Editors are there to guide and help writers hone their skills and write the best story they can. But is there such a thing as over-editing or bad editing? I think there might be. It’s possible to buckle under the weight of rules and lose heart. This is often how it goes:
First shot fired across the bows—show, don’t tell.
Really? How are newbies supposed to know that and then still grasp the concept? This is followed by a barrage of cannon fire that leaves the newbie’s sweat and blood, ah manuscript, littered with bullet holes—ah, comments and deletions, much like this list:
These are misplaced modifiers.
Hey! Put the comma in a compound sentence.
Use emotions, actions, be creative—don’t constantly use, he said/she said.
Slow the pace.
Keep the pace going.
No shopping lists.
Watch that POV breach.
This is a gawking narrator.
Add more atmosphere.
Stop with telling the reader every last detail from the sand on a pair of shoes to each painting on a wall.
Too many adjectives and adverbs, cut ‘em out or at least down to one, maybe two.
The scenes aren’t rich enough—Flesh them out.
No passive sentences allowed.
Stop with all the gerunds.
Enough already with the clichés.
Oi! Watch those intensifiers.
Stop with the redundancies.
The list is long and daunting. It’s like putting running shoes on a baby after their first step, then shoving them on a track and hollering, “Now show me what ya got!” Or a kid writes their first word at school. Time to throw the thesaurus at them. “Right, now sharpen up your prose!”
And the broadside shot, most loved by some editors—toe the line if you want to be published or be a bestseller, usually couched in polite, but veiled threatening terms. It may be a terse: fine, if that’s how you want to write. I’m only here to guide you. But it really means—you will never succeed if you don’t follow the rules!
None of this is bad advice—well, except this last salvo. In fact, rules need to be pointed out (not fired like a volley of bullets) or it wouldn’t be editing.
After the battle, the newbie is a crippled, gibbering wreck, ready to wave the white flag, and their characters are collateral damage in this war to forge a newbie into a James Patterson. The newbie is ready to give up dreams of becoming a writer, never mind the next NY Times bestseller. Has the editor crushed the newbie's fresh, albeit naïve prose? Maybe. But hell, the editor is pleased to see nice crisp writing with not an error in sight and every word, every sentence perfect—or soulless? Maybe even a clone of the editor’s style.
It would behoove editors to remember when they first started writing. I know I was lousy. But like all newbies, my eyes sparkled with enthusiasm and my fingers itched to write one of the million stories churning about in my creative head. The only thing I had was a love of words, but I went forth to conquer with blind gusto.
Then I crashed and burned. Maybe I was delusional and couldn’t write at all. My manuscript was littered with red and comments and deletions crawled over themselves like worms in a can.
Copious tears and rants later—the dog, cat, and parrot have all fled to safety—I pick myself up, dust myself off, wipe my bloodied nose, and forge ahead with grit and determination—I will learn—I will succeed! Despite the editor beating up on me.
First rejection letter. Second and on to the twentieth and then some more rejection letters.
Crash and burn again. This writing gig really hurts.
I think editors often edit their own work into a blubber heap of perfect writing without a pulse.
My own personal rule: write as it comes—usually badly, then cut out the glaring tumors and breathe life into it. I know many editors approach their work like this. They should look at newbies in the same way, and avoid killing the newbie's naïve approach to their story. I mean, it will need major surgery and a full face lift or ten for sure, but take care the story doesn’t morph into the cat-lady with excessive surgery—ah, editing.
On the flipside, I understand the frustrations and obsessive desire to whip a newbie into shape, but stop!
The art of writing well doesn’t happen in a day or even a year—it takes thousand and tens of thousands of words and years, and editors know this.
Maybe it’s time to cut ourselves and the newbies some slack.
Does this mean one shouldn't hire an editor? No! It means a writer should hire a good editor who is sensitive to the writer's voice and doesn't trample on it, and who doesn't overwhelm a new writer with a barrage of rules without giving examples. A good editor will build a relationship with writers, new and seasoned, and they’ll encourage when one is too despondent to continue.
Think Mount Everest and the Sherpas that guide one to the summit. That is what you need in an editor—a Sherpa. Inspiration for Writers will help you find your Sherpa to get you to the top of your Mount Everest. Just give us a call.