Editor Turns Writer, or, Can I Take Criticism As Well As I Can Give It?

Many years ago, while working as the night-and-weekend editor of a daily newspaper, I ran into some problems on a page-one story.

The reporter was a notoriously prickly personality who had been known to snap at copy editors when she felt they introduced outright errors or altered nuance into her articles. (Which they do sometimes. Don’t ask me how I know this.)

I called her over, pointed out the problems I saw, and she pursed her lips but held her tongue. She returned to her desk to make some phone calls and tackle the requested revisions. I had a few questions after that, received with more lip-pursing, and finally I sent a version we both could live with to the pre-press crew with fewer than five minutes to the night’s drop-dead deadline.

The reporter then walked over to my desk.

“I don’t like copy editors, and I have good reasons,” she said.

I waited.

“But I like that you talked to me and didn’t just slice-and-dice my copy.” She paused and added: “I like that you were a reporter before you became a copy editor. You showed me that you get what it’s like to be on my end of things. That you treated me the way I’m guessing you wanted to be treated when you were a reporter. That means a lot. So, thanks, even if I’m not happy to going home so late.”

I thought about that night as I worked last week on revisions to my own story, a fictional one, after the members of my critique group gave it a good red-penning. They’re not professional editors, but they’re straight shooters who know what works and what doesn’t work, who understand the limits of stringent self-editing. And that’s just as good.

They humble me. They help me see that I can be blind in my own writing to what I see so clearly in the work of others. Just a few of my flaws:

—    I info-dump too much, too soon. (Let me explain ….)

—    I too often succumb to the luminous lure of lavishly lyrical prose. (I smoked a cigarette and stared at the laughing moon through the hummocks and hillocks and bunchgrass and alpenglow and thought of tortured similes in the sibilant fricative.)

—    I have a painfully pompous preteen propensity for annoying alliteration. (What he cynically but semi-concisely said.)

—    I’m too prone to using too much stage-managed action. (I say this as I move opposite of you to the far wall from the south corner and take two steps forward and …)

I was astonished at what my fellow critique partners had found. At what I hadn’t found in any of my dozens of passes through my work. Why do your characters play with their hands so much? wrote one. I don’t understand what her motivation is to ask him to do that, wrote another. I think we need an emotional reaction here. Yet another wrote: Where are we? Give me a sense of place.

The sort of stuff I routinely red-flag in my clients’ manuscripts.

Hoo boy.

I might have pursed a lip or two.

But once I unpursed, I realized:

—    About three-fourths of the comments were spot-on, something I could see only when I got out of the way of my own elephantine ego.

—    Many of my critique partners praised the things they liked, which is something I don’t do often enough with my clients.

—    Many of my critique partners seemed to do naturally what took me a long time to learn deliberately—which was to speak to the writing, not the writer. A lot of my early editorial letters said things like “You need to move this scene up in the story” and “You shouldn’t over-describe your settings.” Editing and critiquing is never a referendum on a person, only on the work.

Could I have developed this empathy if I’d been a non-writing editor?

I think it would have been a lot harder, honestly. It was hard enough to make the turn from a rigid grammar-and-style scold (as I was as a newspaper editor) to someone who learned to not only accept but work within the primacy of voice in the narrative fiction and nonfiction that makes up the bulk of my editing practice.

That means the writer ultimately gets to do whatever they want to do. My job as a line editor shifted from correcting them to making them consistent within their own established style and suggesting changes in much the same way my critique partners do for me—I can take them or leave them, but I’m always better off considering them.

Sometimes it wasn’t easy. It’s OK to use run-on sentences or sentence fragments if they’re the writer’s deliberate stylistic choices, I’d have to repeatedly remind myself. It’s OK for a writer to tell, not show, if they’re writing a plot-driven story. From such mental Post-It notes came a mantra that has become the motto of my business: Clarity and consistency over correctitude.

And I was struck by something I sort of knew but often forgot to remember as I worked from one line to the next, both as an editor and a writer: It is a heroic act to finish a novel draft. To have confidence enough in your created world to carry it across the finish line. Because I haven’t yet done that.

Getting that face-slap of humility was necessary for the survival of my editing business, but it took the revival of my writing self to truly “get it” in that way that makes an author and a client click every bit as much as two people in a dating relationship. And that’s really what it takes if you want the kind of referrals (“best editor boyfriend ever!”) that build a lasting business. For me, and for the editor I eventually hire to help me make my novel a publishable one.