The trouble with editors, part 2:
Not every experience I’ve had with editors has been uniformly wonderful. Even when the editor is good at what she does, there are going to be tensions. The editor may ask for a change that you don’t agree with. Sometimes this can be a radical change. The process can quickly become a tug of war, or a butting of heads. I've gone through an editing that felt more like a mauling. Or a muzzling.
I’ve also worked with editors who clearly weren’t sympathetic to what I was doing, or even interested. Then there are the editors who may be very good at their job but who have no tact, or who are convinced their role is really more important than yours. They may have had valuable insights but they tell you what to do instead of making suggestions.
(I once asked an editor to tone down the peremptory tone of her comments. E.g., not “DO THIS,” but “try this.” She responded with an imperious letter in which she accused me of not approaching the work in a spirit of cooperation. We were going to be working together for the long haul, she said, and that’s why a spirit of mutual respect was so important, I had to let her do her job, etc. Some time later she abandoned the project without a word of explanation or apology. So much for mutual respect.)
When you’re new to writing and you work with an editor, it can be difficult to stand your ground when a change is requested that you don’t agree with. You may feel that if the editor has more experience than you, his opinion should carry the day. Ultimately I think it’s good to be in this situation because it forces you to think deeply about why you wrote what you did, and what it means, and what’s most important to you in a piece of writing.
My favourite editors haven’t always been the easiest ones to work with, but they were always great readers. With a few words they could illuminate the way forward, or get to the heart of a scene you’d worked over so many times you’d lost sight of what it was really about.
I’ve worked as an editor myself. It’s been a valuable experience, negotiating this delicate partnership from the other side. Sometimes you can feel so strongly about someone else’s book, and get so deeply invested in it, that you start to think of it as a writer rather than as an editor. You attach to it as if it's your work. Then it can be difficult to maintain your distance when you see a major flaw, or a wonderful untapped potential in the story, and the author doesn’t see what you see.
Once I was on a panel about writing with Alberto Manguel, who offered the opinion that there is too much editing in the literary/publishing world. When editors (especially for big publishing houses) get at a manuscript, he suggested, they tend to shape it to suit trends and tastes and marketing strategies, and the result is that often what’s truly original and powerful in a writer’s voice can get smoothed over. Maybe those rough edges should be left alone. Another writer on the panel said to me later, “I agree in principle, but by the time I’ve got an entire novel drafted I’m so worn out and tired of it that I want someone to help me polish it.”