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Writer’s Craft #18 – Who Edits You?

May 2, 2011

Eli Effinger-Weintraub‘s avatar on a recent comment to the Writer’s Craft was a image that read something like: “The one universal truth is everyone wants to change your text”. It’s so true! So after visiting her homepage and discovering she edits professionally, I asked her to comment on the phenomenon. – lynda


Bad news. Your baby —  the precious angel who’s going to reverse global climate change and broker peace in the Middle East (from space!) – needs braces. And remedial math. Also, she’s way too tall.

Don’t you sometimes feel like that when red-pen-wielding fiends swoop down on your manuscript? Every word was perfect! The very commas sparkled!

Truth is, even peace-brokering, space-faring ecowarriors need teachers and doctors and friends to guide them.

And our copy needs help. But where to get it?

COPY EDITOR: Pro: Copy editors bring an objective eye. We care only about cleaning up mechanical messes to help your story shine.

This paragraph comes from “Accidental Encounters”, a short story I edited for E.M. Ben Shaul.

Before:

And, thankfully, he stepped up to help me out.  “C’mon,” he said.  “We’re all a little – or more than a little – frayed right now.  Let’s not get into something right now where we might say things we shouldn’t.  It won’t help Avi at all, and I know, at the crux of it all, that’s where all this is coming from.”  I could understand why Avi has said that Jake’s the family peacemaker.  “Let’s go eat, and you’ll get a chance to talk this all out when we’re all more relaxed.”

After:

“C’mon,” he said.  “We’re a little – more than a little – frayed.  Let’s not say things we’ll regret.  We all want to help Avi, not fight about him, right?”  I understood why Avi calls Jake the family peacemaker.  “Let’s eat, and we’ll talk this out when we’re more relaxed.”

The substance remains the same, but subtle changes improve flow and make Jake’s dialogue feel more natural.

Con: We’re a pedantic lot. If you choose nonstandard spelling, sentence structure, or punctuation, we will make you fight for it, and we’ll probably still tell you to take it out–which some writers feel mutes the unique style and flow of their work.

FELLOW WRITER (friendly): Pro: A fellow writer can offer sympathetic, germane advice dipped straight from the well of experience.

Con: My solo show Bye-Bye, Beirut opens with the line, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting pretty bored sitting here not getting shot at.”

A fellow writer complained, “The opening is abrupt; there’s no context for what’s going on. Start by saying you were looking at pictures from your trip to Israel and thought of this story.”

That’s how she would’ve started it. But I prefer to drop my audience into the scene and let them piece things together, without frames.

Critique from other writers may reflect not what’s best for our story but what they would have written if it were theirs.

FAMILY MEMBER: Pro: Relatives are plenteous; they rarely charge for their opinions; and they’re under contractual obligation to love you.

Con: Love and honesty can clash. A family member may withhold a painful but necessary critique to spare our feelings and avoid friction in the relationship.

After my wife read an early draft of my story “The New Prohibition”, she set it aside and said, “Huh. Interesting.” We conflict-averse Minnesotans say “Interesting” when we dislike something but are too polite to say so. The draft clearly needed a lot of help, but because she loves me and didn’t want to hurt me, I could get no other comments out of her, although clearly she had plenty.

Who gets to play with your copy? What kinds of changes do they suggest? How many of those changes do you end up making, and how many do you leave behind (and why)?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2011 7:46 am

    Lots of people get to play with my words. I know they aren’t perfect and they need help. My husband and older kids read most of my stuff, letting me know where the sentences are confusing or just don’t sound right. Then I have a group of beta readers–friends who like what I write (and are the target audience) and a couple of author friends. Finally, I have my editor that my publisher pays. She has no problems chopping my story into bits with her highlighter and red pen. And the end result is a much better story. Does it hurt? Most definitely. But in a very good way.

    One mark of a pro is how they accept critique and editing suggestions. I may not follow every bit of advice (You end up with a mess of a story if you do), but if someone tells me something is off, it probably is. I think about the critique and find my own way to fix the problem.

  2. Kari T permalink
    May 2, 2011 8:29 am

    (Eli- I’m a Minnesotan too, so I know what you are talking about!!! Interesting it is)

    My mother is my first line of feedback. But it took a while to get her up to speed, i.e., she was doing as Eli says, holding back. I had to tell her, ‘Look, an agent will just drop this in the trash and I’ll never know why. I”m writing because I love it, and I want to write a good book.’

    After that I got paragraphs and paragraphs of comments. ‘I don’t like this character’s name’, ‘you introduced too many characters in the first chapter’, and ‘this doesn’t make sense’. She even started adding her own suggestions-hehe. I implement everything she says because my mom has been reading romance novels for over 40 years, and she can spot a bad yarn from a mile away.

    After my mom’s revisions I go to a friend who has been in focus groups for published authors. From my mom I get advice on story structure, but my friend gets more nit picky. From her I”ll hear ‘the characters all sound the same’, ‘your story reads like a hollywood script, i can’t feel the scene’, and ‘the descriptions are weak’. Nice, huh?

    After all this I”ll find a copy editor. And a teflon pair of panties.

    • May 2, 2011 12:38 pm

      (Eli- I’m a Minnesotan too, so I know what you are talking about!!! Interesting it is)

      I’m what my wife calls a “Minnesotan-in-law”, and I’m chagrined to admit that I lived here almost seven years before I realized the nuance that a lifelong resident puts in that word. I assumed it meant, you know…”of interest”. Now I dicover that I’ve picked up the local usage, too!

  3. May 2, 2011 10:26 am

    Any pro-writer has to be able to work with editors and tolerant of changes. Yet there is also such a thing as the work dissolving in the acid of too much editing from too many different directions. Trust and focus are the key things. Work with people you trust — both in terms of their skills and their support. But even two good editors with your best interests at heart can pull in different directions since there’s not just “one possible good story” in any piece of writing. There’s a myriad. That’s why focus is the other critical thing. Stick with one. Hopefully your own, informed by the help of a trusted editor.

    • May 2, 2011 12:42 pm

      But even two good editors with your best interests at heart can pull in different directions since there’s not just “one possible good story” in any piece of writing.

      Great point, Lynda. Too many editors can spoil the manuscript broth (uh-oh. My metaphor ran away). But if enough people you really trust look it over, it can become like statistics: results that come up time and again are probably worth looking at, while truly outre suggestions can be considered and then (probably) rejected as outliers.

      • Michelle Wauchope permalink
        May 3, 2011 9:06 am

        results that come up time and again are probably worth looking at

        I remember one time where my first two readers had such radically different views on something, that I knew that something was seriously wrong with my text. I threw the same passage open to more readers (at first to see which of the two was more correct in their suggestions), and discovered that they all had a different opinion – but they consistently wanted it changed, even if their was no consensus as to in what way.

        By throwing it open, rather than choosing one reader to follow, I was able to discover that they were all reacting to the passage, not because it was wrong, but because my story was now displaying symptoms of an earlier failure which had gone unnoticed.

        If I hadn’t done that, had I just followed one reader’s advice, I wouldn’t have discovered the real flaw.

      • May 4, 2011 1:15 pm

        Yep, if everyone stumbles over the same obstacle … there’s probably something in the way. If three people pick three different pet peeves, maybe it’s them. :-) Be interesting to see if pro editors are more likely to identify the same stumbling blocks in the same writing vs. random members of the population.

  4. May 2, 2011 7:29 pm

    The other “con” of family members is that, having had interminable waits for chapters of your previous novel, they aren’t necessarily willing to read the next one until it’s all done.

    • May 5, 2011 2:18 pm

      Huh. I have the opposite problem. I don’t want to give the novel to anyone ’til it’s done, because of the way things sometimes change in the middle, and I have a family member hovering over my shoulder going, “Hey! When do I get to read that book?” And she really seems not to care that it’s not done.

  5. May 3, 2011 12:17 pm

    I have a few different sets of people that get to play with my words. All of them are free and willing to help for various reasons. Once all of these rounds are done, I’ll hire a substantive and line-by-line editor and a separate proofreader before sending it off to agents.

    Large Writer’s Group:
    • Pros: The larger group lets me know where they are confused or where I did well in general (i.e. choreography, images, dialogue, impressions of characters). I know I’m doing really well when they consistently tell me that they forgot to write down their comments because “even though it’s science fiction” they got so engrossed in it. There are a lot of soldiers in it and a guy who is a former CIA operative so my battle scenes and spy stuff work better than they used to.

    • Cons: They don’t know the difference between science fiction and fantasy because there is not a single spec fic author among them. They don’t know the standard jargon of either genre.

    Small Writer’s Group
    • Pros: They get into more detail. They know more of the story because I can read them larger chunks of it. They can nail me on little things and look at it through a different lens because they know the characters better. Most of them are mystery writers so they like the puzzles of science fiction and fantasy novels and can tell me where those puzzles are working, even though they don’t read anything in my genres other than me. Because they know that there are certain things they cannot help me on, they actively hunt down science fiction and fantasy resources/conferences for me.

    • Cons: They are essentially the same as the large group since there’s not a single author who writes or reads in my genre among them.

    Alpha Readers (good friends who know a bit about what I’m writing)
    • Pros: They know how my mind works so if something doesn’t feel right they can explain why in a way that makes sense. Each one of them focuses on different things. One nails me on grammar. Another looks at how the romance works. Another looks at overall structure. And so forth and so on. I can send them the whole book or just pieces and they’ll look at it as I need it. There is no real schedule and email is fabulous.

    • Cons: Only one of them lives near where I currently live so sometimes things take a while. The next closest person is an hour and a half away. After that, it takes a plane or several days to drive and see them. It can be expensive if I need to print out and mail a copy to someone.

    Cold Readers (2 people who know nothing about my writing who are willing to read for me):
    • Pros: I am not with them to explain so it’s down totally to their impressions. They are science fiction and fantasy readers. They know me well enough to know how I work as a person but not well enough to get inside my head. They want the whole manuscript as one piece.

    • Cons: It is way expensive to print out that many pages and bind them together.

  6. May 4, 2011 9:04 am

    Two quick comments: I loved this post, but I think the author has missed two important options/ categories of editors: acquisition editors and development editors. My recent editorials on the topic appear at http://writer-in-residence.blogspot.com/2011/03/editor-is-not-your-enemy.html

    One expects different levels of input from different ‘editors’. Family and friends = focus group research. You give them the manuscript and they tell you where they fell out of the story, and where several agree the passage is confusing, you know that it is confusing, and not that that individual just didn’t happen to get it. Writer peers: I thought the post here captured pros and cons pretty well. Again, if several readers identify a passage or scene or character as problematic, than that needs to be looked at — though (and this is key) the suggested solutions will almost always be wrong. Their suggestions will be how they would fix it — you need to find how you would fix it. But they serve a very useful function in identifying what you have to work on some more.

    Copy editors fix problems at the line / paragraph level. They often do not attempt to comment on structural problems — basic problems with plot characterization etc. Seeking out the services of a trusted development editor (i.e., somebody familiar with your particular genre and compatible with your objectives) can help address these issues. Development editors are also often very helpful with things like writers block, or when you find you’ve written yourself into a corner. Other writers not so much because again, they tend to think in terms of how they would do it whereas a development editor/writing coach thinks in terms of your strengths and weaknesses and how you could best develop your skills and/or the next scene.

    Second, choosing the appropriate editor is crucial. I know many writers who wasted their money having a manuscript edited professionally either because they hired a copy editor — who carefully, professionally edited the manuscript for spelling, grammar, and consistency of minor details, but let the whole Giant Ant thing go by without comment because either they didn’t see structural problems as their jurisdiction, or because they didn’t know enough about the genre to know that Giant Ants are maybe not the best the genre has to offer. Or, the writer hired a well respected (development) editor from another field who just doesn’t get it. for example, one colleague of mine hired a highly recommended editor, but whose extensive experience turned out to be editing business books and whose (expensive) advice was to cut all the poetry/description out of the novel because it was distracting to the ideas. Um. No. Not useful feedback! Like hiring an efficiency expert to review the symphony orchestra and complain that the woodwinds are repeating notes the violins had already covered — kind of missing the point of the exercise! So selecting someone compatible (but tough — mutual admiration society is not where you want to be!!!) is really important before you allow them to touch your baby!

    Of course, your best editor is yourself after you’ve left the manuscript in the bottom drawer for a year or two and you can come back and read it again with fresh eyes. Oh my god,did I really have that character complain about X in chapter 4 when the incident complained about doesn’t happen until chapter 5?! (the Dangers of Cut and Paste!) But if you can’t always wait long enough to get requisite distance a trusted editor can really help!

  7. May 4, 2011 1:20 pm

    I went back to do a masters after working as a journalist for a few years, and recall the “who taught you to write?” question about the first essay I handed in. Apparently essays weren’t supposed to use Canadian Press style of lead, background and add details knowing layout will cut from the bottom up. So I like your point, Robert, about the perils of getting a business editor to work on SF.

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