Serving the Guest of Honor: Editing as housecleaning

By Dawn J. Anderson

I think of editing as housecleaning. Someone else’s house. To prepare it for a party. A party where the guests need to be treated to nothing but the best. To go away satisfied in every way.

As we consider all that editing entails—so much more than just dusting for spelling errors and sweeping grammatical problems under the rug—this metaphor works on many levels. As the editor, I have to keep in mind that the house, or book, is not my own. It’s not my right to knock out walls (without permission). It wouldn’t make sense to move the kitchen sink into the sitting room. I can’t impose my own decorating tastes onto the home.

women cleaning by marin freedigital photosWhat I can do is make sure each room is displayed to its best potential. I can scrub walls, rearrange furniture, and highlight or tone down the author’s own décor. I can help the author choose what courses to serve when and where, but I can’t force liver pâté onto the menu. And I certainly can’t make the house my own.

As I’m cleaning house, I have to continually keep the end goal in mind: the party. What’s its purpose? Is it a children’s birthday celebration or an adult-only dinner party? Do we need party games or champagne? If the party will last the whole weekend, we’ll need mints on the pillows and extra linens. If it’s just a couple of hours, we’ll cut the frills and focus on good food.

Of course, every party needs partiers. Who are the guests? What are their likes and dislikes? Do they have allergies? Can I serve peanuts and put out candles, or is it best to put them away? Where will guests put their overcoats? Will they be dashing from room to room, lounging on the sofas, or simply standing in cozy, chatty groups? It’s my job to anticipate the guest’s wants and needs and to help the author mesharing treats freedigitalphotoset them in every possible way.

That’s the balancing act. Can a book be written solely for the author’s self-expression? Sure. But that’s like throwing a party without inviting anyone, and just hoping the right people wander through the door.

The trick, I suppose, the real art of being an editor, is to do all of the work invisibly. The party guests likely will not know that you’ve even been there. Once the party starts, your job is done. It’s possible that someone will comment on the sparkling chandelier, and at that moment the author might credit you with its shine. Or not. The author has every right to claim all of the finished work as his or her own. Ouch. There’s no room for self-promotion when you’re a housecleaner.

If there’s one snag in this analogy, it’s probably the fact that it’s rarely the homeowner who is employing the housecleaner. Most of the housecleaners, that is, editors, are being employed by a publisher, to work for the author. That creates another level of responsibility. To edit in such a way that both the author and the publisher are satisfied with a job well done. Both are made to look good. And in all of it, to serve the reader, our guest of honor.

Dawn J. Anderson is associate editor at Kregel Publications.

Skilled editors are often the missing link in the creation of quality books and articles around the globe. MAI is helping to develop editors in multiple countries, ultimately aiming to spur the creation of life-giving reads.

>>Check out our other articles on editing on the LittWorldOnline blog.

Top photo courtesy marin, Freedigitalphotos.
Bottom photo courtesy Stuart Miles, Freedigitalphotos.

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