In all the posts I see from people recommending that you find yourself a good editor, there is a conception that an editor adds value to the work, and is worth the price paid for her/his services.
It is both horrible – and true.
I read an excellent example recently where a writer posted a paragraph as it had been sent to the editor, followed by the (much improved) paragraph that was returned by the editor.
And I couldn’t think of a single solitary good thing to say.
The edited example is gorgeous, and literary, and flows. The original was pedestrian, barely containing the seed of the final version if you looked hard.
The work was vastly improved – by someone other than the writer.
The images sang, where the original images had barely been able to open their mouths.
And the voice was – whose? Not the editor’s – the story came from elsewhere.
And not the writer’s – because the writer couldn’t do that.
Editor – or collaborator?
Maybe in a collaboration this would be a good thing: both would share in the accolades and the financial rewards.
But it is rare in the publishing world for the editor to be given a co-writing credit. (It is de rigeur in TV and movies, verbotten in plays.)
All I could think of, when confronted by this gorgeous prose, was that it was a bastard child.
I’ve had that reaction before, when I’ve read Sol Stein’s books on writing: if the editor has that much say, and that much power – he told one author to throw away the first hundred pages or so of a novel, another to completely rewrite a significant section, others to change how they wrote – then whose book is the final product?
How do you tell if the writer is any good without an editor?
I have seen marked up copies of work done by F. Scott Fitzgerald (this is memory, so I’m not sure I’m remembering the details exactly right) that were left when he died, and which were notably uninteresting – unless you made the corrections indicated by the gallon of red ink.
It is common for fans to complain when a writer dies, someone else finishes a work-in-progress, and the results are unappealing – and for the fans to assume it is the new writer’s fault, when it might be the fault of a new and different editor (or the complete lack of a new editor), exposing the original writer as flawed.
How much ‘help’ from an editor is allowed before the writer shouldn’t be able to claim authorship? Morally, if not legally?
Editors defend their services
I am aware that editors claim that they only point out flaws, and it is up to the writer to correct said ‘flaws’ – this is common in traditional publishing. But the reality – I contributed to a Kickstarter for a writer with a good idea, excellent intentions, and lousy execution, and didn’t realize until later that the money was mostly allocated to paying an editor – may be very different.
In the Kickstarter case, the edited work was STILL very hard to read. I read chapter 1 of both versions (I had offered to read the work-in-progress, and backed out in horror after I got the first draft), so I can make a direct comparison. The concept had some merit, and I toyed with the idea of seeing how I might write the first chapter myself – fortunately I decided I have enough work of my own that interests me more, and stayed out of the idiotic idea. Plus, who am I to attempt to ‘improve’ someone else’s work?
What got me started on this diatribe was that the original writer was PROUD of the edited paragraph (the first paragraph now of the first chapter of the novel), PROUD of the improvement, PROUD that the material had been developed further and better.
PROUD for the work to go out under the writer’s name.
And all I could think of was that it was no longer the writer’s work – nor was it the editor’s.
And that if it didn’t result in the writer learning how to DO that kind of writing next time, it was a waste of money and time.
How does this affect readers – if at all?
Readers don’t care – but readers will be the first to criticize if a change in editor results in the next book being crappier.
The chill in the pit of my stomach tells me that I’m going to have a difficult time if I let anyone else’s hands near my work.
And I fully realize this is a shrug-of-the-shoulders topic – for most writers.
But a critical question for those who in the DIY world of writing will have to make the decision – and pay the price. Either way.