Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Difference Between Good Writers and Good Editors

First off, I have to say that I love my critique partners. They're fantastic writers who are at once supportive and insightful. They read every manuscript I throw at them, and they always have something helpful to say. They're also fierce defenders of those manuscripts, so when I feel like chucking one over a cliff, they're always the ones who talk me down from the ledge.

But while my critique partners are great writers and have great editorial insights, they're still not editors. And the difference is profound. When Shauna first sent me notes, they literally knocked my socks off. (I'm using "literally" in its newest sense, which is actually equivalent to "metaphorically" or, in other words, "not literally.") Shauna was able to see things that no one else had seen, including six CPs (two of whom are now published or about to be) and two offering agents (who've sold scads of manuscripts between them), and she was able to communicate those things in a way that got my creative juices flowing. As I've probably already mentioned, I ended up rewriting more than half of Steve (and now that we're nearing the end of the revision process, I'd say that less than twenty percent of the original scenes made the final cut).

I'll be the first to admit that when I'm critiquing a manuscript, it's hard not to tell the writer to just write it how I would have written it. Some things are right or wrong grammatically, and some devices are better or worse from a storytelling point-of-view, but lots of things are just different, and when you're a writer yourself, it can be harder to discriminate between the two.

Now, do I still think I'm a fairly decent CP? Yes. Do I think that qualifies me to be an editor? Not necessarily. Obviously, I couldn't do for Steve what Shauna did for Steve (and not just because I was the one who wrote him). She saw the story's strengths and knew how to help me magnify them, but she also saw the story's weaknesses and knew how to help me fix them. Good editors don't trade your words for theirs; they help you tell the story you meant to tell in the first place.


Angela Brown said...

I would have to agree. I can view things from a CP perspective, but a good editor can find that insight into the story and really help bring it out so the story shines even more.

Jer said...

Thanks for this post, Krista--It's so enlightening to get an insider's view, not having gone through the editorial process myself yet. I was amazed when I read that you only kept about twenty percent of the original scenes.

If so much changes from the original WIP to the end version, I am even more curious now about how to judge when an MS should be shelved, and when you should keep at it because you haven't found the right fit. It's so hard to know in this business sometimes! Your data seems to suggest that premise and amazing writing are paramount, though...

JeffO said...

I have to agree. I've worked with three different editors in the last year on different projects. The best ones get you thinking about your piece without necessarily telling you how to fix something.

Myrna Foster said...

Love you back!

And yes to everything you said about working with editors. My experiences have been on a smaller scale than yours, but I love how they help me see my own work.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Angela, it's a very different skill set, isn't it? I think writers are always going to be better editors than straight-up readers, but when you're a writer, you always think in terms of how you would have written it, and that's not necessarily what a good editor does.

Jer, now that I'm coming to the end of the revision process, it's very clear that Putnam bought a voice and concept, but the words themselves were negotiable:) (Well, since I did a non-contracted revision, I guess you could say they also bought an ability to revise, but mostly, I think they were interested in the writing and the premise.) As for when to shelve a manuscript, that's a tough one. I guess I'd say it's time to shelve it when you're no longer interested in making it better.

Exactly, JeffO! Other people can point out the problems, but I like coming up with the solutions myself. That way, it still feels like my story.

So glad we found each other way back when, Myrna:) (And can you believe it's been four and a half years?!)

Karen lee Hallam said...

Wow. Very good to know. :)

Ben Spendlove said...


Now, I'm the first to point out that English is always changing, and I don't mind split infinitives or prepositions at the end of sentences.

But if "literally" means "not literally", what on earth are we supposed to replace it with to mean "in a literal sense"? "Metaphorically"? They mean exactly the opposite! Gaaa!

I'll be the grumpy old man correcting the neighborhood kids. "I'll teach you to literally die laughing, punks! And get off my lawn!"

And yeah, the rest of your post is why I don't want to self publish.

Rosalyn said...

This post makes me jealous of your wonderful editor! Something to hope for as I keep revising. :)

I think I'm a good CP and I have great CPs, but I'm sure there are a lot of things none of us are seeing (or things we see but don't know how to put into words).

Rosalyn said...

I've recently read some advice about paying for an editor, even when you're in the market for a traditional publisher (the idea being that an editor can make your work more polished and thus more attractive). What do you think? Is it worth shelling out money for an editor at that stage? And if so, how do you go about finding a *good* editor--one who can do more than just copy edit? (I can do that one myself--I've worked as an editor in some of my day jobs).

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Karen, I should probably point out that every imprint--and every editor--is different. And every manuscript needs different things. From what I've been able to gather, the amount of editing Steve's undergone has been on the high end, so don't feel like you're going to have to scrap 80% of your book!

I know, Ben. I've gone over to the dark side:)

Those are great questions, Rosalyn. Personally, I don't think it's worth investing in a freelance editor if you're shooting for traditional publication. Writers who haven't worked with freelance editors land book deals all the time, and as you pointed out, it's really tough to tell the good ones from the bad ones before you've solicited--and paid for--their services. It just seems like the reward wouldn't outweigh the risk (since there's no way you can know if that editor's input is going to make the difference), but that's just my two cents.