The Editor Fallicy…Falacie…Fallacy…yeah, that’s it, Fallacy

I’d like to take a contrary position to the whole of the literary establishment for a moment, if I may. Much has been written, and will continue to be, on the rift between traditional and indie publishing. Hell, many traditional supporters throw a little shit-fit with just the use of the term “indie” as a moniker for self publishers. Some days, it seems like World Peace is a more attainable goal than bridging the gap between the established and emerging segments of the publishing industry.

But there is one area where both sides are in complete agreement. That is the absolute, irrefutable necessity of having any and all writing vetted by an honest to goodness editor. And who could argue with that, you ask? (If you didn’t ask, I apologize for putting words in your mouth but I kinda need that rhetorical response from “you” to keep the narrative flow going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this next thing) Who could argue with that, you ask? I can!

Now before you get all up in arms and pissy, nostrils flaring, uppity defensive of something everyone seems to agree on but the implications of which very few people actually consider, let me explain. If you can’t or won’t edit your own work, both for polish and content, you’re not only lazy, but you’re not a complete writer, either. Three…two…one…ok, now you can get all beside yourself with righteous indignation. I mean, come on! Everybody knows that even the best writers churn out barely literate crap until the sainted editor gets his/her red pen into it. Plus, who would want to live in a world where writers are able, or even *gasp* encouraged to release their work bypassing the filters of the all-seeing, all-knowing editor? I shudder to think of the implications of seeing the raw, unfettered power of the writer’s creative muse. I imagine it would be a little like looking directly at an angel, their transcendent light far too bright, burning mere human eyes right out of their sockets. Our minds would turn to jelly without editors to properly harness all that writerly power.

Seriously, though, I am really sick of reading about how writers can’t possibly string together so much as a tweet, let alone an entire novel without someone else hanging over their shoulder steering the course. That’s what editors do, after all. Were you fully aware of that? Editors take other people’s material and structure it to suit either their own preconceived notions or the fiscal necessity of the platform they’re editing for. That’s the gig. Book editors are a little different than periodical editors in that they tend to shape the content to their perceived needs in their particular market sphere rather than a homogenized “style” or publication “brand.” Same difference to the writer in the end, though. I’d still like someone to explain to me how an editor who steeped within the structure of traditional publishing is going to be all that helpful to an indie. Sure, they can shape your book up into something that might resemble something else that once worked in the traditional realm, but if you’re an indie, you’re not really selling into that distribution area. You know how much real world market experience those former and current trad editors have selling digital independently? About as much as my great grandfather, and he’s been dead since 1954.

Then there’s the little matter of whether many editors are even qualified to dick around with an actual creator’s work in the first place. Let’s not kid ourselves, the phrase editor, in some circles, might still hold a bit of prestige, but from my experience, that editor you’re working with is, more often than not, a result of the “those who can’t, teach” school of thought. People become editors for one of three reasons, generally: 1) they’re a failed writer and had to pay the bills somehow, 2) they don’t have the balls to be the writer and it’s much easier–and usually pays better–to manipulate the work of others than produce it yourself, or 3) they are a successful writer who developed their own skills after years of dealing with semi-competent half wits who likely suggested adding some foreshadowing to the table of contents or some other such absurd idea at one time or another. There may be other ways to get that editor title next to your name (some folks go to school for it, I hear) but those are the three big ones. If you’ve got a #3, then you’re golden, but the other two are sure-fire paths to fucking up whatever artistic vision you lacked confidence in so much you turned to a stranger who’s primary claim to career fame is “I fixed some typos in so-and-so’s #1 bestseller back in 1996.”

Editor is the very definition of a fallback career option. Just like nobody ever says, “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,” either. Editor is the consolation prize in the literary job market. Ask yourself, is that the kind of person you really want impacting your career, someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work just because it was kinda sorta in the same neighborhood as the dashed and discarded dreams of their misspent youth? Not me and you shouldn’t either.

The editor fallacy is willfully perpetuated by the traditional industry. It’s a ruse designed to keep writers down. I’m not kidding, read some of the criticisms floating around. You would seriously think writers turned out little more than random chunks of directionless text that no mere mortal could possibly make sense of if an editor didn’t mold it into shape first. Are you gonna take that? I mean, you fancy yourself a storyteller yet you don’t know if the story you’re telling sucks or not without third party involvement? Why should I plunk down my hard earned cash for the offerings of your literary vision when you don’t even understand or have confidence in it?

My point is that the notion of the infallibility of the editor, and their necessity in shaping a writer’s efforts can be an insidious one. It devalues the writer. If a book is a house, it makes the writer’s output akin to raw lumber and lifts the editor to the role of carpenter. The traditional industry thrived on this relationship dynamic for years, it helped keep writers in their place at the bottom. Otherwise, they, as a group, might have wanted something outrageous like being fairly compensated for work that produces every single dollar in industry revenues.

It’s a new world now. You are the raw material, the carpenter, the plumber, the electrician and the painter. At best, the editor is the day laborer who comes in and sweeps up the leftover dirt off the floor before you move in. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices joists? Would an electrician appreciate getting notes from the sweeper detailing how he could run the wiring to the ceiling fans more efficiently? Don’t get me wrong, writers aren’t infallible by any stretch, either, but there’s one key difference…you’re the fucking writer!

In the old model, the perception in a lot of ways, was that the writer works for the editor, true or not. In the new model, the editor unquestionably works for the writer. Big difference. Now, when your editor suggests that you rewrite chapters 8 through 14 and add a talking sewer rat as comic relief to break up the tension in your drama about an unjustly convicted man’s experiences with prison rape, you can feel free to snort coffee out your nose, laughing hysterically as you work on cancelling the check you paid him or her with. The old way, you’d laugh a bit then cringe at the inevitable realization that you’ll probably end up doing it if you ever wanted to retain any hope of seeing that book in print.

Look, it’s your book, it’s your story, no one on the planet knows it better than you. If you’re going to be a storyteller, believe in the stories you write. That doesn’t mean don’t seek out input or listen if somebody offers up some interesting ideas. But even then, ideas are just that. You’re the one who has to take the grains of inspiration from those ideas and shape them into the story you want to tell. You can’t rely on anyone else to do that for you, otherwise, it’s not your story anymore.

I’ve been a bit harsh on editors here, unfairly so in some ways, but I’m making a point. The editor is no longer among the gatekeeper class you need to appease. You don’t have to do everything they say, and you definitely don’t work for them. Editors are a tool for indie writers that, if properly utilized can be beneficial. Got that? The editor is at the service of the writer. And even then, they’re still only one tool of many. And don’t ever forget that they work for you now.

A truly great editor is almost worth their weight in gold. My descriptions of editors in this piece are obviously exaggerated, but make no mistake, those people exist. Very likely in far greater numbers than anyone will openly admit. Where a great editor can add quite a bit to your efforts, a lousy editor can do just as much, if not more to destroy and detract from your work. And there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status. The key is to recognize the difference. If you’re not confident in your storytelling prowess, if you can’t defend the merits of your work and the artistic choices you make, you’re actively making your work susceptible to the heavy hand of a bad editor.

Despite what you might think with my prior insults, there are quality editors out there available for hire, and in the right circumstance with the proper context, they can help polish your work. But any old editor isn’t necessarily a good editor. One of the worst things that can happen to a person is to fail on someone’s terms other than your own. Giving an editor, any editor, even the good ones, carte blanche to screw around with your story is setting yourself up to fail through no fault of your own. Unless, of course, you consider changing key elements of your story against your artistic judgment to appease an editor a fault of your own. I do.

Editor skills aren’t some magical capability that’s unattainable to writers. Anyone with the right motivation can learn quality editing. It’ll surprise you how much improvement creeps into your work just by having an editor’s mentality in the back of your mind. This isn’t to say you should do everything yourself, although I am one of the apparently few people who believes you can successfully do it that way if you’re willing to be meticulous and put in the time. It’s always better to have multiple sets of eyes go over your work. Just don’t ever forget that you’re in charge. It’s your story, your world, you make the rules.

I’ve said before that many people, probably most, don’t truly understand the dynamic shift going on right now. Many of us still approach the new possibilities as simply an extension of the way things were always done. It’s not. Digital is a genetically different business than traditional, though they may appear similar today in the early stages, they really are quite divergent, and growing more so as time and technology expands. Old models can be adapted and find a niche, but nothing translates easily and without effort. Don’t hold to any particular dogma, and that especially includes slavish devotion to an editor.

Tell your stories, the way you want. It’s been a long time since writers have had that ability on a wide scale. And don’t listen to the naysayers screaming in comments sections all over the web about having your work “properly vetted”. That’s a holdover from a past that, quite frankly, limited and exploited the writer. It also served to homogenize much of the content. You ever wonder why so many cookie cutter books, both in substance and tone, exist? That, my friends, is the work of editors. Nobody can steal a writer’s voice more effectively than an editor. Nobody can suck the life out of a story better than an editor. That’s not to say editors don’t have a place, they do. It’s just a far less influential one than it has been.

Editors are not higher on the literary food chain than writers. They are little more than a hired hand to provide a specific service on the writer’s terms. They are your employee. You’d do very well to remember that, even if you have to block out the shouting of those who don’t yet see that things have changed.

Oh yeah, about that “lazy and not a complete writer crack,” sure, I was shooting over the top, just trying to get your attention, but I’m sticking to it. Prove me wrong. Please.

Published in: on August 25, 2012 at 9:46 pm  Comments (14)  
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  1. I’m with you on this. I’ve seen too many self-publishing pundits declaim that you absolutely, positively MUST hire a professional editor (and a cover designer, and perhaps an ebook formatter, a publicist, a web designer… ad infinitum), or you’re just “embracing mediocrity.”

    And there are a lot of authors who WANT to spend money on their self-published book. They believe that spending money on anything is bound to make it better, so they’re determined to make self-publishing into the closest possible approach to vanity publishing: they shovel money into their book so they can tell themselves that it’s a “professional” product.

  2. … nobody says, “I wanna be an editor when I grow up,”

    Really? I have been ‘making books’ since I was a little girl, and it was the process of constructing them and making them look lovely that attracted me, I was never that fussed about writing the content and generally the lovely books stayed empty. It would have been great if someone had given me the text at that point. So, I always wanted to be an editor, I just didn’t know at that point what it was called. I have never, ever, wanted to be a writer, but have an MA in English (language and literature) and an M.Phil in Publishing Studies.

    Editors, when in house, do far more than ‘suck the life out of a story’, they consult on the look and feel of the book too; often what attracts people to the profession is the process and making something real that they can hold in their hands.

    I work mainly in textbook publishing and, believe me, there is no way that the manuscripts could be published as submitted.

    • Thanks for replying. I’ve been patiently waiting for someone to defend editors. I purposely went over the top with my characterizations of bad editors to make a point. I, myself, am an editor. My point is that there are far more bad to mediocre editors out there than good ones. In the new model, the editor isn’t a barrier to clear to get to publication, but one step on the way. Good editors never were a barrier but a process of improvement. Bad editors are a brick wall. I’m happy that you found your career, and its what you’ve always wanted to do. I agree that the process of putting something together for publication is a helluva lot of fun. I wouldn’t have spent 12 years of my life doing it otherwise. That being said, the majority of editors I’ve interacted with over the years have, frankly, sucked. Many of them went into that job for the reasons I listed, the steady paycheck being the principle one. I’ve spent countless hours on the phone talking to various writers who did work for me relaying their horror stories of dealing with editors. I worked with 5 or 6 dozen writers regularly, and I can tell you, they almost all had individual lists of places they refused to work with because of lousy editors.

      Coming into the job as a writer, I was always uncomfortable with the often dismissive treatment writers received at the hands of editors and publishers. It structured the way I did the job myself. There are untold numbers of people out there with editor slapped next to their name, selling their services to indie writers, and I don’t hesitate to say most writers would be better served doing their own editing than paying a dime to any of them. That’s not to say writers don’t need editing, just that bad editing can be far more destructive than good editing can be beneficial. Truly good editors are few and far between, and a lot of writers are getting scammed out there.

      I’m a strong advocate of self reliance. It’s too easy for an uncertain writer to just turn their work over to an editor blindly trusting that a level of professionalism will win out. My opinion is that you have to believe in your work, and editing (structural, anyway) is best done as a collaborative process between equals. Too frequently, the editor gets the benefit of the doubt as an expert, and in my experience, that label is unfounded in the majority of cases. Yes, I’ve unfairly characterized editors harshly across the board, I admitted as much, and for the truly good ones, I apologize for that. But I stand by my assertion that writers need to have more faith in their work, which runs in conflict with the many editors I’ve known over the years who were unabashed in their statements of preference for docile, pliable writers who would do whatever they suggest.

      Best of luck to you in the future.

  3. shouldn’t that be “honest-to-goodness”?

  4. Do you think carpenters ask the advice of a broom jockey on hanging joices?
    *joists

    You do editors a great disservice with this article. There is little of truth or substance, and a great deal of bile. Shame on you.

    • Bile? Really? Hmm, so I’m a self hating editor, because I have been one for 12 years at some pretty sizable publishers? I don’t care for bad or mediocre editors, they give the profession a bad name. These days, there are bunches of them hocking their wares to writers who I wouldn’t pay to proofread my grocery list. I was pretty upfront in stating I was being unfairly harsh to editors in my characterizations, but nothing I said doesn’t come from first hand experience and observation. As a writer first who became an editor, I have heard horror stories from other writers that should make anyone question exactly what the average level of professionalism amongst editors really is. From my experience, the reality is not anywhere near the perception.

    • Well… there’s precisely nothing “of substance” in your comment. I imagine there’s a lot that could be said to cogently argue against Dan’s points, but all you do is make a petulant little stamp of your foot. So shame back at ‘cha.

  5. >”there are an abundance of lousy editors out there, more than not, I believe. Editors are no different than any other field of endeavor. There’s four or five bad to mediocre ones for every good one, and out of every 50 or so good ones, you might see one reach exceptional status.”

    Actually, same for writers. There are many more people who think they’re good writers than, you know, there actually are.

    Viewed from one perspective, your piece basically says that a not-very-good editor won’t add (much) value to your writing, but that a good one is a great find. Surely that’s advice that’s not limited to editors.

    I’ve done both writing and editing. I learned a lot about writing from good editors, to whom fortunately I was exposed early. I learned a lot about writing by being an editor as well, and I like to think that I taught a lot about writing to those whose work I edited. Many, many of those people were writing not because they were all lit up with the flame of being an indie author, but because it was part of their job and they wanted to look and sound good. (And the company we worked for wanted that as well.)

    If nothing else, an editor is a second set of eyes and your work’s first reader. A problem with writing is that it’s difficult (until some longish time after finishing) to be able to read your own work with any sense of what it’s like to not be you, not understand what you understand, not view things the way you view things. As you say, a good editor can bring additional value to the work, in terms of understanding and articulating ways in which your writing can be improved.

    Editing is, ideally, a partnership between author and editor. It’s surely not, as you say, some sort of gatekeeper function that’s preventing you from expresing yourself. Or let’s say that if that’s the role that the editor seems to be playing, it’s probably time to reevaluate that relationship.

  6. I’ve made my comments on the British Society for Editors and Proofereaders Facebook page. One thing I would add is that that the description of an editor as ‘someone who slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work’ has stayed with me all day. Maybe you really are a great writer! You’re kind of right. Yes, there are some boring bits involved, but I’ve never wanted to be a writer and have always enjoyed being an editor. Slagging off a job largely done by badly underpaid women is no way to make yourself popular with your readership. Or with anyone.

    • Is that where all the Facebook traffic’s coming from, the British Society of Proofreaders and Editors? I was wondering. I’ll have to check that out, I’m sure they love the hell outta me.

  7. Don’t know, but it’s surely not a bad thing. You’re trying to start a debate, aren’t you? The SfEP was where I saw your post, and more or
    less all of what’s said is interested and constructive, so no need to be defensive.

    • Oh, I’m not defensive, I was just curious because I noticed this uptick in traffic coming from Facebook but I had no clue where, specifically. I actually kind of enjoy it. You’re right, there are quite a few well-reasoned comments over there. I’ll try not to take the criticism personally, considering I did pretty much piss all over their profession. I’m actually glad to see some editors took up the charge to defend themselves. There are good ones out there, and judging by some of the comments I read on their Facebook page, it sounds like there’s at least a few populating that group.

  8. I love that you reacted to my comment about your unpleasant sentence featuring the words ‘slid into a position filled with tedious shit-work’ about an editor’s job with one containing ‘pissed all over their profession’. You clearly have a beautiful command of tone!

  9. I’m not going to enter into the argument about whether editors are or are not necessary. However, I will state unequivocally that proofreading is a dying art in traditional publishing as well as “indie” or self-publishing, and it’s a shame. I am sick to death of finding spelling, punctuation, grammatical (not style or dialect) and word errors in trade publications, magazines, and everything else I read. I even found one or two in your blog post. I’m just saying…


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