Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

I’m writing this post in the throes of the weekend blizzard, punctuating each paragraph with a sip of cocoa and a disbelieving stare out a window upon a world that looks like some off-white hellscape.

Originally, I meant to write about the importance of determination, of being diligent, and of staying the course when so many voices (internal and otherwise) may form a chorus to chase you away from whatever you’re creating. And then I fell into a bit of a rabbit hole.

A friend of mine talked to me a bit about a situation he found himself in, where he received criticism for what he was doing (he’s an editor), and his critic was taking a roundabout way of saying he was exploiting writers and profiting from their newness in creating. It’s a completely bogus claim because my friend, let’s call him J, is one of the most forthright people I know. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect his work, and I think he’s smart enough, talented enough, and good enough, to help people create amazing things.

In reading what this critic said, it brought to mind a number of experiences and a number of frustrations I’ve encountered in the last two decades as a professional. Today, I’m going to detail some of them.

1 A freelance editor is not required if you’re going to submit your work to be traditionally published.

There is an editorial process that occurs during publishing, and it’s not a quick skim of a document and a cursory pressing of F7 in Word. There is no etched in stone rule that says you need to get an editor before you get published. I can’t make you get an editor. But I can tell you that if you’re serious about getting your work published, then you should be serious about doing everything you can to get the MS in the best shape possible before it leaves your hands to face some kind of judgment or decision about its acceptance or rejection.

If we weren’t talking creative arts, if we were talking cars, we’d be discussing how you go show off your car, and how you’d want it polished and tuned and waxed, right? You’d want it in its best show shape. Now you could clean it yourself, wax and buff each piece with a cloth diaper or a cloth of baby eyelashes or whatever car people use, or you could spend the money and have a professional service detail it. And likely, you’d justify that expense by saying, “I’m getting the car cleaned up so that it stands a good chance at winning a prize at the car show.”

Maybe you built that car by hand, laboring on weekends or late nights. Maybe you sunk a lot of sweat equity into the process. You learned things about refitting pieces, about upgrades. You busted your ass to make your car the best it could be. This is no different than what a writer does working on that manuscript. It doesn’t matter if it’s their first or their ninth, a manuscript gets built by the author a piece at a time, and there’s sweat equity invested in the production.

Do all you can to get your MS in the best shape possible so it can be sent off with the best possible chance for a positive reception. Often that means getting an editor. You don’t need to get the car professionally detailed before the show, but going that extra step might make the difference between the blue ribbon (or whatever award you get at a car show, maybe a gold wrench) and going home watching someone else celebrate.

2 An editor’s job can be accomplished by a good friend who reads a lot.

There is more to an editor’s job than reading. Yes, reading is a part of it, but there’s constructive technique also. Techniques about language usage, about understanding story structure, about being able to look objectively at components or looking at emotional elements dispassionately. I’m sure a good reader can point out that sentences don’t sound right, or that some parts of the story fall flat, but I wouldn’t expect that reader to be able to tell you what you can do to change it for the better specifically.

Likewise, that “good friend” may not want to be as objective with you as someone you don’t know. A friend is going to want to maintain that friendship, and that decision will often prevent the objectivity a situation calls for.

Oh I can’t tell Gary that his short story sucked, because Gary brings that chili dip to poker night.”

As before, the goal is to have the best manuscript possible, Gary’s chili dip be damned. So that professional you’re bringing in, part of the expense there is a level of objectivity. The editor doesn’t know Gary’s chili dip, and doesn’t know if Gary has a tell where he always exhales before he bluffs anything higher than two pair. Gary’s non-manuscript existence doesn’t factor into whatever the editor does. The job is to produce the best manuscript, no matter how nice Gary is. That requires a level of disconnection between Gary-the-person, and Gary-the-writer.

If the issue is that Gary won’t show his MS to anyone except a friend because he doesn’t trust anyone else to see his work, then that issue is Gary’s. It’s also an issue likely not easily solved with hugs and tacos. But we’ll talk trust in a second.

3 An editor can’t be trusted to understand what the writer is trying to do. The editor is going to change the MS (presumably for the worse).

This is the part of the blogpost where I really struggled. I can take this idea in two directions. I can say on one hand that a writer has to go into that working relationship with the editor knowing that the MS on the start of work isn’t going to be the MS at the end of work. The changes might be small, just commas. The changes might be deletions of text. But change is gonna happen. That’s just the nature of development.

On the other hand, I can come at this and say that the writer-editor relationship is not fueled or aided by ego. Both the writer and editor are presumably human, and presumably fallible. Thinking the MS is so untouchable and perfect is a trap that results in little productivity and high resentment.

If a writer cannot trust that the editor is saying whatever they’re saying with the intention of getting the best work out of the writer, then the writer needs to reconsider their expectations around editing. Editing is not sugarcoating or rectal smoke blowing. If a character is weak, if a motivation is unclear, if participles dangle, and plots don’t resolve, the writer can expect to hear about it.

Would you trust the plumber to fix your leaky sink? Would you trust the bus driver to deliver your kids safely to and from where they need to be? Yeah, you maybe don’t know these people intimately, and even if you vet them, there comes this decision where you have to trust this other person to perform the task set before them. If it doesn’t work out, if the bus driver is late, if the sink still leaks, if the editor is tough to work with, make other arrangements. That’s what contracts are for.

4 An editor doesn’t care about anything other than getting paid.

I can say with 1000000000% certainty that there are some real scumbag editors out there. I can say with 1000000000% certainty that there are some real scumbag publishers out there. There are people in this world who care more about paychecks than people, and more about a list of credits than a list of experiences.

Those people are the minority. Maybe for some people they’re the majority, because some people have only been operating in the figurative waters just around the pipe where the sewage spills out, but the rest of the body of water is far less murky and far less packed with weird lifeforms best left to nightmares.

There are good editors out there. Plenty of people who really care about seeing the writer succeed. As cheerleaders, trainers, sparring partners, collaborators, sounding boards, and whatever role the editor is tasked to play, the editor has an interest that extends past the invoice.

Let’s suppose you (yeah, you) and I are working together. It’s our best mutual interest for this working relationship to be successful. If we each do our parts, you end up with a manuscript you can publish. We work together on revisions, we go back and forth to get the words into their best shape. In the end, you’re satisfied with your MS, and I’m satisfied with how I helped you. When this works out well, maybe you tell people to look me up when they need an editor, and I’ll tell people to stay on the lookout for your book. People helping people.

There are the cynics out there who say what I just described is the unrealistic pipe dream, it’s the impractical daydream of someone who has never done “serious” work and someone whose opinion can be discounted and discarded because “the right people don’t know who I am.” There are plenty of people who look at my words, my Twitter stream, this blog, and say I rub them the wrong way. That’s fine. I am not out to be the world’s best friend. I am here to be the best me I can be. And quite frankly, maybe we could spend some time collectively trying to make the world less cynical and shitty, shake up the establishment and maybe, just maybe, see more success all around.

I don’t know anybody who says, “Oh I love what I do, but that whole receiving paychecks thing really messes up my day.” Yeah, I know many people feel they deserve more pay, but I don’t know anybody who says they hate getting paid. Yes of course, people like getting paid. But that doesn’t mean the only reason people do whatever they’re doing is because there’s a paycheck waiting.

5 An editor doesn’t need a contract or need to get paid because the writer has been working on this book in their free time, and no one’s been paying them.

Yes, an actual sober human said that to my face at one of my panels at a convention some years back. And as you’d expect, the panel was about hiring freelancers and working with them. This sober human then went on to say the same thing about layout people, artists, graphic designers, and any other freelancers I had spoken about at the panel, just so no freelance stone goes unturned.

I’d like to think I laughed. I am reasonably certain I made a face and insisted this person is entitled to their opinion before extricating myself from the room. I don’t think I told this person to engage in sexual relationships with themselves or with their mothers. I’m sure I was thinking it.

When someone does a job, they deserve to be paid in a valid form of currency as would be spelled out in a contract that details the structure of whatever work needs doing. Paying with “exposure” does not pay bills. You can die from exposure.

It’s shocking to me that some distinction happens where someone wouldn’t stiff the electrician or the dog groomer but they can find some corkscrew-y rationalization for not paying the people who helped them make something creative. It can’t be the lack of tangible product, because when the electrician is done, the lights work, and when the editor is done, the manuscript is in better shape. Maybe it’s a sense of entitlement that they should be paid for writing it, that publishing is some great bleeding of money, death by a thousand expenses. Whatever it is, it’s patently stupid and asinine.

Contracts help structure the working relationship. Someone does a job, they deserve to paid for their hard work. If the writer is about to balk that no one paid them, then they need to do something to reward themselves. Go get a sundae. Go to the movies. Drink root beer and watch monster truck rallies. Do something. Hard work gets paid, period.


Originally, there was a 6th item here, about professionalism, but I thought it would be better to address that one personally before we wrap this post up.

“Professionalism” is a big subjective concept that relies on a lot of expectations and assumptions. It’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking, analyzing and worrying about. I wasn’t always concerned with how professional I was, but then again I wasn’t always aware of there being much in the world beyond myself and whatever itch I needed to scratch.

I don’t have a big fancy office. I don’t wear a tie to work. I don’t work for a big publishing house. None of those things mark me as unprofessional. Rather than let some commute or dress code or address define me as a professional, I let me work do the talking. That distinction, for me, is a huge one.

Good work, and good workers, are worth the cost. You hire me, you’re going to get someone who wants to see you succeed, but also someone who’s going to use the word “suck” in a comment about what your character is doing on page 9, because it sucks. I’m also the guy who’s going to write “Oh snap!” in a comment when your heroine starts kicking ass, because that’s awesome.

I’m not an editron-8000, some robot that just edits dispassionately.  I’m John, a guy who edits. My professionalism is defined on my own terms. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put my bathrobe back on before I have another cup of cocoa.

See you for #InboxWednesday. There’s a great question queued up.

0 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Professional Stuff

  1. #3 is super strange to me. (Maybe because I spent a lot of the day talking/thinking about UX.) If you only write for yourself and never care that anyone else reads it and you stick it under your bed in a box that will become infested with cockroaches, fine. But if you want other people to read it, isn’t part of that conveying the story, the feeling, the theme, the whatever that you want to convey? An editor is just trying to help you do that. Like saying something doesn’t make sense is the number one thing I want from an editor. (And the number one thing I say to coworkers in my professional job, followed by “I refuse to say this until you rewrite it.”)
    If the editor doesn’t get it the reader won’t. If the editor doesn’t understand something then why would you think your reader would? I don’t get this, do people really think it?

    • (Sorry! UX=User Experience. Which means making webpages and handouts and elearnings and videos and applications and whatever else work better for the end user, the consumer. You know, things like not using abbreviations that the people reading the thing you wrote won’t understand. I swear I know better. Mostly.)

      • I think there’s a very Icarus moment when you write something, even if it impresses a small group of people, but then you send it out to be edited or query with it, and you get rejection. The two things don’t mesh, because the comparative audience (a circle of friends vs one person) seems like it shouldn’t – forgetting entirely that friends are biased or they’re not going to be as critical.

        The fear that an editor will ruin the writing is in part a sensitivity to criticism, a fear that the writer will be cast out of the writer colony and shamed, that they’ll have to start all over, having wasted all this time. It’s part of what feeds the me-against-the-world view that a lot of writers perpetuate, where everyone who isn’t the writer or one of the writer’s agreeable backers is a gatekeeper looking to prevent the writer from their entitled success. (Entitled there is a key word)

        Editors should be considered reader surrogates, they’re the first exposure to “new” eyes that your work has, and that’s a big hurdle. It’s scary. But it’s also not necessarily the end of all things.

        Thanks for teaching me about UX, too.

        • Very interesting.
          Maybe a question for a future question day…(Sorry if you’ve already answered this.)
          Do editors (do you?) edit in genres that they dislike? (Not just sort of feel eh about, but actively dislike or don’t ever read/understand.)

          • There are genres I don’t edit because no one brings them my way.

            There are genres I don’t like, but that doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with their construction or inherent tropes so that I couldn’t edit them if asked.

            There are genres I don’t read, because they’re just not preferred genre to pleasure-read in.

            Other editors may do the same thing, I think it’s up to the individual.

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