Editing Is a Service Position

editorI’ve been at work on preliminary edits to a novel. The author had submitted his work to other publishers before bringing it to Iron Twine Press and one of the others had expressed a srong interest in publishing it. So we’re Publisher B. The book came to us because the author didn’t like the conditions put upon him by Publisher A.

His book is an adventure tale set primarily in a wilderness environment that is being threatened by human activities. That’s vague, I know. But we don’t have rights to the book yet and I want to respect the author’s ownership of his own work. What I’m telling you about the story doesn’t give anything away.

So, Publisher A liked the story a lot–it’s exciting and though-provoking, a really good read. But they wanted one change before they would agree to publish it: they wanted the author to make the characters in the book overtly supportive of the idea that human activity is the root cause of climate change.

Putting aside the fact that I believe that to be a fact supported by the preponderance of scientific evidence, I strongly disagree with Publisher A’s demand in this case. The book isn’t about the climate change debate. It mentions the existence of previous ice ages and warming periods, but not in the context of taking any position on what is happening to the climate today. Publisher A, in my opinion, brought an agenda into the experience of reading the book and was trying to change the book to support that agenda.

That raises a fundamental question for me about the proper role of an editor. Is it the editor’s role to view a book as raw material they can turn into something they imagine, or is it to imagine ways to turn the book into the best possible version of what it is already trying to be?

I believe it is the latter. As a writer myself, I’ve been through too many writing workshops of my work and others’ that devolve into imagination frenzies where everyone stops suggesting ways the author could make more clearly the points he or she is trying to make and just starts re-writing the story with their own ideas. “What if, instead of a bank robber in New York, you made this about a livestock rustler in Amish country? Then, in the getaway chase, instead of a car, you could have him riding a sheep. That would be funny.”

It’s a subtle distinction, maybe, but it’s an important one. Editors should suggest changes to details if the existing details are at odds with the truth and clarity of the story. Editors should resist the urge to change details if the only problem is that the existing details lead readers to a different truth than the truth the editor holds. If you want the story to deliver a different truth, write a new story. If you want to be a helpful editor, help the story clarify the communication of it’s own truths. Editing is a service position; the editor should exist in service to the story.

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