Editors and Writers discussion

What Do Writers Want?

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message 1: by Longhare (last edited May 05, 2014 01:19PM) (new)

Longhare Content | 43 comments There is a medieval story about an editor of the roundtable who must take on an author who seems to think they must be either 1) grammatically perfect and follow all the rules of the great saints Strunk and Leonard, or 2) defy tyrannical conventions of correctness and follow their own style. The editor must decide which it will be but, after pondering the merits and demerits on either side, defers to the preference of the writer, thus answering Sigmund Freud's famous puzzler: What do writers want?

To some extent, of course, this is a false choice. Originality and craftsmanship are never exclusive of each other. An eccentric work is often beautiful. A well-crafted novel may be the work of a rotten speller. A good editor sees right and wrong and good and bad and boils it all down to this works and this doesn't.

A writer's style is either formulaic or original. The market is the primary factor here. If the piece is a "work for hire" or a commissioned work, there is a predefined tone, specs, stylesheet, certain conventions--stuff that dictates the "voice." Editors are used by publishers to iron out the idiosyncrasies so that a piece of writing reflects the publisher and the nature of the work, rather than the author. Genre, to some extent, also requires the author to bow to the expectations of the reader. This is formulaic writing. Editing this kind of thing takes a lot of skill, but at least there are fairly clear-cut rules to follow.

When the author gets original, the rules become more like guidelines. So how does an editor navigate between the author's originality and the wisdom of the ages? Emily Dickinson's poems were "fixed" by an editor and eventually had to be un-fixed. Imagine the sausage an editor might have made of LA Confidential or Sisters by a River. When and how does an editor recognize cliche as irony, naivete as tone, fragment as deliberate thought, punctuation error as interpretive clue?

Determining the overall intentions of the author is a critical part of the editing process. When I edit a work of fiction, I make frequent comments about where the narrative appears to be going, where it seems to be veering off course, where a thread has been dropped or a character does something uncharacteristic. I also begin my markup fairly strictly, altering my approach as the voice of the novel takes shape. I build a stylesheet where idiosyncrasies are deliberate and consistent. At some point, the novel's distinctive characteristics will clarify--or become suggestive. My job then is to review my comments and markup for relevance and either delete or revise in light of what I believe the author's final vision to be. The comments that remain for the author's consideration are directed at bringing the whole novel into line with the author's own original intentions.

message 2: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Feiertag | 116 comments Longhare,

Do you consult with authors to make sure that you are "bringing the whole novel into line with the author's own original intentions" or do you rely on the manuscript to reveal those intentions? If you do check in, how often do you do so?


message 3: by Longhare (last edited May 07, 2014 04:46PM) (new)

Longhare Content | 43 comments I like to go through the whole book first. Often books begin as one thing and morph as time goes by and the story evolves. Usually, an author will wait to get the whole manuscript back. Once they've had a chance to go through and see what I've come up with, we'll talk and go over things. Depending on the level of edit the author wants, he or she may go on from there independently or come back with a revised draft.

As an example, if a novel starts out with narration that is hovering over the story at a distance, then in chapter 5 the narration suddenly settles and becomes limited to a single character and stays there more or less for the rest of the story, I will try to determine whether the author found their groove or just got lost. If the limited POV works well, I will suggest in my comments that the author modify the passages that aren't on board. The author may come back and say, "Hmm. I didn't mean to do that, but I see what you mean." And then go in a different direction but with a more thoroughly considered understanding of what they want to do with the narrative.

Another example might be an episode that occurs in chapter 38 that comes out of the blue. The episode is necessary, but the reader is unprepared for it. The proper place to marinate the reader would be chapter 14. I wouldn't want to suggest changes to a chapter the author has already revised in light of early feedback. Additionally, the critical change to chapter 14 might suggest a change in subsequent chapters and a total rewrite of a long passage in chapter 53. The writer usually agrees and digs in planting the clues. Or, it may be that chapter 38 was meant to be a big shocking revelation. In that case, we can talk about getting "Ah, no! Not the butler!" Instead of "What! No. Suddenly the butler? Pooh!" Regardless, I don't like to presume anything until I get to the end so that I can see (backwards and forwards) where the author was going all along.

Writing is a very intuitive thing. If a passage is leading up to a dramatic moment it is nearly always clear whether the author is going for lyricism or suspense or frenzy. The attempt is often less than successful because of a word pile-up or a weirdly incongruous phrase or an attempt to use maximum description to immerse the reader in the action. My job is to assess the anticipated effect and then suggest how to manipulate what the author has already written to achieve the effect. I don't want to put an author's carefully chosen words through a meatgrinder; I would rather show them how to choose their own words more carefully, where to trim the deadwood, how to know the difference between description that is layered and description that is just repetitive. A dedicated writer is able to digest all these types of feedback and apply them according to their own lights.

message 4: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Feiertag | 116 comments Longhare,

I think this is the heart of good editing: "I would rather show them how to choose their own words more carefully, where to trim the deadwood, how to know the difference between description that is layered and description that is just repetitive." That is an excellent formulation of an editor's creed.


message 5: by Longhare (new)

Longhare Content | 43 comments Thank you!

message 6: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Feiertag | 116 comments You're welcome. I always enjoys your reflections on the art of editing.


message 7: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Feiertag | 116 comments That's supposed to be "always enjoy" — I have over-enthusiastic s's on my keyboard.


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