Editing, Humility, and Ratatouille
Updated: Feb 9
In the movie Ratatouille, the famous restaurant critic, Anton Ego, arrives at Chef Gusteau’s restaurant prepared to write a scathing review in the next day’s paper.
After one bite of ratatouille transports him to his childhood, however, Ego has a conversion experience.
He realizes that his many years of critiquing other people's art may not be as noble as he once thought. He wrote this instead:
“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
"But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”
Editors have a lot to learn from Ego's words. By the nature of the job, we're put in the position of a critic. Unfortunately, this power can be misunderstood and misapplied. I’ve often heard editors, or anyone with a decent command of English, really, talk with delight of tearing documents apart, often completely rewriting someone else’s work.
Approaching editing from this angle is problematic. Editors don’t exist to tear things apart but to polish already existing art.
When an author entrusts their work (whether magnum opus or simple resume) to another person to read, they’ve entrusted a part of who they are. Has an editor laid their heart on the line? Let their own private memories, history, and personality be known and critiqued by others? No. Any suggestions should be given as a curator, not a critic.
What's an editor to do?
Some of the questions any editor should ask are these: Why do I feel like changing this? Am I superimposing my own voice on this document? My own feelings?
We ought to truthfully ask ourselves if something is unclear or wrong, or simply bothering us stylistically. If it’s unclear, change it. If it’s a style different than ours — leave it.
To obliterate a piece of work shouldn’t be a source of pride, but a mark of failure. In every piece of work there is a diamond. An editor’s job is to chip away with care and compassion, giving each piece a chance to shine.
Do pieces sometimes require major rewrites or revisions? Certainly. But those can be approached in humility and kindness, often by asking questions that prompt an author to make further revisions on their own.
At the end of the day, the diamond is not ours, but theirs.