Working with Writing Editors: Why and How

Getting an editor for your writing can seem like a waste of money. Such editors often go for around two to four thousand dollars if they have been working in the field for a number of years. Also, why should someone need an editor? What do you need to worry about other than typos?

The answer is a lot. A lot can go wrong when writing a book or a script, and if you find the right editor, you have an opportunity to fix those mistakes. I have been working with my editor for roughly a month now and can say that her input in my project has been most insightful. Working with an editor can help expose your shortcomings as an artist, and this can be a gut punch. But instead of taking it that way, you can accept those weaknesses and take it as a challenge to make your writing better.

First things first, don’t have someone you know be the editor unless you’re sure they can view it objectively. You can have such a person sweep for typos, but if they know you will it is hard for them to take a step back and provide an honest opinion. They know who you are, can pick up on little in jokes that a general audience probably won’t, and will often do their best to be encouraging. You won’t get an honest critical evaluation from your own mother. Think of your writing like a pool. Those you know have already waded in and are comfortable with it, but most people are going to be jumping in cold. If it’s uncomfortable, they’ll just leave and move on to warmer waters.

The best editors are ones you don’t have extensive connections to, because they can come into the story cold from the point of view of your audience, as someone who doesn’t know you, is meeting your characters for the first time, and just getting ready to explore the world you have made. This brings us to the problem of objectivity, not just for them, but for the writer.

Objectivity is a big one for writers, myself included. When delving into your story, you often feel a flood of emotions and are aware at any given moment what your characters’ innermost thoughts and secrets are. Nobody knows the story better than you. That is a big risk since you know the story so well, you may not communicate what you feel because you already know it.

Unless your audience is also aware of those things, a character’s actions will probably not have the same impact for them. Editors, like your audience, offer an objective point of view. If they are unable to get the ideas you are trying to put across, chances are your audience will be the same way.

Take me for example. I’m not terribly fond of depressed or angsty characters. I just have a difficult time connecting with someone who complains about the meaningless of life on a regular basis. While editing my book, my editor made the comment that my protagonist seemed angsty at times. When she revealed this to me, I was somewhat distressed. I was going for more a gruff and angry kind of character who complained, but did it in an intimidating or even funny fashion. Since my editor didn’t quite get that, it doesn’t mean she didn’t ‘get’ the story. It just means I didn’t communicate my character properly.

So my editor and I arranged a meeting where she addressed her feelings, and I told her what I was going for.

Her response was something to the effect of “Ah, yes. I can see that now.”

Then I said “Okay. So how can I communicate that better?”

The tips and examples she offered me after that meeting were most helpful, and helped me improve my manuscript greatly. Lines of dialogue and certain actions now stuck out as being against everything I wanted my character to be, so a few strokes of the keys and they were fixed. That’s what you should do. If something doesn’t work for your editor, talk to them, tell them what your goal is, and ask for tips on how to help that come across.

This brings us to another advantage of having an editor. They can be a good partner to work with, and even make the editing process very fun. A good editor will talk to you, try to understand who your characters are and ask you what you want your story to be. Once they know that, an editor can be a lot like a coach or personal trainer. They’ll be over your shoulder and offering input and criticism, but it’s all to help you build those writing muscles. Eventually, you will work those common mistakes out of your system, and you’ll be a better artist for it.

This doesn’t mean you should listen to everything an editor says. Sometimes you’ll have a strong idea in a story that means a lot to you and you want to keep. My editor has suggested the deletion of passages or lines that I find it difficult to part with. Sometimes they’ll suggest deleting something, only to go through the manuscript and see you were trying to set something up before, then tell you to go ahead and leave it in.

If something means a lot to you and not to the editor though, you can take that as another sign that it doesn’t quite work. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of it. It just means that element needs some fixing.

Now, not every writer needs to work with an editor. Sometimes it is a more comfortably process to work on something alone to keep any distractions from clouding your thinking. Sometimes every word just means so much to you, it is impossible to part with any of them. If however you are insecure with your work or want to go through a test run with it, I would suggest seeking an editor out. I can say for my first time working with an editor, this has been an enjoyable experience that has helped my manuscript get re-energized. There are not many joys greater than seeing a manuscript you already love come to life as your ideas leave your head and become words on the page. You work with a good editor, that joy can be yours as well.

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Ego Can Destroy Art

Artists who let their egos run rampant.

We have all heard the stories. They come time and time again of artists, often once talented and revered, spiraling into a pit of mediocrity, all while claiming they are misunderstood geniuses. There is a certain tragedy to this, seeing a great visionary fall into this trap of believing they are indestructible, or a newcomer unable to overcome the belief they have no more to learn. That feeling of indestructibility can destroy works of art that may have otherwise been great, and stop great careers before they even begin.

A big ego is a dangerous thing to have, particularly if you’re an artist. With it comes the assumption that everything you do is flawless. Surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’, no one ever questions what they do, and by the time the art is finished and available to the public, it’s too late for the criticism to make any difference. There are few examples as great as the saga of Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate.

The story of Heaven’s Gate is a tragic tale of an up and coming artist’s self destruction. Drunk off the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino sought to make the great American Western. Given full creative control and a budget of twenty million, the film ran over time and over budget, Cimino frequently clashed with his producers at United Artists, and the incidents that happened on set caused ripples still being felt to this day.

The film was eventually completed on a budget of 50 million in 1980 dollars, only making 3 million at the box office. It flopped so hard that it closed United Artists, which had been the studio for creative freedom. The rampant mistreating of animals on set, ranging from live cockfights to a horse getting blown up with dynamite, resulted in new regulations against such cruelty. In the ensuing fallout, Cimino destroyed many careers, including his own.

This incident ended the era of creative freedom in Hollywood. Not enough people said ‘no’ to Cimino, and he refused to listen to those who did. There is a lot tragic about this story, from the destroyed careers, to the resulting restrictions on creativity, not to mention the the animals harmed on set. Another tragedy is this film was Cimino’s passion project, the film that meant more to him than anything in the world, and he bungled it. It is forever a part of film history not as a rousing success, but as a crushing failure.

If you see Heaven’s Gate, it’s a beautiful film to look at. Not a single frame in the movie doesn’t qualify as modern art. The acting is astonishing, the direction is top notch, the sets are breathtaking, even its plot deals with the Johnson County War, an important chapter in American History. All of it however, is wrapped around a script that is dull and uninteresting. Had Cimino listened to those around him, he may have been able to improve the script enough to make the film his masterpiece, paving the way for a great future in movies.

In the making of documentary, one of Cimino’s friends said it best. ‘No one wants to believe they have an ugly baby.’ That’s true, especially when that baby means as much to you as Heaven’s Gate did to Cimino. It becomes more damaging when you believe you’re a genius, because then a legitimate criticism can be written off without a second thought. Looking at the saga of his botched western, one can’t help but get the feeling that Cimino thought of it as his show, and not the show of the characters or story.

I personally believe that’s what every artist should remember. The show isn’t yours. The show belongs to the art. People didn’t go to see Raiders because of Spielberg. They went to see Indiana Jones. People didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because of Harper Lee. They read it because of the Finch family.

You can point to celebrities and artists who are beloved and revered, but it doesn’t really have much to do with their personalities or private lives. People don’t chat with Spielberg about that time he and his mother snuck a few lobsters, or how Harper Lee took a spring walk with her father in the south. They talk about the art and how it moved them. 

There’s something oddly liberating about taking that stance. You don’t worry about what people think of you and don’t have a drive to prove yourself. You don’t have that thought nagging you all the time of ‘I’ll be famous.’ You just want to make the art the best it can be, and if it makes you famous, that’s nice too.

Artists always have a lot to prove, and the desire for recognition is one of the bigger drives in a creative mind. We all make art with the goals of making better lives for ourselves and building successful careers. Remember though, it’s not you who makes the art famous, but the art that makes you famous. A good work of art can elevate its creator to new heights, gaining you a place in history and making all your dreams come true.

This is not to say you shouldn’t be confident. Confidence is a great thing that lets an artist take that risk of putting their work into the public eye. Confidence can keep you from giving up, not stopping until you’re finished. Its also a great thing to make something you’re proud of. Validation at making something great is one of the best things a human being can feel, but there is such a thing as taking it too far.

There are also many artists who can be called vain, but they may have developed that vanity over years of success. Many artists boast of how they will one day be famous, and never get there because they don’t try to get better. They effectively put themselves in a trap, and refuse to leave to greener pastures.

There’s a fine line between feeling proud of your accomplishments and declaring yourself a perfect genius. If you keep yourself from crossing that line, you’ll find things are much easier. There’s always more to learn, and always time to stop and take a look around before making a mistake. If you put your own feelings aside and give the art the care it deserves, it will be good to you.