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Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture

On Editing Your Work and Finding an Editor

I’ve been on a LinkedIn discussion, which began as a “why to writers trash each other?” but changed into all manner of discussion, one of which was holding up the use of a freelance editor (or allowing editors to really have at your work). I’ve written about editors before (I was an editor, of non-fiction and fiction) for 10+ years. It’s really a thankless job, and yet if anything goes wrong (like low book sales, for starters), the editor is blamed, not the writer (oddly enough).

But on this thread I had to take answer one comment regarding putting much stock, trust, MONEY, and hope in the competence of an editor:

1st parry: We all need to beware the mystique of editors. They are, predominantly, insecure people who are afraid for their jobs (an exceptionally high-stress career, acquisitions is, at the mid-to-higher levels) and who feel they must “edit” to justify their existence. We writers need to be our own best editor: learn what your story is about, how it best needs to be told, and who is the best character to tell it. From there, the story all comes down to the writing: if you can write, you can make any story read well; if you can’t, then you’ll make the best idea read like shit.

2nd parry: Actually, Pete, your guess is incorrect: I’ve not had a “bad experience” with an editor. In fact I’ve had only good experiences with editors of my work, mostly because they are people whom I have the utmost trust and confidence in. Finding one of these is as difficult as finding one’s wife or husband. Which takes me to your second point: “this is the best time EVER to be a freelance editor.” Frankly, freelance editors (whose pedigree is always suspect—why don’t they have a mid-to-top job with a house?) are particularly suspect. What is it that makes a person think they can edit a book? Do they write books themselves? Do they read books? Do they know what helps (or harms) a character, narrative, dialogue, metaphor/simile/analogy? Aspiring writers shouldn’t go to editors to “fix” their work (because if the work needs enough editing to call it “fixing,” then it shouldn’t have been written in the first place). For a further disquisition on editing, take a look at J.C. Guest’s comments (above).

3rd parry: Alice, after you differ with me, you seem to say as much to defend my own position as “writer-as-own-best-editor” with your comment about reading aloud and re-reading (and thus re-writing & editing). I’d go further by suggesting writers understand what the editing process involves, which is not simply a second set of eyes on the story. Likewise, a good writer doesn’t look at his/her own work and see what they expect, they see what a reader sees and expects, thus making adjustments accordingly. Finally, re my “mystique” comment: since the early 20th C editors have gained such a quality (think Ezra Pound of T.S. Eliot, Maxwell Perkins of numerous authors) and some justified but many not so much. If you’re connected with the biz, you can count on two hands the number of editors who’ve been hailed as outstanding. And that’s not saying much, given the number of books published (before the advent of self-pubbing). But further, by you saying editing is “just another job” (and Gary saying “editors have to make a living”) … then I’m terribly suspicious about editors. Why? Because what I write is not just another book, and therefore I don’t want a person who thinks his/her time between waking up and going to bed “just another day at the office.” And this is where my point becomes its most sharp: don’t trust just anyone to read your work, and those you trust you should be ready to argue your point and make them defend their criticism; and … the investment in writing a work of art, literature, something that a writer could think will last 400 years, should only be put in the hands of someone that shares that view. Anything less is merely clocking in for a few coins at the end of the day.

And the final frame: Hey, writer … I appreciate all your opinions. And your caveats about (and advice for choosing) whom edits your work are spot on. Many young (and older) aspiring writers have commented abundantly on bad experiences with editors whom they’d evidently chosen poorly (one had said the editor had continually confused characters; others have complained about almost no editing done, while paying a hefty up-front fee). I have always taught (and preached) that good writing is essentially good re-writing and excellent self-editing.

Keep on writing!


What Beauty is my newest novel, a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.

The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.

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