The “No One Edits Me” Syndrome

This isn’t a great photo, but I wanted to show you all what a pretty blue this pinon jay is. He doesn’t much like me pointing the camera at him, though.

For today’s installment on the How My Day Job Has Made Me a Better Writer series, I want to talk about Quality Assurance (QA).

I once saw an interview with Anne Rice, who has long been one of my very favorite authors. This was right around the peak of her career. After The Witching Hour, when the Lestat books were oh-so-good. She was riding high, confiding to the televised audience that she’d been given a phenomenal amount of money for her next six books. She even said how much it was, as her contract forbade her to do, so that we would all know we could do it, too. At one point, she gave the interviewer a look and said, “Oh, believe me – No One edits ME.”

I’ve never forgotten it.

Especially as I slogged through her next books, each worse than the last, chock full of rambling and irrelevant information. I wondered what the hell she was thinking. Now I understand what her problem was.

She didn’t spend years in a corporate day job.

I think a lot of us have this idea about our work, whatever work it might be, that there’s something holy and perfect about it. And, if someone finds a flaw, this is somehow a personal indictment. When we’re young, especially, it’s almost unbearable to receive criticism of our work. Each point feels like a little flesh wound and we’re terrified of bleeding out.

In a work environment, you grow out of this really damn fast. Or you don’t succeed.

My firm does environmental consulting. I usually say I’m a data-jockey, but a seat-mate on an airplane recently corrected me and said, “No, you’re much more, because you understand policy. You look at the numbers, but then you bring the understanding of how to apply them in real-world situations.” That’s likely apropos of nothing, but I thought it was an interesting insight.

But that is what we do. I work with a lot of really smart people and we’re paid to give good advice. Our CEO often remarks that we have practically no inventory – the value of the company rests entirely in the brains of the staff. If our numbers aren’t spot-on or our reasoning isn’t sound, then we have no product.

QA is king.

We have levels upon levels of QA. People read, they spot check, they read again. If a client questions anything, we go over it again. Exhaustively. Believe me, if you ever had any ego tied up with being edited, you lose it. They’re not flesh wounds. This is people telling you when you have spinach in your teeth before the big photo shoot. Edit me – please!

On one of my writers’ loops lately, someone commented that an editor had asked for a revise and resubmit. She said she didn’t agree with the editor’s take and so she planned to self-publish it. I thought of my current client, who asks for all kinds of revisions I don’t agree with and how I do them anyway. Now, granted, this is my client’s report and not “the book of my heart,” but it is also my job. That’s what they pay me to do.

It occurs to me that, if I want them to pay me to write, then it becomes my editor’s book, too. And my publisher’s book. If I want them to invest in me and my book, then we all work together to make it a great product. As a writer, I have no real inventory. All the value is in my head. Without careful polishing, I have no product.

That’s just good business.

28 Replies to “The “No One Edits Me” Syndrome”

  1. Jeffe,
    I had the same reaction to Anne Rice’s later’s books. Now I understand what happened.

    Having spent years in the corporate world being told daily that I have spinach in my teeth (so to speak) and a decade at a newspaper before that, I can say I welcome editing. If I don’t agree, it’s a discussion point, not a deal breaker.

    1. Ah, you didn’t know that, Keena? Yes, that’s what happened. Thing is – they could have been really good books, if edited.

      And good point – discussion is a valuable part of the process.

  2. I love me some good developmental editing. However (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?).

    I’ve also seen editors completely screw up things I’ve worked on. The most egregious example was a college feature story about a ballet company moving from another university town to ours and opening a dance school. Fluffy stuff.

    The managing editor thought it would work better as two stories, the editor in chief disagreed; a harried copy editor put it back together — backwards, burying the lead halfway through the story. It printed as gibberish…on the front page (!)…under my byline. Almost three decades later, I still remember it, LOL.

    Yes, everyone needs an editor (at least one). I also have a gut check because I’ve had my editor go off the rails. I guess that falls under “Who QAs the QA-ers.”

    1. Wow, Val – that’s a great story. And how painful – eesh! Of course the other piece is having a good editor. “Who QAs the QA’ers” would make a great follow-up topic. The thing for writers is being able to separate good judgement from ego and emotion. Not easy.

  3. Yeeees. Editing. And then editing again and again, if necessary. Learning NOT to assume that you’re brilliant enough to have caught everything. In acting, it’s called ‘taking direction’ and we all had to learn to let go of the defensive BS and absorb critique. Those who couldn’t, didn’t get a degree. It’s also vital to grasp that it’s not personal. It’s about the work and focusing it to fit a vision – whether that’s yours, a clients, a director’s or an editor’s. Doesn’t mean it’s easy. That’s okay. Bleeding a little for your art sanctifies it. That’s my story, anyway.

    1. Love this image…we all have to bleed a bit for it.

      And you’both are absolutely right. A book becomes not just one person’s property, but the investment of a bunch of folks. We’re all on the same team.

      1. I think that crystallizes it, Laura – it isn’t “MY” story any longer, but part of a larger thing. If we want something to take on a life of its own, we have to give up total control of it.

  4. That’s all well and good, but there comes a point when you have to stand your ground and tell the editor: “Look, this is my story, not yours, and you are fundamentally changing the story your acquisitions department purchased. Stop messing with it.”

    There are editors out there who will hack away and hack away until there’s little to nothing of the original left, and still treat every rebuttal as though the writer’s being unreasonable.

    1. I can see that, Jess, and I certainly know plenty of writers who’ve sold books that they were then asked to drastically change. But I think in those situations, that’s when you re-evaluate whether that editor is a good fit for you. Just like with an impossible client, we always have the choice. It might take gutting through that project, but then you can decline to work with that person again.

  5. I’ve taken to looking at it as “yes, my stories *are* my children… and much like actual kids, you can’t just let them run around without discipline and correction or they’ll embarrass the hell out of you.”

    No day job, though–just a deep appreciation for how many glaring flaws one acclimatised pair of eyes can miss!

    1. Love that image, Darchala – children need boundaries! And it’s so true, that we become inured to our stories and can no longer see them clearly.

  6. Great post!
    I know one person who was trying to get a book published. She got an invitation from one publisher for a talk and the publisher told her the book had promise, but they really wanted a couple of things changed.

    She refused! And she didn’t see this talk as something to be really happy about. She thought it was an insult! Aaargghhh..

    I would have run screaming and blabbering through the streets out of happiness if that had happened to me.

    1. It will happen for you, Sullivan! But I hear your frustration. It’s an odd attitude to me, that so many seem to have, that changing the story is a capitulation. I don’t quite get what people think they’re losing.

  7. Really good post, Jeffe. I stopped reading Anne Rice when she stopped letting herself be edited.

    Personally, I’m eternally grateful to my editor (and my CPs and beta readers) for helping me polish the product that I will bear my name. As far as I’m concerned, it’s teamwork, plain and simple.

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