Conflicts, Contradictions, & Advantages of both Writing and Editing
Frequently editors are writers, and writers are editors. Every author has a distinctive, unique voice. It is crucial for an editor who also writes to refrain from intruding on an author’s voice and also refrain from warping her own authorial voice when she sets aside someone else’s manuscript and writes her own work. Someone who both writes and edits confronts many challenges and opportunities by interconnecting the two occupations.
Every time a student participates in a creative writing workshop, he or she is both an editor and a writer; the same goes for anyone who teaches such classes. When I was an undergraduate, I loved creative writing workshops and acted as if I were the teacher when giving other students feedback on their writing. Especially in fiction workshops, I carefully went over the entire document, making comments and corrections as I went, and then I wrote a long paragraph at the end of the story. This is developmental editing. The only sort of teaching I could ever see myself doing is teaching creative writing workshops. Until the publishing program accepted me at PSU, I didn’t realize I could be an editor instead of a writing teacher, yet do essentially the same work.
The developmental editor for fiction writing, playwriting, or screenwriting must be familiar with how plot and character development work. What better way to familiarize yourself with these elements than by writing? The more fiction an author/editor has written, the more she will understand what another author is doing or attempting. I started writing fiction when I was eleven years old (not that my early stories were any good, but at least I wrote them); I didn’t start developmentally editing other writers’ work until I was in college, and by then I was thoroughly accustomed to story writing and the structure that often comes unbidden.
Additionally, writing regularly helps an editor with other types of editing, not only developmental and substantial editing. If an author self-edits out of habit and has been doing so for years, the process comes somewhat naturally (assuming the author hasn’t been making the same mistakes all these years, which is quite possible without feedback). Copyediting may come more easily because a writer has to double-check her own spelling and grammar before submitting work (which makes an impression and greatly increases the chances of acceptance). A writer often does her own mechanical editing; she can tell if her own manuscript goes through changes in style after she sets it aside and later continues working on it.
A contradiction or irony of an author editing other authors’ work is the fact that she is helping the competition. If another author’s writing is improved so that it’s fit for publication (and not just self-publication), then the author/editor is increasing the number of authors whose work is polished and ready for publishing. If the editor writes in the same genre, especially, he might both submit to the same agent, publisher, or journal, and his submission might be rejected in favor of the other author’s.
Imagine an author/editor who’s perhaps mentally unhinged and decides she’ll pretend she’s giving useful feedback but is actually giving bad advice because she’s jealous of the client or overly afraid of competition. Such an editor would prove herself completely incompetent and unprofessional as an editor and thus destroy her editing career. Once word got out that she was doing this, she will have jeopardized her credibility as an author.
However, an author/editor would prove extraordinarily narcissistic if he worried a great deal about competition with the authors he edits. Other authors have something worth saying and deserve publication just as much as he does. Furthermore, if he is a member of a community of authors, he experiences solidarity and it can be heartening, empowering, and encouraging to be amid others who know what creative writing is like. Associating with people who don’t relate to writing and are disdainful and dismissive of an author’s work is exceedingly harmful; the least an author can do is support other authors and their work.
One way to have community with other authors is by joining or starting a writers’ critique group. This combines both writing and editing: the group members edit each other’s work. If they’re on a tight budget, instead of paying a developmental editor, they essentially trade developmental editing work. Such a group also provides camaraderie and prevents isolation from other authors.
Something that occasionally comes up in conversation, after I tell people I’m in publishing, is a peculiar belief that editors are the author’s enemy. This is particularly bizarre, given that editors simply make an author’s work clearer, more expressive, and publishable. Far from foes, editors must be the author’s best friends. This misnomer may have a profound effect on authors who choose self-publication without any developmental editing and thus perpetuate the general perception that self-published books aren’t any good (because if the book was good, you would have been accepted by a traditional publisher—never mind how difficult getting published is nowadays, in a country where literacy is high and slush piles are higher). Some writers are afraid of sharing their work with others, especially with editors. An author/editor can help bridge any gap between authors and editors and destroy the fallacy that editors are author’s enemies.
The Author's Understanding Informs her Editing
If an editor is also a writer, then she is able to comprehend any doubts, fears, or questions that her clients—other authors—may have. If the client seems squeamish about sharing his work, the editor who is also an author understands what it’s like to have written something and to seriously wonder if it’s good enough to share with others. She can reassure her new client by informing him of this, saying, “I’m a writer myself, so I know what you’re going through.” This should reassure even the most timid author.
Authors can be quite sensitive, and giving the wrong kind of feedback on a project discourages the author from continuing revision on that particular project—or even from writing at all. This especially applies to authors who aren’t accustomed to having an editor. I am not a bully and know the difference between constructive and destructive editing. For instance, instead of saying something destructive such as, “This paragraph is stupid and boring,” I would comment, “This paragraph contains only the character’s physical actions. How about showing his thoughts and feelings, mixed with his actions?” If you’re both an editor and an author who doesn’t want destructive feedback on your writing, you shouldn’t intentionally give other writers destructive feedback.
I have had bad editing experiences with people who were neither authors nor trained editors. However, this was a long time ago and I intend to seek reliable editors now. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most destructive communication I received from other students in a writing workshop came from a couple students who wrote poorly and apparently only took the class for “easy” credit. They had no previous experience with writing and attacked me because they did not distinguish between abuse and the constructive feedback I gave them (what I said in front of the whole class was what I wrote on their papers). As a teenager, I made the rather dubious choice of sharing stories and novel chapters with relatives who are not writers (except my brother, but he was a jerk) and who don’t work in the publishing industry or know anything about it; I received dismissive, harsh, brusque, and discouraging feedback. (This also illustrates the importance of professional editors and writing community.)
An editor who is a writer understands how to communicate with clients in a tactful, supportive, and constructive manner. In sharp contrast with my unsupportive and untrained relatives, I have received profoundly useful feedback from other writers, including creative writing instructors and members of critique groups. An example of this is an instructor who is a published mainstream literary author and who, when discussing one of my short stories, would summarize the plot and then proceed to go over its issues in such a constructive way that I left the class happy and eager to revise.
An editor steps over the line if she imposes her own writing style on the edit. History has had numerous such instances. For instance, Percy Shelley substantially edited his wife’s novel Frankenstein, and this was a good thing, not only because she was a teenager but also because every work of fiction needs at least two pairs of eyes before it’s published. Most of his editing was helpful—spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes; stronger and more specific terms—but here and there, particularly dialog, his more formal and flowery language altered the text too much and imposed his own style into the work. Of course, nowadays, if an author has help from a professional editor, whether or not that editor is an author, over-editing is unlikely to happen.
For Copyediting class, I over-edited when I took Vinnie’s comment too literally, about how an editor could not avoid bringing up the offensiveness in parts of a book excerpt. I first read through the document very quickly and enjoyed reading it. I then went back over it and was finally struck by how bigoted and offensive it was, and I remembered what Vinnie had said and started giving feedback about this, including a cover letter to the author and many comment bubbles in track changes. I made changes that the author could reject or accept, thanks to track changes. After discussing the excerpt with other students, I felt emboldened to comment on everything that was potentially offensive. At this stage, it was as if I were trying to turn the book into what I would like, if I were to purchase the book after publication. But it wasn’t my book; it was the author’s and needed to retain his personality enough criticism.
I did two developmental edits and one substantial copyedit of the Ooligan Press title Blue Thread by Ruth Tenzer-Feldman. It occurred to me that if I wrote something like this—historic fiction set in 1912—the language would be more flowery, and I would incorporate more detail (perhaps too much) about the costumes, décor, and scenery. Without actually making changes to the document, I suggested the author supply more detail about clothing and buildings and what it would be like to walk across Burnside in 1912; I supplied some little examples. Inspired by a panel in which an editor criticized The Da Vinci Code in part because it’s full of sentence fragments, I recommended replacing fragments with full sentences; that would make the language not only grammatical but also more period. But I told myself it doesn’t matter how I would write this—I’m not the author! Fortunately, I was merely making constructive suggestions, not changing the manuscript. Ultimately, the author responded to my suggestions by adding much more detail and thus immersing the reader in the time and place.
An Author’s Editorial Skills Benefit Her Writing
After I took the Book Editing class, I knew I must re-edit two books I wrote: a YA fantasy novel and a travel memoir; both are complete, and I’m anxious to get both of these books published (but I simultaneously am particular about how I get them published). Thanks to my newfound editing skills, I reconstructed sentences better and more concisely. I cut out sentences or phrases that made the books wordy and didn’t contribute much. I even removed two whole chapters from the YA novel, because they stood as short stories and didn’t contribute to the overall plot. Before training in editing, I held onto those chapters, although I suspected they should go.
Linda, the Editing instructor, said that writers should make their own style sheets for each book. I’m sure J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien kept their own style sheets or charts, because they could not have kept all those characters and place names straight without listing them. If an author is a fantasy or science fiction author especially, he must keep a style sheet showing the spelling of place names and character names, which the author frequently makes up. If he’s a nonfiction writer, he should have a style sheet for the names of real people, places, organizations and such. It’s useful to decide whether to hyphenate certain words or capitalize terms (such as internet and web); many words have a variety of spelling options—such as eBook, E-Book, or e-book. If the author has done all this, and a publisher accepts his book, he could let the editing department have a copy of his style sheet and thus help the editors out.
Copyediting class also influenced my self-editing skills. The Book Editing class was introductory; the Copyediting class was more intensive. Getting a refresher on grammar (which I hadn’t studied since high school English classes) is especially helpful for an editor who must explain her editing decisions to clients. For instance, when she makes a change that involves a gerund, and she knows that a verb used as a noun is called a gerund, she can use the proper terminology and thus reassure the client that she knows what she’s doing.
But the grammar lessons are also useful when she wears her author hat. Taking the Copyediting class has made me much more aware, in particular, of sentence parallelisms, and I have accordingly made many of my own sentences more parallel as I go over my own documents. In Copyediting class, I also learned to click on the paragraph icon in Microsoft Word and thus view the spaces and tabs and such and reformat my own documents so they are easier to export into other programs, such as InDesign. No doubt editors, or at least designers, will appreciate this when they accept my work.
Witnessing how other writers work helps an author/editor understand the writing process and how others go about doing it. This can give him ideas (without plagiarizing!) for how to approach his own work differently. It can potentially improve his writing and inspire him to develop new and better methods.
For instance, perhaps an author/editor writes nonfiction, and she edits a nonfiction book by an author who used an outline; the editor decides she should use outlines in the future. Similarly, as an editor who is also an author, she can teach her client something new, such as how to use track changes (something I didn’t know about before grad school). Or perhaps she edits a story or novel by someone who uses the mythological heroic journey as the story structure, and she decides whether she should do the same with her fiction. Since I took the Children’s Publishing and YA publishing classes—both of which involved editing other authors’ work and participating in class discussions about editing—I’ve discovered the benefits and freshness of writing in present tense. I have begun to revise another short story and novel so that they are entirely in present tense (this is particularly useful, since both are modern-day and written in first person). Thus as an editor I have learned something from other authors without losing my own authorial voice.
If an author often edits other authors’ work, then he becomes accustomed to disciplined editing that includes consulting a dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style, and other guides; this helps his own writing. If his work has a minimum amount of errors and has already experienced some editing on the author’s part, then by the time he hands it over to an editor, it won’t require as much work as that of an amateur author who self-publishes an unedited book; the editor will be impressed.
A similarity between editors and authors is the need to do research, especially if the book is nonfiction or historic fiction (although research is also very important in any genre, sometimes even poetry). The author does research at a very early stage, often beginning this before starting to write. The editor gets the manuscript and needs to fact-check, whether it involves searching mostly online or visiting the library.
While editing skills are very helpful in an editor/author’s own writing, another editor is still crucial for her own work. The author will always overlook something, and even if she sets the document aside for six months before going back over it, it still needs someone else looking over it and supplying feedback. I mention setting it aside for six months because I know what it’s like to work on a writing project in a short length of time and edit it immediately after writing it…and have no idea whether it’s any good because I haven’t had time to back away from it and see it with relatively fresh eyes. Whether or not the author sets the project aside for some time, she can be completely blind to something an editor finds obvious; for instance, a protagonist who is meant to be likeable comes across as cold and snarky.
As a writer, sometimes I sense something wrong with my own manuscript that I might hesitate about changing, merely out of attachment. For instance, I eventually figure out that a particular scene was fun to write because I’m extremely attached to the characters, but the scene doesn’t keep the plot moving. This indicates that I need to remove it—at the very least, delete it from this story or novel and save it for something else. I believe this awareness that something is wrong comes from not only writing experience but also from editing experience. Still, no matter what, it’s important for an author/editor to have someone else edit her work. Perhaps another editor would read my story or novel and point out that the scene doesn’t contribute to the plot, confirming my suspicion.
Fortunately, if an author/editor is editing the work of an author who is also an editor, the client will probably be patient and understanding because he’s very familiar with what the editor is doing. As an author who is now trained as an editor, I’ll be better able to receive feedback on my own writing. I’ll also discern for certain, thanks to experience, whether the editor is giving constructive or destructive feedback. If a publisher assigns me an editor, I can ask the editor to show me a few pages of my manuscript with her editing and thus judge the editor’s work.
Working in the publishing industry and keeping up with trends helps an author/editor’s writing because she thus knows how to write for that market. Maybe she knows that YA fantasy and paranormal fiction are all the rage…and she knows that the current YA literature is very dark and edgy. She can calculate that she’d be better off writing about punk fairies or killer mermaids than about vampires, because she would want to keep up with what’s up and coming. Or perhaps she’ll start a new trend in subject matter (such as writing something gothic but set in China instead of an American or European setting).
Even casual, nontraditional writing is improved if the author is an editor. A blogger with professional editing skills can post blog entries that, unlike so many, are not full of appalling errors. An editor can write impressive letters to politicians or unethical CEOs. Business e-mails or business letters, and personal e-mails and personal letters, are more pleasant reading if the writer knows how to edit his work. Understanding technology—such as the track changes on Word, type coding, or electronic books—helps authors with their writing careers in this highly technological age.
If an editor runs her own business—perhaps a literary periodical or a small publishing company—she can publish some of her own writing. However, this would be a kind of self-publishing, even if it’s more professional than most, and an author wouldn’t want to exclusively do that—it’s best to also submit writing to other magazines or agents. Nonetheless, it is one option for having her writing read and for therefore impressing readers and book scouts. Similarly, an author/editor who works for a publisher could submit work to that publisher.
Using Other Authorial Voices
I think that compromising one’s own voice is usually not an issue with someone who is both an author and editor. Switching back and forth regularly between someone else’s work and his own will help to prevent him from losing his own voice. If the author/editor has a strong writing voice or very distinctive style, this shouldn’t be a problem, particularly if he keeps going back and forth between his own work and a client’s. I certainly cannot see my own writing threatened by this, because I have a firmly established style that doesn’t waver despite my eclecticism—writing in numerous disparate genres.
However, if an editor is working on a developmental edit for someone’s novel, she could work on her own work when the weekend comes—after having worked on nothing but that big edit for some time—and be too influenced by the other writer’s style. This is one reason it’s important to write every day, so she doesn’t lose touch with her style. (Additionally, she ends up looking back over her entire document because she’s forgotten where she was and what last happened in the project).
If an author/editor does find that editing other authors’ work compromises his own, he can specialize in editing a different genre. For instance, if he writes paranormal fiction, he can edit history books, and the difference is so great that the history books surely won’t affect his writing. Granted, an editor doesn’t always have the luxury of limiting himself to only one genre and is more likely to take whatever work comes, especially if it’s the beginning of his career.
The biggest threat to the author/editor’s authorial voice is perhaps time management: if an author/editor is so busy working on other authors’ work, she might not have time for her own. Or she might not feel like sitting down to a computer and writing after eight hours of sitting down at a computer editing someone else’s work. This requires discipline, and the author/editor must remind herself of the accomplishment in having her work written and read. Of course, it’s also important to get out, take a walk, and admire the blooming trees and singing birds.
Editors are Writers, and Writers are Editors
It is not terribly unusual to be both an author and an editor and for those roles to blend together. Editing benefits one’s own writing, and writing benefits one’s editing. The skills that come from editing, and the skills that come from writing, intertwine and are often interchangeable—such as a talent for noticing if a plot structure is weak or a character needs to be fleshed out more. It is important for an editor to refrain from incorporating her writing style into another author’s work. More often, a skilled editor—no matter how strong her own writing voice—respects the author’s voice and makes suggestions to improve the work, while making improvements that are not intrusive but that increase the work’s readability and probability of publication. Editing is much more likely to benefit than jeopardize an author’s work, especially if she both writes and edits regularly and has a strong writing style.