The Mean Editor

I recently had an experience in my professional life that was a little frightening. It was when I realized that the critiques I give to clients can sometimes have real power.

I was attracted to running a freelance editing business because I wanted to build personal working relationships with writers. I wanted to create a compassionate (but tough when I had to be) environment that would both educate and be a source of enjoyment for all involved. When someone brings his/her work to me, and that work shows potential, I begin to develop an immediate kinship with it. I treat it as I would treat my own work, and in doing so try to give other writers a better sense of their potential. I want to inspire them to better themselves as my own editors and readers have inspired me. It's a lot like shaping a bonsai tree. I revel in the organic process of helping to develop someone's story, pruning a little away here, training a few branches there, until the shape is both beautiful and still unique to that writer, albeit more pleasing to potential readers.

It isn't very often, however, that someone sends me work that I cannot accept.
I'm not an agent. I don't run my own publication. Telling people "no" when they ask for help is not my bag, and it isn't something I'm prepared to do. I want to love every piece of writing that lands in my inbox, not only because I want the business, but also because as a writer myself, I know how hard it is to open oneself up to criticism of any kind. Baring your writing to a stranger and asking them to go to town on it takes a certain amount of courage, and it takes maturity and open-mindedness to both consider and implement the advice you get. It explains why a business like mine is often "feast or famine." There are too few writers who are ready to risk their egos by venturing beyond the protective sphere of trusted and very, very kind friends and family.

I've discovered that having to tell someone that their work is too far gone to save is the hardest part of this job. I try to salve their disappointment by telling them that I don't feel comfortable taking their money if I don't feel I can help them, that there are a lot of dishonest editors out there who would have taken them for a ride, but those words sound awfully hollow to the person who was willing to pay you to do whatever you could. All they're really hearing is, "You couldn't pay me enough to touch this crap."

Because I'm an optimist about my abilities, I always at least try to see what I can do, even when I know the outcome is bleak. But even I know that giving CPR to roadkill is nasty business, and at some point you have to just stop the chest compressions and call it.

Still, even if I say I can't help you, that doesn't mean you should quit writing. I would never encourage someone to do that, even if I might believe deep down that you don't have a real future in it. The idea is to eventually prove people like me wrong by practicing and developing your craft. While I truly believe that some people have no more business pursuing a writing career than I do designing bridges, you should keep doing it if it fulfills you. Writing is free. It is both relaxing, exhilarating, and emotionally rewarding. There's no reason, no matter how poor or miserable you are, that you shouldn't be able to keep putting pen to paper. If you keep doing it, and if you keep learning about the mechanics of the art, you will improve. You might never be "great" at it, but you could become competent, which I think is what almost all of us should hope for. At any rate, I will always have more admiration for the people who keep trying until they succeed than I will for those who don't try because they're afraid to fail.

While I don't like knowing my words have had the effect of brutally shoving someone off the path to their dreams, I won't accept full responsibility for your quitting. I still stand by my critiques; the ball is in your court in how you choose to respond to them. This is a tough business, and there are people working in it higher up the food chain than I who are a lot meaner. Just remember: meanness is not a lethal weapon. A writer's mettle is often proven by those who let it toughen them and incite them to work harder, and those who crumble under the weight of a harsh critique.

Never become comfortable with your abilities. Always assume that there is room for improvement. Never stop trying to better your last effort. Never believe that you're as good as you're ever going to get. Keep those things in mind when someone like me tells you "no," and then let me know how you're doing in a couple years. If I find you eventually went on to get published, I'll smile.

1 comment:

  1. Good to know Allison. Sometimes it seems there's an entire industry that revolves around parting deluded writers from their wallet-stuffing.