Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Editor? Catherine Czerkawska

No more monkey business.
You’ve only to spend a little time in the real or virtual company of writers to hear some version of accepted wisdom. We all need editors, kill your darlings, less is more. I used to agree. And there’s a part of me that still does. I’m all for editing as a process, although there’s a difference between proof reading for typos and punctuation – which is generally better done by somebody else – and editing in the sense of somebody telling you that you need to rewrite your manuscript and how you ought to do it, occasionally going so far as to try to do it for you.

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.


Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
Excellent post! The main thing I've learned in the last decade has been that, given time - and lots of careful reading of both good, mediocre, and bad writers - I see the things I should have changed/deleted/rewritten in my own work. And I still remember what my daughter's first violin teacher, a Russian of the old school, said to us: 'There will come a time when she will have to teach herself, if she wants to be any good.' More than merely competent, he meant.
That's a really good analogy, Lee. And an experienced visual artist friend says much the same thing. I don't know why writers always seem to think they they 'need' extensive edits, that writing a novel or a short story must always be a collaborative process but it's a fairly recent development and one we seem to have bought into.
Chris Longmuir said…
Wise words Catherine, and I know what you mean by edits and rewrites. On one book I did 22 full revisions! I've stopped counting now, because it depresses me!
Susan Price said…
I agree with everything you say, Catherine! I have been taken aback by how meekly many writers will change their books in ways they are not at all happy with, on an editor's say-so. Making changes that you know, really, are right is one thing - but changing your book in ways that make you miserable and angry is quite another.
Dan Holloway said…
fabulous. This can't be said enough. Just yesterday I was watching a very long thread on a writers' site where everyone flatly insisted that every writer must have a professional editor and utterly refused to accept the art analogy.
After a time you give up arguing back and get on with writing.
Bill Kirton said…
Yes, more wise words, Catherine. My radio drama experiences resembled yours (Ah, those wonderful pre-Birt days) and the two editors I've had for novels published by mainstream publishers contributed enormously to the finished product.
One of them was such a diligent researcher that he found mistakes in material that I was convinced I'd got right. He even pointed out that the name I'd chosen for a character was that of a nun who'd been guilty of abusing children in a Nazareth Children's Home. The home is about a quarter of a mile from where I live and the editor's based in Florida.
But the other, a hugely talented editor in London, made structural suggestions that gave some of my scenes much greater impact. I asked her why, with such obvious gifts for character observation and narrative techniques, she wasn't herself a crime writer, but she insisted that, while she could always see how stories could be improved, she'd never been able to generate text herself. The professionals have very special skills.
Lesley McDowell said…
Have to say I can see both sides of this. I remember one writer telling me how his editor would change stuff ('the old woman by the bus stop in the rain' to 'the young couple smiling in the sun' kind of thing), to make it less bleak. That really shocked me, and I've reviewed novels where authors have thanked editors for every word. these authors tend to be younger which is worrying - they don't have the confidence yet to reject this. On the other hand, I've been lucky to have had great editors for each of my books, who improved things without taking away what I wanted to say or how I said it. Maybe because I was older when I started publishing. Good editors are worth their weight in gold.
Dennis Hamley said…
A terrific post, Catherine. I've had many good editors in the past who've taught me so much. I remember Pam Royds once shooting a lot of very pertinent questions at me about things I hadn't thought through properly, each one hitting the spot. When she saw me looking a bit depressed, she said 'But I couldn't even begin to do what you do." Which shows proper humility and the respect for each other which writers and editors should have. Yet one of my writing mentorees has just had his first novel, which I think is good and well worthy of publication, examined by a 'literary scout', who asked to see it. On the basis of the first three chapters, she sent him a damning report on THE WHOLE BOOK - God knows how she could have done that - full of futile 'do it this way' comments. He was so upset and wanted to give up writing completely. I sent him the well-remembered and much-loved Houmongous Books report on Wuthering Heights. Sadly, he recognised it all. Perhaps the WH report wasn't satire after all.
Elizabeth Kay said…
I started out in radio as well. Those were the days when producers said, "I want a play that puts my job on the line!" And then it all changed.Since then I've had good editors and bad editors,but working for the BBC in the seventies was a joy.
Nick Green said…
"Murder your darlings."

"But my Editor is such a darling."

"Well then..."
Nice one, Nick. You're right, Elizabeth. It did change. It used to be that if you had the backing of a producer for a project, you were pretty sure of a production. Then they introduced something called 'Producer Choice' which - as far as I could see - drastically reduced that choice. And then the dreaded 'script editor' came along - an unknown concept in radio until that point. I remember getting a set of notes from a furious producer with his own (excellent) notes and a script editor's (prescriptive and contradictory) notes in different fonts. He had been told to send them to me, but he was so angry about them that he had subverted the whole exercise!
madwippitt said…
When you have a great editor, it's wonderful and incredibly helpful.

Unfortunately there's not many of them around.
William Ockham said…
The correct goal of editing is not to make your story better. It's to help you become a better storyteller. Your goal as a writer should be to become proficient enough to not need an editor. You will always need a proofreader. You may always lean on folks you trust for advice. You should collaborate with other writers as appropriate. But your stories are yours when you can tell when they are "done".
Richard Kirwan said…
Loved your piece. As the mentoree referred to by Dennis, your words give me encouragement to trust my instincts.
William, you are right. The aim should be to make yourself - as an editor - redundant! It's a learning process. Richard, I'm very pleased the 'Wuthering Heights' piece helped. Don't let anyone ever discourage you. 'Do it this way' is never the way to go about it. But too many people seem to think that editing involves changing a piece of work into the book or story they might have written themselves - not the book as the writer intended it to be. The trick is always to help the writer to make THAT book as good as it possibly can be - and as William says - to help somebody to become a better storyteller in the process.

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