The Process of Editing (Kind of Sucks)
Putting Your Work out in the World
If you’re anything like me, you probably hate showing other people your work. From classmates to friends and family, my writing has stayed a heavily-guarded secret. Castle, dragon, the whole nine.
I recognize the irony in this since writing is a form of communication. And I’ve always dreamed of having my work published, so why is it so difficult to share? I think there is a myriad of reasons, but the two main ones are the fear of my work being rejected, and more importantly, fear of me being rejected. There’s theory out there about the death of the author and the unimportance of intention, but at the end of the day, any piece of writing is the author’s brain-child, a piece carved out and put on paper. The “unfortunately, we cannot accept” that begins so many rejection letters isn’t just a mark of the work, but the writer, too. Or at least that’s how it can feel. I’ve never met a juror— the editorial kind, at least— who disliked a person based on their writing. But that means very little when your eyes are skimming “many promising candidates” and you weren’t the one chosen.
Stephen King famously had a nail on which he hung his rejection letters. It is such a normal, and crucial, part of the process. Failure is nothing more than an opportunity to learn, and all those adages. I would be wary of the writer who’s never been rejected, and even more wary of the people who cannot reject and give critical feedback. Editing does, or at least should, happen at every step of the journey. When you’re just starting out, find friends or a group of peers who are willing to tell you what you need to hear. Family can be great supports, but literally no one needs to hear “this is perfect.”
But editing can also feel like a series of mini-rejections — from every crossed out word you thought perfectly captured your thought, to the marginal queries that ask, “What are you trying to say here?” It is so easy to let these marks wear you down, make you think your writing is not worth it. It’s also easy to become angry, tell your editor they don’t know what they’re talking about. And sometimes that’s true. Ego can get in the way of an editor and their ability to listen for what the piece is really trying to say. Remember, some people find pleasure in tearing other people down. Just look at any intermediate creative writing class. The best editors I’ve had don’t look at a work and ask “how can I make this sound like my voice?” or “how can I make this person cry?” but ask “how can I help this piece reach its full potential?” Find people who think like this and ask them to edit your work. It will make all the difference. Let me tell you what I mean:
My Experiences Being Edited
Globe and Mail: Personal Essay
This January, I had a personal essay published in the Globe & Mail. My excitement was through the roof and the congratulations came pouring in. This was an important learning experience. Firstly, I learned the importance of having the right venue for your work. I’d rather not be published than go through this again. The essay was about me changing my name, from the one my parents gave to one I actually identified with. About as personal as you can get. So I should have been wary when my editor started asking questions about my parents, why they named me what they did, what my sisters were named. I was asked to include all this, though “asked” is phrasing it nicely. There wasn’t really an option. Everywhere I pushed back, I was told it wasn’t good enough. They even changed the title without asking me. But that feeling of inadequacy, of being an “amateur writer,” of catching my “big break,” meant that I didn’t say anything. It was heart-breaking to read the published product, knowing my parents were showing it to everyone, and see how my message had been changed. Instead of being a story of personal growth, it was a story of bitterness towards my given name. The comment section was full of people who “also” hated their parents for naming them, and people “disappointed” with parents these days. I let my editor change the work to the point where it was no longer my message. Like I said, writing is a form of communication. So what’s the point in publishing your writing if it’s no longer what you want to say? A good editor is able to separate themselves, not have an agenda, and let the writer’s voice shine through. A polished voice, but their voice nonetheless.
Mentorship Program: Novel
My next experience being edited went much smoother, I’m happy to report. I was a finalist for the Writers Guild of Alberta’s 2020 Mentorship Program and paired with the wonderful Margaret Macpherson. I learned from my mistakes and pulled them into this opportunity. At our very first meeting, she asked “how would you like to be edited?” What a refreshing change! This wasn’t a “change this” and “do it like me” relationship. It was a dialogue, a conversation. As editing should be.
I wasn’t there to be complimented. I told Margaret that I wanted her to ask questions and tell me where I could improve. And that’s exactly what she did. I was working on a dystopian science fiction novel, and she asked questions about how my world worked — the minutiae that made it a tangible story-world. Sometimes I would give her two slow blinks before jotting a note to myself — “Think about the agricultural sector!” — or, I would launch into long-winded histories and background information and it was her turn to give two slow blinks and say, “Yeah, I didn’t get any of that from the book.” This is how our editorial relationship progressed, questions of character arcs, plot inconsistencies, and world-building. But at the end of it all, I always had to come up with the answer. I had to figure out what I was really trying to say, rather than someone putting words in my mouth.
To say that my writing improved is a gross understatement. I’ve described the finished novel as “completely different than when we began.” I don’t think this is entirely accurate because we retained the core story and Margaret was adamant about keeping my voice strong in the piece. So I guess the novel went from being a newborn infant to a young adult venturing into the world. The core is the same, but almost unrecognizable as it has evolved from so many experiences.
Editing and Authorship
So in conclusion, editing kind of sucks. But it is also one of the most important stages of writing. I see it like one of those really smooth crystals you can find in antique shops. Someone had to find that crystal, bring it to a shop, see if it needed to be cleaved, evaluate it, and finally get it polished to that glossy sheen. The crystal could have been sold at any stage in that process, but why not put out the shiniest work possible? Calgary poet Richard Harrison once said that the process of being edited is what took him from being a writer to an author. Editing is where the most learning happens because another person is required for the process. The writing community has such a wealth of knowledge, so if you only gain one thing from my ramblings, share your work— become an author!
Audrey is a Calgary writer and editor who apprenticed with the Writers' Guild of Alberta 2020 Mentorship Program. She is currently working on a science fiction book series, hopefully coming out when the real world dystopia settles down. Her previous work can be found in the Globe and Mail, Asterism Literary Journal, and the art installation "A Thousand Stories in a Thousand Sentences." Audrey enjoys aesthetically placed tea, books, and fuzzy socks as much as the next, but somehow cannot keep her writing space in order.
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