Everyone writes. But editors know the craft involved in writing.
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One common response to “I am an editor” is “Oh! You work in film!” The other response is “What does an editor do?” Editors have a hard time articulating well enough the answer to this question to see understanding (or interest) flash on the face of the questioner. It's paradoxical that people do not know or understand what an editor does in spite of the fact that most of the world spends their time on their phones reading what someone else has written. Some writers, and I mean writers who write anything from books to thought leadership articles to email, do not see editing as the the value-adding imperative that it is. Nor do some others in the publishing chain. All this leads to editors sometimes asking “What is the value of my work?”
It comes down to perceived value and actual value. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it has shown us plenty of examples of how the appreciation of value is so badly skewed against what really are the essential professions. Remember, some people wrote and some others edited those scientific papers that helped us deal with Covid19 head-on.
Craft in film
I have two favourite scenes in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. [spoiler alert] The first one is the scene in which Michael Corleone visits his father, the don, Vito Corleone, in hospital after the attempt on Vito’s life. Michael finds no security for his father at the hospital, possibly to aid in another attempt to kill the don. He decides to shift his bedridden, semi-conscious father to another room with the help of a nurse. It’s a scene filled with suspense and tension. And if you watch and listen very closely you will notice that some of the tension in that scene is achieved by removing the background score for about 2 minutes. The sound engineer decided not to have any music there.
The second scene is a little later in the film. Michael returns home after being beaten by the police outside the hospital. In the house, he sits on a plush chair as his father’s inner circle plans how to avenge the hit on Vito and the beating of Michael. As you watch, you realise that Michael, the son who resisted joining his father’s business, is now steadily taking over from Vito. There are no words spoken to that effect but still you, the viewer, know. And how do you know? If you watch closely, the camera inches forward ever so slowly towards Michael.
These are two examples of craft. It is what is involved in making a film or any other work of art. It is what goes on behind-the-scenes. The sound engineer and the cinematographer are craftsmen. The Godfather is in every single list of the best films of all time. And I believe it's because of its craftsmen. Their work seems invisible, but it is very present.
Craft in writing
So, where’s the craft in the written word – a book, website content, a print advertisement, a school textbook or a LinkedIn post? The craft begins with looking at that dreaded concept for every writer, amateur or otherwise – grammatical structure: how the writer’s words are linked within sentences, and then sentences linked to paragraphs, all with the objective of touching the reader's emotions. Some would say it is the hardest part of the craft to master. Craft also includes, especially in anything that isn’t fiction, connecting subheadings, and linking them to headings. Craft is knowing what moves the story or the idea along (what keeps it exciting and engaging) and identifying what affects its pace (what may make it boring and dull). It’s about identifying what's missing in the plot or the logic. It is knowing that removing five paragraphs and substituting them with a table or an infographic will help the reader to understand better and quicker.
In short, the craft used for any kind of literature is not just checking punctuation, which any editor will tell you can be a minefield; it's checking if the written piece connects with the reader and gets the reader to feel and respond as the writer wants them to. So, just as the sound engineer and the cinematographer of The Godfather know the craft behind the film and how to get the viewer to engage, editors know the craft behind the art of the written word and how to get the reader to engage.
Let’s take the example of singer-songwriter Paul Simon’s song, Graceland. Here are a few lines:
“There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Whoa, so this is what she means”
The lines resonate with you, right? Great. But how did Paul Simon get them to resonate? An editor will tell you that though Simon’s style of lyrics appear conversational, there is rhyme (trampoline and means), metaphor (human trampoline), imagery (falling, flying; tumbling in turmoil), repetition (‘ing’ in falling, flying, tumbling) and alliteration (repetition of the initial consonant sounds in falling, flying and tumbling, turmoil) that bring in the essence and rhythm of a song. Hardly anyone talks of all that when reviewing or commenting on the song (I wish they would), but it is part of what makes the song stick in your head. That’s the craft that an editor knows and recognises behind Paul Simon’s lyrical art.
Many are writers, very few are editors
With the internet, for all practical purposes, being considered a necessity all across the world, today everybody is a writer or a reader. We are either typing away on our laptops or reading on our phones.
Everyone is involved in the art of writing. But most do not know the craft behind it. That's where their art stumbles and that’s where the value of an editor comes in.
In the ever-burgeoning burst of content every day, how do you make your written piece stand out? Make sure you have a good editor look at it.
Who is a good editor? One who has learnt the craft. Just like a cinematographer or a sound engineer, a good editor has some training and/or has apprenticed with a good editor. A good editor also reads varied texts and keeps updating their learning, because language evolves.
To everyone who writes, let me say that the right editor is like your hairstylist. Once you find one whose work you love, you will never want to let them go. Their influence in your life is unique.
To my fellow editors, I say hang in there. Look at your work as the craft behind the art and talk about it that way, through your queries and comments when editing texts and in your discussions with writers. Maybe someday someone will give awards to editors, just like they do to sound engineers and cinematographers. Till then, know that just like the sound engineer who chose not to add music to that scene in The Godfather, your work is invisible but present in the art.
Until next time,