I've spent the last two days giving comments on a novel and two stories, so editing is on my mind. What follows is based on some correspondence from that:
As teachers and editors, Emma and I work with three kinds of writers: those who reject most comments, those who accept most comments, and those who use comments as an excuse for even more and better work than was asked for. Writers in the latter groups may first spend a day or two savaging voodoo dolls made to resemble us, but if so, they hide that well.
The groups have nothing to do with the quality of the writers' work. All three include writers we admire beyond measure and writers that we think, well, tell entertaining tales with functional prose. I think the first group, the writers who reject suggestions, believe the story that leaves their home is the platonic tale, the gift of the muse, the thing wrestled from dream, the creation that was not but is now, a gift of God that cannot be changed without affronting God.
Sometimes they're right. There's no perfect form for any story. Good editors know there are always more ways than one to fix a weakness. They also know that a weakness may not matter in the final success of a story. (I doubt Dan Brown's editor is blind to his weaknesses.) And they know that sometimes they're wrong and the writer is right.
When writers reject our suggestions, Emma and I don't mind. It's their name on the story. As editors, we simply ask ourselves if the story works well enough as it is, and then we buy it or we don't.
As a writer, I try to be in the third group, but I understand hating being edited. When I give a story to someone for suggestions, I want to be told that my best effort is perfect. I don't want to hear it might be even bester. I may curse a little first—especially if an editor is making a suggestion about style rather than story. (One editor, who I still love, likes sentences that start with gerunds. I think that construction is as phony as Bush’s ranch, so I always glare at those, then decide which ones were harmless and which ones bugged me most.)
But mostly I’m glad for the chance to make my suckiest prose less suckful, and my shiniest prose shinier. Editors aren’t in the game to make themselves look good. They’re there to make writers look great.
And I may be blessed with one quirk: I never mind suggestions that I cut something. For writers in the first group, the story consists of the words: lose one, and the story is different. For writers in the third group, the story is beneath the words. I happily strike out anything that smells of the author helping or manipulating the reader—unless I’ve chosen a narrator who is manipulative or helpful, of course. I want the reader to notice the narrative—I don’t believe in “invisible style”—but I don’t want the reader to notice the writer manipulating the narrative.
So I use a standard hierarchy when I’m editing myself or others:
1. Cut explanations from the narrative whenever the story is clear.
2. Cut dialogue whenever an action is clear: a kiss, a punch, a sigh, a rude gesture, even a carefully observed moment of stillness can make dialogue redundant.
3. Cut a character’s thoughts when the dialogue is clear.
The basic principle: Tell as little as possible about the story so the story can tell itself. In my ideal tale, the writer or the narrator tells what happens to the best of his or her ability, and the reader than laughs or cries in recognition of the story's truth.
Yes, there's an enormous amount of wiggle-room in that principle, especially when a story has an implied or explicit narrator who isn't the writer. But I'm never afraid to contradict myself. The ultimate writing advice is always this: Do what's necessary.
Later: The three groups could be two. Writers who favor an extreme can meet in the center when writers who hate revision accept suggestions simply because they trust the editor more than themselves, and writers who love revising may accept suggestions simply because they don't have the time to revise as much as they'd like.
And writers who are initially in the first group sometimes set a story and notes aside for a week or two, only to discover they're now in the second or third group.