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I’m Not an Editor

February 2, 2013

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Here’s a true story.

I was in a writing workshop that met twice a month on Tuesdays in the local Denny’s. The cuisine was not ideal, but the staff was accommodating. It was a Meetup group. Meetup, by the way is a great service—in theory. What we ended up with was a hodgepodge of writers of various experience levels, interests, and backgrounds. Plus, it was inconsistent from week to week. We constantly had new people dropping in, which made it impossible to appropriately critique ongoing projects. We got the self-published author whose crappy fantasy novel would have never been been picked up by a publisher, but since she was “published” she was an expert in the writing process. We got the guy who was writing a self-help guide because he was an expert on a topic despite a lack of credentials. I mean, I’ve got a blog about writing novels and none of my novels are past “draft one” stage, but I don’t charge people for my advice. And then we had the girl who was writing an uncomfortably personal true story about a romantic experience with her college professor. If it had been fiction, it would have been fine, but we didn’t know her at all, and reading it was just…very awkward. I’d like to think we’re above that, and that everyone can submit whatever they like without fear of judgment, but that was awkward.

Then there was one woman who submitted a fantasy novel. I don’t remember the quality of the novel itself because I was too distracted by her utter lack of understanding about basic punctuation. For example, all of her dialogue looked something like this:

“That is fine.” Said Bill.

That was an example, mind you. Her work was riddled with errors. Riddled, I tell you.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having trouble with punctuation. Part of the point of coming to a writing workshop is to learn.

But when it was pointed out to her, she sneered and said, AND I QUOTE, “That’s what editors are for.”

Really? Really? Lady, no editor would want to touch that manuscript with a ten foot pole. I can’t even approach the story because the punctuation is so bad. It’s distracting. If you won’t even try, you’re not a writer. Sorry, but it’s true.

What chemist doesn’t know his periodic table? What mathematician doesn’t know algebra? If you are going to work on a craft, you should understand what that craft is, and you should know how to use the tools of that craft. A story is made up of paragraphs; paragraphs consist of sentences; sentences are made of characters—that is, letters, spaces and punctuation symbols. How can you write and not know how to construct these words and sentences and paragraphs?

If writing is something you really want to do, you should understand how. You should know what you’re doing. When a writer comes to me and asks me to critique something that is filled with glaring errors, I can’t imagine that they are a passionate writer, or that they really care about what they’re writing. When I write a story, that story becomes important to me. I want to feel satisfied with it; I want it to be polished.

That’s my opinion. There are other reasons to improve your skill at the technicalities of writing.

First of all, if you want to get it published it’s going to have to be edited regardless. Books don’t go on shelves that haven’t even been spell-checked.

No one in the publishing industry will take a second glance at a paper that hasn’t been edited at least a little bit. If your first sentence has three errors in it, the publisher is not going to read further, no matter how wonderful the concept of the sentence is. If you don’t care enough to fix it, the publisher doesn’t care enough to read it. Also, getting published is not easy. You want your story to stand out, to be chosen. Submitting a book is, in a way, submitting a resume. You’re saying, “This is what I have done. Please choose me, and I won’t let you down.” Potential employers often say that if they see spelling or punctuation errors on a resume, they just throw it away right then. Now think if you wanted to be a writer and your resume looked like that.

Of course, there’s always the option to hire an editor before you send it to the publisher. If you have the money to spare, more power to you! But editors don’t always just accept every manuscript that comes their way. If they take a look at your writing and think, “Dear god, this is going to take a ton of work,” they may just pass you by. And even if they don’t, have some dignity! Have some passion! This is your work—are you really willing to do a shoddy job and expect someone to clean up after you? If you are, you’ve lost my respect.

So how do you learn the proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation? You can buy a book on it, which is probably pretty boring, or you can just start actually paying attention to your beta readers (remembering that they may not always be correct). Possibly the best option is to start following a blog on the topic.

And the best best option is to read. Pay attention to writers you like. How do they phrase things? How do they use commas? Remember, not all published writers use correct punctuation or grammar 100% of the time. But for the most part, when they do, they are knowingly breaking a “rule” of writing. They know the rule, they know it inside and out, and they are artistically choosing to go against that rule to add emphasis or make a point.

This brings in my last point here. You don’t have to be an expert at writing rules. All I’m saying is you should know the basics and be willing to learn. Editors are there to catch the errors that you miss. As long as you understand that they’re not there to “fix” your story.

Unless you have a really, really patient editor. But I wouldn’t rely on that.

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15 Comments
  1. PREACH IT!!!
    I’m not sure how you didn’t slap that woman with her manuscript. I might have.

    • Because that would have gotten me kicked out of the group 🙂 Though looking back on it, that might not have been a bad thing.

  2. This. So much.
    I studied at a uni chock-full of people who thought they are the greatest writers ever – and couldn’t even get their spelling right, much less produce a coherent plot. The occasional typo’s fine, it happens, but when your fellow students start going over your work with a red pen, you should probably buy a dictionary.
    Ignoring spelling and punctuation as a writer would be the equivalent of an architect not caring about where to place windows and doors, “because that’s for the construction workers to figure out”. That would get you fired pretty quickly, too…
    …great. Now that comparison spawned a plot bunny… so, thanks, I guess?^^

  3. “That’s what editors are for.”

    I know several editors who are more than happy to take bad writers’ money from them because of this shitty attitude.

    Regarding Meetup, I too am part of a Meetup writer’s group, but this one is rock-solid in the regard that the moderators have imposed strict guidelines as to who can participate and what gets read. A new member must participate in at least 2 meetings before he can have one piece critiqued, and when it comes to critiquing, copy editing is also taken into consideration. I’m appalled by the lack of quality editing I see in some of the pieces I read. So I let ’em have it.

    • See, that’s a good way to do it. My original group didn’t have such guidelines. So, yes, Meetup could definitely work when handled properly.

  4. Madcap Mary permalink

    Alison, you are my new heroine! Delighted to find someone who understands that writing is a craft that must be honed with hard work, perseverance, and reverence for accuracy and details.

    I, too, am aghast at the mediocrity some writers find acceptable, yet they wonder why they’re unpublished.

    I’ve had many time-wasting experiences with local writing groups. The last one I attended in November was in an old unheated feed store. Our esteemed moderator, who was completely discombobulated from the get-go, told me to bring my own space heater next time!

    Characters in the group included several old biddies who escaped from their retirement homes for a night on the town and had zero interest in writing; a pale limp hippie who began sobbing hysterically as he read from one of Mitch Albom’s odious books; several airhead chicks who couldn’t spell book, let alone write one; a herd of sanctimonious writers who were “published,” meaning they’d paid thousands of dollars to vanity presses to print their claptrap that any 7th grade English teacher would have rejected; and a mentally unhinged guy who said he was going to read from the Congressional Record for the next hour. I quietly sneaked out.

    A new writing group, with a different cast of characters, meets later this month. I plan to dress warmly and pop a couple Valium beforehand.

    • Your experience sounds eerily similar to mine. I suspect that somewhere out on the internet is a list of “the people you’ll meet in badly organized writing groups.” If there isn’t one already, there should be one. Best of luck with your new group!

  5. Preaching to the choir, lynx. I recently did some critiques on a writing forum, and I now realize what English teachers go through.

  6. Devil’s advocate here, as a writing coach, editor, blogger & author, I try my best to show my clients (novice writers) what they are doing in content and basic grammar. Being of service this way is my default-mode, and I don’t mind being that type of teacher. Sometimes this works and these new writers send on further chapters that do show improvement.

    Sometimes these novices do play the ‘I’ll pay you to do all that’ tune and I let them. But I find they rarely write more than their one novel, and I don’t see them place it with a publisher, even a smaller press.
    I think that’s mostly because they have no investment in their own work, and so do little with it once I return it to them.

    Where I worry is over the writers who shove head-on with their poorly written work (without first seeking out a critique group, or an editor) and go on to self-publish. So many of those first drafts given to Createspace in a head-long rush never have a chance to improve. How sad for them.
    ej

    • Valid points. Maybe the real issue is people just not being invested enough in their work. That applies to both the people who expect editors to fix everything they couldn’t be bothered to polish and the self-publishers who aren’t interested in presenting the best product they can possibly make. Neither of them strike me as truly dedicated writers. But members of either group could eventually change their tune, and I’d suggest they start by learning to love the details and wanting their work, as a whole, to be well-done. That includes learning to pay attention to the grammatical errors in their work, among other things.

  7. I had a manuscript submitted to me in the condition you are describing, with the clear lack of knowlege in regard to how dialogue is written AND punctuated. It rambled, and contradicted itself from page to page.To top it off, the author in question refused to make the changes I suggested, saying,”Stop sending me these suggestions for revisions. If you think it needs changing, just change it and don’t bug me about it.” He refused to understand that HE had to write the book, that I was simply there to guide him in refining it once it was written. He actually said that he had done all the work he was obligated to do, and that it was on me now.

    I terminated the contract with him and wished him well.

    That sort of attitude is not acceptable. The relationship between an author and an editor is very close, symbiotic at times. My editor is closer to me than my sister. She understands the way I think and the way I write. She takes the miserable final first draft of the ms and helps me turn out a tale worth reading.

    Yes it’s about punctuation, but just as importantly, its about flow and continuity, action and inadvertent passive phrases. The editor guides, points out and sometimes says “this doesn’t really work.” The author makes the appropriate changes in the manuscript accordingly, or chooses not to.

    An author learns SO much about writing every time he goes through the process of being edited. Once you have had 489 gratuitous instances of of the word “that” removed from a beloved manuscript, you consider how necessary it is before you use it.

    A great post, by the way, on a subject dear to my heart.

    • That is quite the horror story. That attitude is just baffling to me. “Not acceptable,” as you put it. Well said. And thanks for the compliment!

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