A huge part of my job as an editor, critiquer and proof-reader is teaching. I never saw myself as a teacher although oddly I have always had a leaning towards it.
In much the same way people good at their jobs often find themselves in management roles but with no particular desire or skill to manage — are all writers, even successful published writers, if asked — really able to teach it? And when they set out to offer editorial services how good are they are communicating what they think?
I am lucky that I have always been able to communicate through the written word — not just in a fictional sense, but as a scientist I had to be concise, I had to write in ‘science speak’ and it is a skill that has been useful. What also helped me a great deal was my role in troubleshooting. I was a support specialist liaising with hospitals across the world, with internal customers who had knowledge — but often English was not their first language — and some of the places they worked were pretty remote. They only had basic access to troubleshooting facilities. And this was also an issue. It was also part of the resolution — for example in how they stored reagents and samples. Sometimes I had to be ‘creative’ in my thinking in working out what they were doing wrong. I am proof scientists can be creative! But the point I’m making is that I had to develop a way of effectively communicating, mostly by email, to explain and direct them towards resolving the problem. As a result I think this has put me on good stead to be able to tease apart the issues with a MS and show the author how often fairly small changes can really transform it. I also have to be aware of the language I use here as well as not everyone knows what I mean, or is familiar with the jargon of the job … endashes and emdashes come to mind.
Almost every time I do a follow-up, and based on comments from some of the lovely authors I work with, I can see how much improved their writing is and I can see how they’ve taken on board my suggestions and observations. I don’t expect them to agree with everything and if it’s ‘Debz the Writer’ speaking, rather than ‘Debz the nuts and bolts Editor’, especially when discussing a potential enhancement to the plot, let’s say, then I will make this clear.
You can show a writer how their narrative can be tightened. You can show a writer how showing rather than telling brings a scene to life. You can correct formatting and grammar issues … but can you change their story? You might well say “No! Of course not! Absolutely not!” but I hope you won’t even though you are right, in a way! Story in terms of how it’s structured and the plot must form a central focus of the editing process and be very much a part of the advice you give when you undertake a full critique. What I tend to do is suggest that perhaps the motivation that fuels the action of a particular character needs to be strengthened I might suggest a key scene needs to be slowed down and more tension built into it. I might suggest the ending doesn’t quite resolve the conflict enough. So I can see places where the weakness is impacting on the plot. But I always point out — this is your story. I have no intention of high-jacking a story and turning it into something the author doesn’t want it to be. I think the key is to identify places where there are weaknesses that really don’t seem to work and places that do work but where there is scope to make them even better. Then I might suggest how. I might ask … have you considered bringing in this character here, or perhaps this needs to happen before this … or maybe you could have the character do this. But this is where I am being Debz the Writer and my hope isn’t that they do exactly what I tell them — to reiterate — it is their story. But at least look at where there needs to be a change. My role is to show them how that part isn’t working (that’s the key) and if they agree (which they nearly always do!) then I will suggest possible solutions. Understanding why it doesn’t work is the most important part because the change will be easy, because now they see what that scene needs to do and they can change it themselves. They might think my idea is great and use it. I like that. But what I really hope is that with their original idea and my list of possible suggestions, they come up with something better than either of us came up with.
So I see my role as being not only correcting and working with the nuts and bolts of the narrative — but also guiding in the making the story have the best shape and work as a story. What I hope most is they are left with a better understanding of their piece and ‘the fix’ comes from them, fuelled by this enlightenment!
So I hope the reports are clear, concise and explained so they really ‘get it’ but I always invite a phone chat if they need further clarification. It’s rare someone doesn’t understand what I mean but oddly that has happened with a short recently. It makes me go back and check how I made the suggestion and how I might have made it better. I always want to do my job well. I hate to be defeated. I can not tell you how long I once spent with a writer from our writing group explaining how to show and not tell. She seemed to get it but then it was gone again. But I think we won in the end. I felt like a girl on a mission!
When you first start critting you have to be very careful you don’t use the ‘this is how I would do it’ approach as I have witnessed in a group — all that does is turn let’s say a literary short story about the future into a women’s magazine piece or a science fiction story now sounding more like the critter’s voice (critter as in critiquer and not some furry alien) than the author’s. And what credentials you then have to ask does this critter have? (Now I see him as a furry alien — doh!) Have they been published? Is their voice even any good? The trick is to be true to the style and the voice of the author — and when it comes down to what makes good writing and what makes a good story, the rules are pretty universal. Or perhaps I should say what makes this a stronger story.
So can all writers do this well?
What do you think?
Any bad experiences? Don’t name critters, that’s not fair, you can name me I don’t mind that — but anything you find irritating or that didn’t help you?
I have to say I did have to learn my craft, I have an MA, I have read many books, I work as a publisher (albeit small — the press not me … well I am 5 foot 3 so maybe me too!) but above all I am a working writer. And therefore I do not adhere to the ‘those who can’t — teach’ philosophy. I am doing it. And I have some successes under my belt. But I am also human and some people will like the way I work and some won’t. Thankfully I get a lot of work by recommendation and a lot of repeat business so I must be doing something right, some of the time!!!
And one final thing, I find it extremely satisfying working with other writers and seeing their work improve. Some even get publishing deals or win a competition. No matter how weak or how strong a MS is when I first see it … I always learn something too. It’s two-way and that makes it so rewarding. It feeds my own writing.
I have to know it to write it — I have to know it even better to teach it.
When I work with you — the connection is made and in the vast majority of cases, it remains and isn’t broken. Big smile.
Have a great day everyone, whatever you do!