Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What Exactly Is Editing - Part II

If you are in the PNR/SFR genre, don't miss reading this interview at Tor focusing on the editors of the genre:

If you're more on the SF side, read this article in Wired Magazine and the comments:

Part I of this series on Editing appeared on Aug 3, 2010
http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/08/what-exactly-is-editing-part-i.html .

It discusses what "writing" is and the effect a professional attitude has on our writing as an entry point into discovering what an editor is.

If you are just writing for yourself, you don't need an editor. You never need to "rewrite" at all, and you certainly would never change a word you had produced to please someone else. The very thought is anathema!

If, however, you've crossed that divide between writing for personal therapy, writing for your own bottom drawer (or floor safe), writing a personal journal or diary complete with key-lock -- all the way over to writing specifically FOR other people, you have to begin the process of learning how to write "by successive approximations."

That is - learning to rewrite. To revise. To re-target. To self-edit.

For most of us, that's the first encounter with writing word-strings that then get changed.

It's a very disorienting experience. Change just one word of any paragraph or scene in your story, and you then find all of a sudden that other words must also be changed to match.

And self-editing has begun.

If you just do that to make it "better" then you've only begun your journey into professional editing, but it is a beginning and a very big step.

When you make changes in something you've written that nobody else has yet read, and you make those changes just to "make it better" the only criteria to judge "better" by is your own internal standard.

Many writers hang up right there. Looking at what they've written, they see that it "isn't good enough" and just never submit it to anyone. Or if they do, they accept the rejection of a professional editor as a decree that they can't write so they give up.

One element in "professionalism" is knowing that any word-strings you produce, however many times you have polished them to your own satisfaction, are basically worthless to the outside world.

The difference between an amateur and a professional wordsmith is the purpose to which word-strings are put.

Why are you writing?

If you write because you need to express yourself, you aren't yet writing professionally.

However, if you don't write to express yourself, you'll probably never write enough word-strings to make a profit, or a living.

So there's another step in the writing process that professionals take that amateurs or failures do not take.

It's a step that has to be "learned" -- just as a baby learns to walk by letting go and taking that first step toward Mama or Daddy.

It's a hesitant, wobbly step, a step requiring the coordination of internal mental muscles that aren't strong (yet).

Once those muscles are strong, and the autonomic nervous system has developed the capacity to coordinate all those internal balance mechanisms, the child just walks across the floor, eye on the goal not on the stepping process.

And that is an exact analog to learning to "write" professionally.

There are muscles and balance processes that professional writers learn that amateurs don't have to.

A professional writer is more like say, a tightrope walker, while an amateur writer is more like someone who just walks to do the shopping or exercise.

The tightrope walker is walking to entertain others with a high-precision version of a common skill, while the ordinary person walks just to live their own life.

From first, hesitant, wobbly step to tightrope walker is a different journey than from first step to Accountant.

So the difference between a writer and a professional writer is nothing more than the reason why they string words together and what they intend to do with the words once they are strung.

There are many professional writers, however, who would risk their lives to get a professional editor to say, "Change this and I'll buy it."

It's a long journey from mastering wordsmithing to your first contract.

And an even longer journey from making the first sale to signing contracts on the basis of a few paragraphs of a proposal.

So again, what is it that editors do for a living?

From the writer's point of view, the toddler-writer, even the pre-teen-writer, it looks like professional editors are "gatekeepers."

And it feels like editors (or actually slush pile readers) are in charge of saying no - and not for any good reason!

Editors say "no" much more often than "yes" because there is far more product for sale than there is need for product.

From the professional writer's point of view Editors are not "gatekeepers" -- Editors are customers.

That's another attitude change that distinguishes the professional from the amateur writer.

In today's world, many businesses have lost the maxim "The Customer Is Always Right" in favor of a new maxim, "I'm Entitled To Your Money."

But Editors, as your customers, still operate on the premise that they are always right and you are not entitled to anything, least of all money, unless you satisfy them.

Why should editors (purchasing editors especially) be the last holdout in this general philosophical shift?

Editors are still always right because the sellers who are thrusting word-strings at the editors have never been trained to understand exactly what the editor's job really is.

Worse yet, the editor's job has changed so drastically since the US Supreme Court forced anti-artistic change on publishing
that many of the best editors have been driven from the field.

But that's a cyclical trend.  Read this blog post about SF writers making a living at SF writing:


At this time, though, the very changes that have changed the craft-skills that writers must master, that destroyed the "mid-list" and that drove novel publishing toward the film industry criteria have also changed the entire character of the editor's job description and skills.

The New Editor has become not so much an artistic gatekeeper, decreeing what is fit for others to read, but rather a bottom-line keeper, an expert in what will turn a profit.

The New Editor doesn't make decisions on personal taste (unless that taste has been honed to detect Blockbuster Sales potential).

The New Editor is entirely focused on keeping their job, or finding a better paying one.

And the only way the editor can keep a job as an editor is to please "the committee" that will accept or reject the handful of projects the editor presents for their scrutiny.

The key point here is that most of the committee members will not actually read the manuscripts being submitted for approval.

The committee will select one out of the handful to publish based on the "pitch" the editor makes to the committee, and that pitch is all about marketability.

To keep a job, the editor must be able to sift through the dross tossed up by the slushpile reader and detect which ones have a chance to get past that committee.

The committee is composed not of fans, or readers, but of art department, sales department, editorial management maybe in touch with accounting (noting which books are selling best right now).

As dismal as all this sounds, there is light at the end of the tunnel that may herald a change for the better.

I just ran into 3 folks on twitter running marketing tweets for a publisher who say THEY read the books they market. I had tweeted a reply to one of them saying essentially that alas marketers don't read books. They responded like so:

@HarperPerennial replied:
@JLichtenberg as a marketer, I'm a bit offended by the idea that marketers don't love reading books #dearpublisher

@HarperChildrens replied:
@JLichtenberg We can safely refute that! We're book marketers and we read like the wind. #dearpublisher

@markfergbk replied:
@JLichtenberg I'd respectfully disagree, but I can only speak for myself and all the marketers I know.

Well, these folks are dealing with books the committee has approved and they are looking at the finished package ready to be promoted to buyers.

They are working Web 2.0 and you all know how enthusiastic I have been for the changes in publishing due to interactivity among consumers and between consumers and product promoters.
I Love Web 2.0

I could wonder how many of marketers read the rejected manuscripts, just in case one of those might actually be a winner? But I am wondrously heartened to hear that the promoters to the public are now reading the product they promote.

Those of you in the film industry are beginning to recognize this description as an analog to the studio process.

Projects chosen to be presented to "the public" are sifted out of the clamoring mob solely by the commercialism of "the pitch."

The "Purchasing Editor" (before the Thor Hammer decision) used to be the editor who would see the project into print. That Editor had the sole power to accept or reject a project, and their job rested only in part on how many copies their choices sold. It also rested on critical acclaim, reviews, and "who" actually raved about given projects. That is, the Purchasing Editor had to gain "prestige" for the publisher as well as sales. The Purchasing Editor looked for artistic merit.

Now it's only sales volume.

The Purchasing Editor's job now depends solely on the ability to please a committee of non-readers and the accounting department.

This new discipline trains them to create a uniform product for a well defined market.

In Mass Market paperback, the editor's skills are becoming more and more identical to the skills that make a successful studio producer.

More precisely, Mass Market paperback production is more like studio TV Series production than it is like Feature Film production.

Hardcover and Trade Paperback are trending in the Mass Market direction, but haven't gotten there yet. There are still hardcover publications that do not become paperbacks.

Even the hardcover editor's job, though, is to find products that will sell big time in paperback.

Now, pretend you are writing a novel about an Editor. The main character is a Mass Market paperback editor threatened with being fired if they don't increase their bottom line in the next year.

Get into your character's skin. Feel the pressure.

Your character is a lifelong, voracious fiction reader. The greatest pleasure this character can imagine experiencing is putting a really good book into the hands of another reader.

To achieve that, your character must please a group of people who dislike reading, and especially dislike reading "that stuff" (whatever genre; let's choose Science Fiction Romance at random).

Lose that job, and your character will never again experience this sublime pleasure.

On her desk is a stack of "reports" from slush pile readers (these reports used by major publishing houses look very much like "Coverage" reports used by Production Companies.)

Her phone rings, and a major Agent she's done business with before pitches three novels in five minutes.

What is she going to do?

See Part III here next week.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. I tried to go to your Web 2.0 link and it says it doesn't exist.

  2. Miriam:

    I try to be so careful when making these links, but even with double-checking sometimes a %20 code slips by.

    That's html for a space, I think, and it should NOT mess up a clickable link, but on blogger, somehow it does (sometimes!)

    Here's the correct link for the article on Web 2.0


    I fixed some of the other links, too, but I'm sure I'll never scrub them all. That's why I prefer to show the link as a line of text. If I mess it up, you can edit it and it'll work.

    Again, thank you for the bug report, and do please let me know if I have other bad links.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Great stuff, Jacqueline!

    I love my stories, sure, but they're always with me. I don't *need* to write them down to suit myself. I can 'visit' them any time I like in whatever way I choose in my own imagination.

    If I want to share them with the world (and I do), I need to write them down in a way the world can understand and enjoy them. And that is often very different.