Editing is an absolute necessity for any writer. It is very hard for a writer to catch his own mistakes. Editing puts fresh eyes on the work and is the best way to find the errors and generate the suggestions needed to polish the piece, and bring it up to the next level. Recently some comments rang alarm bells in my head. See what you think…
- Some time ago, I read a blog that claimed popular traditionally published authors were getting away with books full of writing errors. The article claimed that new authors simply could never get away with that kind of writing—their editors would never allow it.
An editor would never allow it—a perfect example of the tail wagging the dog. The writer should always be in control and never relinquish that control to anyone. Editors can make suggestions and corrections, put the final decisions must come from the writer – NOT the editor.
- This week, I’m in a discussion and a supposedly experienced writer/editor demands that rules must never be broken. She went so far as to say if a writer cannot follow the rules, they shouldn’t write at all.
Unless a writer follows the rules, he shouldn’t write at all—a clear lack of understanding of the art of writing. If everyone follows every rule exactly, we will all write the same and individual styles will be lost.
- In another discussion, I find an editor who claims he can make anyone a best-selling author. Reminds me of the old wild west medicine shows, where one medicine could cure everything.
I know professional editors are hard to find and expensive. They are educated, trained, and usually have extensive experience since it is their career choice. They are very particular about what they edit and the writer’s work has to fit with their preferred categories and genres. There is usually a waiting list to engage their services.
Tradition publishers hire professional editors, either as staff or on contract, to edit the books produced by their authors. Their goal is to establish and preserve the commercial value of the book and their methods work extremely well. The authors are popular, and the books get good reviews and sell very well. These professionals do not follow the same rigid pattern of the non-pro editors. They edit the writing based on the rules of English and consider exceptions based on the author’s style. They give the author suggestions. He controls his work and chooses to make changes, if any.
Some non-pro editors feel they have the right to make demands, impose rules that strangle individual style, and of course, some are nothing more than thieves.
I considered how these non-professional editors evolved and how they directly influence the volunteer editors. When I started writing seriously a couple years ago, I joined online critique circles and a writing group, where fellow writers edited each others’ work. The editing left me confused and concerned. It had been a while since I left school, but some terminology was brand new to me. It kept popping up and I had to do some homework to figure out what they were saying. There was also an insistence on following language rules to the letter, with no allowance for exceptions.
The new terms turn out to be nothing more than editorial preferences – there are no rules. “Head-hopping” relates to POV changes, and “talking-heads” to dialogue. The point of these preferences is to avoid confusion within the story. Those two came up quite often, but there are others too. If POV or dialogue does not follow accepted procedures, these non-pro editors accuse the author of serious errors. Even when no confusion exists, they’re often still adamant it’s wrong and demand correction. The compliance to the preference is unwarranted if the premise for correction does not exist. In other words, there is no confusion evident so why make unnecessary changes.
Given my education and extensive reading, I always felt confident in my ability to produce good English, but these demands have nothing to do with accepted writing concepts. It took me a while to figure out why these editors created new terminology, allowed new interpretations, and took such a hard line with the rules.
Suddenly the light dawned – rather it hit me over the head. I remembered all those self-published books I TRIED to read, but could never get through. The unedited ones ran the gambit of writing errors – spelling, grammar, sentence structure, POV and tense issues. Obviously, the flood of self-published authors, many new and untrained, creates unique editing challenges. Before 2007, when self-publishing took off, the bad writing hit the agent’s slush pile before it ever got to an editor.
Some perceptive entrepreneurs found editing a way to make money from the vast pool of new writers and I’m sure some are good at it. “Editors” popped up everywhere. They are relatively inexpensive compared to professional editors and readily available. They provide a badly needed service. But before writers pay for editing, they need to ask about the editor’s training and qualifications. They should feel confident about the kind of editing they will receive. A writer needs to be sure the editor will work with him and the results are worth the cost. In many cases that means the writer needs to do his own research.
The “free” editors are usually members of a writers group, or writers trading critiques in an online group. Their comments are free but they often propose the same strict adherence to rules and preferences as the non-pro editors—sometimes even more so. Like any preference or rule, there are always exceptions especially in any creative process. In many cases, the strict application pushed by non-pro editors could and would destroy a good writer’s individual style and voice. Hemingway and Dickens broke rules constantly and they were not alone. Many of our best classic writers fell into the pattern of artistic writing, and in doing so, maintained their own individual style and found amazing success.
I understand these new concepts. In many cases, they are instrumental in reigning in poor writing, and bringing it up to acceptable standards. My problem lies with many readers and writers, who voluntarily edit new writing, and blindly spread these strict concepts, and insist on their validity, without appreciating their purpose—that’s where my understanding stops.
Writers and editors need a good knowledge of the intricacies of the craft. Writers should never be in a position where an editor takes control or makes demands. There are some very good writers out there. I hate to see them compromise their writing by handing it over to an editor and allowing them to decide the style and voice.
To edit work for a fellow writer, the first step should be to read the story and decide if it works. This is the best way to give a fellow writer very helpful suggestions. Keep in mind if the genre is one you don’t normally read – you probably won’t like the story and probably shouldn’t be editing it at all. I’m sure any writer would appreciate your decision to edit what you know.
Once you’ve been over the story, read it again and look for errors in grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Mark any corrections and write up any suggestions or comments. The writer should consider your edit comments, but always retains the right to accept or reject.
Editing your fellow writers with the sole intention of finding every perceived error is about maximizing criticism and is of no real value to anyone. Suggestions are only constructive if they provide ways to make the story better, or give the writer a chance to polish his own style.
Learning the craft, finding your own voice, developing great ideas, and executing your story is the objective. Editing is the polish that helps you take it to your audience. Writing should always be about telling a great story. Sometimes the best way to tell a great story is to break some rules. Produce that well-polished tale people want to read, and success becomes inevitable.