Monday, July 6, 2009

Writers’ Comments—Editors’ Comments (Caution, long one, get a beer or whatever)

When you join a writers’ group, either in person or online, the variability of skill level and experience of the other members can be a large factor in the quality and value of the feedback you get. Online groups seem to have the widest (and, in my opinion, the most interesting) demographic spread, as well as representing writers with all skill sets and from various genres and cultures. Face to face groups are wonderful as well, but online groups will give you a much larger and more diverse group of other writers to interact with.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind when getting feedback from other writers is that they are writers. That probably sounds self-evident, and you’re probably thinking “Huh?”

Okay, let’s explore writers being writers, then. This is a good thing, right? Yes. Is it a bad thing? Sometimes.

The good thing about it is that other writers share the same goals, tribulations and challenges that you do. They strive to “show not tell,” worry about explanatory dialogue tags, struggle with momentum, flashbacks and info dumps. The really good ones, especially those who have studied the craft of writing in some formal venue (don’t shoot me, I’m a HUGE believer in studying creative writing as a part of an educational experience, either in a classroom or online...more about that on another post), will not only point out the things you can’t see yourself, but they’ll likely have the knowledge and skill set to suggest very specific ways for you to fix things.

That’s the best scenario. A selfless writer who is experienced enough to see your work as the diamond in the rough it truly is and who is able to give you solid, craft-specific advice you can sit down and use is a gem. If you find one, latch onto them and don’t let go.

Nothing gets better than that. And that’s why I belong to writers’ groups and value feedback from other writers highly.

What about the bad things? Sigh, they are more frequent than the good things at times.

Because writers are writers, they often have the most interest in their own work. They comment on your work in order for you to return the favour and comment on their work. They often view all writing through the lens of their own work. They can carry around a lot of baggage. They might avoid all adverbs (so you can’t use them), they may find description boring (so you have to cut yours), they don’t believe in using big words (so you’ve got to remove anything bigger than two syllables), they’re uncomfortable writing present tense (so it doesn’t work in your manuscript), they insist on heavy conflict in their opening chapter (so your opening chapter has to grab them by the throat and make their hearts beat wildly)...

It can be very hard for writers not to inject their own internal writing rules into your manuscript and not advise you to write it the way they would write it. This is mostly an unconscious thing. I doubt many writers are aware they do it and would probably deny it, fervently defending their comments behind the shield of what the “reader” (as in the reader “God” we all try to please) would think.

But you see, once you’ve become a writer, you will never again read as a reader. You become acutely aware of the craft, the presentation, the mechanics behind the fiction, and you no longer represent the reader “God.” You can only represent the writer inside you.

Editors, on the other hand, usually don’t write fiction. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part, they edit. And here is the strength they can bring to your manuscript. Their only focus is your manuscript. They aren’t interested in changing things to the way they would have written it. They’re interested in making your voice and your manuscript stronger by enhancing the unique style and story you’ve created. Editors are well read, very well read in their chosen genre. If you’re dealing with an editor from a publishing house, they represent both the reader and the publisher when they approach your manuscript. If you go with a freelance editor to polish a manuscript, they represent the reader and the potential marketability of your work.

Editors bring a different eye to a manuscript. If you’re careful in your choice of editor, he or she should be bringing a background of experience and very specific knowledge to your novel or book. They should be on top of upcoming trends in the industry. They should have a rock solid and current knowledge base in grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, and stylistic trends. A good editor leaves personal likes and dislikes with their bedside reading. They approach your manuscript as “yours” and work with your writing, your style and your storyline. During my formal studies in editing, it was considered a cardinal sin to insert your own likes and dislikes into a manuscript. Editors are not supposed edit as writers (even frustrated ones) and revising someone else’s work to make it sound the way “they” would have written it is bad editing.

You should expect an editor to make comments and offer suggestions on pacing, plot, characterization, setting, dialogue, voicing, consistency, clarity, and your own particular style. They will quite likely focus more on what they feel should be fixed, rather than on what works. You should (in my opinion) only present a finished and polished manuscript to an editor. They aren’t there to help you “find” the novel, their job is to take a finished manuscript and assess it, then make recommendations to make it more powerful.

All good, right? Sometimes not.

Because editors generally aren’t writers, they can sometimes recommend changes without understanding the complexity or difficulty of the change.

Change this character to a girl. (Wha..???)

How about writing this from the mother’s POV? (You’ve got to be kidding)

You need a sidekick here, somebody hip and witty to bounce off your protagonist. (If I had a hip, witty sidekick in me, they’d be in the novel, don’t ya think?)

How would this work in present tense? (All 120,000 words of it?)

Okay, some exaggerations, but not unheard of. The one thing that you should always remember with an editor’s suggestions and recommendations is that they are giving them to you the writer to use or not. If you’ve signed a publishing contract and your substantive editor asks for something you feel you just can’t do or that you don’t feel will enhance the manuscript, it’s usually negotiable. Sometimes editors throw big curveballs at writers just to get them thinking. They don’t actually expect you to rewrite the entire novel to add a character, much as they might like the idea. But they do want you to think about the need for something more in the novel, the little hole (or big one) that should be filled with something hip and witty, even if it isn’t a character.

Really good editors want to get you thinking and let you, as the writer, revise the manuscript in your own voice and with your own creativity. The really, really good editors try to phrase their assessment in a way that the writer will recognize the deficit and come up with a stupendous fix. Editors have a lot of faith in the manuscripts they acquire and the writers who write them.

The other, somewhat sensitive, point about editors who are not the acquiring editor at a publishing house is that anybody can call himself or herself an editor. There is no universal, professional standard. The same can be said for the other writers we trust our beloved manuscripts with. But we don’t often “pay” other writers for feedback, so if they don’t know what they’re talking about, meh, big deal. However, if you are paying an editor to comment on your work, I really think you have the right to know if they are qualified to charge you money for it.

Unfortunately, I see folks hanging out their editing shingles all the time. And they are not qualified to do so. They’re often writers who happen to believe they know where a comma should be placed or English Lit grads who think that degree bestows some kind of innate editorial skill set. It doesn’t. Editing is an art, as well as a skill. It requires practice as well as a very specific knowledge base.

I can’t help you much with selecting an editor. I can suggest that you look for experience (in-house or freelance); educational credentials in editing (Publishing post-grad studies are more and more common and designed to supply the publishing industry with potential editors who don’t have to be mentored for years before they can be turned loose on a novel. These are tough courses, I can affirm that, really tough with high standards.); affiliations with editing organizations; or evidence of ongoing education in editing (workshops, conferences, courses). Good editors specialize in a few areas of fiction and should be willing to provide a sample edit of a small part of your manuscript. That is very helpful for both of you to establish if the communication and editing style are a good fit.

To wrap up a very long post, all writers need feedback on their manuscripts. I don’t know any writers who write totally in isolation. Some wait until the entire first draft is complete before they show the manuscript to a selected few other writers. I know of one writer who engages three or four freelance editors to help them hammer out a manuscript before submission. Some writers like to write novels in public, rushing every first draft chapter to their writer buddies for comment. We all work differently.

I value writers’ feedback when a manuscript of mine is finished in first draft and while I’m contemplating the revision process, as well as during revisions. Writers can so succinctly pinpoint craft issues that I’d be lost without their input on my own work.

As an editor, I don’t like to work on “in progress” manuscripts. I only work on completed manuscripts (if possible) since this is the material I’ve been trained to view from an editorial perspective. Providing a writer with possible strategies for improving an already fine manuscript is the role of an editor. If you work with other writers during the development and revision stages of a manuscript, you’ll never fall into the sad state of paying an editor to tell you the manuscript isn’t polished enough to consider publication.

When you do think that manuscript is ready to submit, or you have submitted to a chorus of rejections, that might be the time to look for an editor. But be smart, ask questions, get that sample edit, make sure this editor is working for “your” manuscript.

With other writers, you’ll know quickly which ones have a talent for communicating the strengths and weaknesses of your manuscript to you. If what they say doesn’t make sense, move on. There are some wonderfully skilled writers out there who have the gift of sharing their skills with others. Give them the best you can back.

Final word. Where does that put me, both writer and editor? In a hard place, actually. Being a fiction writer isn’t necessarily seen as bonus in the fiction-editing field. I don’t mention it much. :-) I don’t often mention being an editor to the writers I trade manuscripts with either. I want to interact with them as a writer. I can tell you this, I cherish my writer buddies who comment on my manuscripts and allow me the privilege of commenting on theirs. They help me to get a manuscript ready for submission. Then I put on my editor’s hat and attempt to see it with those eyes. But not until other writers have had at it first. :-)


  1. Great points!

    I think the best critiquers (from a writers stance) are those with some experience in the business (agented, published, etc). And for writers that haven't made any connections like these, I generally recommended finding someone whose writing they've actually read and can respect. Otherwise, there's no telling what level of critique you're getting.

  2. Wow, great post. I really like the idea of using writing buddies during the development stage and turning to an editor after. It makes a lot of sense.

  3. Hi Casey :-)

    Yup, if you admire a writer's own work, then you don't fret so much if they make suggestions that work for them. They likely work for you too. :-)

    And that's the magic of working with other writers, I think. They have that creative spark you admire and if they can help your own creative spark shine bright, then the rest is just commas and periods. :-)


  4. Hi quixotic :-)

    I really do think writers are better at developing fiction than editors. The exact oppositie is true for non-fiction, but that wasn't the topic of this post. :-)

    Editors really do look at things differently than writers. I can't stress that enough. They might be opinionated on what they want to publish, but they have a very different approach to a manuscript. I feel very lucky to be on both sides of the fence, although it gets a bit bumpy at times. :-)


  5. Amen! This is a great post and so true. I think that sometimes writers get caught up in their own pet peeves (or something they're working on not doing) and can lose sight of the big picture.

  6. Great post! I know that I tend to see certain things more than others in a MS--like pacing, for example. I have to be careful to not be so bias toward a novel's pacing that I totally forget about the character, or setting, etc.

    The best groups are formed from writers who have a multitude of talents--one's strong in characters, another a master at describing, a third really inventive when it comes to plot, so if you have places where nothing happens or your actions scenes are weak, they can help with the brainstorming.