Why I Love To Write #022 – Edited to Death

There were some authors out there that I could never get into. The ones that I did almost always had something to say about publishers in general, and editors in particular. I’d quote some of them here, but I like to keep the swearing to a minimum on my blog. Suffice it to say that most of my favorite authors talked about picking their battles, resisting making long-term sacrifices for short-term gain, and questioning how most editors got their jobs and kept them. The happy ending comes after many books and fans have been amassed, and they finally get to tell their publisher to print the next book how they wrote it.

That’s all changed.

You know how cars all kind of look the same? You can tell what era a car comes from by the body style, as surely as you can tell whose factory it was assembled in. For some time there, it was the same thing with books. Editors had as much say in what got said and how it got said as the authors, and often more. This resulted in everyone starting to sound somewhat the same, and spout pretty much the same information as everyone else in pretty much the same fashion. For every author that couldn’t put a sentence together who was helped by this sameness, there are countless others whose unique voices got lost in the collective mumble. It was a great time for water coolers, but a bad time for anyone outside the mainstream to say what they had to say.

There are a bunch of editors out of work right now, in part because even the big publishing companies are beginning to see how they clutter the place up as much as they clean it. One of the reasons I know this is because they contact people with publishing companies in their search for a new water cooler to drain and a new book to misunderstand. They want a lot of money, because someone convinced them they were worth it, but they still approach it like a job they deserve to have instead of work that they love to do. I can’t do anything but wish them luck on their search for editor Xanadu.

If I wasn’t someone that studies English fanatically, or if I had some disability that made my greatest strength a horrible weakness, I would have trouble writing books. It seems strange, to me, to think that someone else might have a better idea as to how the story should be told than me. I wouldn’t have been the one gifted with the story, or my love of the language, if I wasn’t the one best suited to telling it. One of the most important elements to any story is flow, and it’s the most vital edit that I put any book through before I submit it for proofreading.

Naturally, I edit my books. After seven to nine edits, I have exactly what I want. A few typos might still be in there, but not many. Any plot points that have not been explained thoroughly enough to the reader are brought up with those typos by an excellent proofreader, and I go to work on final edits. I keep trying not to end up at thirteen, but I think every one of my books has ended up going through exactly that many. Whatever works, works.

Very few painters have someone else go over their paintings when they are complete, touching up the canvas with completely different oil mixed and dabbed by an entirely different hand. Honestly, I can’t think of any. Some comedians hire other folks to write their jokes for them, I know; but they’re not my favorite comedians, just like authors that love editors don’t tend to be my favorite authors. I guess I just like someone who knows what they want to say and how they want to say it, whatever their chosen form of expression.

Of course, I see value in an editor. They should be as invested as the book as anyone can be, however, and have a deep understanding of the author and their genre. The best way for most of us who got easy A’s in English and participated in spelling bees as kids is to have someone who loves reading your books help with the editing, and give you that second set of eyes that it is so nice to have. It’s easier to train a smart and passionate person to do a job than it is to reprogram someone with a factory worker education and mentality.

Some folks want to sound more like everyone else, for whatever reason. They need those mercenary editors, the ones who will rewrite your book to make it sound like they wrote it instead. Some folks want to tell stories, but can’t spell to save their lives; other people have conditions or handicaps that require that they work closely with someone to say what they want to say the way the want to say it. Those are the ones that really need an editor, and make the job make sense at last. It’s still hard to imagine finding and keeping the right one, unless I imagine a really ideal scenario.

If a reader with editing skills and that deep understanding of the author that we talked about stepped forward, after reading a bunch of the author’s somehow previously published books, that would be pretty ideal. As a fan and a professional, their interest would lie in the author’s legacy instead of in a paycheck. That would put them in the same boat as the artist, and might make them feel like picking up an oar to start rowing. Careful, though…if they row in the wrong direction, like so many of the editors all my favorite authors warned me about tend to do, that boat may not be going anywhere.

The other problem with relying heavily on an editor is that you need to make sure they will always be a part of your writing team. You’ll have to train every new person if they don’t, and hope to find someone that loves your stories as much as they love their paycheck. That’s a rare and valuable find, and that means that paycheck needs to keep growing as your library does. That time and money is possibly better spent on becoming the editor you will never find, and continually educating yourself to get better at that too.

One of the first things every book on writing says is that you should sound like yourself when you write. As simple and obvious as that sounds, it’s hard for a lot of writers. They think that writing well means writing things they would never say, in ways they would never say them. There is writing for the sake of prose and writing for the sake of making a point, and it’s easy to tell the two apart. Lucky for me, I’ve been saying weird shit my whole life. Ask anyone that knows me; those words in my books would all slip comfortably from my lips, in just the order I wrote them. The problem with trying to sound like someone else is that you end up sounding like someone else…maybe they should be the one writing, not you.

Do you know how big the Bible was, before editors got ahold of it? Neither do I. Do you know what got cut, or changed? Me either.

Lots of folks think that that book was written by God, and I won’t dispute anyone’s long-held beliefs. I do hope that they realize that whatever was originally written has been edited by man more times than any good book ought to be. There’s no way to know if they made it way better or way worse, but I would be pretty up in arms against editors if I thought that the original text came straight from God.

I mean, how do we know that the Bible wasn’t the perfect guide to living before editors got ahold of it? We don’t, and we never will; those changes are permanent, just like the ones that happen before you publish your book. It might not be the Bible, but it should still be important enough to the author to make it the best living breathing document possible before a proofreader sees it.

This is not to say that editors are the bad guys; but they’re not automatically the good guys either. Cookie-cutter editing is part of what made traditional publishing unappealing, and ended up making a whole generation of authors subject their stories to elective surgery that all too often targeted the heart. If editors want to survive and stay relevant, they need to realize what a few of the good ones always knew: this is so not about them. Just as the author must leave as few visible footprints in their work, so must the editor take extreme care in making changes.

If you want to be a great editor, follow the path of the great entrepreneur. Read the whole thing through, before you edit it. If it doesn’t strike you as the kind of book you’d love to read, be a gem and pass on it. Keep looking for something you would invest your own time and money into making a success, rather than asking someone to pay you for your time. I can’t imagine being an editor without being a huge fan of books, and I can’t imagine being able to edit a book effectively if I didn’t love it in particular. How sad to think that the next editor would love this book, but I won’t pass on it because I want a paycheck. Like anything else, great editing requires great commitment and some sacrifice; the editor who sacrifices passion for paycheck could be one of the worst enemies to great literature that has ever existed.

Hopefully there is a new wave of editors rising up to team up effectively with the new wave of authors. Hopefully they are really looking to put their all into their passion, and will help authors find their true voice. Hopefully they are okay with working all day, since most publishing companies don’t have water coolers or massive disposable income. I think it’s safe to say that the editing world definitely needed some editing, and hopefully the right ones got cut. Remember that when you’re looking for one, though…sometimes there’s a reason that what’s available is available.

You don’t want to get edited to death.

[A note from Dawn: Just to clarify, Jay’s work is always edited. He does see the value in an editor, just not one that changes his style or the story. And we both agree that making sure that you vet any editor you’re looking into using is incredibly important, and the best way to insure that you’re not throwing away those precious book dollars.]

We’ll lighten things up again next week, in a post called ‘The Gifts of Gratitude’.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,
Jay

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Jay@JayNorry.com
Twitter: @JayNorry

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