Writing is a solitary profession … right? You wake up each day, write, and at some indeterminate point in the future, you shape the story, shake out the dead leaves and stand back from your marvellous, topiary-like creation, with a growing feeling of confidence that it is complete. It’s ready for publishing.
But it isn’t. You are not the painter, whose work is finished when they deem it so. Nobody tapped on Picasso’s shoulder and said, ‘I think your proportions are a bit off.’ You are much more like the film-maker or musician, despite the obvious differences between these mediums. There is a need for further opinion, a need for collaboration, a need for … editing.
Say your story is selected to be published in a literary journal. You receive an email full of praise. You feel proud and think you might be pretty good at this writing caper. You entertain fantasies of quitting your day job.
Just as you’ve finished a mental list of things you’ll spend your royalties on when you inevitably become a best-selling author, some horrible, Grinch-like intern sends your story back to you. You click open the file with a shaky hand. The document has corrections in a confronting shade of red; little comment bubbles in the margin with suggestions for improvement; and a cover letter asking you to consider changes to the opus you’ve spent weeks, if not months, moulding into a masterpiece.
The buzz of being accepted for publication is killed. Part of you is confused: they said your story was wonderful, Vonnegut-esque, inspired! What could possibly have possessed them to edit your story!?
The truth is your work has been chosen for any number of reasons – but rarely is it chosen because it’s perfect. Your favourite author had/has an editor, and you will too. That’s how the business works. More importantly, your story is a representation of the journal it appears in, so great care is taken by the publisher to elevate it to the highest standard possible. Writers are not the only ones who want to look good in the eyes of the literary community.
When submitting your work, you are entering into an unspoken agreement that (unless otherwise stated) your work will be edited, whether it be a little or a lot. Take comfort in the fact that the people who selected your story saw great potential in it and only seek to enhance its existing great qualities. Adjust your attitude and this necessary process will be far less painful. Know that you are not powerless, either: you decide, ultimately, how the final draft reads. Changes aren’t arbitrary, either. You can discuss them with your editor, argue your point, or compromise.
The editor’s aim is not to stifle the writer’s voice, but to clarify language and make your work as strong as possible. And, unlike film editors and music producers, prose editors get no credit. As far as the reader is concerned, your writing is as brilliant as the published version, and not a draft sooner.
That’s kind of cool, isn’t it?
While I have some experience editing for (and being edited by) friends, my first proper opportunity to work with an author on [untitled] was a positive one. This writer was open to suggestions, justified their decision to retain certain word choices or phrasing, and was courteous in correspondence. Over several months we took an already promising story, sanded back the rough edges and polished it until it sparkled. I’m confident it is fantastic now. More importantly, so does the author.
No story, just like no human being, is beyond improvement. Approaching the delicate relationship with an editor with an open mind and willingness to bring the best out of your work will go a long way towards bettering your writing, and bettering yourself as a writer.