All fiction can be improved

Recently I read a LinkedIn post from a proofreader who is interested in becoming a developmental editor (DE). They said something along the lines of, “I’ve been studying classic works of literature and although I can’t practice development on them because they can’t be improved, they do teach a lot about effective writing.”

And while I agree that classic works can teach a lot about effective writing, the idea that they can’t be improved is absolutely unfounded.

I urge any aspiring DE to recognize that this type of uncritical acceptance of other people’s opinions is counterproductive to our work. A developmental editor must never assume that because a novel has received someone else’s endorsement that it is therefore “good.”

Good according to what standards?

Part of the process of becoming a developmental editor is working out what you mean by good work and recognizing that this “ideal” is not going to be shared by everyone. And that’s okay.

Some novels become classics because some group of elites has decided they are – typically because these works reflect the ideals said elites prize. You can see how dangerous uncritically accepting this type of endorsement can be.

Others become classics because they touch a chord in a group of readers, an emotional connection that overrides any technical imperfections. I’m all for emotional connections with fiction but that doesn’t mean that correcting some of those technical imperfections wouldn’t make the work even better.

Notice how the traditional canon is overwhelmingly made up of male, white authors. Are we really to believe that these are the best works according to some universal, impartial standard? That authors who don’t do what these authors do have by definition produced inferior works? Of course not. We know that the picking process is and has been biased.

Fiction is valued for different reasons at different points in time. Authors fall in and out of fashion. Storytelling techniques that were prized at some points are not prized at other points. That’s because cultures change.

So, PLEASE feel free to speculate on what Hemingway did wrong. You’ll be a better DE for it.

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