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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.