When I first signed up for my literary editing course, I didn’t really think it would have much in common with my tutoring job. I mean, we’re taught from the beginning to be non-invasive tutors, and definitely not editors. We don’t want to risk usurping the writer’s voice or helping them too much. However, it’s inevitable that in talking about what makes good writing, you learn a thing or two about tutoring. It turns out that editing is deeply entrenched in the writer/reader relationship, just as tutoring is. That relationship is a great jumping-off point for considering how the two disciplines are related, and what we can learn from editors to become better tutors.
Editors, as famed and prolific editor Robert Gottlieb says, are the writer’s first and best reader. They ask the questions that need to be asked, in short, and even before they start making suggestions, they raise issues to the writer. The tutor performs a similar function, really. We try to move the writer in the right direction by asking them to analyze their own writing. We react in the right ways and help the writer determine if they’re making the impression they want to with their writing. We provide honesty and engagement with the text, inspiring the same in the writer.
The editor is also responsible for finding trouble spots in the writer’s work, but they don’t just run rough-shod over the writer’s work. They suggest, they imply, they offer compromises. Their responsibility is to help the writer to write the best work they can; ours as tutors isn’t so different. A good editor wants the writer involved every step of the way, but their relationship involves talking out problems and developing solutions; neither party has complete control. Writers and tutors work in a similar way. If writers were to bow completely to the tutor or vice versa, nothing would get done (or too much would, but without real educational progress). As tutors (and as editors) we can’t back down or take over, and that takes finesse.
There are, of course, the formal concerns of the editor that can leak over to the tutoring process too. Good writing shouldn’t be overly specific or too vague; shouldn’t be redundant or boring; shouldn’t be monotonous or sing-song. But the ways in which we voice these concerns to the writer, while considering their input and contribution, are important to editors and tutors. Both scenarios are partnerships and can be tricky, since the writer is bringing highly sensitive material to you. At the same time, the process is fascinating and highly generative. Editing and tutoring, at their best, exist in in a sort of push-and-pull middle ground that invites creativity.