In which Tara puts on her editor hat for a moment:
I just saw a post that got under my skin a little, as both a writer and an editor.
See, I edit. That’s my job. People hire me to go through their manuscripts of all shapes and sizes and subjects. I know a lot about grammar. I know a lot about style. I’d like to think I’ve got a pretty decent handle on the places where grammar and style and individual author/story voice can be at odds with each other.
The post I just saw talked a bit about “rules” they had broken as a writer. The tone was pretty “F-you, I do what I want to!” Look, as a writer? I have absolutely broken “rules.” I think there’s an excellent time and place for sentence fragments, for example, or for split infinitives, or for intentionally misused words.
An editor’s job, however, is to draw the writer’s attention to grammatical inconsistencies or errors, often according to existing style guides. Pointing these out is not personal. A writer hires an editor because an editor is a specialist when it comes to grammar (and/or flow and/or narrative etc). Depending on the kind of editing you want from them (and there are different kinds!), they may be looking for things from typos all the way through to plot holes. Not all editors are cut from the same cloth. A proofreader is a typo-spotter extraordinaire. A developmental editor helps build the idea into workable text. There’s a lot of overlap between copy editing and stylistic editing, but they aren’t technically the same thing.
The editor can’t read your mind and guess if this sentence fragment is intentional where another isn’t. They’re going to write “frag” and let you figure out if you want to keep it or not. They’re drawing your attention to something that is, yes, technically an error so that you have the tools at your disposal to decide if you truly want to break the rule. That’s their job.
As a writer, I know sometimes it feels like an editor is picking on you when they return your manuscript stained red, but they’re really not. I have never, ever edited a document aiming to make an author feel bad/guilty/stupid/wrong when I point out inconsistencies. I offer suggestions. The author can take them or leave them. An editor works for an author. As an author, you absolutely have the right to say to an editor, for example, “Just so you know, I have used all these sentence fragments on purpose. Please don’t mark them.” Or, “In this world I’ve created, the word ‘car’ is what people call their horses.” Or, “Yoda’s dialogue is intentionally written subject, object, verb.” A good editor will make a note of it on her master style sheet and do what the author wants because a good editor knows she works for the author.
When I see writers complaining about editors misunderstanding their intentions (especially when it comes off like whining or complaining or griping about the editor), it tells me the writer doesn’t really understand the role an editor is actually meant to play. Often, it’s because writers think about their work as writers. Not every writer is an editor. It’s also because–and this is also something I know about from being on both sides–an author is protective of the work they’ve poured so much blood, sweat, time, and energy into. Editors seem like scary, mean outsiders armed with red pens and cruelty. They aren’t. Or, rather, they shouldn’t be.
The bottom line is this: a good editor is someone you hire to give you the tools you, the author, need to make the story cohesive, clear, and internally consistent. They’re there to work with you, not against you. Editors are not the enemy. You hire them to be the impartial, outside eyes you need on your work because it’s often almost impossible for a writer to be entirely impartial about their own work. You hire an editor so it’s not your readers catching your errors (and/or getting turned off your story because of them!). It’s symbiosis, my friends.