A friend — a professional editor and proofreader — offered the other day to edit a bunch of short stories I’ve decided to publish as a collection. For free because she’s weird. Leaving the weirdness aside, however, she said something that struck a sensitive spot.
Most writers hate the idea of an editor or proofreader touching their book, she said and she was speaking from experience. Some even get offended at edits, she said. Which is where I facepalmed and went into what-is-wrong-with-this-world mode.
I understand nobody likes criticism and edits are a sort of criticism. No one but masochists likes to be told they’ve done something badly or simply not well enough. But there is a marked and crucial difference between criticism for criticism’s sake and constructive criticism. The former is a space reserved for internet and real-life trolls. The latter is a way to make your work better than you can make it on your own.
Often, the main reason an editor can make the work better than you can make it on your own is simply because they are not you. They can see the book in a way different from yours and this different perspective is as precious as it is unattainable by the author because they are the author. The very fact of this perspective is already a step in the direction of making a story better.
Yet there’s another reason, too. Editors, the professional kind who love their work, have an acute sense for language and what works best in it. You may love the story you’ve written in the second person deeply and passionately but an editor who knows their business will delicately make it clear if a third-person perspective works better. I think it’s this sense for language that makes editors unpopular with some writers. It’s also why they are so essential for a book to become as good as it can be.
I just read the above paragraph and realised someone might take it to mean editors invariably have a more acute sense of language than writers. I don’t think this is the case. It’s the combination of not being the author and having an acute sense of what works in writing and what doesn’t that makes an editor an editor. If you only have one of these you’re either a beta reader or a writer yourself.
The first time I read about the different kinds of editing that go into a book at the big publishing houses (and I’m sure the better among the small presses, too) I was stunned. Line editing. Style editing. Fact-checking. Proofreading. Ye gods, I thought, are writers this bad to need all this editing?
Well, from my experience as a translator, I can say with certainty that some writers are indeed this bad and no amount of editing can help. Yet there are those who I’m sure require only the lightest touches to polish an already brilliant work. Usually, this brilliance comes with experience, as in other walks of life. Other times, it comes from talent and the proper use of. (Note to editor: I will not change the syntax of this sentence.)
From my experience as a writer, I can say with even greater certainty that editors are as necessary as the air. With the editor’s help my articles become prettier and punchier, and altogether a better read.
With the short stories and The Lamiastriga it was a little different: small publishers want to publish stories that need the least amount of editorial work and this is perfectly understandable. They don’t have the financial means of the Big Four (or was it Five?), after all. So they only made few and very minor changes to what I submitted. But a month before I got the offer for the novel I contacted a freelance editor to help me get it ready for self-publication, in case nobody wanted to publish it.
She gave me a 50-page sample and I think I’ll always remember one of her comments to a scene involving a bat and a mosquito, both shapeshifting vampires. “I don’t think mosquitoes breathe,” she wrote and she was absolutely right. I had read the bloody thing at least five times and I hadn’t seen that. I think eventually I chose to ignore the comment because this was no ordinary mosquito, but I will remember it as a perfect example of why an editor’s eye is so important.
And proofreaders? My editor/proofreader friend calls them janitors. When she said it, at first I wanted to lash out in indignation for smearing the name of this fine profession. Then I realised she was right.
Proofreaders are janitors. They make texts cleaner and stop diseases from spreading, just like “real” janitors. We don’t often think about the point of cleanliness, do we? It’s to stop diseases from spreading. An author has their limits in cleaning up typos and wrong punctuation, and, in my case, wrong names. Again, the second pair of eyes is there to do the rest and make the book shine.
So while I admire the confidence of writers who believe they are capable of making their work as good as it can be on their very own, I doubt it. There are probably exceptions, of course, but I think most writers need editors like food needs salt, even the most brilliant ones. I actually think that’s part of why they are brilliant. Because they can take constructive criticism and use it.
I can’t wait to see my stories edited. I wince as I picture page after page of comments and edits because, let’s face it, it is right and necessary but it’s not pleasant. After she’s done with them, however, I’ll have a bunch of much better stories, fit for publication.