Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Editor? Catherine Czerkawska
|No more monkey business.|
I’m a compulsive reviser. Just about everything I write, but especially fiction, goes through many drafts, sometimes more than a dozen, sometimes more than two dozen. I revise on paper as well as on screen. Partly it’s because I fall in love with my characters and can’t bear to leave them. Mostly it’s because I love the process of honing and refining. I began my writing life as a poet and paring down is what poets do. I also began my writing life working on radio plays and I was taught how to edit and revise by several good radio producers. Back then, when I was starting out, did they ever send my scripts back to me covered in red annotations? Did they change or delete for me? Did they suggest total restructuring, sweeping cuts? Did I ever send anything to them and wait nervously for their response, knowing that they would be suggesting big, counter-intuitive changes?
None of the above. Or only once, with a stage play, and that was acknowledged by all concerned to be an aberration and a never-to-be-repeated nightmare.
With radio plays, I would send a draft of a script to the producer. He or she would send me a list of questions, and then we would have a long chat over the phone or in person and I would go away and do some more work. In finding the answers to the questions, I would make the play better. They would say things like, ‘Do you think that you may be over-using your narrator a bit here? Can you find some way to dramatize this more?’ Or ‘I’m not sure character A is as rounded as she could be. Perhaps we need to know more about her. Why is she behaving like this?’
These were thought provoking questions. They assumed a certain professionalism on my part, and they assumed a certain respect for the text on the producer’s part. But essentially it would remain my play. With plays, there’s another part to this process, which is when actors get their hands on your script. No matter how minor a character, he or she is very important to the actor playing the part. So once again, you’d better know your stuff because the questions will come thick and fast and if you don’t know the answers, you'll be in trouble. But this is the joy of genuine collaboration. And they were all teaching me to edit my own work.
There’s a commonly held belief that it isn’t possible for somebody to edit their own work, that we writers are all too close to it to see the wood for the trees, that we need editors and beta readers and whole teams of people to tell us how it should be done. You’d better listen to us. We know better than you.
I’m not so sure. Why should I trust you to know any better than me? What are your qualifications? If there’s mutual respect, fine. But telling me you’re an editor is no guarantee that you’ll be a good editor for me, any more than me calling myself a writer is any guarantee that I can write. Latterly, in the world of traditional publishing and agenting, I can't count the number of times I was asked to change things, not for my personal development as a writer, and not to make the book better for the readers, but in order to conform to some hypothetical – and usually short-lived – publishing fashion of the time.
One thing all writers do need is time. Time lends perspective. What seemed like a wonderful piece of writing, when looked at a couple of months (and sometimes a couple of years) later can seem pedestrian and facile - or over-complicated. This isn’t a race. You need to let your work lie fallow while you get on with something else.
The other thing I think you need to acquire is the courage to be self critical. And this is where an experienced editor can be a pearl of great price. To me, the one true function of a good editor is to put into words the things you know, deep in your heart, are wrong with your manuscript. Usually in the form of questions rather than prescriptions. And because you already know it, you find it pretty easy to agree. It doesn’t seem wrong, it doesn’t seem threatening and mostly, you don’t get indignant or stroppy about it.
With a little practice, you can become a barometer for editorial suggestions. But if everything inside you is screaming ‘Nooooo!’ then you should trust that response. You can be pretty certain that you’re right and the editor is wrong. If your reaction is ‘I wish he hadn’t said that, but he just might have a point,’ you can be fairly sure the editor is right. Your main feeling in these circumstances should be one of relief. I’ve had editors and directors I’ve felt like kissing, because I’ve been struggling and they’ve helped. Sometimes with as little as a single perceptive question. On the other hand, if you feel like killing your editor and go on feeling bullied and angry even when you’ve calmed down, don’t assume that they are right and you are wrong. I find it amazing how often writers turn into humble submissives in the face of editorial comments, no matter what their source.
Your editor doesn’t have to be a genius, but he or she does have to be competent. Can you imagine trying to learn to play advanced piano or violin from a teacher who had stopped at Grade 3? There's a reason why sports coaches are so often ex players. They don't have to be champions, but they do have to know how to play the game. I find myself wondering why on earth we are so quick to trust every single person who claims to be able to tell us how to write - except ourselves.