Free Lances, Gladiators, and Other Violent Things: Editing as a Merciless Labor (of Love)
Updated: Aug 15
“No good writing ever came from a merciful editor.”
– Taylor Shaw, The Novel Tailor
What is a freelance editor?
As most of us know, a freelance editor is a publishing professional operating his or her own business to proofread, format, and edit manuscripts or drafts of a work. The distinctions between types of editing such as proofreading, copy editing, and line editing are defined in many sources, but that is not what this article will discuss.
Perhaps a better question here is, why is a freelance editor called a freelance editor?
I am so glad you asked.
In today’s gig economy, freelancing is an increasing option for people who want to
carve out a professional space for themselves by creating their own companies. But where does this term come from, exactly? The story is fascinating my friends. First used in the
1800s, it derives from the following verbal math equation: free, as in no pledged allegiance, plus lance, the medieval spear-like weapon, equals freelance, the term used for a mercenary, a roving knight who claimed no loyalty to any bloodline or country but who sold his services to the highest bidder (in today’s pop culture terms, we might call him a Witcher as we toss him our coin, but that is another discussion entirely) [1, I.1]. While most of us do not have the weaponry or skill-set of a medieval mercenary (although some of us do) we still use this term centuries later to describe our own relentless quests for coin.
The English word editor comes to us in the Western world the same way we got our government structure, indoor plumbing, and our fondness for toga parties: via those crazy Romans. We are all familiar with the Roman Colosseum as an arena for gladiatorial justice and spectacle (thank you Russell Crowe). Constructed around 70 AD, the Colosseum served as an entertainment forum, courtroom, and executioner’s scaffold. Imprisoned men and women from around the empire would be brought here, trained, and forced to do battle with each other or wild animals . Christians were put to death at this site for their religious beliefs, and famous naval battles from wars gone by would be reenacted for the crowds of 50,000 people, complete with full-scale ships and water flooded in using the aqueduct system . In this arena, as in the rest of his empire, Caesar held all power. He decided who lived and who died. He turned chaos into order within his borders which stretched from modern-day Turkey to the edge of Spain. Helping him maintain law and order were his generals.
But there was another whose advice he sought. That man was the Munerarius, or Editor (Editrix for the feminine ending) . He too helped to create order from chaos, separated the wheat from the chaff, and channeled the opinion of the multitudes into a single decisive action. His “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” carried the weight of lives, and he could be ruthless. Munerarii in Rome held this mighty power while others throughout the empire were governors or priests. In short, they could be middle-men between the emperor and his people, as well as arbiters of civic and religious law .
So how do the fearsome professions of
mercenary knight and gladiatorial executioner
figure into today’s freelance editor [I.2]? While
we may not be administering justice or felling
armies, editors have the task of combing
carefully through a manuscript, weighing
advice and suggestions, all the while
preserving an author’s voice and the important message that he or she wants to send out into the world. We have the responsibility of being a neutral third party, taking the opinions of the crowd, of society, as well as of the literary agent or publishing house, into consideration and figuring out how best to apply the parameters of the craft of writing to something that will always be subjective. Sometimes in the course of this duty, we must be merciless.
Sometimes you will receive your manuscript back with a few more red lines, comments, or questions than you expected. Perhaps the editor thinks that your character acted one way in the first few scenes, and suddenly turned into another person entirely in the next. Maybe a paragraph you have been laboring over for days makes a point that has absolutely nothing to do with your essay’s main argument, however fascinating it is. Our job as editors is to look at your very personal work with as objective an eye as possible. Yes, we are readers too. There are things in your story that will draw us in, make us cry, have us cheering for our favorites, and of course we want this to happen. But we are also here to make cuts, suggest changes, chop scenes down and build them back up, question character motives, ask about big picture ideas, be critical of sources, and ask you dozens of nit-picky questions.
It may feel at times like we have no mercy. But rest assured, we are here to help! By making suggestions, cutting out extraneous information, or restructuring ideas, we are trying to examine, deconstruct, and build up your work so that readers, agents, and publishers are presented with the strongest writing you can bring. You give us your work with the promise that you have labored hard on it and are ready for advice. We give you the best advice we can while remembering the Editor’s Golden Rule: at the end of the day, your project is yours, and your voice is Caesar’s. Look to your Munerarius for guidance and encouragement, but you should always be able to tell where their edits differ from your original words so that they are not writing over you (if you have hired someone to ghost write or copy write for you, this is another matter entirely). The partnership between author and editor should be professional and positive, even if you disagree about changes to the work. These discussions should be able to happen in a true spirit of collaboration and respect. With the right editor on your team, you can feel confident that their efforts are labors of love.
So go forth and be fearless in your writing, as well as your editing. For what are words if not powerful tools, weapons, change-makers in this world?
 “The Surprising History of ‘Freelance,’ Merriam Webster (accessed January 29, 2020), https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/freelance-origin-meaning.
 Joshua J. Mark, “Female Gladiators in Ancient Rome,” Ancient History Encyclopedia (published April 5, 2018, accessed January 29, 2020), https://www.ancient.eu/article/35/female-gladiators-in-ancient-rome/.
 Shelby Brown, “The Language of the Arena,” Archaeology: A Publication of the Archaeological Institute of America (published 2007, accessed January 29, 2020), https://archive.archaeology.org/gladiators/glossary.html.
 “Editrix,’ Merriam Webster (accessed January 29, 2020), https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/editrix.
 Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth, Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, v. II (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC), 239.
Embedded Image Credits:
[I.1] A still of Henry Cavill's character from the Netflix original show, The Witcher. All rights belong to Netflix. Image courtesy of https://www.ladbible.com/entertainment/tv-and-film-netflix-fantasy-show-the-witcher-could-hit-screens-on-december-17-20191029.
[I.2] Photo of the Arms and Armor wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image by Ashley Mingus, 2019. Please do not use this image without first obtaining permission from the author.
[I.3] Photo of the Book of Hours of Jean, duc de Berry by the Limbourg Brothers (active 1399–1416) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image by Ashley Mingus, 2019. Please do not use this image without first obtaining permission from the author.