Errare humanum est, to err is human
Last Thursday, I posted about a few books that I had read. One of them was from a new author. When going back to link to the book, it was gone. I immediately contacted said author to find out what had happened. What I found was a human being who had been crushed by a rogue editor, her self-esteem trampled upon and her belief that she had talent utterly destroyed.
After I had read the book, I gave her some feedback. Mostly good, but there were a couple of small (tiny, really) areas where the proofing had not been air tight and a lapse in editing. I’m keeping that to myself. But it was insignificant, really. Now, grant you, I’m not a proof reader, and as a non-English native speaker, I’m not the one to comment on grammar. Besides, English affords us great latitude in terms of expressing ourselves, and International English, as funny as it may sound to e.g. Americans or British speakers, is a thing. Anyway. Apparently, the author felt compelled to have the book re-edited by a different editor than the first one, and was treated to feedback no one deserves, and told in words that made it utterly clear she should probably flip burgers before writing another book.
Here’s the deal: yes, editors should tell authors if their writing is awful. However, authors are artists, storytellers. We are the pilots who fly the plane. We don’t build and maintain it. We are the formula 1 drivers, not the mechanics or engineers. Our grammar may be flawed, and we may switch eye colors and leave behind other plot holes in the manuscripts we send to an editor. That’s why we need you. Even the best pilot and the best driver need a great mechanic. As long as the story holds up, as long as it is interesting and engaging, the rest can be fixed. There is art and there is craft. A great editor will preserve the tone of the author (voice), will make the story tighter and better, will remove plot holes and fix other errors, while line editors and proof readers will fix grammar and typos. Finally, all involved are humans, and as a byproduct of human engagement, errors are made. I’ve yet to read a book with no typos, double spaces or what not. Perfection isn’t human. Only machines can be perfect, and that is boring.
I liked that book. I liked it very much. The story deserved to be told, and it is tight, there were no plot holes. That is my personal opinion. I might be wrong, but I doubt it. The first editor apparently agreed with me, so did all the people who left good reviews. My husband read it and liked it. One person did not. Big deal.
What really bugged me though is the way the feedback was handed back. Authors are one with their stories. They come from deep within us, they are us. To tell us a story sucks feels like we suck! It’s how it is. So if you are en editor, be gentle. This isn’t easy, I know. I lost a friend over this. She had asked me for honest feedback and couldn’t take it. No matter how gentle I tried to be, no matter how much I tried to soften the blow and find nice things to say. I never told her to quit writing though! Giving feedback is hard. To this day I’ve only ever read ONE story (three pages) with a language so atrocious that I would’ve told that person to NOT write. I didn’t. The language of that story was the equivalent of a third grader: “I went home. I did my homework. Then I ate.” (not from the story) Reading it was painful. So yes, there are some people who should not write. Not everyone is meant to be a pilot.
I know authors who fight their editors over commas. Personally, I fight my editors over what is important, e.g. the name of a character. When my editors send me back their edits, I usually accept all grammatical changes without even looking at them. They are far better at mastering English than I am, so why fight them on that which is their turf? Instead, we discuss other topics, like continuity, technical issues, the accuracy of medical procedures etc. We talk about the really important stuff!
I expect my editor to treat me with respect. I want to hear that my story holds, that it is good and how it can become great. I always acknowledge the work of my editors, and the cover artist, because book publishing is a team effort, it’s not a one person job. Yes, my name may be on the cover, but I only shine because of the help from my team. I’ve even worked with two editors on the same book project (something I learned never to do again), and it is from that experience that I’ve learned just how subjective editing is.
At the end of the day, we’re all human. I make mistakes, my editors make mistakes (it’s proven, I’ve seen it, numerous times) When you read a script several times, you begin to skip things (hence the invention of line editors), and six, eight or ten eyes are better than two (hence proof readers.) Most importantly, editors have preferences, they’re biased, have likes and dislikes, just like the rest of us. A story rejected by one publisher may be picked up by another. An editor may not like a story, might be better off to send an author elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean they sit on some sort of objective truth, and when you start to use words like “awful” and “terrible” to describe a story, then you have no business being an editor. You should have other words than that in your vocabulary when you talk to an author.
Back to my author friend. I tried to pick her up, patch up her self-esteem. As you all know, it’s easier to destroy something than to build it. It’s going to take time, and she may never get back on her feet, which would be a shame. I sense some great stories in her, just waiting to come out. I hope she will put that book up for sale again, after making a few small changes, and I can’t wait to read her next one.
Editors out there, proof readers, beta readers, tell me, what is your take on this? How “blunt” is just right? The comment section is open…
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Have a wonderful week!