My ‘I Need an Editor’ Rant


editor

I need an editor. Everyone needs an editor. A good editor.

NOTE: I am an official fossil. Can’t help that. At least I haven’t shouted “you kids get off my lawn” in… forever. But this rant will sound like I have, I suppose.

This is like a notice on an adult site, though. Don’t read on unless you’re over the age of consent.

I learned the craft of writing at the knees of editors who were hard nosed, but not hard-hearted. They demanded the best, until that’s what I could give them. I have had stories (on paper; told you I was old) balled up and thrown at my head. One quite literally was hummed from across the newsroom and stuck in my ear. That guy had one hell of an arm! Can you imagine such a thing these days? He’d be sent to a re-education camp now, probably. Or go through a shaming ritual on Twitter.  (I shed a nostalgic tear for the good old days. 🙂 )

I get the feeling that most people go through school and early professional life not being put through the grinder like that. That’s a damned shame, frankly. It wasn’t fun at the time, but I grew a thick skin and higher expectations. Those editors who reacted with anger to poorly written stories got angry because they cared. Deeply cared about the words, about the story, about the truth of things. I learned.

Before anyone leaps to the defense of the beginners and seekers who are blogging, allow me to insert a disclaimer:  I’m not thinking of those who are here because they are looking to unburden themselves of something heavy and awful. I’ve read a lot of these writers with awe, many of whom have enormous talent, latent or otherwise. And the cries from their souls would tear a hole in Heaven and make the angels weep. They just need to be heard, and get a helping hand. But I argue that there’s a goal more lofty than just feeling good. It’s being good.

They can be very, very good if they keep at it and refuse to accept easy answers. Along the way, they will probably face doubts and pain every single day. It doesn’t really get pain-free; you just learn to keep going. Some have actual physical pain and they keep going. If they can, we can.

The struggles writers go through are pure raw material that, properly crafted, can be spun into gold. There are only two ways to do that: write, incessantly, and seek out a good editor to keep you honest and moving toward higher ground like you’re escaping Noah’s flood.

It’s acquiring the craft I’m talking about, and do not claim I have achieved any 20th degree black belt, either. I haven’t. I’ve been working at this for nearly 50 years and I look at a lot of what I write now with disgust. I’ve just learned to accept that as a cost of doing business, a challenge, and throw the crap back in the hopper and work it like an eel wrangler hoping to turn those wriggly bastards into rope.

So, back to the premise of the rant.

If I want to call myself a writer, in the professional sense, I cannot thrive or grow without a good editor. Even someone who’s main goal is to work the knots out of their lives can use simple feedback on technique, if they’ll listen. “Do more of this, less of that.  That part doesn’t make sense to me. What if you moved this phrase up there? Poor spelling hurts readership, and muddies your story. Buy a dictionary. Buy a thesaurus. Buy Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style.’ ” This helps you cultivate that little voice in your head that learns to stand off to the side, the objective observer, the voice that is both friend and judge.

A good editor is not your best friend who tells you she loves everything and nods sympathetically at everything you say. She’s the kind of best friend who will call you on your bullshit and help you find a better way. This person will call crap what it is, and you will listen if you give a damn and if you want to be any good. It takes enormous hubris to sit down at a keyboard and write, and enormous humility to be any good at it. Nobody grows if all they hear are soothing words. You need to seek out honest critics and humble yourself. And then write, write, write.

That is, we will if we want to be any good. If we want to be more than good. If we want to be the best we can possibly be.

It isn’t fun, and isn’t supposed to be.

The sayings about this are plentiful. I told someone when I started on the book that it was easy. I just locked myself in a cabin for four days (true), smashed myself in the face with the laptop (not literally) until I lost some teeth and the words started to come. I came down off the mountain and worked for a couple of months, and then had a good friend who used to edit a magazine read it. She really let me have it, the good and the bad. She’s a pro. I listened. I have rewritten it all twice since then, and will probably have to do it more.

A good editor is your best mentor, and the callouses you grow on your fragile ego will let you push on through the hard times when the words dry up. A good editor will push you on when you want to lie down and settle for second-best. A good editor isn’t a bully, but a coach, a friend, an AA sponsor, the hand wielding a whip when you need it most — which is usually when you think you don’t.

Such a person is a pearl of great price—hard to find. In a pinch, however, find writers you KNOW are loads better than you and read, read, read.

Like your life depended on it.

Because it does.

17 Replies to “My ‘I Need an Editor’ Rant”

  1. Yessssssss! And THIS is why I adore one of my professors. He loves my voice and at the same time tells me quite truthfully, “Ms. Wonder Woman, I don’t need to hear your voice. I need to hear your IDEAS. Figure out the difference and come back to see me.”

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  2. “If I want to call myself a writer, in the professional sense, I cannot thrive or grow without a good editor.” An editor can certainly help and often does. But I don’t think that this claim is true as stated–not as a universal truth. A good writer with a cold objective eye is not stopped dead for lack of an editor, nor prevented from learning more about his craft and growing in his skill. Whether a particular manuscript could benefit from editing by an editor with a sufficiently sympatico sensibility is a different question. I would agree that in most cases, the answer is Yes.

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    1. David,

      Thanks for your thoughts. It was a rant, so a certain amount of dramatic exaggeration is allowed, I think. 🙂

      I think where we disagree is how ‘objective’ a writer can be about the work. I’m not saying we are helpless without an editor, but do believe — and have been in both chairs, a lot — that it’s a collaborative part of the overall process that massages good work and makes it better. We can’t be objective about ourselves, ultimately. Likewise, we can’t give over the intent and personal voice we bring, and a good editor doesn’t squelch that, but is a sounding board and mentor that is useful.

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  3. Fantastic post. Great advice. I had a writer I admire read some of the novel I am reading their suggestions really helped me to grow and think of other angles to write the story from. It pushed me to extend my style and made me aware of the need for a good editor.

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    1. Thank you. I don’t exactly know where this one came from. I’ve held it for almost a week, and can’t remember the original thing that triggered it. But today it’s gotten cold and snowy again after a few days of balmy spring weather. I think that made me a little irritated and I pushed the go button.

      And at the risk of ruining your “inner ferret” with a compliment, your writing is always interesting, and sometimes transcendent. (Now ignore that.) 🙂

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  4. Why does it feel like you are talking to me through this post? 🙂 Fine, I’ll dig out the Elements of Style and get reaquanited, and then I’ll seriously consider going to my chapters critiquing meetings for honest inputs to improve my work for the time being. This post was perfect timing and just what I needed; a rope to help me climb my lazy ass out of the rut I’ve grown so comfortable within. Thank You!

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  5. I am stuck in that groove where my awesome readers only praise me. I have not been left a single piece of constructive criticism, even when I have invited it. So, I guess I need to seek out people that hate me and have them comment on my writing! 😉 Excuse my smart ass comments as your advice is welcomed and needed!!

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    1. It’s difficult to give critical (in the positive sense) feedback when it’ll show up in a person’s comments section. I can’t do it. It also needs to be a person who’s opinion and judgements you trust… a real relationship has to be there. Some random comment by an anonymous critic doesn’t help much.

      But if you know someone who might fit the bill—either someone you know or someone who’s writing you like—drop them an email and negotiate the terms. 🙂

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      1. I have tried that with one poet, but they did not feel comfortable critiquing my work at all. But perhaps, I will try again.

        Thank you for the advice. It is greatly appreciated!!

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