Ok, here is a copy-paste of my article from the Amwriting blog on editors and the love-hate relationship we have with them. Warning: It may contain incoherence and random insanity.
Inevitably, the nature of my blogging at the moment will revolve around new experiences. There is also likely to be a certain element of comparison of the writing life to that of a teacher. This entry is no exception….
Your friendly neighbourhood editorial team
Near the end of August (the 21st to be precise) my first novella, Transitions, is due for release. Up until now, my publishing record has been somewhat thin –a single short story in an anthology – but this release makes things a little more ‘official’. With the short story, the process was relatively simple – submit story, get letter of acceptance, get contract, sign contract and then wait for the process of publication to take place. I reviewed some proofs at one point and got sent the cover to go ‘oooh’ over but apart from that I had little involvement.
With Transitions it was a whole different ball game. With Transitions I had to deal with the most feared creature ever to walk the hallowed halls of any publisher… The Editor.
Writers have a love-hate relationship with their editors. On the one hand, the fact you have been assigned one at all means the work you have submitted meets that publisher’s standards, i.e. you are good enough to be published. They would not bother if your work was unmitigated tripe, you’d have been booted out the rejection door as soon as they looked at you (and, in fact, even a work that is up to the standard may get this treatment too…). On the other hand, you hate your editor because they are the person who criticises your work minutely, pulling at all the little flaws in your writing style and, possibly more horrifically, imposing upon you the dreaded changes that the publisher feels are needed. Now, don’t deny it…. I can see through your protestations that you co-operate with your editor and don’t mind the changes. Come on, admit it. Deep down, maybe hidden where no one but you knows it is there, you have that little ball of resentment. That little voice which says ‘but this is my baby, I worked hard at this, you can’t be so brutal to it you mean old person you!’ To paraphrase Pratchett, handing your work over to an editor is sometimes like bringing up a cute little pony, nurturing it, loving it, making it one of your family and then handing it over to a new owner and watching them ride off on it using spurs and a whip.
A renowned editor demonstrates the essential skills required at a recent editing conference.
I like to think I was lucky with my editor because I knew her before she was assigned. Well, I’d reviewed one of her books on epublish a book and she’d emailed me to thank me. So I knew that she knew what she was on about and we had a rapport already and that is always a good start. I wasn’t too concerned when the file with her comments in it dropped into my inbox. Except that I had forgotten one thing…
You see, I actually wrote Transitions more than 5 years ago. Since then I have changed significantly as a writer, worked hard to lose some terrible bad habits and one thing my editor showed me was exactly how far I had improved. There were significant errors – point of view shifts, tense shifts, purple prose, repeated words… the list went on. Thing is, new improved writer me agreed emphatically with every single change because I knew that had I read them in a book I was reviewing or editing I would be scathing. However, at the back of my mind, naive young writer me was still there going ‘NO!!!!!!!! You cannot mess with a masterpiece of this quality you insane bitch!!!!!! All the quirks are there for perfectly respectable and reasonable reasons!!!!* Aieeeeeeeee!!!! I kill you!!!!!’**
Luckily, new improved writer me got together with sensible me and beat the living poop out of naive young writer me before any of those sentiments could express themselves in e-mails to the editor. I made the changes*** and was happy to do it because, frankly, you do what your editor says and then thank them for doing it. Reading over the completed work, I am glad that I did because the work is improved overall and has a definite professional sheen.
So, what has that got to do with teaching? I did say I would try to shoehorn that in somehow. Well, here’s a thing. Schools, especially primary schools where the fundamentals of the skill we call writing are first picked up, aren’t actually all that big on editing. They work hard on writing skills – grammar, spelling, punctuation, structure, all that malarkey but once a pupil hands in a completed piece of work at the end of the lesson that is it. They get it marked and returned with some comments but they do not get the chance to act on those comments save by not making the same mistakes in a future piece of work. Whatever mark they get for that work is what gets recorded. So, for pupils in schools there is a lot of pressure to get it right first time and no real experience of the subtle give and take of discussion between a writer and editor where perfection is attempted by a consensual process. The process of editing Transitions underwent consisted of several rounds, each one coming closer to the editor’s ideal. The pieces of work I have marked in my time teaching will never achieve that because they are forever locked in an exercise book, stuck in the same form they were when handed in with only my comments hinting at their potential. I do wonder if schools are not missing out on an important lesson in literacy – the importance of critical review and editing on achieving perfection in writing. Not getting it right first time is not a failure, just a single step along the path to your goal. Those who doubt the importance of editors should maybe take a look at some of the original first draft manuscripts by famous authors****. They can be very revealing about the changes most novels go through to get published. So, in conclusion, respect your editor and make sure you listen to what they say and when they spank your arse with a massive sheaf of notes pointing out all your shortcomings, be sure to say ‘Thank you, Ma’am, please may I have another’. It’s for your own good, after all.
*They weren’t, they really weren’t. They were the literary equivalent to masturbation – showy and flashy and not actually achieving much other than self gratification.
**Naive young writer me was always one for over use of alliteration. And overuse of exclamation marks. Not to mention extreme arrogance. Most of these traits have been firmly beaten out of my now.
*** Yes, even the one I struggled with because I had English characters in England using an English colloquialism that needed to be removed because Americans would have problems understanding it… That one *hurt*
**** Like the Photograph of the first page of the first draft manuscript of Lord of the Rings which can be seen inside one of Tolkien’s biographies (can’t remember which one, it was many years ago I saw it). It is hardly a clean and well structured piece of literature. Seeing that as a child gave me insight into how even a great writer often starts out with something that needs a lot of polishing before it is publishable.