Once you’ve been editing for a while, you tend to start rolling your eyes at the newbie mistakes writers make. They name their characters Matt, Mark, Mack, Mick, and Mike and expect readers to be able to tell them apart. They invariably start the story in the wrong place and summarize the most important emotional moments of a story instead of showing them. They think they’re writing with an omniscient narrator but they’re not. They drown the story in exposition about the story message and fully believe that such hectoring will engage readers.
In short, they don’t know what they’re doing in a lot of very predictable ways.
It is easy to think that they should know better – after all, you do, and you’re not even a writer! Or, you are a writer and you know this stuff, so why don’t they?
As editors, we sometimes ascribe a kind of malice to writers, to think that they don’t care about the craft or that they have no desire to grow their skill. Because if they did, they wouldn’t make these obvious mistakes, right?
Look at it this way. I know I am a passionate and articulate individual, but sometimes people think I am impatient and loud! Can you believe it?
In other words, it is hard to see our own failings.
My years of teaching editors has shown me that new editors don’t know what they’re doing in a lot of predictable ways, too. They query things they shouldn’t query (“Is this spelled correctly?”), they ask hostile questions (“Why are you doing all this info-dumping?”), and they’re indiscriminate in how they apply their editing tools—a misplaced comma gets the same attention as the complete lack of a strong central conflict.
But that’s to be expected, right? A new editor is learning the ropes. We can’t expect them to see what they can’t see. A new editor needs someone to help them understand how to get better. It is just the same for an author.
Helping an author write better stories without judging the author is exactly what the work is. It is not always (or even very often) going to be helping gifted authors make their beautiful words sing even more beautifully. It is usually going to be trying to figure out what is good about a welter of mismatched words, a process that takes kindness as much as perceptiveness, a willingness to look hard for what is going right. Sometimes this is not much more than “I see the beginnings of an idea here” and “there are a few interesting sparks there.”
When we get away from this truth of our work, it is easy to become contemptuous of our clients: “Good grief, this is his third book, you’d think he’d know by now not to open every single manuscript with the protagonist getting out of bed in the morning!”
Contempt ruins marriages; it also ruins editors.
So whenever I feel some snark coming on, I try to remember that I don’t know what I don’t know, either. If twenty-some years of editing has taught me anything, and I sure as hell hope it has, it’s that I don’t know everything about what makes a good book or what will be popular or how people who are not me will respond to any given story. I have dedicated my life to figuring out how words work and I still don’t know for certain.
But my clients have the grace to assume that I am doing the best I can, and I try very hard to return the favor.