My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

To Editor or Not to Editor (Mailbox)

Note 1: I still need more questions to help me with my multi-week, get-back-into-the-swing-of-writing mailbox-a-thon. Please keep sending questions for me to answer to chris.brecheen@gmail.com, and they may get featured in an answer post.

Note 2: The multi-week, get-back-into-the-swing-of-writing mailbox-a-thon will mean that I'm off update schedule for a while while we deep dive into answering your questions.

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox." I will use your first name ONLY, unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. Long questions? Short answers? I'm here for it!] 

Tyler asks:

First of all--I love your blog. It's helped me shape a lot of my writing philosophy. I read Brande. I started working every day I can on writing. I did the floating half-hour. It's all helped immensely, and over the past three years that I've been writing seriously, I've noticed that I've been getting better, and I have some thanks to give to you for your advice. Thank you for all you do, and hope soon you can return to blogging--but as I'm sure people tell you all the time, take care of yourself.

My mailbox questions...

Do you use an editor, or do you self-edit? What does this look like for you when you are posting 3 times or so a week?

I've been writing for three years, and have yet to publish anything. However, I've felt my writing getting substantially better over the last few months. I've been working on a short story/novella for 1.5 years or so, but while I've only recently been able to tell the story the way I want to. However, I feel that perhaps I am getting stuck on this one idea for too long. I'm not expecting to get my time back out of the work, but how do you decide when it something should be published? I feel I could wrap up the story in another rewrite or so, but when I try to work on other ideas I feel distracted by this work, knowing it is so close.

Thanks for all you do Chris, I look forward to seeing more of your work!

My reply:

I usually try to open my mailbox replies with a totally hilarious joke (and believe me, they are always absolutely brilliant), but I have just got to say that it's really touching to have been doing this whole thing long enough that I'm starting to get folks writing in who have been taking my advice for years. I have a whole bookshelf section of people's first signed books with a few words of thanks for all the "You should be writing" memes or blog posts or just general advice over the years. And while my suggestion to do things like write every day or maybe skip NaNoWriMo if you don't already have experience writing at a fevered pace have always garnered a certain level of…let's say "spirited disagreement" (usually from people who have yet to hit those goals they claim rank upon their most ardent desires), once in a while folks who have gone ahead and tried what I propose take the time to write me and let me know that it actually worked like a charm and they're writing regularly and feeling much better about everything.

So to all my naysayers. "Nyaaaah!" Where's YOUR fucking bookshelf of signed first editions, huh? 

Okay, that was petty. I'm being petty.

No, not TOM Petty.
Jesus Fucking Christ, who is in charge of picking the pictures on this blog? 
Why won't they back down?

So Tyler, it turns out your first question is a lot easier to answer. I work with an amazing editor. And it's a good thing too because if you go back to before we worked together, it's REALLY painfully obvious. Not only do I make lots of mistakes (particularly when it comes to where the commas go) but there's just this noticeable dip in quality. My editor doesn't just fix my grammar and spelling. She also helps me be….a better writer than I am—or at least the best writer I can be. She teases out what I mean to say and helps me sharpen and tighten my language. Once she's gone through a draft, it's just a much better piece of work. 

Occasionally I finish a post too late to get it in front of her before I need to post it, or it's just really short and I think I can probably keep it mostly error free on my own. (Narrator's voice: They couldn't.) This is inevitably when I end up finding a sentence I didn't even finish, an idea I expressed badly, and half a dozen grammar mistakes….in the first paragraph—of course that's after I've posted.

So yes, editor is good. And if you can't afford one, work out a trade. And if you can't work out a trade, at least get some peer review. And if you can't get peer review, at least get a second set of eyes from someone who isn't trying to bang you. This is part of the process for a reason. We all suffer from knowing what we MEANT when we wrote something. 

The more complicated question is when you NEED an editor (and how many drafts you should do), and that gets into the tricky land of revision. I hate to answer your question with a question, but how important is this writing? As my attempts to go forth without an editor indicate, you should probably have at least a second set of eyes for anything you expect to be read. 

Imagine a logarithmic graph….

Or just look at this one if you have trouble imagining 
calculus in your head.

So revision and editing is like this graph. The first draft to the second draft will be unbelievable improvement. VERY notice. Much improve. Wow! Then the change from the second draft to the third draft will probably be somewhat less noticeable but still quite apparent. From third draft to fourth, you might feel like you are getting limited returns even though you are still improving upon the work.

Your efforts to keep polishing will keep yielding a better and better draft, but the curve will start to flatten. To get a draft that is as much improved between draft 2 and 3, you would have to do draft 4, 5, and 6 (in addition to 2, and 3, of course). Yes, it will keep getting better. There is basically no point where another pass by an editor won't find SOMETHING, but how willing are you to put in that effort? Yes, the returns get more limited. It will take longer and longer to yield a significantly better draft. How much time and energy do you want to spend improving this? Is it your Great American Novel™? Or is it the content for a random day's blog post? Masterpieces are probably most discernible from what I call "popcorn books" because they go through somewhere around five to ten more drafts. 

And this is one of the painful truths of art. Perfection is a goal we must strive for but can never attain. We can just get closer and closer (like the flea in the thought experiment who jumps half the distance from point A to point B every jump). And eventually we have to decide that our work is good enough for what we're trying to achieve, call that work complete (as complete as it will be), and move on. 

Deciding that a piece is ready for publication is a very personal decision if you're self-publishing (and a very gatekeepery decision if you're traditionally publishing). Obviously, I can tell you when something is clearly NOT ready (draft one…maybe two…lots of grammar errors…maybe a few continuity problems…and a chapter that is basically your freshman composition essay on why Mario is a scathing indictment of capitalism), but as you clean up your work and improve it, this becomes an increasingly subjective decision. It really has a lot to do with whether you feel the work is ready to go out into the world, and there's almost no objective way for someone else to tell you. Even in traditional publishing—where you would think you would be getting a more "ready/not ready" objective value judgement—factors like how popular the genre is matter way more than some rubric of quality. Seriously, things get published (traditionally) all the TIME with glaring errors in grammar, confusing wording, and absolute shit prose. 

So I hate to leave you with a bit of a non-answer, but it's really up to you, your sense of how ready your work is, and how close to perfection you want it to be.

I will give you this one freebie though, Tyler. When writers are starting out, they tend to underestimate how much revision and editing their work needs. It is a tragically common error among new writers to assume that they just need a grammar polish. I promise promise promise pinkie swear that you (nor anyone else) will be the exception to the rule that you are going to have to do some big revision. For most starting writers, it will take a significant number of peers FAILING to tell them that they are unsung literary geniuses (and maybe even saying, "this was a little confusing and stilted") before they begin to put their ego to the side and consider editing and revision (with peer review) a crucial part of the process.   If you are new to putting your work out in the world, ERR ON THE SIDE OF TOO MUCH. Later…(much later)…you will start to kind of "revise as you write" and may find that some of your less critical work can be done in only two or three drafts. However, you'll still want to do multiple drafts for the important stuff, which for most of us will include any kind of fiction to be published. 

I hope that helps, Tyler. Good luck.

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