Editor Vs. Author – Finding the Balance

Happy Friday, everyone!

I don’t normally talk about the specifics of projects I’ve been working on, but today I’m going to nudge that habit aside just for a moment, because it brought up some interesting food for thought. One of my recent clients works as a translator in addition to her own writing, and I was contracted to look over a short story that had been translated into English. The nature of the job and a friendly peer discussion on our freelancing careers subsequently brought up the topic of how to keep the integrity of the originals we work with — or in my case with this contract, an original translation of an original.

Of course I can’t speak for the challenges translators face, as I myself do not have fluency in a second language, but I have always held them in awe. Not only is there the technical accuracy aspect of translation, but to then balance that with equally-accurately translating the intent of the author and the subtleties of connotation is mind-boggling to me. Seriously, hug any translator you come across, or  anyone using a language outside of their mothertongue to any degree for that matter. Having worked with several clients for whom English is not their first language, my admiration remains undimmed!

Editors encounter this balancing act to a lesser degree. While of course our primary job is to ensure readability and technical accuracy of a text, we too seek to preserve the integrity of the original, particularly when it comes to more creative texts. Otherwise, many would run the risk of sounding the same and your favorite authors would not have their unique voice, nor some of your favorite stories or poems their boundary-stretching (or convention-breaking) forms. For example, anyone who has delved into Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves will tell you that if an editor had gone through the (arduous) task of revising the novel to a typical layout and style and it had been published as such, then it would not be House of Leaves. Likewise, we would not have the technically-grammatically-incorrect but stylistically-significant punctuation and syntactic choices of e e cummings.

Herein lies your editor’s challenge: to determine whether you have set additional stylistic rules for yourself (and perhaps then broken them, deliberately) on top of the rules of the language (and form) in which you are writing. Then, once this is determined, to decide whether the breaking is worth it. Although I’m not familiar with the initial publication history of either cummings or Danielewski and thus how long it took their unconventional style to be accepted for publication, it’s safe to say that although they eventually found an editor and publisher that believed it was worth it, that this is not something that happens every day. Often, it will not be worth it because the rule-setting and -breaking has been done inconsistently, or weakly, and ends up crippling an otherwise perfectly decent text. Other times, the form in which you are writing simply cannot allow additional rule-setting or -breaking, such as a civil report or legal document with set styles. The key to helping your editor out in this regard — as well as being good advice for your writing in general — is as Picasso said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

We will do our best to retain your unique voice as long as it is worthwhile. While this may sound cold, remember that if a text is ultimately unreadable, it is useless — and surely that is the endgame for any writer in any medium?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

Painting and the Editing Process

Happy Easter Weekend, everyone!

I have to apologize for missing our date these past couple of Fridays. Truth be told, we’re in the home stretches of renovating our house following a flood last year and we’ve been feeling antsy to get it all over and done with, so forgive me if these posts are a little light. Most of my role lately has been painting, and this past week’s project has been painting the insides of our kitchen cabinets in particular. It’s been tedious, but worth it; that sentiment and the way our cabinets now seem illuminated from within got me thinking about the editorial process.

Those of you that have worked with me before may be familiar with my advice that rarely does a single round of editing get a text polished to perfection. I’ll frequently recommend at least two rounds:

  1. The first catches all the small and distracting errors such as spelling, grammar, and consistency (a proofread, basically); once those are resolved…
  2. The second round is able to delve deeper and catch flaws of ideas, character, pacing, and so on.

It’s similar to painting these cabinets of mine – on the untreated, raw draft of the wood, a single once-over with the brush does very little. By the second go-round, things are looking a lot better, but on a few I’ve needed a third or even fourth coat before they’re the best they can be. I use a fatter, broader brush – a wider-toothed comb, if you will – to do the bulk of the work, and then go back with the thinner detail brush – the fine-tooted comb – to get those hard-to-spot places and the edges. I’ll do this as much as I need to until it’s polished.

I’m sharing this because it’s useful for you to know that your editor has a variety of mental tools or modes in which they work to get your project on track. While there are those of us that may employ several of these all in one sitting, it’s best to prepare for the possibility that more than one session may be necessary in order for you to get a thorough service, particularly on longer projects.

It is of course possible that a single round of a broader brush does the trick, just as it’s possible to receive a manuscript that – on the surface at least – doesn’t need touching at all. While I firmly believe “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, I also believe as a writer that an editor’s job is not just to catch that single typo in seventy pages, but to illuminate the project from within by making suggestions that can improve its overall caliber. In other words, there wasn’t exactly anything wrong with my unpainted cabinet interiors, but don’t they look so much more professional, so much brighter, now that they’re painted? Instead of focusing on the sub-par things, I can focus on the contents. Likewise would I feel negligent in keeping silent on conceptual, creative, or theoretical flaws or gaps that, when addressed, could bring a project from ‘Good’ to ‘Insightful and Engaging’.

It’s not complicated. Tedious, sometimes, but worth it. And we editors and cabinet-painters alike wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

When Editing is Bad

Happy Friday, everyone!

As all you poets are no doubt aware, tomorrow begins 2017’s Poem-a-Day April! As it says on the box, the goal is to write a poem a day for the entirety of April, which  – even as a poet who’s semi-successfully managed it a couple of times – I have to admit is pretty daunting. Not only am I writing this in solidarity and as a salute, but also as a chance to point out when editing can sometimes be a hindrance.

If you’re not a perfectionist, in a way I envy you. The fact of the matter is that sometimes – no matter what you’re writing – you can become preoccupied with making your first draft perfect on the first try. This can lead to a lot of false starts, over-writing, a sudden block partway through, or worse – never starting. If this happens enough it can even have longer-lasting effects on your overall confidence. All of these are killer if you have deadlines of any kind.

So say it with me: “It’s okay if it’s not perfect on the first try. Or the second, or the third, or…”

Say this, too: “What matters is that there’s something on the page. I can work with that ‘something’. I can’t work with ‘nothing’.”

Always keep those two things in mind, because I promise, you will get stuck otherwise. It happens to folks who have just started writing, and to folks who have been writing professionally their whole lives. You will get stuck on worrying whether you’ve got the right word, that you’ll forget all the others you were going to write after it. You’ll take a break to figure out the right metaphor or a good name, and you’ll get distracted for the next two days. You’ll pause to fact-check and end up down the rabbit-hole of the Internet.

Here are a few tactics to help you curb the tendency to become distracted by editing:

  1. Know there’s something you’re going to have to go back and change or check? Put in a placeholder or highlight it. One method I’ve heard of is the ‘ELEPHANT’ method, where if you can’t think of a word right then and there, just type ‘ELEPHANT’ and keep going – when you’re done drafting, you can search for all instances of ‘ELEPHANT’ and replace them when your mind is clearer. This helps you keep your flow.
  2. Set realistic deadlines if they help you, or remove them if they don’t. If you do choose to have deadlines, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet them. For example, you can start with something small like ‘write a poem before you have your second cup of coffee’ – it’s a deadline with a built-in reward. The idea is that when your brain grows accustomed to achieving small goals, it’s in a better position to achieve slightly larger goals, and so on.
  3. A friend of mine hand-writes her work and covers her prior lines with a sheet of paper to stop herself looking back and thus getting distracted by editing. You can feasibly do this with window-resizing on a computer, too.
  4. Devote specific times to writing, and specific times to editing, e.g. – ‘during the week I’ll write, but Saturdays I’ll edit’, or ‘I’m not going to look at these poems again until May, when Poem-a-Day April is over’. Knowing you’ve allotted time in advance can help put your mind at ease, as it’s no longer worried about missing the opportunity and feels bolstered by your organization skills.
  5. Remind yourself that beyond a simple spelling/grammar check, you can always leave the editing to – guess who! – your editor. That’s why this tag-team exists in the first place! Knowing someone else has your back can be instrumental to your process.

Although editing is still part of the creative process – and some would argue that it’s the most rewarding part – they are different modes of thinking and sometimes jostle for elbow room, to the detriment of each other. The fact remains that you cannot edit what isn’t there, therefore you should prioritize creation in the initial stages.

What are some of the hurdles you’ve encountered? Any other tactics for overcoming them that you’ve found useful?

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

P.S. – Good luck, poets! I’ll be writing alongside you this season.

Auto-Checkers versus an Editor

Happy Friday, everyone!

I’ve been giving some thought to a common habit that others have pointed out to me: a reliance on automatic editing software, such as Word or GoogleDocs’ spellchecker,  or sites like Grammarly.

I should preface this by saying that I’m in no way condemning their use – that would be purposelessly elitist – and in fact, it’s remarkable what they can catch and they grow in sophistication as time goes on. They’re built on algorithms designed to catch specific errors in spelling, grammar, format, and – lately – concision and other weaknesses, and other software out there can, additionally, check for plagiarism and citation issues. Often, they’ll even correct the error for you without you having to break your flow, and many sites now have even a basic version built-in. It’s great to not have to know the spelling of every single word you’ll potentially use, and for those of us who are creative writers, the ability to add our own unique spellings to a personalized dictionary is a godsend.

“So Taegan, why can’t I just use Grammarly and be done with it?”

“What’s wrong with Word’s spellchecker?”

Well, until we reach the singularity, the fact is that auto-checkers will not catch everything. All algorithms have their limits, and are only as strong – and flexible – as we create them to be. For example, a sentence can read as correct to the auto-checker but does, in fact, contain an error, even if that error is no more than a poor stylistic choice. Here’s an easy one – ‘I had too coffees today.’ – where the ‘too/two’ (homophone) mix-up is obvious to us, but neither WordPress, Google Docs, nor Word picked up on it. Also consider how strange the following looks: ‘the Weather today Is beautiful.’ Not marked as incorrect, but it sure looks untidy to you and I.

The level of sophistication required to learn and check all the nuances of the written word equivalent to the human brain and eye requires more memory and programmer-power than most software can realistically maintain for the average consumer; frankly, for most of us we only need a limited percentage of the auto-checker’s power. That’s one part of it.

However, there’s a second, less obvious reason: it’s a great way to exercise your brain! The more practice you get with reading over your own work and recognizing your pet problems (and pet words), the better you’ll be at catching them. It’s always nice to learn more, isn’t it? Of course, not everyone has the time to do that. That’s where your editor comes in – your second pair of eyes. By all means run an auto-checker of your choice (please do – it’ll save your editor a headache!), but don’t necessarily trust it with your life or your promotion. They’re no match for a well-trained human.

Food for thought on a beautiful start to what’s hopefully going to be a beautiful, productive weekend. Enjoy it, everyone!

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan

PS – My plan is to post on Fridays, to give you things to think about and work on over the weekend. Let me know how it works for you!

The People Everyone Should Know

Have you ever heard the old saying that everyone should know a policeman, a doctor or nurse, a lawyer, a mechanic, and an accountant? It’s good advice. There’s been variants over the years – some would include a tailor or a plumber, for example, and nowadays it’s handy to know a photographer or someone in IT – but I’ve never seen a list that includes a writer or, more importantly, an editor. It’s a shame.

I can see a couple of arguments for why one would think it’s not important.

The first argument stems from a perhaps not unfounded overconfidence that I, too, am guilty of: “I’m really good at English. I don’t need anyone to look over it for me.”. It’s one of my favorites. True, you may have a high proficiency in the written word, but we all make mistakes and mistakes are not confined to spelling or grammar. Having a second pair of eyes can catch something that you missed because you’ve been staring at it too long, or offer a different perspective. Even if no errors are caught, it does wonders for your peace of mind.

The second is more of an oversight – “Come on, Taegan, why would you need an editor if you’re not a writer?” – a misconception of what an editor is and who they work for. When we hear the term ‘editor’, unsurprisingly it conjures images of a bespectacled individual hunched over stacks of loose-leaf manuscripts with a pencil, or a title given to someone tasked with collecting articles or photographs or short writings into periodicals or anthologies. These people work with Authors. These people are Very Busy (read: inaccessible) and only take on Serious Work.

The funny thing is, everyone is a writer, and all writing is serious if you want it to be. And you should want it to be. This is particularly true now that technology has become deeply-rooted in our lives and pushed for greater communication skills (you may have heard the term ‘soft skills’, too). If you are involved in the job market to any degree whatsoever, at some point you will be writing something, be it your personal resume and cover letter to a new job, or website copy for your business or blog. This doesn’t even touch on folks like me who – *shudder* – write for a hobby or a living.

Think, instead, of an editor as ‘a second pair of eyes’ – a second pair of very good, trained eyes who aren’t going to mince words, because they want your work to be the best it can be. They’re not just once-in-a-lifetime contractors, either. Having a good editor on your side is the same as knowing a good mechanic – it’s just a different type of tinkering. And just as you take your vehicle in regularly for maintenance or yourself to the doctor for a checkup, periodically checking in with your editor is a good habit to form, even if it’s just for a resume review. Don’t let silly mistakes lead you to miss out on opportunities or form a bad impression of you.

The written word is everywhere, and you use it much more than you think. Considering it is so often our digital fingerprint or a first impression, wouldn’t you want yours to be the best it can possibly be? Wouldn’t you want an editor you can trust on your side?

I thought you might.

Warm wishes,

~ Taegan