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But I Don’t Live In New York…

January 27, 2010

About editors: “Bow down before them. They know what they are doing.” – Quentin Crisp

I’ve been on both sides of the editorial process. As a writer, I am soft and squishy like a cute puppy made of pudding. I cringe when someone else tells me that something I’ve written isn’t perfect. As an editor, I’m ruthless. I don’t care how attached the writer is to their words, I don’t care if they think their writing is the most eloquent and astonishing thing they’ve ever done. I’ll cut and cut and cut again. I’ll shout you down if you try to argue with me….and some writers whose work I’ve edited really love to argue. They’re like Tellarites, the master debaters of the Star Trek universe, except they don’t resemble scary pig monsters. Maybe they’re more like Orthodox rabbis. Or maybe I’m just indulging myself in very silly metaphors.

I don’t fight back when confronted by negative editorial comments – I’m more likely to shrivel inside, say nothing, and then quietly refuse to make any of the changes suggested. I guess the editor/writer relationship is like a fight or flight response in this way, and I choose flight every time. Just walk away, smile, say nothing, throw their changes in the wastebasket as soon as they’re not looking.

I think some writers believe that their unwillingness to make changes stems from a bruised ego. I certainly used to think that. “Oh, poor little me, I’ve been shot down!” I would whine miserably as I cried large, salty tears into my beer (I’m not sure this actually ever happened, but it makes a nice mental image). However, the more experience I gain in both writing and editing, the more I realize that this refusal to listen to All-Powerful-Editor-Person has NOTHING to do with hurt feelings.

It’s laziness. It’s hard to make changes. When words are all lined up in a writer’s head in a particular way, it becomes difficult to think of any other way that sentiment could be expressed. And even though most of us who are writers are quite willing to work hard (I mean, Jebus, we’re writers, we have one of the hardest professions on Earth), there are times when we shy away from having to do something so challenging. When I used to write essays during my college career, often part of the assignment was to revise the essay between the first and final drafts. The difficulty of making changes terrified me even more then than it does now, so I came up with a supremely lazy solution. I would purposefully leave the first draft unfinished. I would write until I came to the last page or so, and then I would stop. I would turn in this “first draft,” and then the “changes” I would make for the final draft were as follows: finish the essay. A lot of professors saw through this clever ruse of mine, but I would object loudly, “Hey! I changed it! That page wasn’t there before.”

So, writers need to listen to editors. I flinch a little when I write that, but dammit, it turns out it’s true. It also turns out that writers are NOT all-knowing, or perfect. What a rip-off.

In closing, another quote:

“In spite of their real opinion of editors as parasites and literary phonies, authors should be extra polite to them at all times, remembering that in that direction lie some of the most tasty lunches available in New York.” – Paul Fussell

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