Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do Indie Writers Need Editors?

(Note: I wrote three posts to set up context for this -- Editorial Standards, eHow and Pulp Fiction, Slush Pile Thoughts Part 1 - Teaching, and Slush Pile Thoughts Part 2 - Levels of Writers.)

I was prompted to write this post by two things:

One: the reason I quit Kindleboards was because so many indies think that editing = quality, and they cover their ears and scream when you want to talk about actual craft. And Two: I read a series of rants by various more traditionally oriented writers saying, basically, "you indie writers need to get editors!" And even they were talking about typos and usage, and not about craft.

But my thinking has evolved since I first drafted out this post. Here is the introduction to what I was going to say:

First, I want to make two things very clear:

1.) A good editor, like a good housekeeper, is prized above rubies, chocolate AND bacon.

2.) Every writer -- I'm talking 100 percent of writers -- started life as a mewling, puking baby who not only had zero words in his or her vocabulary, but also no sense at all of dramatic structure, characterization, or even the ability to recognize what a book is.

And guess what?

Item #1 is not the solution to Item #2.

I still believe this is true. I haven't changed my mind on it. So why don't I care to say that any more? Because I was caught in the same trap as those who annoy me.

In traditional publishing, you can, with some assurance, tell people what they need. There are so many hoops to jump through, that the arguable issues of higher literature don't matter. Every writer -- from pulp to literary -- has to jump through those hoops, so you can safely yell at them for doing a bad job at it.

And I am as stuck in that mindset as anybody. The original thesis of this post was going to be "... and if you want to really learn to jump through those hoops as an indie, you don't need an editor, you need a teacher."

And that's still true, but as the old joke about the lost helicopter goes, it isn't relevant.

So do indie writers need editors?

The problem lies with the word "need." And (given that) the answer is, always was, always will be for all writers, and cannot be anything else:


That's a no-brainer. Of course we don't need no stinkin' editors. We don't need no stinkin' apples either. We may like them, we may find them beneficial and tasty and all that, but we don't need them.

We think we need them (editors, not apples) because in traditional publishing the editor is critical to the process. The editor is responsible to the publisher and to the booksellers. And the writer needs publishers and booksellers, so they need an editor. QED. But in that system, the writer doesn't have any responsibility, except meeting the contract terms and expectations of the editor.

(But but but, a writer always has a responsibility to write a great story! On a moral level, before the judgment of the Gods, maybe. But in traditional publishing, the writer's responsibility is only to meet the needs of the editor.)

With Great Responsibility Comes Great Freedom

In self-publishing, the writer is the one with the responsibility. It's a responsibility greater than any editor ever had, because it's total responsibility. Even if you hire an editor, you're the editor's boss. The buck stops with you, end of story.

This is terrifying for many people. I can understand why it leads to so much screaming about the need for a safety net. After all, if an editor fails, it not only threatens her welfare, but also that of a whole lot of people down the line. But the consequences of failure for a self-published author these days can be next to nothing. You don't need a safety net. You can fall, and fall and fall, and still be okay.

The great freedom that total responsibility gives you means that you can go after any market you want. Not just markets which will be profitable for your boss, or those which please the booksellers. You can even build your own.

Earlier I posted three essays to set up context for this post:

The point of my first context post (Editorial Standards, eHow and Pulp Fiction) was to point out that different markets have different standards. Electronic publishing has just expanded the market exponentially. What we consider "publishing" today is a tiny fragment of the number of markets and forms that are already in play. And new forms and ideas are cropping up all the time.

The two later posts about the slush pile were to illustrate that good writing isn't about good spelling, and good spelling is certainly not about great writing.

"But but but, are you actually advocating bad spelling?"

A week ago I would have replied, "Of course not!" But now... I can only say:

Advocating is a strong word, but, um, yeah. I am. Sorta.

What I'm advocating for is learning the standards appropriate to your venue, and excelling that them.

For instance: Some top notch New York writers I follow on Twitter have taken to using all those texting shortcuts that we decry as a sign of the downfall of literacy -- because they have something important to say with only 140 characters. And I've read long, funny essays written entirely in LOLcat-speak.

"Oh, but those are sophisticated writers who know how to write correctly, so they get a pass!"

No, they're smart writers who know how to use the tools they have to communicate the effect they want.

Consider this:

Back in the 70's and 80's breast feeding became all the rage among the upper classes, and someone did a cultural study among the doctors who were pushing it. What they found was that the very same doctors who advised modern, rich white women to breast feed, turned around and advised non-white immigrants NOT to breast feed.


Because those ignorant immigrants didn't know how to raise a baby the right way, and must be trained out of their raw and uncivilized habits first. Breast feeding is only for the most sophisticated of mothers.

Sound familiar?

You don't need to be able to spell correctly before you can write something funny in LOLcat-speak. You just have to understand how LOLcats think.

Like it or not, the wall has come down between LOLcats, online chat, blogging, fan fiction, and you. You can't go around telling others the right answer any more. You can only look for the right answer for you. So....

Do you need an editor?

That's up to you.

If you lack time and have money, absolutely -- hire someone to take over the annoying proofing jobs.

If you are an unskilled writer, however, an editor won't fix your lack of skill. And if you're not ready for it, neither will a teacher or a critique group. What you need is experience.

Get writing, make mistakes. Make intentional mistakes. Learn from them. You need to get those million words under your belt. (They don't all need to be fiction.) And if hiring an editor helps you get on with writing those words, that's fine too.

In summary:

1.) Kittehs doant needz no steenky editurz.

2.) And writers need to stop having kittens at the prospect of all those unskilled writers out there who don't listen to them. (Because they don't have to listen, so they're not gonna.)

Thus ends the rant I hope to put behind me....

Next week I want to get on with this concept of Artisan Writers. The idea of a writing movement focused on craftsmanship really jazzes me. I might go back to posting 5-6 days a week. I might write and post a Manifesto.

Stay tuned, and see you in the funny papers.


Carradee said...

I said something to this effect just last week on my own blog, focusing on the disconnect between being a freelancer (and expected to be able to edit my own work) and being a (copy)editor, myself (and expected to tell others that self-editing is impossible).

It's kinda weird.

Gemma Buxton said...

This is so right! I've always thought that it strange how some self-pubbers just whack it up on amazon without going through to check first... if you want to do well, you need to give yourself absolutely every chance, and if you think you need an editor, then hire an editor. If you don't, then don't, but they shouldn't complain about negative feedback they get because of it.
Hope this makes sense...

The Daring Novelist said...

Gemma -- I'm actually saying the opposite.

They do NOT need to give themselves every chance: that's a hold over from traditional publishing. What we need to do is stop worrying about them.

The solution to negative feedback is to stop flogging for reviews, stop listening to critics, and get on with writing.

The Daring Novelist said...

BTW, Carradee's posts are great. She has a couple of different websites in her Google account, so I'll include the link here to make it easy:

ModWitch said...

You let Maude at the keyboard again, didn't you... :D

The one thing I will say is that I have learned a lot of craft from my copyeditor. (And yes, better than rubies and chocolate, she is.) Editors can be teachers too.

The Daring Novelist said...

Two thins there:

1.) Yes an editor can teach you -- but that's teaching, not editing.

2.) When I said "if hiring an editor helps you get on with writing" I was talking especially about proofing and copyediting.

The key is that you are the boss, and that you realize that those help you improve your presentation, but they don't make your book more interesting or worthwhile.

The key thing is that you are proactive about learning your craft. You're out there reading and thinking about writing itself. You're taking responsibility.

ModWitch said...

That makes sense. I've been very fortunate to stumble into a great editing team early. They all work to teach, and I'm smart enough to listen most of the time.

So how do you think indies can make progress on craft? What advice should we be handing out on KB along with "get an editor"? Are there some nice, handy bullet points, or is it something every writer needs to figure out for themselves as part of being an artisan?

The Daring Novelist said...

It's so hard to sort out your audience on the internet. The people who are driving me up a wall on the "get an editor" schtick are mainly Traditional folks.

KB's problem is that folks around there are way to freaking sensitive to any possible insult.... so the only safe advice you can give is "get an editor" because after all, if it's just proofreading, that's not about whether a story is actually any good.

Which... is okay given the thing that people come to KB for.

What advice to give newbies who want to be better writers?

1.) Heinlein's Rules. Put in whatever caveats you want, but YOU MUST WRITE is the biggie.

2.) Learn to edit yourself. If hiring an editor helps with that, great. If joining a critique group helps, that's great too. Better yet, get the some grammar books. Work on spelling. Study every kind of writing book you can.

3.) Learn to not be so sensitive. Display your bad reviews like dueling scars and badges of honor.

4.) DARE TO BE BAD. It's the only way you'll ever get good.

5.) As a special KB addendum to item 2 - when someone says something insulting about indie writing, or a particular kind of writing: don't scream, don't talk about Snooki, don't assume they're talking about you-- Talk about the flaw they are complaining about! Intelligently and with curiosity. You want to know what makes them feel that way.

Writing is not a competition, and it's not a fashion to be worn the right (or wrong) way. It's a field of study and a lifetime craft. Respect the reader by respecting the story first.

The Daring Novelist said...

That was long, so I guess I'll set this by itself:

Handy bullet points are fine. And there are lots of people out there providing them. And they will get you a certain distance -- and early on, you may NEED them. Just watch out that they don't limit you.

To paraphrase the song: nobody else can walk that lonesome valley for you. But we're all walking that path, so as Woody Guthrie added, we can sing as we do it.

This issue isn't so much a biggie, as an issue I feel people need to stop and question every so often.

After this I want to get back to talk about craft. Because it isn't so much what you do, is that you understand it well enough to be deliberate about what you do.

ModWitch said...

I think it's easy as an indie to feel like you're on a pretty solitary path as far as craft. I tend to assume it's less lonely if you followed a more traditional path to publishing, with writer's classes and critique circles and conferences and stuff. But maybe that's a bad assumption...

The Daring Novelist said...

But why can't an Indie do classes and critique groups and all that?

As a matter of fact that's exactly what indies SHOULD be doing instead of hiring editors.

ModWitch said...

We can. It's why I'm going to a DWS workshop in March. But my limited experience with local groups and classes is that a newbie author who has sold a fair number of books causes a major disconnect for a lot of people. Or a very long conversation on indie publishing, which is interesting, but not very helpful for my craft development :).

Again, from a very limited sample, I've also found that writing groups/classes are awfully attached to the "shoulds". Where do you find the groups that encourage you to be bad? To break rules intentionally and sort out what works and what doesn't? Or is that the stuff you do after the classes? :)

(And feel free to stop answering my questions - I know I'm way off topic by now!)

The Daring Novelist said...

Well, I'm going to focus a little more on craft. Dean doesn't so much because he's focusing on more advanced writers, and because he's kind of a pantser.

But you've hit on the problem that every writer has: local groups and classes are not always the best. And sometimes you have to keep mum about your own accomplishments until you get the lay of the land.

Also, you out grow them. Which is partly where the internet comes in handy. You can make wider connection, find more people who are of the same mindset. (I was always surprised that KB hadn't formed several workshops within its writer's ranks.)

This conversation has been very cool, because I was a beginner 1) a long time ago and 2) in a very different environment. I'll probably think on these points and post about them later on. (That is your points, not the points that I'm old.)

ModWitch said...

I like the Internet. A lot. But I find myself writing essays in blog comments :D.

I'd come to a workshop you did, fwiw.

I don't know that I'm a typical beginner these days - but I'm not all that unusual, either. And I think those of us who will stick around for the long haul will be those that figure out how to grow our craft.

One thought I have, if you do more posting on this stuff... back in the old days, what did "newly established" writers do to work on craft? People who had found a little success, published a book or two - how do they keep getting better, beyond just writing? (And I know just writing is huge). What does craft learning look like across a writer's lifespan?

I begin to suspect that I know too many pre-publication writers (most of my local offerings), and I hang out on the Internet with some veterans, but I don't actually know very many (non-KB) people in the middle.

The Daring Novelist said...

Hmm. A "how I got here" post (or series) sounds like a good year-end kind of subject too.

In some ways, I've already written about some of it - this blog is about my journey. But the corgis of time are always nipping at my heels, so I never get to everything I want to say....

ModWitch said...

I'll do anything I can to encourage more craft posts :).