Sunday, July 20, 2008

On Freelance, Fiction, and Self-Editing

My pubs don't do much editing. One will go through and copy-edit, maybe make a few notes, and that's it. The other doesn't copy-edit at all, I suspect, and she only mentions things when they're important, and I listen up.

So you understand why I LOVE a good editor when I have an opportunity to work with one. I definitely agree that a good editor will make your story a TON better.

But since I'm a Libra, I want to bring up the other hand.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression of freelance writing is that you must be able to turn in polished work. In some cases there's an editor, but my impression is that for most areas of freelance writing, the company hires you to do the job. They don't hire you and then hire someone else to edit you.

They hire someone who can do the whole kit and kaboodle.

(I say this with no experience in the industry. Please feel free to correct me. Obviously, if you're writing for magazines or such, it's different. But I'm thinking technical writing, medical writing, and writing marketing copy, website content, etc.)

There is an assumption out there that a fiction writer can NOT self-edit "good enough." There's an assumption that if you're self-editing, you're pretty much self-delusional.

What's strange to me is that in freelance writing, I don't see any of that prejudice at all.

Why is fiction so different? I believe editing is a skill. I will agree that it takes a while to develop, and that when I'm self-editing my stuff, I have to battle the self-delusions. I've had to learn that if I get the teensiest little nudge that I barely notice, then I NEED to fix it, BIG TIME. If I'm making excuses for something to myself, then I NEED to fix it, BIG TIME.

I've learned that teensy-tiny, barely audible inner nudges are HUGE things from a reader's perspective.

I've struggled to learn how to see things from a reader's perspective and not my own. I've learned I have to put out of my mind what I know about a story, and make sure, when I'm editing, I go to a place where I only "know" what I've read in the story so far.

I will be the first to admit my failings in this area. I mean, I'm pretty sure you've all seen me beat myself up for days over a comma or a misspelled word to know that I take this area seriously.

Not even books in the stores are without mistakes and plot holes. There is no "perfect" product.

I consider an editor a HUGE luxury. I do think that anything more you can do for your story, anything you can do to get more perspectives and different feedback will help you.

I'm sure there are good writers out there who haven't developed great editing skills. I'm sure that there are simply some awesome writers who are mediocre editors.

But then again, I think editing is a skill some authors can do perfectly fine themselves, of professional quality at least. Two heads are better than one and all that, but one head can still be of professional quality.

I just know that no fiction editor has ever told me something I didn't know deep down. (Non-fiction is a COMPLETELY different story, in my case.) They've mentioned things I ignored but shouldn't have. They've asked me to expand endings that I cut short because I thought 40,000 words was a strict limit instead of a guideline.

It's taken me many years and a lot of time to be able to see the "big picture" of my stories. I feel I've gotten to the point where I can. I would be thrilled at the chance to work with an editor, it's true.

I just don't understand why, in fiction, there's the assumption you can't do it yourself. It's hard work: I probably spend 70%-90% of my time self-editing. Probably someone who's just editing it could do it in tons less time, probably in a single pass, even, because they don't have to work at all to see it through fresh eyes.

I just find the dichotomy between freelance and fiction interesting.

And, it's true: I could be self-delusional. I could be a terrible editor. I have no idea. I did have a friend that I worked with when I first started, but we could give feedback the next day. I never seem to finish things in time to ask others for help. I need to learn to write without a deadline.

It's funny: I wrote a post about a year ago, where I was going to ask you guys a favor, and ask you if I could edit something you wrote purely so you could give me feedback on my editing skills.

In music, the best organizations train the judges by having them write their critique, and then having a third-party who's heard the performance critique the critiquer. That's wise, I think. I wonder if the big publishers train their editors that way?

So I don't know. How do you get feedback on your editing skills? How do you improve your editing skills? How has your self-editing changed over the years? And do you think fiction writers could be better self-editors, as professional quality as freelance writers, if it was expected of them? Or do you think it's an impossibility in fiction?

13 bonus scribbles:

Melanie Avila 7/20/2008 02:36:00 PM  

This is interesting. My understanding of freelancing (whether writing or what have you) is you deliver a finished product. The client may have changes, but I don't think they take on the role of editor.

Strange that it's assumed fiction writers aren't capable of the same level of quality. Perhaps because it's a longer body of work? I don't have an answer to your questions, but you have made me think.

Mark Terry 7/20/2008 02:51:00 PM  

Whether an editor changes much in freelance writing depends a lot on the editor and the publication schedule. (I have an unofficial rule: get the piece in early, but not too early, because that gives the editor time to screw around with things).

I'm not, frankly, sure there's a big difference in how much actual editing gets done. If you're turning in material for either nonfiction or fiction that needs much editing, chances are you won't stay in business long.

I think it's a mistake to think you can turn in flawed material in fiction and the editors will "fix" it. They're busy and there's more where you came from, so it's best to work hard to make it as perfect as possible.

My novels haven't required a lot of editing. A little bit of copyediting, the occasional flipping of chapters that may or may not be an improvement, but aside from that, they've pretty much been left alone.

spyscribbler 7/20/2008 03:15:00 PM  

Mark and Melanie, I'm mostly coming from a place where people denounce small presses, ebook publishers, and self-publishers on the point of the lack of an editor.

I'm not arguing that some of IS lacking editing. I'm just saying that why can't the author be blamed for that?

I bet you're right, Mark. Then again, Marcus Sakey reputedly got 18 pages of editing notes from his editor. :-)

Now that you mention it, I do recall a couple instances, in the past, where one of my pubs HUGELY edited someone's work. And now the new owner pays new writers a LOW rate, with the "bonus" that she will edit.

Personally, I come from a music viewpoint, so I don't want to waste an editor's time on something I haven't made perfect yet. Why would I have him or her spend their time on something I know how to fix? Then they would just mention the stuff I know, and not get around to seeing the stuff I don't know.

Mark Terry 7/20/2008 06:23:00 PM  

I had probably 6 or 7 pages of edits for The Serpent's Kiss, but when you figure the manuscript was almost 400 pages long, that didn't seem like much. And most of it was pretty minor.

My book with High Country, a small press, had great editing as far as I was concerned. I think it just depends on the publishers and the editors.

Erica Orloff 7/20/2008 09:08:00 PM  

Hi Spy:
I agree. You're right. As a freelance writer, you are expected to turn it in perfect. But look at the two products. One is a 1000-word magazine article in which, likely, your editor and the magazine have dictated EXACTLY what you must do. The other is likely a 350-page work of fiction with multiple layers, any one of which can be developed still deeper. Two different beasts and not fair to compare.

In general, I don't think, as Mark said, a fiction author who can't construct a sentence decently is going to last long. But editors pull you in deeper and deeper . . . they bring an astute, hopefull well-honed eye to the big picture. They point out where you are being too obtuse, and where you are "telling" by being too obvious.

I WORK as a book doctor and editor, and I know what a good one brings to the table.

I don't know, fiction and nonfiction freelancing are two different beasts.

Robin 7/20/2008 09:17:00 PM  

I am a terrible editor. My mother-in-law edited my book for me before I sent it to agents. Then my agent went through it and only found a couple of things to change. I was really impressed with my mother-in-law! Then again, it is non fiction, so there aren't any complicated plot lines to worry about.

spyscribbler 7/20/2008 09:35:00 PM  

That's cool, Mark. The new owner of one my places, I'm fairly certain, just doesn't really like my stuff all that well, so she doesn't bother. I think she's just happy the readers do. Someone else copyedits, and I don't get a STET opportunity, so I don't look. (Until a blurb has the weirdest commas and I freak out.)

I do wish for more, don't get me wrong. This post is by no shape or form suggesting it's better to work without an editor. I'm just curious why it's assumed a book can't be done well unless it's been edited by a second party.

Erica Orloff 7/20/2008 09:39:00 PM  

The other thing . . . I have to be really frank . . . a LOT of people can writer really servicable nonfiction. The prose CAN be brilliant, but SOMETIMES it is secondary to the platform.

A lot of fiction writers are delusional about their talent. Pure and simple. They become so passionately attached to their story they don't see the flaws. Goes back, I guess, to it's two different beasts entirely.

spyscribbler 7/20/2008 10:06:00 PM  

Erica, as someone who has "Beg Erica to Edit Me" written on the top of my if-I-win-the-lottery list, I'm definitely not advocating a world without editors.

And keeping track of those layers, BIG groan. I'd love someone to help me with that, but I have to mostly do it myself, so I have to just find a way to do it, and I can't even begin to tell you how deeply I feel the need (fear?) not to let my readers down.

Your list sort of assumes a "great" editor. Even the novels the Bigs of the Big put a lot of money into and give a lot of promotional care are often, well, sloppily-edited/written, depending on who you want to blame. (And that's when the prose is still polished.)

My point really just is I don't think it's impossible to put together a story with all the t's crossed and all the dangling threads attended to. If you're constantly pushing yourself with "more" and "why," and doing it over and over again, then it's possible to get to professional quality.

Again, two heads are usually better than one, though.

I agree that a lot of writers don't get it there themselves. And I also will be the first one to attest to the fact that sometimes my story gets so fuzzy I'm writing blindly. It's extraordinarily difficult to see one's one work clearly.

Still, it's a skill I believe can be developed. Or maybe I just choose to believe that because of my circumstances, LOL.

spyscribbler 7/20/2008 10:12:00 PM  

Robin, that's cool! I'm really impressed with your book, so it must have worked. :-) It's hilarious!

spyscribbler 7/20/2008 10:27:00 PM  

Erica, I think a lot of people can write serviceable fiction, too.

I'm really not saying it's better without an editor. I could name a ton of embarrassments I wish an editor would've caught before my story was out there, haunting me. I can look at a ton of places I just got "functional" and betrayed my tone and style.

Still, personally, it's a skill I have to expect myself to develop, mostly so it doesn't happen again. And so I wonder why it's not a skill all writers are expected to develop.

I'm pretty sure, by my blog, it's obvious I never have delusions about my talent, LOL. I'm certain I've gotten better at editing, but I'm also certain I get lazy sometimes. I have, in earnestness, asked a few people what they think pseudo's strength as a writer is (so I can run with them), and since I haven't gotten a straight answer, I figure my task is to make sure there are no mistakes.

Honestly, "serviceable" is what I hope for. 'Course, that's how I approach piano. Make no mistakes and put your heart into it. I don't even bother wondering if I have talent. If you have enough of it to matter, you're already way up there. If you don't have as much as that, then I agree with that Stephen King quote.

Bernita 7/21/2008 07:45:00 AM  

I think a writer can develope self-editing skills to a point.The difference between fiction and non-fiction is the variables - there are more variables in fiction.
What be-devils me is the choices. One is aware of variable treatments/emphasis for a piece but can choose only one. All may be valid but only one may be the most effective in context and that's what one needs the external editor for.

Sue LaPointe 7/21/2008 10:16:00 AM  

Fascinating post, at least from the perspective of a freelance commercial writer who wishes for fiction writing skills.

You're right - of the hundreds of projects I've worked on, I was the first and last line of defense editing-wise. Yet, I can't imagine a fiction writer self-editing. In fact, a few of my clients are fiction writers and have hired me to help them polish and perfect their manuscripts before they did whatever the next step is in getting them published.

What's the difference? Commercial pieces, while they've got a bit of a story line (subtle, but definitely implied at least), don't work with the tapestry of plots, sub-plots, characters, settings, and all of the other elements that make a good novel so delicious. Our writing is more "here's what we've got, here's how it makes life easier for you, here's how you get it."

Literary masterpieces? Hardly. But a lucrative skill nonetheless.

Thoroughly enjoyed your post, and I'm going to link to it from my blog. (Here's a secret: most of us freelance commercial writers yearn to somehow combine writing what you write with the steady income of writing what we write!)