So, I’ve been writing a while now – longer than I’d like to admit– and in that time I’ve had occasion to notice (and occasionally experience) the love-hate relationship that sometimes develops between editors and writers: we need each other like… hmm… fruit needs jam.
Now you might say, “I’m a firm, young writer and the last thing I need is someone to come along and meddle with my creative juices. Who are they to barge in here and slice up my vision. My words are my children, man!”
Okay, so I’m really pulping this metaphor, but on a certain level can anyone be expected to just go along with the process of being cut up and reconstituted into something they may never even have envisaged – I mean whose work is it after all? Isn’t there something to be said for the purity of the creative process?
Well, I guess it comes down to whether you want to create a work solely to please yourself or you want to create something more accessible to others. Something that will last, be appreciated by many and… spreads well on toast…
So much for arguing from analogy.
Perhaps I should start again.
It’s easy to get the wrong idea
Creation is often a lonely process and it can sometimes feel like you are the only one fighting for your vision. It’s all too easy to be overprotective when someone starts messing around in your narrative.
In my years of writing, both technical and creative, I have seen how this gap plays itself out time and again. Even when writers solicit someone else’s help they can still make the mistake of taking things personally, of making an imagined enemy of someone who is only there to help (though to be fair I’ve also seen editors who make the cardinal mistake of trying to prove they are cleverer the writer they are editing – this is why trust and respect is so important).
In the worst cases you might even find yourself questioning the entire process.
The fact is even experienced writers may find themselves unready to hear opinions or advice they don’t like … even if we asked for it in the first place.
We can, at times, be temperamental creatures and everyone involved is human.
It’s all a matter of perspective
The first thing to realise is that no one will ever love your story as much as you do.
Part of the friction that lies between author and editor is the different way in which they have to see the work.
It is the writer’s job to give the project every ounce of passion they can spare, it’s the editor’s job to keep all that from slopping over the sides.
In many ways the act of creation is the fun part and I know I have sometimes found myself resenting having to abandon the free and open mode I enter during the act of creation to assume the more restrictive and analytical mode that inevitably follows the first draft.
It is painful and a lot less fun, but objective analysis is what transforms writing from a hobby into a craft – an editor you can trust and facilitates this process is the best and, more often than not, the only way to attain the objectivity we need.
There is an old saying in the legal system that the person who represents themselves has a fool for a client, so it goes with editors – you can’t edit yourself any more than you can lick your own elbow.
The editor is not always right but they are always worth listening to
There are better and worse editors, some that are more or less suited to your personality or style, but ultimately your editor is your partner in making your work all it can be and their capacity to see your work in a way you can’t is their greatest value.
There may, of course, be times when you feel justified in standing your ground.
If you feel a scene or a choice of words is worth fighting for, that definitely means something.
What you should never ignore is someone telling you that there may be a problem. Even if you can’t agree with a suggested fix, flagging potential errors is an invaluable part of the process.
Related: What does an editor do?
There’s a good chance this isn’t new to you
I’m sure there are many writers out there who don’t need reminding how important their editors are. At least as many as there are editors who strive to help shape better stories while not subverting the author’s original concept.
Many of us understand the process and many have been on either side of the editor’s pen.
My apologies if I am stating the obvious for you, but I do think it is worth being mindful of how we come at the hard work of shaping a creative project – no one wants to do less than their best and no one is pointing out weaknesses except to make a work stronger. That’s easily said, but, at least in my experience, sometimes hard to internalise.
A few tips for dealing with feedback from your editor
Okay, so the manuscript’s back and it’s covered in highlights and comments. Now how do you handle the feedback?
Tip 1: Sleep on it and don’t try to process it all at once.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I can’t help it, my first reaction to criticism is generally negative. The prospect of making a whole raft of changes can be overwhelming and it is very easy to feel like there are just too many alterations to keep track of. Rather than plunging in, I’ve found it can really help to read through amendments and then let them percolate. This allows you to get better perspective and see how proposed changes might work together, rather than trying to pick them off one at a time. Finding these synergies and the perspective gained by mulling for a bit can be very useful. Above all, you want to try and relax. Get into fight mode and things are going to be unnecessarily hard.
Tip 2: Don’t just say yes.
Accepting an edit is not just about making a change, it is about understanding why that change was needed in the first place. Your editor is your thread through the maze but if you don’t understand where you are going and why you took the last turn, then you are going to get lost. Make any changes your own and be sure you can agree with them, even if this may take a bit of extra effort. You may end up just agreeing in the end, but understanding the why means you’re still holding the reins of the story.
Tip 3: If you can’t agree find another way.
If you don’t agree with a suggested alteration then be sure you are not just being stubborn or lazy. Take the opportunity to see if there is a compromise, a means to explain yourself better or even an entirely different direction to go in (the latter can be fun to find).
Even if you don’t end up using the alternative you come up with, you can be sure you have not left any rocks unturned.
Tip 4: Be respectful and give others the benefit of the doubt.
This cuts both ways. Sometimes you are going to feel annoyed, even angry – in some ways it would be worrying if you didn’t want to fight for your story.
A writer might say, “Why don’t they get it?”, “Did they really have to point that out quite like that?”
An editor might say, “They never learn!” Or “Why are they being so stubborn?”
It is easy to get frustrated, to feel that someone is not seeing the work you put in or that the other person isn’t listening, but it is always vital to remember that the process only functions with teamwork. Ultimately the end product is what matters, but we should never loose sight of the people involved or the need for respect and trust.
Tip 5: It’s supposed to be fun and it makes you a better writer.
I’ve focused a lot on the misunderstandings I’ve seen, on the points where communication breaks down and the relationship between writer and editor can tip towards the dysfunctional, but I’d be doing the whole process a disservice if I didn’t point out how amazing and rewarding the interaction can be when it works well.
The shared search for the better narrative, the more polished phrase or the most succinct idea is probably one of the most intimate and exiting things you can do with another person while keeping your clothes on.
So, here’s to more great stories and all those patient souls who help us sweeten and shape them – let’s keep on jamming!
Toby Bennett works and dreams in Cape Town, South Africa.
His writing is primarily fantasy and horror with the occasional digression into science and historical fiction.
His stories have appeared in several anthologies and many of his novels can be picked up in the Kindle store. Audio versions of some of his work can also be found on YouTube.
When he’s not writing he can be found roleplaying, gaming… or simply staring into the abyss – so far the abyss hasn’t stared back but he lives in hope.