Recently, a young man asked me, "If editors know something is wrong, why don't they just fix it? Are they on some sort of group power trip?"
I'll give you a minute to recover from the question.
My first thought was uncharitable. I assumed I was talking to a young man who had never actually written a book, or anything else he cared about. Luckily, my brain did engage before my mouth—a rare event, but it does happen. I carefully explained that most writers would not appreciate an editor who simply changed the author's manuscript/work of art/baby. I didn't want to scare the young man, so I refrained from references to specific emotional reactions or spilled blood.
After giving the question a bit more thought, I came up with a three other reasons for an editor to note issues, rather than fixing them.
First, the writing could be ambiguous. The editor may not know what the author is trying to say. If the author writes "The boy run through the woods," the editor knows this is incorrect because the noun is singular and the verb plural. Or is it? If the text is the narrative voice of an educated person, it is most likely wrong. But did the author want to say "The boys run through the woods," or "The boy runs through the woods"? If the quoted text is the narrative voice of an uneducated person or the dialogue of and uneducated person, it may not be wrong at all. The author may simply be showing the lack of education through incorrect use of language.
Second, by marking issues and letting the author make corrections, the editor is giving the author the opportunity to learn so the next manuscript may not need as much editing. This saves time for both the editor and the author.
Third, editors do not simply address simple issues like grammar and spelling. Good editors address pacing, characterization, exposition, and many other aspects of storytelling. These more complex issues require active participation from the writer.
Can you think of other reasons why editors provide mark-ups rather than corrected text?
Charlotte Phillips is the co-author of the Eva Baum Detective Series, 2009 President for The Final Twist Writers Group and contributor to multiple blogs. Learn more about Charlotte and her books at:
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