Language, Relics, and Mentors

Recently, a client complimented me on some editing work I’d done. It is always nice to hear from satisfied clients, but what surprised me was how disheartened I felt by the remarks. That is because behind the nice words I detected a sense of astonishment at what I consider a fundamental editorial duty: to push a writer's thinking in order to make the book better.

The compliment seemed to contain a lament for a golden age of editing of which I was a living relic—an era in which editors allegedly displayed vast general knowledge, a superior command of language, and the ability to make writers think about their work. These, apparently, were skills younger editors lack.

And that is the part that bothered me, that bit about young editors. No one is born a good editor. Yes, it takes some innate ability—an ear for language, if you will—but also years of training, reading, and hard work to build those skills. Younger editors don't have that, yet. Some of them will get there, but as with writing, it takes time and practice. And, I will add, mentors. Editing is as much a trade as it is a profession, and that means doing one's apprenticeship.

If I have any skills today, it is because of several mentors over the years who were willing to point to my mistakes and to show me how to correct them. They let me practice and make my mistakes without judgement. I thank them for their generosity and patience.