let’s eat grandpa

Before I get into this post, I should probably emphasise I’m not talking from direct personal experience here. I’ve only had a couple of editors in my time as a writer and if they’ve Tweeted about editing me it has only ever been to say something nice or to joke with me in a manner we both felt comfortable with. So this post is solely derived from observation, but nevertheless, it still troubles me and I can’t help selfishly thinking how awful I’d feel if it did happen to me.

When I first started writing, something that used to make me pretty uncomfortable was the amount of chat you’d get on Twitter from authors who were outraged that their editors were daring to, well, edit their work. Obviously editing can be frustrating for both parties, and sometimes particular authors and particular editors just aren’t going to gel, but I kind of assume editors don’t wake up in the morning and think: “well, how can I destroy an author’s dream today?” Basically editors are just people with a job to do and it feels churlish to me to take to Twitter in order to air your dissatisfaction with how they’re doing it. Especially since your editor almost certainly follows you.

I think what especially used to bother me was that this sort of behaviour seemed almost fashionable. It’s like you weren’t a proper Artist unless you were suffering under the yoke of some small minded bureaucrat who didn’t understand your vision. Perhaps I’ve just been watching too much Nashville recently but there appears to be a cultural perception that if anybody other than the original creator touches a creative work their only goal will be to destroy its integrity. And consequently there’s a certain cache in publicly denouncing people who are just trying to make your stuff better.

Recently, however, there’s been a change either in culture or in who I’m following on Twitter in that I’m seeing less and less of authors’ whining about editors and more and more of editors’ snickering about authors. I increasingly see comments like “Oh dear, just read the word chuckle three times on the same page” or “No, author, you can’t hiss the word Halt” or “Whoops three hands in this sex scene.” And on the surface this probably seems pretty harmless but, actually, it isn’t. The reason I object to editor bashing is that I think the job of an editor is valuable and important and trying to diminish that in public is counter-productive. Not to say mean. But I think that courtesy goes in both directions: it’s wrong to mock someone on Twitter when they’re just doing their job but it’s equally wrong to mock someone on Twitter when all they did was do their job in a way that then requires you to do yours.

And the thing is, everyone complains about their work on the internet but publishing is unusual in that the line between your personal and professional social media presence can get quite blurred.  If you work in an office and are having trouble with a client you might Tweet about how frustrated you are on your personal feed but you wouldn’t do it on the same feed that you use to communicate with clients. Because, quite simply, it looks bad. I can only speak for my own personal perceptions here, but if I see someone who works for a publisher say something negative – even jokingly negative – about a book currently in production with that publisher it raises the sort of questions I don’t really want to be asking. Like, what does it say about this company’s portfolio that even their editors aren’t committed to it.

Of course, rationally one recognises that a professional editor won’t always completely love every manuscript they have to work on, and that’s perfectly reasonable. But, emotionally, when you see someone who is professionally involved in a project making a voluntary and unsolicited criticism of that project it raises red flags. After all, it costs nothing to say nothing, so taking the time comment negatively about something that you should, in theory, be invested in suggests – perhaps unfairly – a genuine lack of faith. Rather than the momentary irritation that probably actually instigated it.

But I think the main reason that these two tendencies (that of authors to resent being edited and that of editors to, for want of a better term, lol at authors) are so troubling to me is that they fail to recognise the essential division of labour of writing and communicate false ideas about how writing works to both readers and aspiring writers. The dramatic refusal to countenance edits reinforces the idea that the most important thing about writing is individual genius and that polishing, fine-tuning, re-thinking and, indeed, re-writing are unsexy, unnecessary impositions made by less talented individuals. And, strangely, the pillorying of infelicitous sentences reinforces much the same notion. When editors call attention to and invite mockery of completely ordinary line edits they are essentially suggesting to readers that the basic procedures of editing are needed only by authors who are insufficiently brilliant. This all serves to support the paradigm of writing as the preserve of an elite, be it the elite whose visions are too precious to be challenged or the elite who never repeat a word, misuse a comma or write an awkward sentence.

The truth is – without wishing to destroy the mystery – writing is a clunky and somewhat ugly process. In any given scene there’s an awful lot to think about. There’s character and plot and viewpoint and exposition and world building and emotional trajectory. And sometimes the last thing on your mind is whether you’ve repeated an adjective used a lazy dialogue tag or whether character x’s hand could realistically reach character y’s penis. Which is why copy editing is a thing. Back when I was working on Prosperity I posted this screenshot somewhere with the heading “I cannot write.”

As you can see I’ve used the word up five times in less than three paragraphs. That’s kind of spectacular but it’s also completely normal. I was willing to laugh about it and invite others to laugh about it, but I did that because it was my choice and I felt fairly confident at the time. If I’d been having a bad day and it had been posted by somebody else, I don’t think I’d have been laughing. And I appreciate that this might seem incredibly over-sensitive or perhaps I’m just having a massive sense of humour fail but—while I am often entertained by authors being self-deprecating about their work—I genuinely don’t see who benefits when editors invite the community at large to laugh at ordinarily unpolished manuscripts.

In fact, I think there’s a genuine danger of sending the wrong message to aspiring writers. There’s a huge difference between an author sharing their mistakes with their followers as a gesture of humility and and editor sharing an author’s mistakes with their followers as a show of superiority. The sort of goofs that can be published on Twitter in 140 characters are not the sort of goofs you ever need to worry about. Yes, you’ll feel silly if you write ‘he gently massaged his prostrate’ or, potentially worse, ‘he fell prostate on the floor’ but that’s a basic proofing issue. And you shouldn’t have to worry that somebody whose job it is to help you with that stuff is laughing at you instead.

romancelandia, writing

27 Responses to let’s eat grandpa

  1. Mel says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    and… the scene from your screenshot… in my opinion, is not only your best but the best scene I’ve ever read

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Aww, thank you. It was a tough scene to write – emotionally and technically 🙂 Nobody made me feel bad about my gazillion ups – I just thought it was funny when I finally noticed them. I think it’s a good illustration, though, of my point. Obviously a scene with the word up in it five times is … not so great … but it’s a quick fix. Not really what editing or writing are about.

  2. KJ Charles says:

    As both editor and writer I endorse this. The editor’s job is to tidy up the MS behind the scenes. Tweeting what a goddamn mess it is is like a makeup artist tweeting that Kate Moss has terrible skin. Your job is to create an impeccable look, not to tell the world that the subject would look like a bag of spanners without you.

    I have never been publicly complained about as an editor that I’ve seen, but honestly, if it happened, I’d tend to suggest the author should find a new editor next time, because I’d feel it as a very constraining thing in doing my job. What, if you don’t like my work you’re going to slate it in public? Should I go easier on this MS so as not to upset you? That’s not going to be good for anyone.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I’ve definitely seen My Editor Is a Demon From Hell Who Doesn’t Get Me tweets – and I can totally understand where they come from because feeling “not got” is an awful situation and obviously author-editor is a human-to-human relationship with all the potential for going wrong that such relationship can have.

      I have occasionally struggled with edits myself – like when you get a line editor or a proofer who doesn’t have an ear for how British people talk or is exceptionally doggmatic about the rules of ‘correct’ style, and then I’ve flounced about the house, drinking heavily and deciding I’m an unappreciated genius being repressed by an colonial bumpkin … until I remember that this is a real person doing their job in the manner that they believe is best. And actually even you’re pulling against what someone is telling you to do, actually that’s useful information, offered in good faith, about how what you’ve written might be perceived / responded to by others.

      So I do understand the take-to-Twitter impulse :/

      • Pam/Peejakers says:

        Well at least you’re not flouncing around the *internet* while drinking heavily & *tweeting* these thoughts 😉

        • Alexis Hall says:

          Well, I hope not. But I wouldn’t like to cast the first stone here 😉

          • Pam/Peejakers says:

            No, of course not, but, eek, I hope I didn’t sound all judge-y about people who are or have done that :/ Tweeting, er, unwisely, I mean, with or without drinking 😉 I was just teasing you 🙂

  3. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Hehe, I have to admit, the title of this piece made me blink a few times, before I got it 😉

    But, oh my gosh. I don’t even want to think about how horrible I’d feel, if I were an author, to see my work ridiculed in tweets by my own editor. Even if I didn’t know for sure it was *my* manuscript being laughed at, I’d be immediately paranoid & probably nervously scanning through everything I’d recently submitted, looking for those errors. Or I’d think, even if they’re talking about someone else *this* time, sooner or later it would be me. I can hardly imagine anything more damaging to trust & the working relationship.

    And the same applies to authors publicly dissing their editors.

    Good grief. I mean, it would be like, if my boss & I followed each other online, having her doing ridiculing subtweets about my work, or me tweeting bitchily about her management style. That’s . . . really stupid on either side.

    Also, sorry, veering slightly off topic, but what you said here: “this might seem incredibly over-sensitive” – I can imagine it *might* to some people, but that really bothers me. It’s that whole anti-vulnerability thing, again. I’m always hearing people say, when someone has been hurt, that person should “toughen up”. But it kind of strikes me as problematic to hurt someone, emotionally or physically, then blame the person who’s hurt for . . . hurting too much. Hah, I’m probably “oversensitive” myself about these things, for reasons, but my feeling is the world would be a better place with *more* sensitivity, not less. I think when you turn down your feelings for yourself, you turn them down for everyone else too.

    Also this: “I can’t help selfishly thinking how awful I’d feel if it did happen to me.” – That’s not selfish, my dear, that’s called compassion.

    Anyway, sorry *veers back on track*!

    I really like the way you talk about the collaborative aspect of writing & editing, though. It sounds very symbiotic. It’s something a lay person wouldn’t necessarily think about, but it’s probably a really valuable insight for aspiring writers to see it that way, not as something almost adversarial.. Plus I find it just plain interesting & analogous to all kinds of other situations. It’s like, the relationship between an orchestra & a conductor, or actors & directors. Or, really the way it *should* be, anytime two or more people contribute to a joint project. Even workers & management. And really, kind of everything, when you think about it. The way it *should* be, though sadly not the way it often is 😛

    Er, okay, I guess that technically wasn’t on track either 😛 Sorry, maybe I should try just writing “Great post!” sometimes 😉

    Great post 🙂

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I can only speak for myself here but I think when anyone even vaguely connected to anything you’re doing says anything about it .. you automatically assume it’s about you and it’s seething condemnation. I think that just goes with the territory of doing something that feels inherently vulnerable – which the whole production of writing does (to me, at least).

      As I said in the post, I think it’s a difficult line to walk. Because the personal/professional lines aren’t quite as clear as they are in other fields. Like I just wouldn’t have a Twitter account for me-in-my-real-life (though, obviously, I know lots of people) and me-in-my-author-life is still, to a degree, me. And sometimes I – like any human – say ill-advised things in public forums 🙂

  4. Aija says:

    I’ve read plenty of books where there are silly typos left and I still chuckle at some of them, but whenever possible, I’ve discreetly notified the author/publisher because I would feel shitty if I inadvertently embarrassed someone. To mock someone’s work like that is … childish. Always easy to point fingers at someone elses imperfections and always lots of people ready to laugh along. It happens all the time, I get it. But what I don’t get is how can they be so careless about people they’re working with? People they basically depend on to pay their bills. Wtf.

    • KJ Charles says:

      In a word, money. Editing is expensive. So expensive that some publishers do without. There are publishers within m/m who pay $50 for a ms, publishers who openly state that proofreading is an unpaid position and ask people to do it for the sheer joy of a free book, and publishers who ‘pay’ on a royalty-only basis. Nome of these is conducive to professional doing a thorough job. So it’s not that people are careless so much as that people are amateurs, because professionals can’t work for that. The lack of care here lies with the publisher who thinks editing and proofing are optional.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        I agree, in principle, that skilled editing makes things better (although what you consider skilled editing is, again, subjective – editing for the sake of editing is pointless and time-consuming), and proofing is vital but … there’s economic considerations here as well. I mean, the way core rulebooks for RPGs are produced nowadays are massively different in the era of the downloadable PDF but when it was all glossy hardbacks, I remember there was a minor public scandal (I mean, withing tabletop gaming – real pepole didn’t care) because it came out that several publishers just didn’t edit their books at all because it proved to have no impact on sales.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      It’s really hard to catch every proofing error. I always appreciate it when readers tell me they’ve spotted something. But equally I can see it as being annoying if you’ve *bought* a thing and there are mistakes are in it. Like buying a piece of IKEA furniture and missing a screw 🙂 Ultimately readers are entitled to a basic quality of product – and whereas enjoyment/pleasure is subjective, having the pages in the right order and the words spelled correctly I feel isn’t it 🙂

      Also there’s a massive difference between the role of reader and the role of editor (or anyone else involved in the actual production of the book). Reader responses are, to me, sacronsact, even if they’re dismissive / mocking. It’s just weird if that’s coming, even accidentally, from someone who is supposed to be “on you side.”

  5. Ellie says:

    @ Alexis, You are right that just because wrting a book is an artistic endevour, it doesn’t mean it putting it out for other people to buy and read it should be done with the help of the right professionals.

    @KJ, I totally agree with eveyrthing you are saying here. If you want to have a good quality product, you need professionals working together – the writer, the editor, the cover designer/artist, the publisher. As a foreign reader I can add the translator to this mix. Having inexperienced or insufficiently qualified people translating works of fiction can lead to disastrous effects

  6. julio says:

    this. all of this.

    though i still don’t get the title 😛

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Hehe, I didn’t either J, then it hit me: Duh, it’s an editing thing: “Let’s eat grandpa” instead of “Let’s eat, grandpa” – 😉

      • Mel says:

        I hadn’t even thought about the title before you said you needed some time to figure it out, Pam… But I got it ;-P

  7. Having worn both hats a dunnamany times, I can only nod and applaud.

  8. Beverley Jansen says:

    Laughing at another’s expense is never the right thing to do–laughing at ourselves is something we often aspire to be able to do. Editing is, and should be, part of the creative process as we all make mistakes and write clunky sentences. I try never to moan — after a frustrating time with writing or publishing issues — on a public forum. Unfortunately, this means I may bend a friend’s ear (in a written form) instead 😉

    Personally, I think editing is an art, and the difference between a good book and a work to be treasured.

  9. The author and editor relationship is a tricky one to keep balanced. You’ve got to be on the same wavelength, the editor has to get what the writer’s going for and help them achieve it. The author’s got to be prepared to accept that help. It’s professional, but the two are working on something far more personal to the author than some project at the day job. It can be friendly, but should never be so friendly that one side or the other isn’t prepared to make a stand on something. The editor might at some point have to assert the right to have the final say on something.

    Either of them doing silly things like public criticism on social media, especially of a sneering superior tone, is going to damage this carefully balanced relationship. Editors, who’d you’d generally think should be on the more professional side of the relationship, could store up their frustrations with repeated mistakes by authors, write a more generic blog post of the “Top ten mistakes editors see” type and it would be useful, not directed at anyone in particular and people wouldn’t think “what a bitch.”

  10. E.E. Ottoman says:

    I’ve seen this happen. I mean obviously they’re stepping over a professionally line because they actually work with the person they’re mocking. But I’ve always just assumed it was part of the language based snobbery I see a lot, not just amongst writers but academics too.

    I remember someone telling me after reading an early draft of something I’d written “I was really surprised that you mixed up ‘there’ and ‘their’ so often, because I know what a good writer you are.” Meaning that the two can’t go together, you ca’t be both a good writer and mix up homophones in an early draft. That’s not how we thing about language, or writing, or intelligence.

    Several years ago I remember an author making a blog post that basically boiled down to, if you need an editor to do line edits your either lazy or doing something wrong.

    I mean obviously you don’t turn in a really horrible draft to your editor. You do the work to your absolute best ability. At the same time I think it’s really scary to promote the idea that the only authors who need line editor or help proofing are the lazying “bad” authors.

    I think she and the editors that make fun of authors on twitter are in a lot of ways reflective of the party lines inside of professional writing. I see the idea that people who make these kinds of mistakes are lesser, all the time. I think it’s been really normalized in the community and that’s what leads these editors to act in this unprofessional way.

    Or as you said, “When editors call attention to and invite mockery of completely ordinary line edits they are essentially suggesting to readers that the basic procedures of editing are needed only by authors who are insufficiently brilliant. This all serves to support the paradigm of writing as the preserve of an elite, be it the elite whose visions are too precious to be challenged or the elite who never repeat a word, misuse a comma or write an awkward sentence.”

    It is the idea that an author who needs line edits is not only “insufficiently brilliant” but also deserving of public mockery because obviously they are simply not good enough that upsets me the most about this I think.

  11. cleo says:

    Huh. You helped me figure something out. I think this is one reason why lists of student bloopers stopped being funny to me after I started teaching. (The other reason, of course, is that they hit too close to home.)

    The learning process, like the creative process, is messy and mistakes are an essential, unavoidable part of it. Shaming students for making mistakes, even anonymously, doesn’t really work for me anymore. Which is not to say I never privately shared funny student mistakes with colleagues, because of course I did.

  12. K. Z. Snow says:

    Far worse than editors doing their jobs, however we might quibble with their suggestions, is editors NOT doing their jobs. Even writers at the top of their game become text blind. Moreover, if the burden of content and line edits, reedits, and proofreading falls on our shoulders, why should these slackers get a percentage of our books’ royalties?

    By the way, I realize it’s difficult to quantify insufficient editing, but I suspect most authors and readers know it when they see it. If I get a ms. back from an editor and it’s nearly as clean as when I submitted it, and/or egregious errors have been overlooked, an Incompetence alarm goes off. I’ve no clue what the solution is, publishers’ budgetary constraints being what they are, but this problem nevertheless drives me nuts.

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