Thoughts on Writing
#17: Have Faith In Your Editor
by Seanan McGuire
This is actually a thought that applies to everyone who writes, whether
you're doing essays for a class or trying to craft the Great
American/European/Australian/Martian/Whatever Novel. It's
publishing-oriented in the sense that I do believe that work intended
for publication requires more extensive editing, and we'll be talking
about that. It's also writing-for-fun-oriented, in the sense that we
want our readers not to bludgeon us to death with trout. Here's today's
expanded topic of discussion:
A good editor looks good when you look
good. They're trying to help you. Listen to them. Not everyone is a
good editor. After a few experiences with the bad ones, you'll learn
how to recognize the difference.
It's impossible to provide the experience necessary to tell a good
editor from a bad one, at least in part because that definition will
vary from person to person. Sometimes the variation will be slight;
other times, the variation will be large enough to become
incomprehensible. So we're going to try to cover the generalities
today, and more importantly, we're going to be discussing the reasons
that we need to be edited at all.
Ready? Excellent. Let's get started.
we tell ourselves.
All of us, as writers, will lie to ourselves. That's the nature of the
game. Lying is, after all, very closely related to storytelling, and
when you spend the whole day telling the big lies to the paper, it's
easy to tell small lies to yourself. (Please note that I'm not saying
'all writers are liars.' As a class of people, we're just as honest or
dishonest as any other class of people. I'm pretty sure everybody on
the planet lies to themselves. I'm just talking about the lies that
writers, in specific, like to tell when the doors are closed.) There
are some lies that seem to be pretty close to universal. Here's a
"I don't really need an editor."
"I think that having someone review your work saps it of creative
"Revision isn't good for the story."
"I always get it right the first time."
"The roughness lends it a feeling of urgency."
"I always got great marks in spelling. What can a spellchecker tell me
that I don't already know?"
I have encountered every one of these big fat lies in at least three
other authors. Note the phrase 'other authors.' I have also encountered
every one of these big fat lies in myself. It's late, I'm tired, I'm
feeling fragile, I don't want to
submit my work for review. I don't want to run
it through a spellcheck and get told, again, that I can't spell
'embarrassing' right (seriously, I have come up with more ways to
mangle that word...). I'm a competent writer. I'm even a good writer. I
don't need somebody to go over my work with a fine-toothed comb and
pick it to death and make me feel stupid for using commas wrong. Right?
Wrong. Wrong, and wrong, and wrong again. Yes, I'm a competent writer.
Yes, I'm a good writer. And yes, I need to have somebody -- preferably
multiple somebodies -- go over my work before I release it out into the
wild. Is there a certain raw urgency to unedited text? Sure. I don't
usually submit my off-the-cuff poetry for peer review, because in a
short form, that raw urgency can be a whole lot of fun. Do I spell most
words correctly? After more than twenty years of flinging words at
pages, yes, I've figured out how things are normally spelled. Those are
just the superficial aspects of a much larger necessity.
Yes, a bad editor can be
creatively and emotionally bad for the writer, as well as for the work.
Then again, a bad anything can be creatively and emotionally bad for
whatever it is they're trying to do. Bad cooks make bad soup. Bad
teachers give bad lessons. And bad editors give bad edits. Still, one
batch of bad soup doesn't mean that all soup is to be avoided; one bad
French lesson doesn't mean it's time to bomb France back into the Stone
Age and wipe the language from the face of the world.
If you want to be a serious writer, whether you're writing for fun or
for publication, you need to be edited. The extent of that editing is
determined by a) your own goals, b) your intentions, and c) the quality
of your editors. You get to set the bar, at least early in your career,
but as things go on, you're going to find that the bar is taken away
from you. It's best to be prepared for that.
What makes a good editor?
In an effort to do some research beyond my own experience, I punched
the words 'good editor' into Google -- the lazy researcher's second
best friend, after Wikipedia -- and skimmed through the results. What I
found was the usual mish-mash of opinions and statistics, some of them
better formatted than others (and some, comically, in need of a good
editor themselves). Just about everything either covered the hard
skills -- which I'll go into in a moment -- or were just as based on
opinion as this essay. So I'll rely on my own experience, and note that
for you, the 'soft skills' part of finding a good editor is probably
going to be entirely subjective. Go forth. Find your own balance.
So what are the 'hard skills' that a good editor needs to possess? That
depends very much on what that editor is being asked to do. For example:
My work goes through three tiers of review before it reaches my agent.
The first-tier readers are asked to review for punctuation, spelling,
word use, and continuity errors; I'm likely to disregard or shelve any
comments they give me on pacing or logic at that stage, because I'm
still feeling my way through things. The second-tier readers, on the
other hand, are explicitly asked to attack pacing and logic, and have
the quantity of text necessary to really dig their claws in and start
shredding. By the time I reach the third-tier, most of the major issues
have been resolved...which results in a lot of smaller issues becoming
visible. The process of editing is a lot like the process of cleaning a
very messy bedroom: until you have all the laundry off the floor, you
don't realize that there's other stuff scattered all over the place.
My agent gets the work after it's been 'signed off' by all my initial
readers. Now, note that she's getting her hands on something all of us
have declared to be clean and ready for prime time. We've done our
editing, and we're feeling good about it. You could typeset that puppy
right now. Right? Um, wrong. Inevitably, my work comes back from the
agent with a few suggested changes, and those changes are, almost
invariably, genuinely beneficial to the text. Does she do the early
labor, the heavy-lifting of getting the bed off the floor and sweeping
underneath it? No. But she's the one who points out that maybe before
we have guests in, that bed should be made. And all this happens before
we reach the big editor, the one at my publishing house.
How many of these editors you have will depend entirely on what kind of
work you're doing. You may have one person who reviews all aspects of
your work; you may have all the same people that I do. If you don't
have an agent, you may go straight to the big editor. It's all very
What hard skills do all these editorial levels need to possess? First,
a reasonable command of the language. Having someone who doesn't speak
English edit an English-language manuscript isn't just unhelpful, it's
silly. Second, a reasonable understanding of flow and pacing. Third, a
reasonable understanding of the rules of grammar and punctuation. My
model doesn't require any single person to be able to do all these
things (although my agent and my big editor absolutely need to
encompass them all). Your model may.
Please note that these are just the hard
skills: the things that are absolute yes/no qualities. It's
possible for someone to be firmly grounded in every single one of those
hard skills, making them a wonderful editor on paper, and still be a
terrible editor for
you. That's where the soft skills come in.
Soft skills are people skills. They're not only having the capacity to
spot a continuity error, but the capability to point it out without
utterly crushing the author's ego. They're the skills that make an
editor a nice person. Basically, imagine your potential editors as
employees in a tech support call center. There's the one guy who's been
there since time began. He knows everything.
He can fix any system, no matter how broken. Trouble is, he's an
asshole. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there's the really
sweet new girl who's willing to stay on the phone with you all day if
that's what it takes. Maybe she's not very good with the systems yet,
but she'll hold your hand all the way through.
The hard skills will remain necessary throughout the length of your
career, although your dependence on them may lessen as you grow more
experienced. I get a lot fewer punctuation-corrections than I used to,
although I'll never be past needing them. Your need for the soft
skills, on the other hand, will gradually decrease, until you can just
go straight to that asshole in the back of the room. It's all a matter
of what makes a good editor for you,
So what makes a bad editor?
The nasty thing about bad editors is their ability to sneak up on you.
See, they can have all the hard skills necessary for a good editor.
They can even have the soft skills. Hell, they can even be good editors
for that guy over there -- but that doesn't mean they can't be bad for you.
If your editor can't stop trying to take control of your story, they're
a bad editor. If your editor insists on critiquing you, rather than
critiquing your text, they're a bad editor. If your editor is more
interested in looking cool than helping you, they're a bad editor. Bad
editors are just as subjective as good ones, and can be very subtle. If
you find that you're not working well with someone, they may simply be
a bad editor for
you. Admit that you can't work with them, and move on. No
harm, no fail.
That's not very helpful.
Sorry. You figure out what makes a bad editor through experience. I
can't give you that. I can tell you that I encourage my editors to be
extremely harsh, because I've had the time to build up a reasonably
thick skin; I would never turn them loose on someone who wasn't
prepared to be skinned alive. They'd be very bad editors for a
beginning writer as they are right now. (This is my 'at home' editorial
pool I'm talking about, not my agent or the editor at my publishing
house, both of whom are skilled enough to adjust their approach to
authors of any experience level.)
At the end of the day, it really does come down to the simple fact that
a good editor looks good when you do, and a good editor is a lot more
objective about your text than you are. I love every book I've ever
written. I love every draft I've ever done. I've needed editors every
step along the way, because they were the only ones who could tell me
that my book was lovely, sure, but also deeply flawed and in need of
help. Have I made progress without editors? Yes. But the really big
steps, the really impressive changes, were almost all inspired by solid
critique from people I trusted.
Find good editors. Listen to them. Trust them. The only thing a good
editor wants to do is help, and they're almost always going to be
right. Learn to listen for that 'almost' -- nobody's right all the
time -- but still.
They'll make things better.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequal, A Local Habitation, is due out in March 2010.
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