John Adamus: Why Editing (By An Editor Who Isn’t You) Matters

Usually, folks who want to do guest posts here are writers — but I wanted a perspective from an editor, so when I recently caught up with John (who is a friend and who is someone who has edited my work in the past), I thought, hey, maybe we can hear from a freelance editor, see what he has to say to all us ink-fingered word-fumblers. Here, then, is John Adamus —

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One of my favorite things to do is talk about editing, and talk about how editing makes writing better, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between writer and editor that extends far beyond deadlines or paychecks. I’ve collected some thoughts below. In no way are these set in stone for all of time and space, and in no way am I the sole authority (I’m wearing a bathrobe and slippers as I write this parenthetical), but I am hopeful these paragraphs will be helpful to someone out there.

Like writing, editing is a job that comes with assumptions that seem to bubble up in conversation:

– That an editor just presses F7 and runs spellcheck on manuscripts

–  That other people could do what an editor does, because it’s just dealing with words like in school

– That editing is an unnecessary part of writing a book, because when an author gets an agent, they edit the manuscript, or the publisher has an editor, and they edit the work

– That whatever word processor being used highlights spelling and grammar as writing happens, so an editor is redundant

– That the editor is the writer’s enemy, or some kind of obstacle to proving their quality or validity as a writer, making interaction with the editor an unnecessary combative exercise

Many of these assumptions bubble up in conversations started with the dreaded, “So what do you do?” question. They seem to appear on the horizon right after a tight smile or some kind of look and a variation of “Oh, you’re an editor, really?”

Writers can claim membership in a tribe of storytellers, a lineage with roots as far back as cave walls and shamans. But there isn’t a record of some guy looking at the cave wall saying, “No Brandon, I think the mammoth had two tusks not three, and I think the pelt was more Pantone 167 not Pantone 166.”

Editorial lineage seems to stall out for people somewhere around English teachers they hated or crusty librarians and journalists, these great caricatures of hardasses, doryphores, and know-it-alls who cavil while they dispense lethal swaths of red ink to kill creativity, hopes and dreams. It’s seldom a flattering image.

Those previously mentioned assumptions are flummery and twaddle. They are as disparaging as they are unhelpful, and they’re the fuel for engines of unchallenged lack of growth or change.

Editors do more than press F7

Editors hear this a lot, often from people who have no interest in having their work edited, or have an overall sense that editing will somehow change their work irrevocably for the worse. It’s important to remember that writers don’t just cut and paste other people’s stories, and painters don’t just color within the lines, so it’s dismissive to sum up editing as some baleful ruiner of ideas. Change is part of evolution and an editor is critical in pushing that evolution forward.

There is more to editing than pressing a single key. There’s checking grammar and spelling, yes, but also there are checks on a manuscript’s plot, dialogue, word choice, pacing, character arcs, character names, expositive flow, and consistency in consequences. There isn’t one keystroke that checks, questions, and certifies all those elements.

Clear the static from your broadcast

When I summarize what I do, I use the phrase: I “clear the static from your broadcast”, because I can liken the relationship between writer and editor to tuning in a radio station. Your book, your story, your manuscript (whatever you want to call it) exists in some state where other people won’t always easily “get” it. Ideas may be poorly expressed, words may be incorrect, concepts may be redundant … any manner of structural or expressive problems can exist. What an editor does is help refine the message, and make sure the broadcast of your manuscript to whatever destination gets received the way you want.

Gain a cheerleader

Writing is a lonely task. It happens most often in a limited exchange: fingers on keyboards, supported by cups of coffee and stacks of notes and heaps of doubt. Days and nights can be consumed by the creative process, and just as easily, the doubts and worries that what you’re doing just won’t work can swallow you whole. It’s dangerous to go alone, so take this: gain an advocate for your work. Join up with someone who will accompany you to Mount Doom that you might deliver your one ring to the fiery volcano of production. Add a bard to your retinue, someone who will tout your efforts and do their best to help show you that all those mornings when you were up before the sun, and all those nights where you shut the door on your kids and spouse (or the barking dog, ringing phone, and text messages from your significant other), were worth it. Your goal is to have a book that gets published, right? So why not do all you can to make that happen?

It’s scary to write a thing then send it off in an email, armed only with a query letter for a shield or blanket. The unknowns of rejection loom large and far too many predators exist out there who live and breathe fear and persiflage, saying that you will likely try and fail at this, so don’t bother trying after rejection. They think that by keeping you out of the clubhouse, they’ll have a better shot at the “goodies” they perceive to be exclusive.

But they’re wrong.

The clubhouse isn’t exclusive. The “goodies” aren’t finite. You’re not racing to get them before they’re all gone, this isn’t slices of pizza when you’re late for dinner. Your quest, your mission should you choose to accept it, is to produce the best book you can. No matter how long that takes. No matter what software, what pen, what paper or what chair you use. No matter where or when you write. No matter how many people think your time would be better served by not writing. You may feel motivated to write just to spite them, just to prove them wrong, but that is temporary and leads to burnout.

Motivation must come from within. This is your work, it’s not getting out of your head without you doing something proactive about it. But that’s not to say it isn’t a comfort to have someone come along and recognize your hard work. The editor can be the roadside paper cup of Gatorade during your marathon. Let us be that for you.

The word plumber

In talking to a lot of people, I hear some version of this: “Well I’m a pretty good editor, so I do that myself.” It reminds me of a night when I was a kid, and the dishwasher stopped working. My dad has never been handy, but he has been epic levels of stubborn and cheap. He walked into the kitchen and started banging the pipes with wrenches of all sizes. After a few minutes, he emerged from beneath the sink and I asked “So, do you want me to tell Mom to get the plumber on the phone?” He said, “No, I can do this myself. It’s my dishwasher, I can handle it.”

Within the hour, there was an inch of two of brackish water in the kitchen. The plumber was called just after the puddle reached the back door of the house.

So yes, you can edit your own work to a degree. Plenty of books and resources exist for you to learn to do it yourself, and yes, you are perfectly capable of cleaning up your manuscript’s spelling or punctuation. But we’re all too close to our work and even while we’re our harshest critics, we can be surprisingly blind to errors we make time and again (I, for instance, often leave words out while typing because my inner monologue narrates them, and my fingers assume I’ve already typed them.)

Calling in a professional costs you money, but you’re exchanging that money for peace of mind that the job is done correctly and that when the job is done the problem(s) have been removed. If you’re willing to call in a plumber to fix your dishwasher, because you want the best dishwasher you can have so you can do dishes, why would you think twice about hiring a professional to help your words be the best words they can be?

Now, yes, the later stages of publishing will include editors after you’ve signed your contract (this is assuming you’re going with the traditional route of publishing), so yes, you may just leave all this for later, and then slog your way through it when you get there.

But if you’re not going traditional, and you have the ability to post a manuscript to a website with a click and upload of a file, isn’t in your best interest as someone who wants sales and good reviews (which breed more sales), that the file be in its best shape possible? Are you motivated by the idea that if someone can pay money for your book, then you must be a “legit” author? Don’t chase the validation, it will erode over time and you’ll need more and more of it to feel as good. Create the best work you can, avail yourself of all the possible resources to make that happen.

It’s your book, have it your way

Because one of our first experiences with editing comes from a school class where we’re told what’s right and what’s wrong with our work, editing becomes this combat or trial by fire, where writers have to test themselves in mortal combat against story ninjas shooting ice blasts or grappling hooks before someone loses a spine. There are, sadly, whole schools of thought and training where people are taught to turn the creative process into a steep uphill climb, where scarcity is the watchword and the only shibboleth comes by navigating the caprice of gatekeepers long out of touch. I was trained in that method, and it nearly cost me a career when I went toe-to-toe with a writer (who later went on to be a New York Times best-selling author) because I had to prove how smart I was. But the writer-editor relationship isn’t about how much smarter one person is than the other. The relationship is mutually supportive, collaborative and productive.

An editor’s mission is to educe the best story from within the writer. It’s the writer’s work. I don’t get hired so that someone brings me a manuscript and I shape it into what I want to see, I help the author see what they’ve always wanted to see (or something better that they couldn’t imagine). An editor who says “you write it, and I’ll cut out what I don’t like” is not an editor you need to stay within twenty feet of. I will ask you what the writer what they want to do, I will ask to see their blueprints and road map, and while I might disagree and even counsel them to walk a different route to their goal, all my work is a suggestion on some level, my experience guided by intelligence. I don’t have to agree with their choices, my job is to support the choice being made. Changes need not automatically be accepted (oh please no, don’t do that blindly), the alteration of a single word or punctuation doesn’t need to happen, but there is a courtesy in at least reading what commentary or changes I’ve given, and talking about it. It can be as simple as “I don’t like any of it, go soak your head” or “This is awesome, thanks” or a back-and-forth where one of us explains to the other their thinking, and compromise as necessary.

Make the best book you can

No one sets out to write the worst book ever. No one wakes up and commits to writing a book without having it read by someone else, often in exchange for currency or cupcakes or some kind of services. The process of writing is an exercise in decision-making and discipline. Growing the idea from something that rattles around in your head to something that exists somewhere concrete to something that exists in a state that someone else wants to read is a challenge to self-doubt and our habits. And it’s scary.

Part of making the best book you can is arming yourself with the best knowledge you can. The internet is packed with resources: books, blogs, classes and whatever else (eventually holograms, right? We need holograms) and they’re available to you, so use them.

Another part of that is surrounding yourself with people who can help make you better: editors, agents, copyeditors, proofreaders, beta readers, writing groups, writing partners, accountability buddies, sponsors, mentors, co-conspirators are all available to you, if you’re willing to be brave enough to step away from the fear and doubt and make the declaration that you’re going to make a thing. If you’re about to say you don’t have anyone you can think of, please count me. I got your back, and I’m one guy writing this guest blog post. Also, I wear bathrobes and comfy clothes and I play video games, and if you want, I’ll cook awesome food and we can hang out. I won’t even ask you for a ride to a doctor’s appointment or to borrow stuff from your garage without returning it.

The tricky part here is that you can surround yourself with people who say good things, but no growth happens. People can love what you do, but that’s not going to help make the book happen. That’s not going to get you to stop calling yourself an “aspiring” writer. Are you writing? Then you’re a writer.

Avoid the echo chamber

The internet is a huge place full of furious roads and dystopic wastelands. In order to cope with its expanse, we return to our roots as tribal primates and build communities. Over time, and given limited influx of new viewpoints, those communities can become echo chambers, whirlpools of masturbatory praise and flatulence sniffing where the status quo goes unchallenged and growth stalls.

And that growth is critical. It’s what pushes into new efforts, it’s how we get better and level up our skills (so presumably we get good enough to turn undead or have a honey badger for an animal companion. I would name mine Clyde.)

An editor, as a new entrant into your community of creativity, brings two assets with them: an ability to say “No”, and an ability to motivate. Nobody likes hearing “No”, but it’s the negative that can lead us to change, the same way rejection can prompt a new attempt. If a community is built out of people who only say “Yes” it’s much harder to develop. This is not to say your mom, your spouse, that nice coworker, and that friend you’ve made every morning when you wait for a latte can’t read your book and cheer you on, but they’re not going to be critical. I mean, these people love you on some level that will prevent them from saying that your plot is hollow and your character is as well-crafted as a sweatshop knockoff brand sneaker. They might just call the whole thing “interesting” and tell you they liked it, but they’re not going to get their hands dirty. That’s where an objective outside opinion can come in. Yes, that’s also a great way for you to insulate yourself (“The editor just didn’t get it.”), but that’s just cowardice, that’s fear talking. And you, creative person, are greater than your fears. You challenge them every time you put a word on a page.

You expected editing tips? Here you go

I’ve tried to write the preceding two thousand or so words without talking about myself, which has proven difficult, since I like talking about myself, and it gives me a chance to help people. If you follow me on Twitter (@awesome_john), I do a lot of “writing tweets”, which are digestible pieces of information about writing or publishing. Often they’re motivation, reminders not to give up or encouragement to write even when you would rather clean toilets after a Mexican lunch at an IBS symposium. So here, have some writing tips that run a little longer than 140 characters:

Mind your pronouns. When you have two characters of the same gender in a scene, and they’re interacting, it’s critical for the reader to keep them separate and distinct in their mind. Suppose you have two women, maybe they’re sisters, and they’re talking. Your exposition has this sentence: “When she came across her photo album, she froze.” Which “she” is which? Who did what action? Whose album is it?

Stop building “And” centipedes. How many and+verbs are you going to use in a single thought, let alone a single sentence? “I went to the store and I got eggs and they were out of milk and then I bought a candy bar and then I stared at that ugly baby and then I thought about why we call radishes radishes and I got lost in the frozen food aisle and then I ran into my friend Patrice.” Chaining all those actions together creates the idea that all those ideas are equal in weight and importance. Also it’s a slow read. When a person (who isn’t a cute child) speaks to us this way, we’re bored. And boredom makes readers leave books behind. Challenge yourself any time you want to trail a lot of and+verbs in a single sentence or idea.

Purge these words from your writing and watch your writing sharpen: that | reallyjustvery | kind of | a little | sort of | Like all those adverbs you’re already burning with fire, these words add qualifiers and description that could be better accomplished with stronger verbs or different sentences. Anyone can describe using clichés and tired expressions, but you’re you, and through your word choices (which are framed in your experiences as a reader and a liver of life), you can ditch the common expression for one unique to you.

I am ever so grateful, lucky, and privileged for the chance to write this guest blog post. I do my best to put material like this on my own blog (http://writernextdoor.com), in between all the life-stuff I talk about. Let me leave you with one last thought.

It is through words that we find ourselves. We use language as a tool of discovery, a tool of experience and as a tool of forging ourselves a path in life. We too often mark our lives by our hardships and failures, and sometimes we are hesitant to call attention to our successes out of fear we will be thought of as arrogant or selfish. But it is neither arrogant nor selfish to take a moment for positivity. It may feel foreign or hokey, I know it does for me, but it is okay to give yourself a gold star when something goes right. Consider this sentence your permission slip. Our ability to share stories and transcend boundaries through creativity elevate us from bipeds wearing pants to true wizards, Istari with adjectives and a burning passion engage other people with story paintings we can draw in their minds.

You may not always feel good enough to do be a writer. You may feel discouraged. You may look at your friends’ successes and wonder if you will ever come close to that. You may look at your life outside and beyond your creative projects and wonder if you have enough time. You may spend nights and days and afternoons angry or scared that precious time is wasting because you’re not writing that paragraph or that chapter or even that word. You may wish for a TARDIS, and mastery over chronology. You may wish for superpowers to write faster, or greater intelligence to conceive of better ideas. You’d not be able to even have those wishes without people creating TARDISes and superpowers so you could be aware of lacking them. The story you’re telling, the thing you’re making, it will be what inspires someone else down the road. You need only keep writing it and then make sure people know it exists.

Let’s all keep doing our best for as long as we can. Let’s believe in each other. Let’s support one another. Let’s tell the best stories we can.

I’M JOHN ADAMUS, I’m the Writer Next Door, and I help people make ideas turn into projects. Whether that’s a novel, novella, script, role-playing game, radio drama, ad copy, teleplay, anthology … I usually say, “If it has words, I can help you make something with them.”

102 comments

  • Hi, Mr. Adamus. I loved your article–it was so true and so inspiring. I’m working on a second draft of my novel, and it’s in no shape to pass on to an editor just yet (although I fully intend to do so once I work out all the kinks). But my question to you, and to Mr. Wendig, is–should a second draft take as long to write as a first draft? And should it make me feel like I want to reach down my throat and pull out my spleen? Because that’s where I’m at right now.

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