I’ve been working on embracing minimalism just a bit for the past few years—a kind of sideways hug you might give a gregarious relative who wants to pull you into their orbit even though you aren’t really sure you belong there.
Then, when 2016 turned into 2017, I started bear hugging minimalism, going room by room, closet by closet, shirt by shirt, boxing up every single thing I knew we didn’t need and finding new homes for it all. It has been an amazing experience—freeing, restorative—and the gratitude I feel sometimes overwhelms me: not for the things I have but for the people I’m surrounded by and for how my life is falling together.
In the past months, and in the same vein, I’ve become very interested in what Carol Fisher Saller has to say about editing, namely to leave well enough the heck alone. In the past, especially as a new editor, I wanted to show people how intelligent I was. I was desperate to prove I deserved the title of editor, and because of that, I was heavy-handed at times, changing text because I knew better.
Today, I really know better, and I know that editing isn’t about change. It’s about helping.
The job of an editor is to help writers present ideas in the most clear, concise, and reader-friendly ways possible.
You read that right: In its purest form, editing is about the reader. Will the reader understand? Appreciate? Enjoy? And of course, keep reading? These are what matter most.
So yes, editors use a dictionary as a standard for the correct spelling of words. We also use a style guide as a standard for trickier things like citation format, placement of commas, and correct punctuation.
Standards are important in this context because they help keep the details the same across the board, bringing clarity and comprehension.
But the truth is that sometimes there are no rules for a situation. Sometimes, editors have to make their own decisions. And when that happens, it’s critically important to remember the reader.
Good editors research. We comment. We query. Constructive criticism goes a long way to not only getting our message across but also keeping authors in the driver’s seat—where they belong.
What editors don’t do is highlight whole sentences, hit “delete,” then reword. We don’t play God …
Which brings us back to minimalism. It isn’t just a hip new way of getting rid of the clutter in your house; it’s also a way to approach your life. And yes, it can even be used in editing.
Repeat after me: “First, do no harm.”