Editors Redux

A while back, I wrote this. Needless to say, I pissed off a few editors, some so severely that I began to wonder if they missed my point. Hey, maybe I needed an editor to help me make it more clear to editors why I think they’re overrated and, far too often, a detriment to the writer rather than a help. That would be kind of ironic, maybe, if anyone actually understood what irony means.

Anyway, I let it drop after that as, essentially, my point was that editors aren’t higher on the literary food chain than writers and, given the new realities taking hold, are little more than a supplemental contractor, as it were, serving at the writer’s discretion. Yet still, nearly every day, I see the same old arguments made. Writers can’t produce publishable work without editors. You need an editor. Editors are essential. Yada, yada, yada.

Editors are a tool at the writer’s disposal, one of many. Depending on the type and skill level of the editor in question, the trick is figuring out if they’re a tool that can help finish the job well, or an extraneous tool that seems shiny but ultimately is little more than one of those cheaply made pieces of junk you find in the “As Seen On TV” aisle that doesn’t quite live up to the game-changing hype on the infomercial.

Anyway, for clarity’s sake, I decided to revisit my point.

1. Most editors suck at their jobs

Most editors didn’t really appreciate my observations on this. There are so many different kinds of editors, and different jobs within publishing that carry the word “editor” in their title. It’s become a catch-all, pseudo-management title used more often to give an employee an air of higher standing without actually having any of said standing. In book publishing, there’s acquistion editors, copy editors, line editors, content editors, etc, etc. The magazine/newspaper world’s even worse, with offices in many cases employing more people with editor after their names than writers. One of the things I said in my original piece was that most editors are simply people who are wannabe writers who are either failures at it or lack the courage to be the creator. It’s always easier to manipulate the work of others than create it in the first place. This doesn’t mean that a good editor can’t add value, they can. It means there are a lot more mediocre-to-bad editors out there than good ones. I stand by this point completely.

Writers almost always exist in the grey area of uncertainty called self employment. Editors, on the other hand, usually collect a regular paycheck (modern publisher downsizing is changing this but it still holds as a generalization). Do you really want someone who chose the illusion of job security that comes with a regular paycheck over the risk of chasing their dreams dicking around with your attempt to chase your dreams? Again, this isn’t all editors, but it’s more of them than not. Keep in mind, as well, if your editor is one of these people, their motivation lies necessarily on the side of making your work fit the standards of the publisher who’s paying them rather than making your work the best it can be in a vacuum. Sometimes, those goals dovetail nicely. More often than not, however, they don’t.

This isn’t a blanket indictment against editors, it’s their job. They work for the publisher. They’re first order of business is necessarily serving the needs of the entity paying their bills. This is really a question for writers to answer. Do you want your work to conform to a publisher’s standards or to your own? The notion that these two ends always coincide is a fairy tale. In the old traditional market, all the sacrifice was on the writer’s shoulders simply because we had no leverage otherwise. It really and truly was my way or the highway at its root.

I’ve done my share of commercial painting over the years. It’s a nice skill to have and I’ve paid my bills through some lean years with it. The biggest trouble I had was contractors who’s motivations differed from mine. Contractors want to be max profitable above all else. I wanted to produce the best quality job for the person buying the house. Occasionally, this led to conflict when the contractor advocated something half-assed to support their profitability. Publishers are like contractors, editors either conform to their standards and demands or they’ll be looking for work elsewhere. I believe it’s crucial for writers to understand these dynamics. It’s pretty important to know if the editor who’s tinkering with your work is serving two masters. In those cases, when push comes to shove, the master with the fatter wallet wins almost every time.

Now, however, independent publishing has changed things a bit. Writers are the ones cutting the check now. Yet I still see editors with a “I know best” attitude, behaving as if the dynamic hasn’t shifted. The most important thing I said in my previous piece is that the editor works for you now. Listen to them, certainly, otherwise you’re wasting your money, but the ultimate decisions rest solely with you. You are in charge. I wonder if this isn’t why some editors were unhappy with my opinions. In the old traditional mechanism, editors were higher on the ladder than writers. Nobody likes to feel their skills are being maginalized, or declining in influence or authority. I feel bad but editors never should have gotten higher than writers in the first place. Editing is a supplemental activity to (theoretically) benefit the writer. The only reason that structure happened was so publishers could marginalize the importance of writers (and their ultimate compensation, let’s not forget that). Editors became what they did because publishers willfully used them to add a layer between creator and market that only they could successfully navigate, and to infantalize writers so they’d be less likely to rebel against a system that earns all its revenue on your back but only pays out a relative pittance in return. That strategy of infantilization has worked so spectacularly well that writers, en mass, have essentially self-imposed that structure. I still see good, talented, independent writers touting the value of these obstacles willingly put in their way by publishers, like agents and editors. Stockholm syndrome at its finest.

2. All editors aren’t awful

My rhetoric against editors in the original piece was over the top. I admitted as much in the article. Every editor doesn’t suck at their job. Most of them do, though. It’s crucial to find one who doesn’t, and that largely depends on what specific skills they possess and how they choose to wield them. A good copy editor is worth every penny. By the way, I define copyeditor as line by line, typo and grammar editor. This is painstaking, tedious work. I suspect a big part of the reason writers have willfully gone along with the editor fallacy is precisely because copy editing sucks and we just don’t want to be responsible for it. Where do you suppose the notion of “I just wanna write” comes from? Writers who only want to do the fun, easy parts and dump the difficult actual work on someone else, that’s where. Now I’m going to do what I neglected to do but should have in the original piece, I’m going to lay the wood to writers.

If you’re a writer who subscribes to the above-mentioned theory, you are lazy. I just wanna collect royalty checks as a super best selling author. Someone else can handle the actual writing, I just want to cash those fat checks. That’s the same as saying “I just wanna write” while engaged in a business atmosphere. If you truly just want to write, there’s nothing wrong with that. It makes you a hobbyist, but that’s fine. But far too many writers saying this are actively seeking publishers, or actively self publishing. You can’t behave in a businesslike way but pick and choose to do only the parts you think are fun. To begin with, that attitude puts you at a severe disadvantage in dealing with people committed to the actual business and they will screw you every time on the contractual end given the opportunity. I’m pretty sure their mouths get to watering whenever a writer walks in saying “I don’t want to worry my pretty little head with actual complex professional business issues, I just wanna write!” If you don’t want to deal with the actual business end, then do everybody a favor and get the hell out of the business. You’re poisoning the waters for everybody else. By willfully signing over all rights, agreeing to onerous non-competes, accepting pittance royalties with little or no accountability to back those up and basically abdicating any and all responsibility for the business side of publishing, you’re helping establish standards that those of us who do actually care about the business side have to fight through every day just to try and get a remotely equitable contract out of a publisher. Everything worth doing in life comes with a heaping helping of things you don’t want to do. Suck it up, it’s part of the program. By not doing so, you’ve opened the door to publisher exploitation of writers wide open. The “I just wanna write” attitude has done more to infantalize writers than all the actions of all the publishers in the world combined. It’s like with most things, it can only screw us over so long as we allow it to.

Let’s say publishers are vampires. When you, sitting on your cushy little couch, utter the phrase, “I just wanna write,” you’re inviting the blood sucking parasite inside. More often than not, by the end of the evening, the vampire strolls away satiated and you’re left a pale-white, dessicated husk drained to the bone. Too strong a metaphor? Depends on who you ask.

3. But unedited work is awful

Yes it is. But here’s the thing, editing is a task. You don’t need a person with a title for it. Like the “I just wanna write” notion, “writers can’t edit their own work” is another dangerous and inherently lazy attitude to hold. Of course you can edit your own work, you wrote it for Christ sake! It’s like saying a master carpenter can build a chest of drawers but he shouldn’t sand or finish it. “Carpenters can’t paint their own work.” Doesn’t that sound absurd?

Woodworking and painting are simply learned skills that are a means to an end, in this case, a sweet new dresser. Writing and editing are learned skills that are a means to an end, a great novel for instance. No different. Are you going to tell the chef that he’s great at preparing the meal, but the table presentation should be left to someone else? I didn’t think so.

The key here, however, is that the carpenter knows going in that the finish for his chest is a crucial part of the job. The chef understands that successfully plating the meal is a crucial part of the job. Therefore, they learn how to do those things and do them well. Writers, on the other hand, by being told “I just wanna write” is okay, and “writers can’t edit their own work” drummed into us like Moses carried it down from the mountain, don’t even try. There is actually truth in saying writers can’t edit their own work today because we’ve bred generations of writers who never bothered to learn how. It’s a crucial skill that’s part of the job and we, on the whole, ignore it. Writers became unable to edit our own work because the industry actively minimalizing our skills so they could make more money told us so. They also, not coincidentally, had a ready solution of people who could take care of that for us so we could stop worrying our pretty little heads and just write. They’re called editors.

I am not, repeat not advocating that writers just throw unedited stuff out there. Someone has to do it. I’ve already mentioned that a good copy editor is well worth the expense, with all the emphasis on good. What I’m saying is writers not only can but should learn to edit their own work. It’s not rocket science. It’s a relatively easily learned skill. By comparison, it’s a helluva lot easier to learn good editing skills than to learn good writing. It’s not often fun, it can be tedious if done right, but it’s an essential part of the job. Learn it. Now.

Self-edited work is not unedited work. This pisses me off more than almost anything when I see these terms used interchangeably. As a writer, I find it personally offensive. Why is my edit somehow less valuable than someone else’s? Where is the mystical line where the person with the skills to create something in the first place magically loses all capability to refine it?

My opinion is that it’s always better for multiple sets of eyes to look something over. It’s always preferable to see points of view other than your own. But the traditional editor/writer dynamic gives too much voice to the editor. Again, what I’m advocating here isn’t that writers should just say, “Fuck you, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want!” Well, sometimes, maybe. But for the most part, I’m saying we need to look at conditions and re-evaluate the role and importance of editors. That can’t be done if writers don’t also pick up the slack and re-learn the tasks we willfully abdicated long ago.

In the traditional setup, writers were essentially selling books to editors. We weren’t selling them to readers. Editors, in turn, were selling those books to the publishers who employed them. Again, not readers. Hell, even publishers were selling those books to distributors or chain stores, not readers. The only people actually selling books to readers were at the retail level. Should it surprise anyone that it was a retail company (Amazon) that rose up and finally kicked publishing in the balls? Today, it’s more important than ever to sell to readers. Nobody in the old chain knows how to do that, including writers and editors. Is it preferable, when selling to readers, to seek content feedback from actual readers or editors, who, like writers, have been kept several degrees of separation from readers for the publisher’s advantage? That’s rhetorical. The answer’s pretty obvious.

So there it is in a nutshell: editors suck, writers are lazy, we’ve both been made that way by publishers parasitically exploiting us for profit and we’re all screwed anyway because none of us knows the first thing about selling to readers. Wait, was that my point? Aw shit, maybe I do need an editor.

Editors Note: No I don’t.

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Published in: on February 1, 2013 at 8:10 am  Comments (1)  
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  1. Couldn’t agree more. No doubt a new set of eyes is more efficient at copy editing (not mandatory, mind you, but certainly more efficient). The story, however, is my responsibility. If I thinks it’s broken, I’ll fix it. If you think it’s broken, I’ll think about it. Maybe fix it if, on further reflection, I agree with you. Probably not, though, since when I re-re-read/edited the thing, I didn’t think it was broken. So no, I’m not going to change it. So why did I hire you? Oh, right, so I can claim I had an editor and thank her in the acknowledgements.
    My brief take on same subject: http://thegoatrodeoblog.com/2013/03/29/why-fat-people-make-the-best-editors-with-apologies-to-erin-morgenstern/


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