Or "Why Editors Wear a Wry Smile"
Many people, upon hearing you are an editor will say, "Oh, so you, like, just add commas and fix spelling, right?" You, being a thoroughly reasonable person, clasp your hands behind your back to prevent one of them from inadvertently slapping her. No one wants to be described with a "just," after all.
Many assume that masterpieces leap fully formed from the heads of authors, like Boticelli's Venus stepping forth from the seashell. For some authors, this is the case, but for many it is quite otherwise.
To me, approaching a raw piece of writing is like starting a great architectural dig. I always wanted to be an archeologist, but my parents said I would get hot and dirty and would have to live in places without indoor plumbing. So instead, I excavate stories and ideas.
Often when you approach a piece of writing, like a plot of plain-looking dirt, you can't tell what lies within. You start by brushing away the dirt. All the superfluous paragraphs and chapters and sentences and words. All the clutter that distracts from the real bones. Often, there is more dirt than there are bones.
Eventually, you begin to see the outline of a skeleton, a thigh bone jutting up here and a collar bone buried there. You continue to brush away until all that is left is the animal - whatever it may be.
You realize that some pesky magpie must have upset the skeleton at some point, as you find some scattered foot bones up around the neck of the skeleton and a foreleg over by the bushes. You carefully remove them and place them where they ought to be.
You find that the bird must have flown off with some bones too, as there are vital parts of the animal missing. In your notebook, you sketch what is missing - a leg bone without which the animal couldn't support it's weight and a plate along its spine, without which the symmetry of the animal would be off.
You also begin to find bones that, while they are excellent specimens, clearly belong to another animal. You dust them off and set them aside, hoping to one day find the skeleton that the lovely bones belong to.
Once you are done with this careful work of discovery and reassembly, you are finally able to see the glorious animal that hid within the site. You proudly show it to the author, and he says, "Yes! This is it!" And only he knows what you have done.
When the animal is unveiled to the world, they ooh and ahh and say to you, "Isn't it magnificent?" You smile. You don't say, "You should have seen what a pile of dirt it was when I first saw it." Because that would make you a royal jerk. You say, "Yes, isn't it?"
For ultimately, editing is humble and unrecognized work. If you are a good editor, no one will know that you ever existed. But you know. Although you don't receive acclaim for saving lives or erecting impressive buildings, you know that the most important things in life are not buildings or dollars, but ideas.
Ideas, expressed through words, are what save and destroy, condemn and inspire. They drive the armies of hate and the armies of compassion. The abstracts of the world are the essence of life, set down in a simple book of black type on white paper. A simple book that can set hearts on fire and fields ablaze.
But when you say these things, people think you are getting a bit dramatic. They wonder why you get paid so much and whether or not your job is relatively expendable. So when the girl on the elevator asks if you just add commas, you give her a wry smile and say yes.