As I often mention, I’m an editor. I’m also obviously someone who likes to play with words and who appreciates ambiguity; as I say in my About page, a word isn’t much good if it can only mean one thing at a time. Some people may consider these two facts incompatible: shouldn’t an editor’s job always be to enhance clarity?
Not to put too fine a point on it: Hell to the no! An editor’s job is certainly in many cases to enhance clarity. But by no means always. An editor is there to facilitate the best effect on the reader, which is a function of enhancing the author’s communication with the audience. But sometimes what the author wants to communicate is precisely ambiguity, open-endedness, an invitation for the reader to contribute some as well. To fill in the blanks.
Some authors value this more than others; the editor should pay attention to the author’s bent on this. (I, for instance, in writing fiction, usually prefer to let the readers fill in many visual details of the characters and contexts. If you’ve read some of my story-type word tasting notes, tell me what the following characters look like: Daryl, Jess, Margot, Ross. Why do you think so?) Inasmuch as the writing is at all an artistic expression, it has as part of its utterance “appreciate this aesthetically,” which means “look for the things that resonate with you in it,” which means that each reader will have his or her own individual experience and interpretation of it, similar but not identical to that of any other reader.
Ambiguity is even sometimes valuable in nonfiction. Well, not always so valuable for the reader per se, but quite often valuable for the author (or uttering body – much nonfiction is produced in the name of organizations or corporations), who doesn’t wish to be pinned down on this or that! And as the editor, you do have to keep that in mind. An editor has to be mentally flexible. (See Are you editor material? for more on what an editor should be.)
I mention this just because my attention has been drawn to an instance where an editor – without consulting the author, which is the worst part – made clarifying rewrites to a short story based on the editor’s own interpretations. This is an excellent example of what an editor should not just go ahead and do, and of why many writers grumble about copyeditors. The author is Mima Simić, and the story is “My Girlfriend,” published in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction for 2011. Read about it in The Facts Behind One Story in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction for 2011.