This post, by J.P. Hansen, is a reprint of an article that originally appeared on his The Art of Polishing Words site on 11/26/11. It is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.
Recently, I had the privilege of editing a fantasy novel. The job, it turned out, was fairly easy: I had to make suggestions about the delineation of characters, creation of vivid scenes, and formation of quality sentences.
Why was this job easy? Because it involved a genre novel which conforms to clearly defined characteristics. The novel’s very category provided me with parameters for editing. What are the expectations of fantasy? The characters need to seem larger than life and involved in epic-like dramas. The scenes need to convey intense drama and action. And the sentences need to be clear and plainly written.
Next, I edited an experimental, mixed-genre manuscript, and all parameters went by the wayside. In fact, experimental literature by definition is writing in search of parameters, writing that establishes its own particular forms and means of approach. Sometimes, experimental writers, as did the author I was working with, even play with grammatical and spelling norms. At the level of proofreading, I needed to discuss with her whether or not some misspellings were intentional.
How is an editor to approach such a work? The only answer I can come up with is through empathy (See my post On Editing: a Dialogue Between Evaluation and Empathy on this blog.) My approach was to read through the manuscript once simply to catch on to the norms, forms, and expectations she was establishing. While I do something like this with all manuscripts, only in mixed-genre or avant-garde work does the first read-through involve trying to understand how this writing asks to be read.
In such a situation, I rely less on traditional editorial apparatus—the publicly accepted rules and expectations for good writing—and more on instinct and aesthetic taste. My feel for the piece of writing, and my feel for language in general, must be in deep accord with the author’s. For instance, I can’t just learn that she desires a certain "misspelling"; I need to understand why she wants it and how it partakes in her larger writerly palette.
The difference between editing genre work as opposed to experimental writing comes down to degrees. In genre work, editors are much more involved in honing the final product for public display.
Editors of experimental work are more involved in working with the writer to realize an artistic vision. Editors act as sounding boards rather than skilled and knowledgeable conventional language workers. This distinction is not, of course, absolute. Genre editors get involved with artistic vision, but not to the extent they do with experimental works.
As a general activity, the goal of editing in both works remained the same—to help make writing sing—but the feel of the work I did differed greatly.