25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)

A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.


Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.


  1. Steve, I think everyone can use a good editor. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe had Max Perkins. And I think we all need someone like that. Someone who's objective. The thing I often see though is that some people, especially when starting out don't really want to hear criticism. They say they do, but they really don't, even when it's given in a positive way. That's not everyone, of course, but enough.

  2. Paul,
    I agree, both on needing an editor and on not wanting to hear the bad news. Learning to listen is a huge step. When I send stuff to beta readers now, I always tell them "mention everything that bothers you, no matter how trivial you think it is. If you want to mention stuff you like, too, swell, but I don't have to fix that."

    Maybe it's just me, but over the last couple of years I've found more and more writers who don't do even basic research to get fundamental facts right. Has anyone else seen this?

  3. I can add that Stephen King's book on writing which details his development as a writer ( pretty much self taught I might add) is one of the best around.

  4. Janice,
    To me, the most interesting part of King's book is his account of how writing helped him recover after nearly being killed in that traffic accident. The rest of the book doesn't do as much for me as Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird or several other books. But, as I said, I think King has strengths writers in all genres should study.

  5. Hi, Steve. Thanks for the shout-out. It's ridiculous for anyone to expect an editor can guarantee a "provable advantage" from working with them, and that includes editors of grammar, punctuation, and style. A book could be technically perfect and still not sell because it has plot holes galore. And a book could desperately need copy editing and still sell to a big publisher because its characters are wonderfully zany. The only thing editors--all kinds of editors--can do is work with their clients to try to make their books and stories better. Sure, there may be some people out there selling editing services (developmental, line, and copy editing) who don't have the requisite skills, but that's no reason to assume all editors are of poor quality and don't provide valuable services. The same analysis, of course, applies to every field. In the end, I think editing is a noble calling. I love helping authors make their dreams come true.

  6. Rob, I think the point I would add: so many writers who are maybe on the A- list (as opposed to the A list) are putting out How to Write books now. What strikes me is that being a good writer doesn't make you a good teacher. They are two separate skills. If you happen to be good at both, (and trained at both) it's special. But it's also rare.

    As writers, we gripe about people who think they can write a novel and hit it out of the park with their very first book (when they've never even written a short story before.) Margaret Atwood put it well when she said to the brain surgeon (who he said he was thinking of writing a novel when he retired) "Really? I'm thinking of taking up brain surgery when I retire."

  7. Great article here all! Good stuff.

    And I will be checking out "Bird by Bird" now for sure1


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