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“A good editor should leave no footprints?”

Someone recently sent me this saying: “A good editor leaves no footprints,” (or something like that) and asked my opinion about it.  Keep in mind that my writing experience is a few satirical short stories, some nonfiction books, critique partnering, and a lot on the business side.

I said, “That sounds like total BS!”

Editors have personalities.

If the definition of a good editor is to leave no “footprints,” then why is it so hard to find the right one?  Editors seem to be more like social workers or doctors — you have to find a good match for a good outcome.  Editors are human beings.  To say that editors shouldn’t impose their own ideas on a manuscript is to say that architects shouldn’t impose their own personalities in their buildings.

I do understand that there may be some rules or conventions (“cut the prologue! too much backstory! no info-dumps!”), and a good editor shouldn’t rewrite the book, or edit the author out of his own voice, but they are human.  I expect they will bring their own identity — their own personal beliefs, philosophy, and background — to each piece they work on.  Just as you can have ten violinists all playing the same song, but the performers will all have different interpretations of it because they are all unique beings with unique identities.

Editing is a partnership?

Editing seems to be a partnership, which is why editors get royalties along with the author.  Some writers don’t welcome this kind of partnership, but most of the writers I know thrive on it.  I’m a beta and critique partner, and even though I change no text, I leave plenty of footprints — and people like it that way!  They come to me because I have a good understanding of certain aspects of storytelling, they know I like certain kinds of stories, and they want to leverage my particular strengths.

An editor’s footprints come through in everything they do: questioning word choice, story structure, what they want to see cut.  There’s no way to take the editor’s identity out of the job, and no real reason to, if it’s a good match.  If I hire an editor in the future, I will view it as a collaboration and look for the human being whose ideas can make my work stronger.

6 thoughts on ““A good editor should leave no footprints?”

  1. You’re right, of course, but I like the sentiment of “leave no footprints” quite a lot. I’m a freelance book doctor myself, so this is more than a theoretical issue for me.

    What “leave no footprints” really means, I’d venture, is “a good editor should recognize and respect the author’s voice.”

    I’ll go to my grave before anybody convinces me that’s not true.

    Granted, nine out of ten novels that cross my desk don’t have much voice to begin with. For them, it’s my job to help the writers see where and how they can improve their craft, so maybe they’ll develop a voice.

    But when that tenth novel comes along, the voice jumps off the page. It’s clear as day, and it’s a wonderful thing. I should hang my head in shame if I screwed with the author’s voice.

    A good editor doesn’t edit everything they see such that it ends up sounding like they wrote it. A good editor should recognize and respect the voice of the author, and know how not to screw that up.

    A great editor, further, is enough of a chameleon themselves to be able to take on the author’s voice while editing. A great author not only recognizes and respects the author’s voice, but can actually enhance it while leaving the heart of it intact.

  2. I definitely agree that an editor should respect an author’s voice. It’s cool hearing from an editor — I know it’s really hard work. Thanks for commenting!

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BJ Muntain, Kat M. Kat M said: A good editor should leave no footprints? Discuss at […]

  4. Valuable thoughts and advices. I read your topic with great interest.

  5. I publish a small magazine, with one other editor, and we line edit every story we accept. We then make our suggestions to the author. These are authors whose stories we’ve already accepted, and it’s up to them whether to agree with the edits.

    My goal as an editor is to make my magazine as good as possible. I’ve used my own phrasing in edits to suggest a direction, and when those phrases are more than minor tweaks I’d probably be appalled if the author used those phrases. It’s the author’s voice that got me into the story in the first place.

    I have an idea of how a story should read, and people whose stories I’ve accepted probably have similar ideas. But we sometimes run stories with lives of their own that we don’t know how to edit. For the latest issue of Swill, I contacted one author to ask him about his paragraph formatting – I’d started to mark it up when it occurred to me that I might be wrecking the rhythm of the whole piece. After checking with him, I left the bulk of the story alone.

    Hell, I don’t want to leave footprints. I got ugly feet.

  6. Good to hear from you, Rob! Thanks for stopping by. I’ll have to think about this — it turned something on in my brain, but I’m not sure what it is at this time…

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