When Editing Backfires
A lesson in editing and follow-thru, told through a true story.
About a year ago, I edited an accumulation of short stories for a client. Last week he contacted me and asked why his writing had not been accepted anywhere. I told him to bring his CD over and let’s take a quick look at the stories again. Maybe I missed something in my edits. He arrived this morning carrying a thick folder full of rumpled and dog eared paper manuscripts.
For privacy’s sake, I’ll call him Joe. Parts of our conversation went like this:
“Where’s your CD?”
“These are what I submit,” he said. “Some people don’t send them back. It gets awfully expensive.”
What I learned was that he sent out paper manuscripts, which many publishers still allow, but he also had them sent back when they were rejected. More than that, he was resending mangled manuscripts out to the next submission. Gads!
After I explained about electronic submissions, which more often than not these days include whole book manuscripts as well, his shoulders slumped.
Once I looked at his paper copies, I realized he had done little to no editing. I didn’t remember much about the stories from a year ago, but clearly, I had previously seen his glaring errors and recommended fixes in my critiques.
“What’s wrong with my stuff?” he asked. “I’m on all of these writer’s websites and everyone says my stuff is great. So why doesn’t it get accepted?”
“Does anyone on those websites ever tell you what’s wrong with your writing?”
“Not really. They like my writing. There’s a lot of chatter about what’s right and wrong, but no one’s really said anything I can use.”
I nearly choked. So much great advice and information is available on all the sites I frequent, I can’t imagine anyone not learning. “You mean you can’t take some of that advice and bring it back and make it your own? You can’t apply it to your own work?”
“Well, if people say my stories are really good, then they must not be that bad.”
“Joe, all that information floating around those sites, you think it doesn’t apply to you because it’s someone else’s critique? You should be applying any valid suggestion made to others to your own writing too. If it’s good advice, apply it in your work.” I really didn’t know how to explain it to him. He wasn’t getting it and maybe never would. “How can you read all that advice on all those sites and not understand and use it in your own stories?” I could see he was struggling to understand but the synapses in his thought processes weren’t connecting. “I see you didn’t correct your grammar and punctuation. Why not?”
“Well, publishers do that, don’t they? That’s what they’re in the business for, right?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “No, they don’t. That’s why you came for an edit.”
“You didn’t comment on what I wrote about,” he said. “So that meant my stories were good enough. Proofreaders at the magazines would clean it up.”
Shock actually rippled through my nervous system. Once I got my bearings again, I said, “You paid me to edit your stories—these.” I held a few in my hands and sort of shook them at him. “An edit doesn’t include telling the writer which topics to choose. The edit you paid for was to clean up punctuation, grammar and composition to make the writing understandable to your readers.”
“Well, since you didn’t say anything about my topics, and people liked my stories, I figured they were good enough to send out.”
He wasn’t getting it. “Do you still have the print outs of the edits I did on all these stories?”
No,” he said, looking sheepish. “I didn’t think I needed them after all.” He pulled some pages from the stack he brought. “I was wondering if you could read this new story and tell me if it’s any good.”
Again, I almost fell off my chair. The first paragraph took up nearly the entire single-spaced page. I saw little punctuation and his compound sentences would bewilder the most diligent of editors. I didn’t read any farther. “I’m sorry, Joe,” I said. “I’m not taking on anything new. I’m happy to do this one follow up visit on these older stories, but I’m not editing anymore.”
I did one last thing for Joe. I made him wait while I searched through my archives of old CDs. When I found the one that included his edits, every one of them, I burned another copy. When I handed it to him, I looked him straight in the eyes and said, “Make every single one of these changes to your stories. Print out fresh copies and then find another editor who will look at them.” I knew he was about to ask me to see them once he made his changes. I needed to stay one jump ahead. “A fresh pair of eyes is best. Find a new editor.”
The expression in his eyes remained deadpan. No Aha! experience there. It wouldn’t matter how many writing sites he frequented, or how many editors he paid, he just didn’t get it, or he was simply self-absorbed and too lazy to improve.
Please visit Mary Deal’s website for more wonderful articles like this one: Write Any Genre.