Title; I’m Not a Writer

Ignoring the irony of writing a blog post about not, per se, being a writer, I’d like to share some thoughts on editing, particularly editing for plain china, and how it came to be that I identify more as an editor than a writer.

I first exhibited editorial tendencies at quite a young age. I was that annoying child who, when play-acting elaborate make-believe games with the neighborhood children, would insist that continuity be maintained day to day:

“Okay, so now you’re Legolas, and you have to go look ahead for the orcs.”

I’d click my tongue indignantly. “But she was Legolas yesterday! And besides, your sword will glow when there are orcs near.”

Or, take another example. As I was somewhat dramatic as a child, let’s switch genres:

Setting: A typical middle-class suburban house on the outskirts of Washington, DC. Living room, complete with the ugliest couch you’ve ever seen, overflowing bookcases on every wall, and books and papers on most surfaces. GIRL lies on the floor, reading. MOTHER sits on the ugliest couch, also reading.

GIRL: This is wrong.

MOTHER: Hmm?

GIRL: In my book. It’s wrong.

MOTHER: What’s wrong?

GIRL: They spelled his name wrong! (GIRL gets up and runs to MOTHER, points out the Very Serious Error on page 116.)

MOTHER: Whoever typed it probably just made a mistake. It’s not a big deal.

GIRL: Well they should check for mistakes before they sell the book!

MOTHER: Maybe you should write to the publisher and tell them so.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t ever write to any publishers about typos, and was eventually comforted by the revelation that such things are usually found and corrected in subsequent printings. My desire for continuity, the impulse to copy-edit, and a never-sated curiosity about language may have been irritating to my mother or the kids in the neighborhood, but turned out to be pretty useful when I began editing on a regular basis.

I started editing casually, reading over my friends’ stories and papers when they wanted help, or being a beta-reader in fan communities that share unpublished fiction. Since I enjoyed this, I tried to apply my skills to more scholastic pursuits, such as working as a writing center aide in high school, a Spanish language tutor at Bennington, and ultimately as a poetry editor for plain china.

While I’d always edited papers and stories for fun, I’d thought that working for plain china would feel more like just that: work. Instead, I was surprised by two things; one, that I enjoy this type of editing as much as any other (and in fact plain china work has become my go-to procrastination activity); and two, that the work does feel like work, like a job even, but the kind of job I wouldn’t mind turning into a career.

The vast majority of our time and effort is spent on what one usually thinks of as the brunt of the work of editing an anthology, that is, reading a lot of writing and picking the pieces we like best. I certainly enjoy that aspect, especially finding pieces I love and learning how to argue for them or how to accept that my love of one element was obscuring other flaws. For example, comparing kittens to mittens sounded really cute to me, but as my fellow poetry editors were quick to point out, one cute line does not make a poem.

Despite enjoying the selection process, my favorite aspect of working on plain china has been the chance to work closely with authors on editing their pieces. The conversations with my authors (and see how possessive I’ve become) have enlightened and enriched both my and their understanding of their work. One of the most rewarding moments was when an author whose poem I edited said afterwards that she hoped editors she works with in the future will be as attentive as I was.

When discussing ideas for this post, it seemed natural to write about my love for the editing process. My fellow plain china editors suggested that I write about the importance of curbing one’s writerly tendencies when putting on the editor hat, perhaps citing famous editor/writer relationships such as the one between Ray Carver and Gordon Lish, and where the line between editing and co-writing should be drawn. Despite this being a worthwhile topic, I find myself quite unsuited to address it, because I don’t seem to have “writerly” tendencies.

I’m not a writer, in the same way my mother, despite cooking many dishes excellently, is not a chef; and my sister, despite painting beautiful murals, is not a painter. I am perfectly content to let the few lines of poetry I write each year sit undisturbed in whatever handcrafted journal someone has most recently given me. While any announcement of my non-writer status is usually met with degrees of disbelief, dismay, or even distress, people’s reactions are the only thing about the situation that ever bothers me. While some might consider it a drawback for a language-oriented person not to be a writer, I consider it a benefit because it makes the whole business of editing easier. When editing, my thoughts lie in how I can work with what is already there, not with expanding in a direction of my choosing. Clean up small errors. Check for inconsistencies. Clarify, clarify. Figure out when and how to ask the right questions. Above all, push the author and their work to be the best they can possibly be.

My place as an editor is to work with authors, not against or in spite of them—even if that means a piece doesn’t end up the way I would have written it. I am not the one writing it, and that doesn’t bother me. Despite this firm stance, I was completely satisfied with the end results of my editing conversations with plain china authors. The key was that we had conversations. Unlike Lish, who drastically cut and reworked Carver’s work as he saw fit, I am careful to phrase my suggestions as just that. I offer possibilities, explain my thoughts, and listen to the response.

My early experience with editing was always service-oriented. As a tutor or just a friendly set of eyes, I learned to see the writer as the ultimate authority on his text and myself as a tool to help refine it. This frame of mind, fundamentally different from the type of editing done by Lish (and to a lesser degree, by some of the publishing industry), is no less capable of producing dramatically improved works of art, and may prove conducive to forming writer/editor relationships that are respectful, healthy, and productive.