Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Lies Writers Tell... To Other Writers (Part Three -- You're Too Close To Your Work)

I hate housework. Who doesn't right? Okay, there are some people who really enjoy it. I'm not quite sure what's wrong with those people, but they exist. More than a few of them, even. And it's probably not so much that they enjoy the housework, but the desire to have everything completely neat and spotless overrides any displeasure they have in the work. I'm thinking Monk, here (I wonder if Tony Shalhoub is as good as Monk at cleaning?).

Of course, there are parts that I hate more than more other parts and, actually, some parts I don't mind so much. Cooking, for instance, is a part I don't mind so much and even enjoy it. Except for the parts filled with the negative reviews from my kids. I hate unloading the dishwasher, but I don't mind loading it. I don't mind doing the laundry, but I hate folding it. I don't make beds. Vacuuming is okay. But I hate, absolutely hate, cleaning bathrooms.

Maybe, I'm just too close to it? Actually, when cleaning the bathroom, I'd have to say that I am definitely too close to it.

So... the lie... And this one is a bit tricky, because it's a lie, but part of it's true. The lie goes like this:
You can't edit your own work, because you are too close to it.
On the whole, the part about being too close to your own work is bullshit. Seriously, it is (with one exception, which we'll get to in a moment). Let's take a short time travel (and for a great time travel opportunity, click this link!) back to high school. If your high school was anything like mine, you were required to write papers. When writing those papers, you were also expected to be able to edit those papers. That expectation continued on into whatever higher education you went on to. The expectation that you would learn enough grammar and enough about writing structure that you would be able to self-edit.

Granted, some people don't learn that stuff as well as other people, but, really, everyone is expected to leave high school with some basic level of competence and, if you are trying to be a writer (a paid one), you should make it your job to have a level of competence well above that of the average person. In fact, the most common advice given by authors in the early to mid-20th century to people who wanted to be authors was all about grammar. Basically, they were all saying, "If you want to be a writer, learn how to write."

I think, to a large extent, possibly due to the Rise of the Editor, we've decided that's not so important. H. P. Lovecraft believed in self-editing so much so that he would tell his publishers, "If you change even one comma, you may not publish my work." Basically, take it the way I've written it or you can't have it. But, see, he knew his grammar and punctuation and didn't need someone else to come in and make his writing make sense. I think we need more of that.

Which brings me back to housework. That's what editing is like to me, something I'd rather not do but can't afford to pay someone else to do, so I do it myself. Of course, housework is often dependent upon whether someone else is going to see it...

When I was a kid, the way my mom got us (mostly me) to do housework was to have people over. Suddenly, it became this HUGE DEAL and my mom would say things like, "Do you want <so-and-so> to see this pigsty we live in?" Of course, I actually didn't care, because I never thought it was that bad. Obviously, my mother's standards were much higher than mine. Fortunately, I learned to draw the line at my room. She'd be all "Clean your room!" and I'd be all "But no one's going to be in my room" and she'd be like "But what if someone sees it?" and I'd be "I'll keep the door closed." Humorously, at first, my mom would give people tours of the house and open the door to show them exactly how messy my room was then blame me for how messy it was and how embarrassed she was that our guests saw it, but I was savvy enough to respond with, "Don't show them my room next time." Eventually, she learned.

The point, though, is that how well-edited your writing is doesn't matter at all when it's just for you, but, when you plan on inviting other people into it, you need to decide what level of cleanliness you want it at. At that point, either learn how to clean it up yourself or figure out how to pay someone to do it for you. Obviously, I'm more on the side of, "If you are a writer, you should learn how to write." It's just part of the job. Also, learn how to correct your own work, because it's a skill. It's a skill you can learn. It's a skill you should learn. It's part of the job.

Hiring an editor should not be something you NEED to do; it should be something you want to do because you don't want to do it. Like housework. And, even at that, it should only really be copy editing that you're hiring out (the person that cleans up the grammar, punctuation, and missing words). You should not need a story editor, because a story editor does not know your story. You know your story and you can not be too close to it. Story editors are good for one thing: muddling your vision. If you actually need a story editor, someone to help you make your story into something that other people can understand, you're just not ready to be publishing. As a writer, writing THE STORY is your job. If you can't do that, you haven't learned YOUR JOB.

So, yeah, that's harsh, but it is what it is. The job of the author is to write stories: It's the job of THE AUTHOR to write the story, not to write the story by committee. You can't be too close to your own work.

Except for the one exception.
The one exception of being too close to your own work has to do with things you understand that other people may not. So, like, with technical writing, if you are doing it for a broader audience than just those in the field you're writing about, you need to get someone to read through it and say, "wait, I don't understand what this means." [Lawyers should be required to have people help them write their legalese in language that everyone can get. There could be two versions of every document: the legal one and the one that people can understand.] Sometimes, we use colloquial sayings that people outside of our area may not get and you might need someone to point out those things to you. Or you may have just written something that was clear to you but, when other people read it, they just scratch their heads and say, "I don't understand this." What you need in these cases is not an editor that will be telling you how to fix it or helping you fix it or whatever; what you need is just someone to point it out, "This part isn't clear to me." That is the one real power of beta readers.

And, now, the good news! I mean, after all the HARSH, I suppose you deserve some good news, right? Here's the thing:
Just like with inviting people over to your house, most of those people are not your mother-in-law and will not be running their index fingers over every exposed surface. They are not there looking for your mistakes. I mean, if you didn't vacuum under the couch, they're not going to see that. What I mean is, if you are moderately good at editing, just moderately good, most people won't notice your mistakes. They won't notice them, because they won't even know they are mistakes. It's not like you have to be absolutely brilliant at editing. [Most people are not me. When it comes to editing, honestly, I'm more like the mother-in-law. Also, when it comes to editing, if I wanted to hire myself to edit my work, I couldn't afford me. It's a good thing I don't charge myself anything.]

What this all comes down to in the end is this:
When you see someone posting or going on about how you should never publish anything without hiring a professional editor, that is just wrong. That's like saying you should never have people over to your house unless you can hire a professional cleaning service to come clean for you. Probably, you are not having the President over to visit. Or the Queen. Most people are fine with "lived in." Again, it comes down to your own comfort level about how you want people to see you.

Except for one thing, because independent authors are a broader group than just yourself, it's like being in a neighborhood, so your yard counts and affects how people view the entire neighborhood. So, if your yard is so junky that people don't want to come over to my house, I might have a problem with it. Okay, that's not a "might;" I will have a problem with it, which is why the earlier harsh. If you want to be published, especially self-published, learn how to do your job. Learn how to do the writing part of writing, not just the coming-up-with-stories part of writing. Seriously, it's your job.


  1. I have a feeling this might generate some interesting responses....

    I will admit the last two short stories I submitted to IWM were completely self-edited. Since leaving OWW, I haven't put together a new group of beta readers, though there are a few people I plan to approach one my latest WIP is ready. That said, I wouldn't feel comfortable publishing a novel without at least some beta readers seeing it.

  2. There's nothing that bugs me more when reading a published story than finding multiple errors. That said, most everything I send out has been read by other eyes because, darn it, we haven't got to the point where the story in my head goes right into readers minds. Which might be scary. No, it would certainly be scary. Anyway, yes, things that make perfect sense to me, usually motivations and descriptions, don't always make sense to anyone not in my head.

    In summary: Self editing, yes. Have to pay someone, not necessarily. Extra sets of eyeballs on the pages before submitting usually makes the story better.

  3. Other people are better at telling you weaknesses in plot. It's like a product focus group. But if you're fairly competent in English I don't see the need to pay someone to check your spelling. If you read it yourself a few times you should get most everything, though it's best to reread every so often to catch things you might miss.

  4. I'm not a writer obviously, but I get what you're saying about cleaning. It would be great if you could hire a maid to do everything for you, but what about those times when the maid is sick or takes the week off? Does the house slowly bury itself in filth? No. You have to know how to do it yourself. It's probably the same thing with proofing your own work. You can always pay someone to fix your mistakes or learn to trust yourself. I'd still get a maid if I could though. I'm lazy about somethings. And I hate folding laundry too Man. I hope you have a smokin' rest of the day.

  5. Sandra: Well, beta readers are different thing than editors, even though I mentioned them here. The beta reader post is next time.

    Jean: I don't have an issue with a few errors in a "published story;" I have an issue with it when it's in a traditionally published novel where they are theoretically paying people to make sure nothing gets through. When the traditional publishers can't get it right yet feel compelled to trash talk independents, it pisses me off.

    Pat: And, yet, product focus groups prove incorrect all the time. Take the New Coke example, which had tons of focus groups that all said it was better than classic, and we all know how that turned out.

    Maurice: That's it exactly. I would hire an editor if I could afford one just because I'd rather move on to something else rather than spend my time combing for comma errors; however, I do know how to comb for comma errors, etc.
    And, once I can afford it, I'm totally hiring someone to clean my house, too.

  6. Good analogy. I'm not thrilled when people come to my house because my wife gets obsessive about cleaning up. Usually it's her family coming over and I figure if they don't like our house which stays pretty neat then maybe they don't need to come over.

    Now my writing I want people to see and I care what they think so in that respect I think you're right. I think that for the most part I self-edit fairly well so my writing is pretty much how I think it should be and I think acceptable to readers. But I do understand about that idea of being too close. Sometimes I just don't see what is weak or in error because it sounds good to me and I like it.

    There should be a law against legalese. I think lawyers write things that way so people will be more apt to screw something up and have to hire a lawyer.

    Tossing It Out

  7. Lee: LOL about the lawyers. I'll have to ask Briane if that's part of lawyer training.

    If something is "weak," but you like it that way, maybe it's not so weak. However, if you have an actual error that you don't know is an error, having someone to point it out can be a good thing. That's what copy editors are for.

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  9. So much to comment on. I need an outline:

    1. Lawyers and explanations.
    2. Editing and whether someone should do it for you.
    3. Story editors and whether they are any good or not.

    Let's start!

    1. LAWYERS AND LEGALESE. Did you ever wonder why your credit card agreement is 15 pages long? What those boxes are when you buy a car? Every single clause in a contract is there because in the past it wasn't and someone's lawyer got them out of a deal because of it. Read your contract: it says "You promise to pay us," or words to that effect. Without that, they might not be able to make you pay.

    As for putting it into plain terms? Those boxes on your car purchase agreement are the "Plain Terms" mandated by the Truth In Lending Act. I spend a significant amount of time explaining to baffled consumers what they mean. They were written by lawyers, and as one appellate judge said, "[Lawyers] are a poor exemplar of the common man."

    My own rule is that I explain things until you understand them. If I can't explain it to you, you can't make smart decisions about your case. I wish doctors did that. My doctor recently said "I'm going to give you [this] and [this] because you have [this]." How can I tell if that's a smart thing to do? I had no options and I don't know what the medicines do. Granted, I can ask -- but good professionals don't put the burden on the client to ask a question. They explain first.

    So anyway, lawyers in fact DO tend to rely on fancy expressions and legalese. They're taught that way and get so used to talking it they can't leave it behind easily. And as I joke with my clients, "If we didn't have fancy words, you'd think you didn't need to pay us $300 per hour."

    2. Editing and whether someone should do it for you. I think it is smart to get another pair of eyes looking at stuff. Look at the IWM June issue: I read it and re-read it and never realized I'd put "Issue 3" onto it. When you're especially familiar with things your mind tends to fill in the blanks for you, or see what you want to see. So having someone else take a look at it is a good idea. As indie writers, we should all be willing to help out from time to time, but understand too that it's a burden and so we should offer something. Like when I paid a bounty for errors.

    3. STORY EDITORS? I don't know much about them, but I wrote a story called "Alby's Drawings Of Time" and I thought it was great, and then I went back and re-read it recently, and I realized I could fill in a lot more; there was a lot that happened offstage, meaning in my head, and it wasn't all that well explained. So I think someone saying "this doesn't really make sense" or "your characters don't seem believable" or even, say, "Why wouldn't the three old witches just TELL Meg when to use the glasses?" might be very helpful.

    If the direction they choose changes your story drastically, then you can reject it and stay true to your vision, etc., etc., but sometimes I think it's a good idea to have people look stuff over.

    Then again, I never have people look stuff over, so don't listen to ME.

    PS: You should hire yourself out as an editor. I would totally pay you to edit my books, assuming you didn't want me to actually PAY you.


  10. Briane: Well, the lawyer stuff was mostly a joke for you. Well, poking fun. I understand the reason for the stuff; I just don't always understand all the stuff.

    I'm not saying it's not a good thing to have someone give your work a read through before you send it out; what I am saying is that this mantra I see pop up all the time about how you need to hire a professional editor is a bunch of hooey. And probably started by editors. Having someone you trust and who will ask all the "why?" is probably a good thing.

    I'd hire myself out as an editor if I thought anyone would actually pay me what it would make it worth my while to charge. But, seeing as how most authors don't make that kind of money, I haven't put that out there.

  11. I don't hire editors and don't have a team of readers yet, and you make great points, but I will say this. Once I've read my novel for the third time, my eyes glaze over and stop reading what's on the page and start reading what I think is there. It was only on the fifteenth read through of one of my novels that I realized I'd put the wrong gender pronouns into one chapter and referred to a huge bodybuilder thug as "she" the whole time. So I do think another pair of eyes is helpful. But I think there are plenty of people and resources online that can help you for free before you get to paying someone. And yeah, I don't care for a story editor either.

  12. Nigel: That can happen when you've been reading the same material over and over; that's one of the reasons "they" say to take a break between the writing and the editing. Mostly, I think it's a matter of training yourself in the way you pay attention to the material. Also, I think reading it out loud helps you to force yourself to look at the words in a different way.

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