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Mar 21, 2009

Why Authors Need Editors

There's a fascinating discussion over on Elizabeth Bear's blog about whether an editor hones a writer's vision or crushes her unique genius into cookie cut dough. (And I literally mean vision because one of the issues is whether to include more visual description.) I was quite struck by something E Bear said in the comments:
A good editor is a professional whose skill involves bringing out the writer's truest voice. And the skill of a writer is not self-expression: that's a very high-school interpretation of art. Self-expression is the egotist's excuse.

Art is about communication; it's about evoking a response in the reader. Oftentimes, a writer is too close to her intention to see the real effect on someone else, because she can see what she intended.

If we were talking about the visual arts, it's the difference between a child's drawing and the landscape of a trained artist. A writer who has not learned to judge the effect of her words on an audience is making the equivalent of kid scribbles.

It's the difference between home movies and Citizen Kane.

Nobody cares about your vision if you don't have the chops to make the other guy see it. And that's a skill, a learned one. And one which a good editor helps a writer exercise, by showing her where she's failed to make the connection.

My editor for this book is a very good editor. She's up for a Hugo this year, for a reason: she's one of the best in the business.

I have a peculiarly wired brain: it interprets the world in manners somewhat different from most people's. Most of my work in becoming an artist has been the work of learning to translate between what I know about a story and what I need a reader to know about it. It's a crude and stopgap form of telepathy, but it's all we've got.

None of this, of course, makes it any more fun to hear that a book one has been working on since 2002 still needs significant revision, because it's not very good yet. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say it's heartbreaking, and ten years ago I would have been totally on board with the idea that My Native Genius Is Going Unrecognized.

But the fact of the matter is that that's self-indulgence, ego defense, and denial, and good art is not created by prima donna fits. It's created by sweat and failure and trying again and again to get it right.

But at least now I have somebody else helping me see ways to make it better.

You must not think that I take all of any editor's suggestions as gospel: I assess them all, using my own hard-earned critical skills, and I decide which ones will improve the book. And I have no qualms about saying no if I think an idea is dumb.

You decide what hills you're going to die on. And I've refused offers on books because I didn't agree with the editor's vision of what the book should be.
This is a potent reminder. Just because you become a multi-book selling author, it doesn't make writing come easily or automatically. It doesn't mean you no longer have to keep asking yourself the hard questions, like how much do you write to please others and how much do you trust your own vision? It doesn't mean you get a free pass from painful revisions.

There are published authors whose first book is fabulous, but who let their later books slide into stale formula. Other writers just seem to keep growing with each book. I know which kind of writer I aspire to be.


Thank you to Mossy Creek Designs (ban) for this poster!


writtenwyrdd said...

Very good thoughts here.

I keep seeing comments from authors that no one should publish without an edit, and Ms. Bear explains why very clearly.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I have seen this happen with writers where they let their books go into a formula phase. It's sad!

I like the line, "You decide what hills you're going to die on"

Yep. And this also goes for choosing an agent. You shouldn't take the first one that offers if it doesn't feel right. Getting the wrong agent to represent you is a terrible mistake.

Thanks for sharing. This is a great post!

Tara Maya said...

I love that line. I may make it into a poster. :)

Ban said...

love this post ! i really connected with:
'A writer who has not learned to judge the effect of her words on an audience is making the equivalent of kid scribbles.'
this has always been an issue for me (in fact i just mentioned this to hayley the other day) since i've only shared my work with a handful of people, most of those family or close to it, i have no way of knowing whether my own work is the equivalent of 'kid scribbles'. i've been afraid to post my work on crit sites etc. for that exact reason. i DO believe that writing is a skill that can be improved upon but how does one know if they have the skill to begin with ?
and i'll order a copy of that poster when you have it printed up - it was a great line !

Davin Malasarn said...

I totally agree with everything that was said here. I do sincerely believe that there are writers out there doing it for themelves, people who are content to store their writing in a drawer after they are done making it. In this sense, writing can be like a home movie, and that's as valid a reason to write as any other. But, for me, this article is dead on.

Ban said...

hey davin - glad to see i didn't jumble that so much no one understood me :D the other reason i liked this post was: i'm at the point now where i'd like to branch out a bit, share my work with others and hearing what a GOOD editor can do was really something i needed to hear. here's to hoping we all (someday) find that perfect editor ! ! !

Sherrie Petersen said...

Great post! I like her points about self-expression and word effect. I know I've grown as a writer in the last few years. I hope to keep right on growing after I'm published, too.