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The Book Editor’s Seal of Approval

“He gawked. Literally.”

I like the concept of writers taking their work through a pre-editing process, a process that is well described in a recent Wall Street Journal piece. 

I feel a little ambivalent about this, because I earn a living as an editor. However, I needn’t worry. The English language is rich but unkempt; very few writers, no matter how skillful, can produce consistent and clear work without the help of an editor. Self-editing helps, and writers can become more skillful in editing their work, especially if they work with a good editor, are alert to what the editor does to help them, and implement as much of the editor’s approach as they can in the next writing they do.

Allow me a few reflections on the author-editor relationship.

Nine out of ten of my authors are grateful for my help as an editor. Here’s an example from the one in ten who aren’t.

Recently I had to explain to a writer, let’s call him John Doe, why I deleted the word “literally” from his construction, “I literally gawked.” (He wanted me to put it back in.)

“John,” I said, “I would like to describe to you how people literally gawk.”

“OK,” he said.

“They gawk.”

Fortunately, he smiled. (As opposed to gawking.)

This author is interesting, because he is capable of describing scenes poetically and even novelistically; however, he then snaps the reader out of the spell he has created because he can’t resist adding his own judgment.

For instance, after describing, in compelling detail, a piece of art, he adds, “It was beautiful.” As I have explained to him, it’s much better to delete such phrases — it’s better for a writer to describe things in a way that prompts readers to come up with their own judgments. This a classic example of a writer telling, instead of showing. (More on showing, not telling here.)

Our conversation on this point went like this:

“John, do people like to be told what to do? Do they like to be told what to think?”


“Do you like to be told what to do and what to think?”


“Then why are you telling readers what you want them to think and feel?”

I see writing and editing as the process of working with an author to achieve a “lock” between the writer’s intentions and the reader’s perceptions.

No, wait. All analogies are weak, and this one is disintegrating before my eyes. “Lock” seems stifling and deterministic, whereas, in fact, readers “add value” when they read. Maybe “seal” is a better word.

My job is to help the writer feed content to the reader in a way that creates a seal between intention and perception. Ideally, the writer’s readers will lose any sense that they are reading words on a page, so complete, and involving, is their perception of what the words describe.

When this seal is achieved, reading is a liberating experience. Readers interact with characters and scenes, or with non-fiction descriptions or arguments, uninterrupted.

What’s happening here? The author has written in a way that shows respect to readers. In a sense, the author has invited readers to be part of the writing of the book.

Authors who insinuate themselves into the reader’s consciousness to make sure each paragraph elicits the correct imagery or emotional response end up hectoring the reader. Which is self-defeating: Readers give up on books that don’t let them think for themselves or use their own imaginations.

My job as an editor is to help authors strip out anything from their writing that restricts their readers’ own creativity. The key to achieving the seal between writer and reader is to respect the reader: leaving room for them to breathe, to engage with the text, and thus to inhabit a new world.


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