Author’s Note: This was written as the final paper for my book editing class. I received an A on the paper (and in the course), and my professor asked if he could use it as an example for his next class. I agreed. The goal of the paper was to explain–however I wished–what an editor’s job should entail. The paper is reprinted here in as similar a manner as I can reproduce for online enjoyment.
I’m wheat-gluten intolerant. This means that I can’t eat anything with wheat or wheat-related grains. My wheat-gluten intolerance comes up on a regular basis. Living and working on campus (and previously working at a comic book shop) brings up a surprisingly high number of instances of people offering me free food.
“Free pizza in the lobby (or on the counter, or at a meeting). You want in?”
“No, thanks. I’ve got a wheat-gluten intolerance.”
Most of these interactions lead to a boggled stare. In Internet emoticons, it looks like this:
There will be a pause.
And then the firing squad of questions will start.
“Can you have bread?”
“Not if it’s made with wheat.”
The boggled look returns, surrounded by pauses.
… o_O …
“There’s bread not made of wheat?”
Yet another pause will creep into the room.
“Can you have muffins?”
“Not if they’re made with wheat.”
“What about corn?”
It’s at this point where my face starts to look like the emoticon equivalent of worried.
Once someone starts asking about corn, the rest of the conversation is completely downhill from logic. In fact, I’m pretty certain I’ve seen logic put on its hat and coat and escape under cover of darkness, not wanting to risk even a vague association with the conversation that continues.
“Corn isn’t wheat.”
“Aren’t they related?”
“No. Not at all.”
And then the thoughtful looks start, once again surrounded by pauses.
… :-/ …
“So, you can’t have potatoes, right?”
No matter how many times I get this question—and I get it nearly every time my gluten intolerance comes up—my jaw still drops.
And I have to curb the urge to swear a great deal at the sheer ignorance.
Don’t yell, I tell myself. Don’t yell. Don’t yell.
Somewhere, in the last slivers of my self-control, I can usually find a calm tone with which to discuss how potatoes aren’t wheat. Sometimes, merely pointing out that potatoes aren’t wheat stops the conversation from getting worse. The person who asked the question will stop for a second, think, then laugh. A mild misunderstanding. Some weird connection between potatoes and wheat that can’t quite be tracked back logically but makes a certain weird sense. Maybe because potatoes are a dietary staple like wheat for a lot of people.
Most of the time, however, I end up having this conversation:
“I can have potatoes.”
“But you said you can’t have wheat.”
“Potatoes aren’t made of wheat.”
“Are you sure?”
There is no emoticon for a facepalm. Why, I do not know. Perhaps because there’s no way to effectively represent covering your face with your hand due to someone else’s embarrassment. Luckily, there are image macros, and some of them star Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
So imagine me making this basic face, except that I don’t have a Starfleet uniform, have lots of brown hair, and can’t roar at people as quite as stylishly as Sir Patrick Stewart. All I can do is take a deep breath and get through the rest of the conversation.
“I’m sure potatoes aren’t wheat.”
And then, again, the silence I’ve come to fear.
“So, you can have pasta, right?”
Pasta as most people think of it is made of wheat. Its ingredients are wheat flour, eggs, and water. “I can have pasta if it’s made of rice or corn,” I always say, because I can’t not try to help people better understand things when I have answers that are true.
“Isn’t rice related to wheat?”
If your head hasn’t exploded in sheer frustration, read this conversation over again. Put in different voices. Your best friend. Your aunt. Your co-workers. If you want to have a lot of fun with it, use celebrity voices (just not Patrick Stewart’s; that’s sacrilege). And keep doing voices until you’ve had that conversation a hundred times. That’s been my life regarding food for the last seven years.
There is a detail to these conversations that always amazes me. The people who have been in it with me have never, ever, been stupid. Every single one of them has understood concepts and ideas and would have, if asked outside the conversation, known that wheat and corn and potatoes and rice are all different plants. But there’s something in the conversation that breaks their brains a little. Maybe it’s that they’ve never heard of a wheat-gluten intolerance, so their brain fill in the basics of the human diet and makes weird leaps in logic. Maybe they’ve never really thought about the ingredients that make up their food, and only know that certain substances are used in a lot of different things. Maybe they simply aren’t thinking too hard about it because they’re not interested. Whatever the reason, I’ve spent a lot of time wondering how smart people can be so fundamentally dumb in very narrow conversations.
Seven years of these conversations, and I’ve learned one thing for certain: I am so happy I got such long-term informal training on dealing with smart people occasionally saying dumb things before I became an editor. It saves so much energy. It makes conversations about what I do much shorter and less offensive, because by and large, the people who ask me about my job want to pick a fight about it.
“What do you do?”
“I’m an editor.”
“Oh, like for books?”
The pause shows up, as it did before, the thoughtful face trapped within it.
… :-/ …
“How does that work? Being an editor, I mean.”
“Well, someone sends me something they want me to look at, and I read it and make notes and send it back.”
“So, you rewrite stuff?”
“Rewrite stuff” is the “can you eat corn” part of the editor conversation. There’s been a weird leap in logic that links up “making suggestions” to “rewriting.” They’re not the same thing, not even close, but for some reason, it sounds close in the brain of the person asking.
“No. I make suggestions and offer critique.”
The pause looms again.
“So you don’t correct anything without asking?”
“I make grammar corrections.”
“Well, yeah, but it’s only—”
“So you do rewrite!”
“You just said!”
Cue the facepalm.
We’ve jumped from a conversation with some logic to a conversation that would make a less-trained person pull out their hair. It’s worse in the editing conversation because at least those asking about my wheat-gluten intolerance have usually never heard of it. Everyone’s heard of editor, and everyone I’ve talked to about it has decided we’re out to get them.
“No,” I always try to explain. “I don’t rewrite. I make grammar edits because those are industry standard and don’t hurt the overall style of the story. If I think something I find grammatically wrong is being used stylistically, I’ll ask the author. Everything else I do is just make suggestions on how to improve a story.”
The pause returns yet again, the thoughtful look gets more suspicious.
… >:-/ …
I’ve admitted to making those dreaded suggestions, admitted I don’t automatically love everything I read.
“Do you have suggestions for everything you read?”
“Of course. That’s my job.”
“What kind of suggestions?”
“It depends. Sometimes I make suggestions about the story, like if a subplot drops off without resolving. Sometimes I give advice on character development if it feels like a character is flat. Sometimes I find plot holes, and sometimes I just give my general impression of the whole thing. It depends on what I think the author needs to work on.”
“So nothing’s ever good enough for you?”
Cue my jaw dropping (I’m proud to say this jaw drop usually only occurs in my head. Like I said, seven years of informal training).
And we’ve reached the potatoes. No matter what I say from this point, there is something in the other person’s head that is declaring that all editors are evil trolls out to make authors feel bad (and that potatoes are wheat).
“My job,” I say as neutrally as possible, giving that weird thanks to people who get confused about wheat and potatoes who have taught me patience and a non-offended tone at ridiculous questions, “is to read something and make notes on it and hope that my suggestions will be useful to the author.”
“And if they’re not?” (And what about rice?)
“Then they’re not, and I probably shouldn’t be working with that author because authors should at least be able to recognize usefulness in suggestions from their editors even if they choose not to use them.”
“It probably ticks you off, though, right? That you take all that time and someone doesn’t use your suggestions?” (But you can have pasta, right?)
“Maybe sometimes, if I think I’ve given someone really good suggestions to improve something, but it’s not my job to tell an author what to write. It’s my job to suggest revisions an author might make.” (I can eat pasta, just not the pasta you’re thinking about.)
It’s usually at this point that the conversation either dissolves or turns into more accusations. People who don’t trust editors really don’t trust editors. We are out to tell them their writing is terrible, and we are out to write what we want, not what they want. We are out to confuse them about what pasta is made of, and we are out to confuse them about potatoes and wheat.
Sometimes, at the end of the wheat-gluten conversation, the other person gets it. The next time someone offers me pizza or a sandwich or a bag of chips I haven’t checked the ingredients on, the person who previously confused various grains and tubers, will cut in before I get a chance to respond.
“Oh, Gayle can’t have that. It has wheat in it.”
“She has a wheat-gluten intolerance.”
“It means she can’t have stuff with wheat in it.”
“Can she have corn?”
In these cases, I’m the one who’s silently watching, and it’s the person who’s remembered my explanations who’s starting to look worried.
I haven’t yet seen the equivalent level of understanding from people I’ve talked with about an editor’s job, but I have hope. There’s no malice in people asking about what I can and can’t eat, but the people I’ve generally spoken with about what an editor does have a chip on their shoulder because they’ve decided that editing means rewriting means hating everything means being mad when my suggestions aren’t taken. There’s no logic to it, but their brains have made a leap that feels like logic when it’s innocently misunderstood information.
I hold out hope, though, in every conversation about what I do as an editor, because even the testiest people calm down when you don’t get testy in response. Maybe they meet me and think editors aren’t quite as bad. Maybe they talk to me and believe when I say I’m just here to make suggestions and catch comma splices. Maybe they’ll talk to someone else one day and explain what I do as well as I could. And on that day, on that day I will know the taste of victory.