Tuesday, August 03, 2010

What Exactly Is Editing? Part I

We call ourselves professional writers.

How does that differ from amateur (fanfic?) writers? Or creative writers? Or just plain writers?

Professionalism in writing is an attitude more than it is a result, or so I've always held.

Professional writers organize words into a flow of meaning. It is the flow of meaning that has value since almost all the words we use are in the dictionary and thus pubic domain.

Our word-strings are our product, and those strings may be either "for sale" (work for hire) or "for license" which is what most book contracts are, a license to copy the work and sell copies but not sell the work itself.

Once you have attained the attitude that your very specific string of words is a product (like a lamp you carved or a potato you grew) that is for barter, trade, sale or license - a product which you have no interest in keeping in a dark drawer, a product you intend to gain a profit from, then you have become a "professional."

That attitude is often attained by fanfic writers fairly easily.

Creative Writers have a much harder time attaining the attitude necessary to accept the "beta-reader" input and use it constructively. "Creative" writing is really more about self-expression, with an emphasis on artistic creativity.

That means it's the "creative" writer, the academic, who forges into new territory with regard to the "trope" underlying storytelling. Creative writers have very small, very specialized audiences, and play to that audience with laser-beam precision. To become a part of their audience, a reader must have a wide and deep education, usually in "Literature" and related fields.

The "Creative" writer contributes experiments to the art of "writing" without personally focusing on attaining a huge, mainstream audience with diverse educations, talents and interests. The "Creative" writer is not aiming at the "common denominator" that makes a product marketable across national boundaries (think of the film AVATAR).

So the "Creative" writer is more self-involved than audience-involved and seeks an audience as close to that "self" as possible to allow latitude for creativity.

To get a handle on the difference, read the comments on Amazon to Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! and my review there. Here's a link to the pages of all my Amazon reviews. Scroll down to find SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES and SAVE THE CAT - click the links to go to the product pages and read other review:

My Amazon Reviews

Many film students very committed to the Independent Film community were uncomfortable with Blake's approach because it simply does not apply to their goals.  But they didn't seem to me to understand why they were uncomfortable. 

They are "creative" film makers, trying to break out of the box.  They really shouldn't be training to play inside and push the walls wider. 

Blake's books show you how to discover where the walls of the box are, and how to work inside that box to reach the broadest audiences and ultimately how to push the walls wider. 

His specific tips will soon have gone stale, but he lays out his process so you can repeat it to keep up with the ever changing field of the Blockbuster.

Screenwriting and novel writing are on a collision course. The Producer/Director and the novel Editor do very similar jobs and the similarity is growing.

I've said many times here that I learned from Alma Hill that "writing is a performing art." The addictive lure of "sawdust" or "grease paint" - the heady lure of applause from an audience, applies to writing as well. Get a taste of positive reader-response and you're hooked forever.

In fandom, the correct term for the feedback a fan writer gets from fellow fans is "ego-boo" or egoboo. A boost to the ego. It's the fuel we run on, the food for the higher soul, contact with other people on a very special level.

Fanfic writers often take film or TV characters, story lines or worlds and blend that with narrative fiction.  And so I think fanfic is a phenomenon that signifies and perhaps leads the blending of these two parts of the fiction delivery system.

Fanfic writers often reach a level of skill where they accept "editing" possibly from a band of "beta-readers" who will read raw copy and copyedit or pick logic holes, so the work can be rewritten to add entertainment value.

When a fanfic writer reaches the point where they care about the reputation of their byline among their readership, where they become meticulous about details, and where they can tell the difference between a beta-reader's response to matters of "taste" and the response to a sloppy bit of craftsmanship, that fanfic writer has reached "professionalism."

The fanfic writer cares deeply about communicating the exact effect intended to the reader because there's a transaction between them.  The fanfic "professional" is bartering strings of words for something of value to the fanfic writer. 

The reader comes to this writer with expectations, spends their time reading, and expects value for their time.

The writer expects the reader to "pay" in their time by giving feedback. In today's online posting world that may only be a return visit to the byline to read other things, driving the hits or downloads count upwards, bringing that writer to prominence. Or sometimes it's blogging or tweeting about the writer.

There's an attitude of professionalism in trading value for value. You get what you want; I get what I want.

To read more about fanfic read this writing lesson based on White Collar fanfic:

Yet many fanfic writers looking to sell to mass market publishers find themselves literally devastated by an encounter with a professional editor. 

A professional editor is not a beta-reader, and very often isn't even a "reader" (i.e. a fan of either the subject or of this writer's slant on the subject).  A professional editor won't give the writer the kind of feedback I did for that White Collar story. 

A professional editor has a job which performs a function that isn't needed in or relevant to fanfic (or Creative Writing), and isn't even relevant to a lot of "self-published" projects (depending on the kind of project of course).

What exactly does a professional editor do and why do writers need them?

I've made some readers of this blog happy by splitting my entries into shorter pieces, so this one ends here, and Part II will discuss the editor's job.

Trust me, you need to understand what an "editor" is doing that's different from what you are doing, and what your beta-readers do (even pros need beta-readers) in order to learn to rewrite to editorial specification within deadline, and without making yourself totally crazy. Misunderstand what the editor does for a living and you'll never (ever) make deadline for say a Mass Market novel rewrite order.

Meanwhile, contemplate this.

Robert Heinlein taught us in DOUBLE STAR, the old stage adage, "Sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation."

Apply that to "Writing is a Performing Art" and see what you come up with.

Put those two together, and you may already know what I'm going to show you.  Knowing it and doing it aren't the same thing, of course.  

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Very insightful, and why every writer needs some sort of editing at the very least. I know it's an aside, but the beat sheet for Despicable Me finally turned a light on. I think I get it at last. I'm in the process of revising what I've got done on my wip even now. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Great stuff, Jacqueline!

    I'm in the throes of editing a novella and a novel right now. Turns out, Decadent wants the series. I'm going to have some questions about hitting my next learning curve, series development and possibly multiple Points of View.

    The answers would probably make blog posts, but I'd better email you the questions to get them right.

    Getting enough of a grasp on structure to achieve publication has been great, but now I'm like a toddler who's finally learned to cruise the sofa, holding on, and thinking about letting go and walking solo. Sssscary!

  3. This was really helpful. I'm eager for part 2 (will it be next Tues?)

  4. Nayulesca

    Yes, this series will run on Tuesdays for 7 installments, ending with how to tell if you are an editor or a writer (or both).

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg