Tuesday, July 23, 2013

thoughts on editing: Robert L. Bacon

Here are some excellent thoughts on editing from author/editor Robert L. Bacon, who runs the editing service The Perfect Write®, http://www.theperfectwrite.com/. I think both authors and editors can learn from his experience and considerate common-sense approach.


I began writing in earnest in 1992 and sought the help of industry professionals who were recommended in one way or another.  I used five editors during the first ten years, and their fee structures were as disparate as their critique "personalities."  When I decided to work full-time as in editor in '09, I vowed never to mimic some of what I had been exposed to, which ranged from denigrating, to pompous, to downright mean.  Two of these "name" editors take enormous pride in belittling writers and pointing out issues I realize today to be purely ego-driven, as I've gotten to know these people and how they work, and they continue to believe "tough love" is the path to good writing.


I could not disagree more, and if anyone wonders why these editors have a clientele, in my opinion, this is due solely to their work eons ago with a few name authors who provided glowing references, which they then dovetailed into successful careers when they left their respective publishers to work independently.  Let me make it clear that both are competent editors, but each charges several thousand dollars for quite similar "developmental editing" critiques that many other decent editors, of whom I hope I qualify as one, maintain fee structures that are substantially less, and sometimes by as much as 75 percent!


If I had done some editing for a Pulitzer Prize Winner, even at the most cursory level, as was the case with one of these editors I've alluded to, my stock as well would rise substantially, but not to cause me to ever lose respect for what I consider to be the fundamental principle every editor should hold high atop the list, and it's to understand that writers are trying to do their very best.  This, above all else, must be respected.  Maybe I have an advantage in that I went through these editing wars with my own novels, while many editors have not done much if anything at trying to get their own work published.


Yet I've found that sometimes even the tamest remark can be considered aggressive, and I've been considered brutally honest by some folks I've critiqued.  I hope I've been honest, but I don't know of a single instance in which I've been harsh with a client or anyone who's sent me material to review gratis as a part of my normal business practice.  On occasion I have had to tell a writer to take a deep breath, as work is not up to the status it's thought to be by that author.  And some folks can't take or won't accept even the mildest criticism.  But I've never been rude to someone, at least certainly not on purpose, and I find it reprehensible that any editor would find this an acceptable technique for motivating a writer.  However, yes, I have told people that writing at a level people would pay to read is not in the cards without some serious work on their part.  Some have accepted this as an honest assessment of their work, and I'm proud to say have put in the time and effort to become solid writers.  


No one has ever told me I was a mean jerk for providing what I believed was the best advice related to the specific situation.  However, I'm certain there are people who weren't pleased with my analysis and would rather have been told what they generally hear from critique groups, which is that they are wonderful writers whose stories must be told and to keep writing.  This is great for amateurs giving advice to other amateurs, but not for someone paying for an opinion, or for someone asking for a critique from a person who makes a living by editing material.  The latter instances are when the game changes, and if an editor exaggerates a position to make a client happy, or to gain a "customer," this goes right to the heart of ethics.


I often receive material that is abysmal, and there are indeed times when I don't believe there is any way the writer will ever be able to move much beyond where he or she might be at that moment.  For comparison, this is no different from someone like me trying to sing, when I am 100-percent tone deaf and couldn't carry a tune if someone put a gun to my head.  I am not going to hurt a person's feelings by stating what is obvious to me, but I will suggest some source material that can at least enable the person to understand that writing well is an art and not simply a case of banging out words on a keyboard. 


Suggesting source material on my part, however, shouldn't be construed as applying only to those people who I believe will never be able to "carry a tune," as I recommend remedial aids for most everyone, and I keep 19 such books, which I routinely refer to, next to my computer.  But there are instances in which I'm committed to a person's not wasting time, should I firmly believe there is no prospect for that individual's lofty goals ever being achieved, such as when the writer of a dismal work assumes it to be bestseller material.


I hope asking a writer with this mindset to temper enthusiasm is not brutally honest but just plain honest.  And if any editor should be reproved for this, so be it, as I believe it's something that those in my profession have to accept as coming with the territory.  I say this because I'm abundantly aware that when I send someone an opening-chapter critique which doesn't proclaim the writer as the next Norman Mailer or Jane Smiley, I'm not going to be viewed as anything but a lousy judge of talent. 


In truth, half the people to whom I send a less than rousing opening-chapter critique don't even give me the courtesy of a "thank you" for the time I've spent designing the analysis, which as everyone knows I don't charge a fee for crafting.  And if I line-edit a page or two, my critiques often require three to four hours to assemble.  Yes, these comprehensive critiques drive my editing enterprise, so this is a cost of doing business, but even a person far removed from this industry has to be aware of just how much work goes into putting this material together.  And I know at the outset of preparing a less than flattering critique that the odds are zero that its writer will then hire me, yet I still spend whatever time it requires to do the best job I can, because I respect the effort that person has put into the narrative, and I know how I would want to be treated under similar circumstances. 


For authors, The Perfect Write® is now providing

FREE 3-PAGE LINE-EDIT (if applicable).  Paste your material
(up to 5,000 words) to theperfectwrite@aol.com (no attachments).

For Authors, The Perfect Write® is continuing to offer

Paste your query to theperfectwrite@aol.com (no attachments).
and visit the Sample Letters Page for examples of successful queries.

The Perfect Write® offers comprehensive editing services, from
manuscript critiques to complete revisions, including line-editing,
along with query design and composition.  For pricing, send your
project requirements to theperfectwrite@aol.com.



Elma Schemenauer, author of 75 books published in Canada and the USA, editor of many more, elmams@shaw.ca, http://elmasalmanac.blogspot.ca/, http://www.elma03.com.


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