In Rome last summer, while on a tour of the Colosseum, I learned from our guide that in ancient Rome, a person called an "editor" decided if a fallen gladiator would live or die. Basically, this person, not the emperor, would give the thumbs up or down to indicate whether the winning gladiator should spare or take the fallen gladiator's life.
All week we'd seen actors playing gladiators, men dressed in gauzy red loin cloths and bristly helmets, bare chests exposed (or in the case of one out-of-shape actor, a plastic chest plate to give him 6-pack abs), smoking an e-cigarette, talking on cell phones, leaning shields against small carry-on suitcases the same red as the costume.
When the guide told us of this role for the "editor," my thoughts moved even farther from gladiators, actual or not, to writers. I couldn't stop grinning because for writers submitting work for publication or student writers submitting for a grade, it can feel like a "life or death" decision. At last, the true source of an editor's power...
As I've stayed longer in my writing career, I've been enjoying high-quality interactions with editors. They frequently offer a different perspective on a finished text. Sometimes it's a change of wording, usually the elimination of words, sometimes moving around whole paragraphs. I've been enjoying the email interchanges as we negotiate over the piece, their desired version and my own vision of the text.
I've also grown to know a few journal or press editors in recent years and have watched how hard they work on other people's writing. I've been impressed by the dedication of the graduate-student editors at my university's journal, Soundings East, and the serious consideration behind their "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" verdicts. I like what William Stafford said on this topic--the way he frames the publishing dynamic in so trusting a fashion: "An editor is a friend who helps keep a writer from publishing what should not be published."
At the same time, I often think back on a pin a student I knew wore on his T-shirts in junior high: "Kill Them All and Let God Decide." A disturbing pin on multiple levels, certainly, but somehow in my thinking it has become the mantra, "Write It All and Let Them (Editors) Decide." I often turn to this saying while in the midst of a complicated writing project. It's a firm reminder that my job is to separate the composing process from the editing process for a good stretch of the work. It's my job to experience the creation of the text and let other people do what they will with the eventual final text. While I can make structural, stylistic, or content choices which persuade a future reader, it's truly beyond my control (or any writer's) to dictate their decisions about the text's fate. Leave that job to someone else.