I’m not an editor. Had an editor read this post prior to me hitting “save and publish,” it would have been grammatically better, ideologically improved and doubtless shorter. But I’ve had the good pleasure of working with an outstanding editor, whom I will leave anonymous so as to avoid the appearance of name-dropping. She had the formidable challenge of getting inside my chaotic mind and its oft-jumbled literary creation to the point that she could bring clarity and precision to the work, and had to do so in my own voice. There’s the key - in my voice. Not that she wrote the words. No, she understood my words and my thought to the extent that she made the work better. No, scratch that - not better - she made it the best it could be in my voice. And this is a miracle, if you ask me. It’s a miracle of empathy.
An editor maintains empathy for what the writer is attempting to convey, while (perhaps foremost?) maintaining empathy for what the reader will be attempting to read. The extent to which the editor does her or his job will determine whether or not the reader is well served. Better writers than I make this task easier for editors.
And had I thought of it earlier, I would have mentioned that I’m not referring to line editors. (Although they, too, have their place of high honor in my mind, because as you can tell, God knows I need them. I think in passive voice. Is this too long of a parenthetical statement? I have no idea.) Line editors grammatically test each line of text like a hygienist yanking around on your teeth with dental floss. Commas become semicolons. They’re textual accountants. But that’s not the editor about whom I’m writing in this moment. This editor about whom I’m writing sees the whole sweep of the story and organizes it, pushes on tone and voice and narrative arc and other things I don’t truly understand. They hold the whole world in their hands - all the lines.
Where was I? Oh, empathy. That’s what hit me this morning as I sat in my aging Adirondack reading the editor’s foreword to The Art of Being by Erich Fromm. The last line nearly brought me to tears, and when there are tears, we are close to the soul and we pay attention, for Spirit is speaking: “Because the present work…was not prepared for publication by Fromm himself, there was a need for occasional supplementation both of the division and systematization of the text as well as the chapter headings.” Fromm can thank God for his editor, and pray to God he got it right. That’s a lot of trust, to edit a dead man’s work.
And that’s where the writer of the Gospel of John pulled up a chair: “Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (21:25).
Editors love the writer and reader to the point that they help determine what really needs to be said, so that the reader, to borrow “John’s” phrase, might believe. And they do so with deep empathy for writer and reader (and, I should add, publisher). And this, in my quasi-illiterate understanding of what editors actually do, is a work of grace.
My hope is that I can pay such attention to Spirit and the person in front of me that I can help draw forth what’s being spoken and what needs to be said and done. I’m no editor, but God knows I want a little more empathy, and empathy is a work of grace.