Disclaimer:I’m not a doctor.I don’t even play one on TV.
Somewhere I read a comparison of an editor to a midwife, someone who takes something beautiful that you have created and eases it into the waiting world.Is this what the editor does?Well, partly.But doesn’t the editor make changes to your baby during the process?
I don’t know what a proctologist does, thank God and the sedatives they use.I know that it’s expensive, and you get a report afterwards that says to come back in a few years.Well, the editor doesn’t usually tell you to come back in a few years!And there’s no (legal, anyway) drug powerful enough to kill the pain an author feels upon seeing the editor’s changes.
Still looking for a medical metaphor here… How about a dermatologist? They work mostly with things that are visible on the surface, and don’t change your fundamental makeup.If they see something potentially lethal, they tell you about it immediately.Otherwise, they just make you look more beautiful.Now that sounds like an editor!
To achieve the optimum in editing a work, the author or publisher should know what overall philosophy drives the editor. So here's mine:
Reading is more work than, say, watching television.First of all, reading is active: You have to use part of your brain to translate these black markings on white paper into something meaningful, all the while actively controlling the focus of your eyes as they move slowly, left to right and top to bottom, across a landscape that would be incredibly boring to someone who never learned to read.
By comparison, television is passive: Sights and sounds force themselves upon you, requiring only auditory understanding of spoken words, and the focus of your eyes is automatically drawn to the action on the screen.(Somewhere I read that you burn fewer calories watching TV than you do sleeping!)
So written language is at a disadvantage. As a writer, you have an idea in your mind, and that idea is a composite of all five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. Add an extra dimension, depending upon your spiritual focus: some intangible thing that makes your idea more than sense impressions, and gives it meaning for you.
You want to make a copy of that idea in the mind of your reader, and only his or her sense of sight is available to you to transmit the idea. The reader's sense of sight carries the entire burden of conveying the impressions which that idea would make on all the other senses. Sounds impossible, right?
Not quite. Like you, the reader grew up surrounded by language, and learned to associate words with ideas. If you say you're at a rock concert, the reader instantly recalls the sight, sound, touch, taste and smell of a rock concert.
And that's possible only because the reader's understanding of the words you use is similar to your own.
Though opinions vary widely, one study indicates that there are nearly half a billion people using the English language on any given day.And every time they open their mouths (or text Mom on their iPhone), the language changes slightly. Few of us have the innate linguistic creativity of Shakespeare, who is said to have used 1,700 words for the first time; but we all contribute to the ever-changing vocabulary (and spelling, and rules of grammar), that sometimes makes an American wonder why the citizens of England (or Brooklyn) don't speak English!
The effort to make it possible for us to understand the people in the next county sounds doomed; nevertheless the effort is ongoing. That's why I have on my desk right now:
And I refer to them constantly while editing. When business is slow, I re‑read them.
But if everyone used language the same way, we wouldn't be able to differentiate ourselves from everyone else. Mark Twain would sound like me; then who would listen to him?And your writing would end up on Twitter.
Storytelling and editing are two distinct skills; few people are experts at both. And if storytelling is your strength, you should go with that. From this editor's point of view, your voice is sacred. I will point out errors in grammar and spelling, and give you a warning where I think your story has left the reader twisting in the wind. But to go beyond that would be to enter the realm of ghost writing. I gladly do that, as well; but then what I write should be edited, or at least proofread, by an expert.