Here’s a little essay on the lost art of editing. And after you’ve read it, you can look at this one which is actually called “The Lost Art of Editing.” As an author who fairly regularly gets into knock-down arguments with editors, dg tends to take a dim view of the whole business.
Writers have done little to clarify the role of editors, either. Where the experience of being edited goes well, they’re grateful, but the more publicised cases are when the experience is bad. Henry James called editing “the butcher’s trade”. Byron associated it with emasculation and, he said, would “have no gelding”. DH Lawrence compared it to trying “to clip my own nose into shape with scissors”. And John Updike says: “It’s a little like going to … the barber”, adding, “I have never liked haircuts.” Or listen to the condescension of Nabokov: “By editor I suppose you mean proofreader.” There are, of course, many different kinds of editor – from fact-checkers and OKers (as they’re known at the New Yorker), to line-editors and copy editors, to editors who grasp the big picture but skip the detail. But in popular mythology they’re lumped together as bullyboys, bouncers or, to quote Nabokov again, “pompous avuncular brutes”.
Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit – that seems to be the line. I prefer TS Eliot. Asked if editors were no more than failed writers, he replied: “Perhaps – but so are most writers.”