After spending the last few weeks lamenting copy-edits I now find the boot on the other side of my face. Yes, fresh from weeping hot tears of shame at my own inadequacies, I’m now in eviscerating-other-people’s-work mode. And it’s… not nice. It’s not fun, tearing apart something someone has laboured over, has spent hours, days, months reaching into their very souls and pouring it onto the page.
So I’ve written a letter. It’s a letter I can never send, but I want to share it with you, my friends, to try and explain how I feel when I’m in editor-mode. Hope you find it interesting.
Let’s not beat around the bush: there’s a lot of red ink on your manuscript. I’m sorry about that. It’s my job to find fault and to let things slide would help no-one. The disappointment would still come, it’d just be delayed. Kudos to you for wanting to meet things face-on. You’ve dodged the easy option and I respect that.
I feel that I should say that I’m not perfect. I’ve got no secret wisdom or knowledge – the changes I’ve made are based on my understanding of good writing, good grammar and good story. I might be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I’ve heard enough stories of editors completely missing the point with their critique to know that editing is subjective. This subjectivity might affect the placement of a single comma or it might concern the plot as a whole.
It’s down to you, ultimately, to decide whether to take my advice or not. I won’t judge you either way.
I want to help you. I want you to improve as a writer. Perhaps my biggest single fear is not that you’ll think me an idiot, or that you’ve wasted your money, but that I might scare you off writing. My criticisms aren’t meant to depress or to discourage but to make your work better and, if possible, to help you become a better writer.
Editors will always tell you that they’re judging your work, not your worth as a person. That’s true to some extent but let’s be honest here: sometimes it’s hard to separate the words from the wordsmith.
This isn’t about whether or not your work is at a publishable standard. I actually quite enjoy getting a piece with basic errors of grammar or point-of-view or chronology: I can help with those and I find I like acting as a teacher.
I do, however, come to some conclusions based on the content. If you repeatedly extol the virtues of a particular diet or philosophy I may conclude that this comes from the author, not the character. If all your heroes are blond and blue-eyed I won’t assume you’re a Nazi but I will wonder if you’ve lived a particularly sheltered life. And yes, sometimes this makes me angry – but only in my quiet, inside-of-my-own-head way.
I also know just how easy it is to suggest something that you really didn’t mean. Quite apart from my own failures in writing I’ve picked people up, for example, for intimating that people were only poor because they were lazy. The author didn’t mean it, but that’s how it came across. It’s my job to find this sort of error; everyone slips up sometimes.
It’s true that sometimes I get frustrated when I see the same errors over again and yes, sometimes I’m bewildered to the point of getting ‘creative’ in my marginal notes. But that’s my weakness (as a person and as an editor), not yours.
So please take this manuscript back with my thanks. I’m honoured that you’ve trusted me with something you know is imperfect and want to make better. You’ve shown me great trust and I take it seriously. See all my corrections (which I reiterate are suggestions, not instructions) as a sign of sincerity, not a desire to hurt.
You have done something unique and worthy and, whilst I think it could be better, you should feel proud of yourself. You have achieved. You’ve not just sat there dreaming; you’ve made the effort. More than that, you’ve had the courage to show your work – to me, and to others. That’s worth something.
Look at it this way: the more corrections I’ve found the more worthwhile your expenditure has been.
I wish you happy redrafting