Wednesday, August 27, 2014

In praise of editors

Barbara here. Two weeks ago I wrote a blog about the many conflicting facets of a writer's life – yes, I know, not another one of those – because I was up to my eyeballs in various writerly commitments at a time when most other people were enjoying summer vacation. (As an aside, I can't believe it's already my blog turn again, it feels like only yesterday. All summer long I've been chasing  the caboose.)

At the time I mentioned that I was expecting the edits for my latest Cedric O'Toole Rapid Reads book, THE NIGHT THIEF, to arrive any day. Perhaps because I mentioned it, they arrived the next day, along with the editor's plea that that I get them back to her as soon as possible because there have already been requests for advance reading copies. This when I am deep in the first draft of a new novel and hoping to get as much done before my research trip which starts August 31, and lasts three weeks. When was I to find the time, let alone the right mental mood, to do THE NIGHT THIEF justice?

A good editor poses useful and troublesome questions, pointing out deficiencies and ambiguities in the manuscript that require thought to solve. It's not just a matter of clicking the 'accept' button on a different word or deleted adjective. Those edits are easy and can be fixed while sitting in the doctor's waiting room (as I have done on occasion). There are other edits, usually in the form of comments such as "This doesn't work for me" or "Please expand/ clarify" that present a far greater challenge. Usually by the time an editor looks at a manuscript, the writer has chosen each detail with care and deliberation, and sculpted each word and phrase so that the words and the ideas flow seamlessly from one to the next. Each word is perfect, the rhythm of the whole is perfect. So it is not easy to stick in an extra sentence or paragraph to clarify or expand. It takes reworking the whole section and creating a whole new flow that often feels clumsier and patchier than the original.

The temptation is to reject the comment, to say the section is fine and that surely it should be obvious what is meant. Except that of course, it's not. If the reader misses the point or is confused, it's because the writer has failed to communicate well. Every reader takes away from a piece a unique understanding of it that is partly the writer's intent and partly the reader's experience and interpretation. However, there should be some basic consensus about the writer's intent. One reader shouldn't go away with the idea that Mary is Jane's child, while another reader is sure Mary is Susan's child. It's the job of the reader to be clear, not only about facts but about emotion.

So changes have to be made to make the meaning clear. When tackling a comment from an editor or critiqued, the writer's first step is to ask whether the editor is right. Stubborn pride has no place here. Sometimes the editor is wrong; they read thousands of manuscripts and have argued over lots of words in the past, but it is just possible they missed the boat this time. They might have been reading several manuscripts at once and mixed them up, or had a long delay during the reading so they forgot crucial details.

But objective analysis will usually tell whether the editor has a point and changes need to be made. Sometimes the editor even makes a suggestion, either in words or content, but even in these instances, the writer has to carefully weigh the suggestion. Is it the best way to solve the problem? Would my character do/ say/ act like that? Is it consistent with the story? Make your own changes if you prefer. This too requires much thought.

Even more substantive than the comments in the text are the general editorial comments at the end of the piece. By definition, these are "big picture" concerns that require in-depth thinking about the whole as well as careful thinking about what small changes can be made to specific scenes to make the story better. Once again the first question is whether the editor is right. A good editor is a fresh set of eyes on a story that is too near and dear to the writer to permit objective evaluation. The writer may think his main character is loveable, but that may not come across on the page. Sometimes writers are too subtle, sometimes not subtle enough.

At the end of the exercise, if both writer and editor have truly given the story the detail and attention it needs, the story will be much the better for it.


Sybil Johnson said...

I totally agree, Barbara. I love my editor. She's made my work so much better. At the same time, my first reaction to any criticism is to reject it. So, I've learned to just shut up, listen and think about it. I'll almost always end up making some change based on the comments or questions she poses.

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent post. An editor who makes you dig deeper and look at your writing more closely is a lovely thing to experience — even if it can be painful at times. I always tell people I’d rather be good than right. The right editor can help you get there.

Eileen Goudge said...

I have one, simple request with every editor I've worked with: give it to me in writing. That gives me a chance to think over the suggestions before I react with the egocentric knee-jerk "How dare you suggest I change a single word of my masterpiece?!"