We here at Inkwell’s have done a fair amount of work with authors from diverse backgrounds. What we try to bring to our work is an openness to learning different ways of knowing and being.
This is difficult, because we know readers will judge the quality of the book by certain standards. Yet, as we’ve worked collaboratively with many authors, we’ve come to understand and appreciate the difficult truth about editing.
Editing is a kind of violence. Allow us to explain.
Enforcing the Rules
The idea that editing is violence actually came up during a copy edit project for a textbook. Imposing the rules of “proper English” is often a form of violence against subaltern voices. The traditional editorial process harshly censors dialects, Creoles, Ebonics, and non-standard Englishes.
In many ways, editing then becomes about preserving the status quo and promoting “proper” English. It discounts the Englishes of marginalized communities. Editing dismisses the efforts of people who are learning to speak English as a second language. It asks us to look down on those who haven’t had the same educational opportunities.
This happens across the spectrum. Young people may be censured for adding chatspeak and emojis to essays. Women often face the brunt of the editorial pen. We’ve all seen articles telling us to eliminate “just” from our business vocabulary. It makes us seem “weak” or “wishy-washy.”
Editing Is Violence
In this way, editing can become a kind of violence the editor perpetrates on the author’s work. Careful editors are always on the lookout for preserving voice. Yet, when the voice is “non-standard” English or includes “improper” grammar, editors may dig in their heels.
We often think of editing as benign, fixing mistakes. But what happens when the imposition of proper English erases the voice or authenticity of the author’s characters? What happens when it begins erasing whole cultures and subcultures? What about when it exhorts certain groups of people to act in a particular way?
Editing, then, is a kind of violence perpetrated on the powerless. Their words, their voices are filtered through the lens of what’s correct. And what’s “correct” is always determined by the group with the most power. You can see this in movies, when characters mock the “hillybilly” who don’t know nothin’ ‘bout talkin’ good English. This is shorthand for someone uncouth and uneducated, and therefore worthy of mockery.
Can Editing Be Non-Violent?
At worst, editing destroys the author’s vision and voice. The editor is in a position of power. Those who act without caution or care can perpetrate some fairly severe damage.
It’s difficult to say whether editing can truly be non-violent. It’s always going to be a kind of censorship when it comes to Englishes deemed “non-standard” or incorrect. The editor sees this as “fixing mistakes,” but for the others, it’s destroying the authentic voice. This involves filtering a woman’s voice through a man’s lens, a person of colour’s voice and vision through a white voice, or a queer individual’s writing through a straight filter.
In most cases, people don’t realize this is happening. The author may come out of the process feeling belittled, abused, and sore. The editor, on the other hand, believes they’ve done a good job correcting the “errors” in the text. They may find the author difficult to work with. They might even go so far as to suggest the book is a bad book if the author pushes back.
Working Towards Collaboration
The editing process appears to be inherently violent. The best we can hope for is a collaborative process to minimize damage. The editor and publisher want to minimize what will appear to be glaring errors. These are embarrassing, often prompting readers to ask, “Didn’t anyone edit this? So much for quality.”
On the author’s end, there’s a desire to preserve, to the greatest extent possible, the original voice and vision. This includes non-standard English uses and English variants that some editors may not be familiar with.
Both author and editor must submit to the process. Discussion is key here. Editors should work collaboratively with authors, inquiring about changes and making suggestions where they feel the text could be improved. In turn, authors should give the editor’s suggestions consideration. But they should also be free to make their own changes or to simply say no. In some cases, explanation is necessary. The editor might suggest a general note if usage seems like it may be a stumbling block for some readers. Authors shouldn’t necessarily feel pressed to defend every instance or decision, though.
An open, honest dialogue is key here. The author should be given the final say over the editor, who can then submit the decision to the publisher. Editors must always be willing to hear authors out and to try to understand their reasoning.
Editing Is Collaborative
The process we’ve outlined here is one we try to use with all of our clients. The editor’s job is not to rewrite or censor, but to assist in polishing the work and making it the best it can be. Encouraging an author to deeply consider a word choice or awkward phrasing is a good thing. So is listening and learning and respecting authors’ opinions.
Many authors emerge from their editorial process feeling embattled. That shouldn’t be the case. Editing can be violent, but we can make it less violent. Editors must actively work to ensure they listen to and truly hear authors. They must engage in productive dialogue with them instead of just making unilateral changes.
Some changes are, of course, unavoidable—a Canadian press will likely ask for color to be spelled colour. But other changes will need deeper discussion between author and editor. That takes trust, understanding, and a willingness to work together for the best version of the book possible.