You: a mild-mannered “writer” who hasn’t written anything of note save for a grocery list yesterday while your Great American Novel floats around in your head. Me: an editor with three years of professional experience and six of high school and college newspaper editing experience. Let’s talk shop:
1.) The editing process takes a LONG time.
My professional title is that I’m an editor for academic journals, with some freelance experience flicked onto sandwiches for flavor. Or, as my friend in the research field put it, “Oh, you’re . . . one of those.”
Yes, I am quite aware of how stupidly long the academic publishing process is. I, too, wish I could poke referees with hot pokers to get them to turn in their stupid reviews on time . . . but I digress. Whether you’re an academic or a creative writer, don’t go into the editing process expecting a quick turnaround. You need a lot more than a simple grammar check (see point 3) and the more you fight an editor’s opinion on your plot, character development, etc. to maintain your artistic vision (see point 2), the longer it will be. The academic editing process usually takes a year from submission to final decision. The creative editing process takes two to three years.
2.) Keep your ego in check.
When I first started out editing, I had faith in the system. Having just come out of a creative writing program, I valued constructive feedback and my author ego resembled a shriveled little raisin, whereas before the program it was a plump grape. I assumed other writers were like me. An author goes to an editor for a professional opinion much like a car owner goes to a mechanic for a professional opinion, right?
Then I had a client who would rather be sued for libel than compromise his or her artistic vision. They had written their life story and described a foster brother who had allegedly* molested them. They didn’t name the foster brother or give him a pseudonym, but they used their own real name in their byline and their publisher was worried about being sued. The publisher and I told the author the same thing: you HAVE TO change some elements of the story OR your author byline or risk getting sued. The author kept saying they “had to tell [their] truth” and wouldn’t budge. The author fired me because I agreed with the publisher, so I don’t know what became of that situation, but it was nuts.
That’s what I didn’t account for: people may go to mechanics for a professional opinion on their car, but they also didn’t build their car from scratch as a labor of love.
“Well, yeah, of course you’re dealing with a big ego, the person wrote their life story,” you say from your armchair. The truth of the matter is, in the editing business, for every novel you edit, there’s about 10 memoirs or autobiographies or, especially in my area, “uplifting Christian non-fiction self-help” where the person writes about how finding Jesus saved them from [insert terrible thing here]. Even if you edit a novel, there’s usually an author self-insert character that they’re very precious about.
If you’re a writer and you want praise for your story, don’t go to an editor. Go to your mom. I’m not saying that to be mean, I’m saying that editors are professionally obligated to see your life story or labor of love as a product and help polish it so it will sell. If that sounds cold, you’re not ready for an editor to look at your work. Sorry.
*Oops, is my journalism background showing?
3.) You need a lot more than just a “grammar check.”
To elaborate on that “uplifting Christian non-fiction self-help” genre, I once had a client who was writing just that and he or she wrote EXACTLY in the style of the King James Bible. That is to say, clunky, old-fashioned, and vaguely Shakespearean. Not great for a modern audience who needs “No Fear Shakespeare” from Sparknotes. The person said, “If this grammar is good enough for the Word of God, it’s good enough for me.”
Fortunately, unlike the other client, he or she eventually came around. But this comes back to not being precious about your work. When I was a writing tutor in college, I had a lot of people come into the office in a hurry, pleading that they “just needed a grammar check” real quick before class and then give me a sob story about how they were up all night writing this paper as I was checking their paper. I usually spotted things in their paper that couldn’t be fixed in a quick grammar check, but let those among us who haven’t stayed up all night to write a paper in college cast the first stone, so I told them “no contractions” and sent them on their way.
A few of those students angrily came back to me and said they still got a bad grade on their paper.* Oh, honey. A gramatically correct turd is still a turd. A first draft NEVER needs “just a grammar check” or your teenage niece as your only beta reader. As someone interested in writing, you would think this would be obvious to people, but I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had who’ve made my suggested edits on a draft and have been disappointed when I had just as many or more edits on their second or third draft. I might not “get” why you did a certain thing in your novel, and goodness knows literature is littered with stories of editors and publishers making dumb suggestions (for instance, did you know American publishers passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” in the 1940’s because we were still friendly with Russia and didn’t want to offend them? Ha. Hahahahaha. Ha.), but, again, your novel is a product to us, and we have your best interests at heart because we, too, want your story to reach as many readers as possible. And that starts with having characters that aren’t stereotypes and overdoing tropes in your genre that would make your potential reader roll her eyes and put your book back on the shelf at Barnes and Noble.**
*And, in the interest of schadenfreude, I should tell you about the few times I edited the papers of people I was in classes with . . . and they got higher grades on their papers in the class than I did.
4.) More often than not, we’re writers too.
A lot of people in my profession use editing as a front
for drug trafficking for their own gains as writers. They want an “in” in the publishing world, which, like most arts and entertainment industries, is very networking and “who you know” heavy. They want to know the system so they know what sells and then game the system.
What I’m getting at is, as mean as we may be to your manuscript, we want to see you succeed, because then that means maybe we can succeed as authors, too. We send our manuscript queries, hoping that we can take what we dish out. I have met very few people who just LOVE grammar and correcting people, but I have met dozens who are good at grammar and use editing to pay rent while they spend their off time working on their own novel. Which leads me to my next point:
5.) We know why you haven’t written “your novel.”
When people discover you’re an editor, they either say,
a.) “Oh, I HATED English in school,” which . . . okay? What on earth am I supposed to do with that information? Convert you to English-ism?
b.) “I am SUCH a bad speller!” which, see point 6 about that,
c.) “Can you look over my novel?” Yes, if you pay me,
or d.) “I have an idea for a story I’ve always wanted to write, but I just don’t have time to write it, you know?”
Oh yes, we do know. But as much as I complain about clients who wouldn’t know what a split infinitve was if it bit their ass, I respect them more than the people who might be the next Ernest Hemingway for all we know but if only they could win the Powerball lottery and hole up in a cabin in the woods with only their Macbook and a tea kettle. That’s because bad writers have at least. Put. In. The. Work.
The only people who think writing is relaxing and glamorous are the people who are not really writers. Writing doesn’t care if you have time. It doesn’t care about your job, or your family, or the NFL football season or the Hip New Thing to Be Offended By on Social Media or anything else that is pulling you away from it. Writing is messy. Writing is burning dinner because you were searching for a scrap of paper to write this fantastic piece of dialogue in your head. Writing is then losing that piece of paper because your spouse thought it was trash. Writing is getting a chapter done at work but naming the document “Annual Report” so your boss doesn’t get suspicious. Writing is having to take your earbuds out during your train commute because the words in your head are shouting over the lyrics you’re listening to and it’s about to drive you insane. Writing is hand-typing every copy of your manuscript to send to publishers because you can’t afford to print copies, something J. K. Rowling did when she was first starting out. Writing is getting up before your job and your family to write. The writing life isn’t as Instagrammable as waiting for a nice rainy day when the chores are done and a fresh pot of coffee is brewed and your cat is curled up next to your laptop, #writing, #workflow. It IS rewarding, but like most things that are rewarding, it’s rewarding because of the sacrifices you made to make it happen.
It’s like when people complain to me that they “don’t have time”to read. At me. A professional reader. I read all day at work, and then I read during my commute home, and then I read some more to relax at home. You would think I would be sick of processing words in my head all day, but I do it because I can’t NOT read. Like Scout says in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”
What you’re really admitting to me is that reading and writing are not important to you. It’s okay if they’re not. But if you’re offended, then prove me wrong. I would love to read your novel.
Okay, another Shia gif:
And finally, the point you’ve been waiting for:
6.) We don’t judge your grammar on social media or in text messages.
Like, seriously, I could not give less of a shit about your grammar on Facebook. But I’m really a descriptivist at heart. Sorry that you keep running into prescriptivists. Just friggin’ leave the period off the end of your text messages already.