Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Being Edited

One of the interesting things Matt Bell says in this interview I linked yesterday is that the advent of risk-free digital self-publishing for authors may mean that small presses, who are currently only slightly better on average than authors themselves at promoting work online (and often worse), may need to improve their editorial skill-sets to justify their cut of author royalties. If the most Press X can offer me is their name on the copyright page of my e-book, suddenly giving them more than a truly nominal percentage becomes difficult to entertain. He mentions editing itself as one of these skills that presses will maybe need to improve. Here I agree strongly.

One of the greatest disappointments of working with journals is how rarely you get a real edit from the people you work with. I understand why editors -- especially those with an online publication on a monthly schedule -- often choose to forgo them; editing is time-consuming, and writers are often not appreciative, with those who need your help the most being those least likely to gracefully accept it. Editing for Puerto del Sol has generally been a great pleasure, as most of the people we publish have been totally professional about the whole thing. However, there have been a couple of instances where we put in a lot of work and it only led to frustrating places, which can be enough to sour you on the whole process. I'm sure that other magazines have had worse experiences in this regard.

I've been thinking about this recently as I've had a couple stories coming out in good places that have edited my work pretty thoroughly. In one case many of the changes were mechanical -- in thirty pages of prose it can be difficult for a writer to spot all his own errors -- but there were also changes at the sentence level and a significant chunk of the ending was simply removed. In the case of the second story, on which I am putting some polish as I write this, the changes are more pervasive, an attempt to help me sort out a narrative voice that is, at times, pretty deeply confused about its approach. It was suggested again that much of the ending paragraph should be removed.

Sometimes this sort of thing can sting, especially when I feel as if I've failed my editor somehow -- as if I've fallen short of what the story could have been, or the standards of the magazine. But mostly I find it a massive relief. The trouble with workshop is that so often your fellow students, and in some cases even your professor, don't really buy in to the story; at the most basic level, the quality of your work is not their primary goal. They have other things on their minds, they have other needs and wants, they are there as much to demonstrate something about themselves as to help you. When someone has already accepted your work -- and I do think that people need to accept things before they attempt to edit them, rather than accepting conditionally on edits, for reasons of fairness and practicality (the fights that come from acceptances conditional on edits can be really nasty, the compromises unreasonable for both sides) -- they're making a very real gesture of good will. They are buying in about as much as someone possibly can. And so they have every incentive to make you and your work look as good as possible. Your writing is what will define their reputation, after all.

This makes it so much easier to trust in the collaboration of editing and being edited. If they make a tough decision, even one that I don't immediately like, I usually take this as a good sign: they're making a difficult call for the good of the work. It will make for better reading. When I can see the principles under which I'm being edited, I usually try to make a few more tweaks by those same rules, helping to smooth the story and follow through on the editor's vision. For some this loss of control is, I understand, maddening. For me it's a huge relief.

The story has been under my total control for quite a while, after all. It has lived solely in me, and through me, and it has only changed or grown in the ways I could imagine. But you don't write something because you want it to be restricted by your self as a writer -- you do it because you want readers to come in and enlarge it. Great editors are like great readers who have the power to intervene in the text of the story directly. That's an amazing service to me and to my writing, and it's truly flattering every time they provide it. I believe authorship means taking final responsibility for every word printed under your name. But I don't think that means you have to go it alone -- as I wrote yesterday, I do this to feel less alone. Good editors help me do that.

This is another one of those things I wish I saw more of from more publishers, and which I hope to emulate in my own life.

1 comment:

  1. Most writers, I think -- not just those who might not need quite so much help -- are happy to have the attention and effort and thoughts of an editor. Some just take longer to see it as attention and effort and thought.

    I personally feel exceptionally fortunate on that score (on both sides of the exchange), and I try to repay it by being as attentive as I can possibly afford to be; I've learned how to edit by being edited. There is just no substitute for having to answer for yourself. It is both the most frustrating and the most rewarding part of writing. Or any pursuit, really.