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Editor’s Lament

June 18, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 19, 2010

I’m not so sure that this is lament rather than whine. Or complaint. Or just frustration spilling out. I waited nearly a week to write this, not wanting my tone to be angry. I hope, instead, to be cool-headed and understanding.

Yet, it’s hard not to react when people throw stones.

No, not at me personally. But at my profession.

I spent time last week (more than was good for me) following blogs and Internet articles where the main activity was jumping on freelance editors, complaining about them, lumping them all into the same negative category. One somewhere beneath lawyers and a step or two above car salesmen. And yes, I know that such a comparison plays into stereotypes about men and women in those two professions.

My point exactly.

There are poor representatives in every profession. There are stellar ones as well. But those who take advantage of their clients or customers paint not only themselves but their colleagues with the same ugly brush.

I read complaint after complaint from writers abused by editors who either didn’t come through with what they promised or who were no good at their jobs. The most common complaint was that a manuscript was in worse shape after the editor was done with it. The writers and their friends thus wondered if any freelance editor was worth hiring.

Yes, they are. Many of them. Most of them.

Good editors spend hours working out ways to make their clients’ writing clear and entertaining. They look up oddities of grammar and punctuation. They find a phrase that could be written as two words, a single word, or as a hyphenated word and take time to check on the current accepted spelling. They read and study and check facts.

Good editors aren’t trying to cheat the writer or make him look bad. Instead, they’re doing what it takes to make a manuscript as flawless as possible while saving the writer the embarrassment of submitting error-riddled stories.

A good editor isn’t going to produce an edit with more spelling errors or punctuation mistakes than the original manuscript. He’s not going to gut the work and rewrite the story according to his vision. He’s not going to fill it with adjectives and adverbs and passive construction. He won’t add his pet theme.

He is going to clean up the mechanics. And he will offer suggestions to tighten plot and sharpen focus and make characters more memorable. He’ll address emotion—or lack of it—and the overuse of dialogue and the lack of depth.  He may ask about character names and dangling plot threads and inconsistencies.

No, not everyone needs a professional editor; some writers get enough help from critique groups or education or experience.

And not everyone is ready for a professional editor. If an editor suggests you need more writing experience or training or help with certain skills, consider that he might be right and go get that experience or training or help. If he suggests your story needs a rewrite—by you—consider rewriting.

Don’t accept sub-standard work from an editor; don’t accept it from anyone. But don’t think all editors are bad because of your experience (or your aunt’s or your best friend’s) with an incompetent editor. Most have quite high standards. We expect the best from ourselves and put our names and reputations out in public with every edit. We want to make it right—that’s exactly what drew us to the profession. Our true pleasure is watching so-so stories become great ones and good stories connect with an audience.

Unless you have a legitimate complaint, don’t jump on the bash-an-editor bandwagon. No profession is represented by only one member. Are all car salesmen crooked? Of course not. Are lawyers the scum of the earth? Ask the ones who work for near-nothing to provide legal advice for those without money and others who give up nights and weekends for their clients.

One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch.

Advice to editors—

Don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Deliver what you promise.

Don’t accept every client who comes to you—some manuscripts aren’t ready for editing.

Spell out your services. Be clear about what you do and about what you don’t do.

Know your stuff. Take a class, brush up on your skills, know the rules and know when they can be broken.

Be realistic about your expectations. No editor is perfect; you will make mistakes. Learn how to fix them.

Advice to writers—

Shop around. Not all editors will be right for you.

Get recommendations from friends.

Ask for a sample edit.

Be realistic about your expectations. No editor is perfect; yours will make mistakes.

Tags:     Posted in: A Writer's Life, For Editors

8 Responses to “Editor’s Lament”

  1. Lisa K. says:

    While I understand that sometimes people speak out of frustration, I never understand those kind of blanket complaints that you see on the internet about editors or agents or publishers or, well, just about anyone. I think that old advice applies: if you don’t have anything nice to say…

  2. Beth says:

    Most people don’t say boo to people in their real world. But they’ll put all sorts of things out in public when they’re online. As you do, Lisa, I understand frustration. But courtesy has its place too.

  3. Judi Fennell says:

    Caveat emptor. As you say, there are bad and sterling examples in every field.

    You, my dear, are a sterling example.

  4. Beth says:

    Judi, there are the good and the not so good. But, I’m guessing the good outnumber the not good by a wide margin.

    And thanks.

  5. Every editor I’ve ever worked with has been amazing, including you, Beth. Sometimes I don’t want to hear what they have to say–it usually means more work for me, the author–but they’ve always had the best interest of my work at heart and have saved me from many blunders.

    I love my editors. Every last one of them. From the big-picture, head editor to the assistant making sure I use chord instead of cord in the appropriate location. ;-) I can understand your frustration.

  6. Almost every novel I’ve read in the last ten to fifteen years has suffered from very bad editing. I’m talking about even novels by otherwise great writers. And I’m talking about small and large editing matters.
    Writers must take charge of finished product and bear the ultimate responsibility for their craft. Max Perkins is gone.
    The biggest, most pervasive error is the use of a first-person narrator when a central intelligence omniscient narrator would work better. You can do everything with a central intelligence that you can with first-person–and more. A first-person narrator is by nature subjective and thus unable tell a story in an objective, totally truthful manner.
    The second most egregious error is repetition of the focus character’s name when “he/she/him/her/his/hers” will serve. The use of a character’s name is the primary signal of a shift of the focus of the narrative and becomes a miscue when done improperly. The grammar of fiction is not English grammar but rather the grammar of the psyche. Faulkner did not even name at least one of his characters. Writers want to keep the psychic distance close to the focus character; to name the character too often reminds the reader that he’s reading.
    The reader’s responsibility is to imagine, visualize, and become personally involved with one or more of the characters, or to otherwise project himself into the action. The writer must not do anything that breaks, as John Gardner called it, the fictive dream.
    Smaller editing matters that betray the writer range from bad paragraphing to improper usage of simple verbs and words such as “bring” and “take”; “come” and “go”; “rise” and “raise”; and “literally,” which almost never works. These are eighth grade matters and become maddening distractions from the fictive dream.
    But don’t get me started.

  7. When we don’t get lost in the fiction, when we’re distracted by something other than the story, we just can’t enjoy a book. You’re right, Armstrong—distractions can pull us straight out of story. Anything that makes the reader notice the writing or the foundations is a distraction.

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