Needing a Reader and Copyeditor…
Fighting Myths Again…
Beginning and early professional writers always seem to focus on needing to have editors and copyeditors and beta readers and everything else. Always overkill and usually, almost without exception, it also kills their writing and stories.
Some background. This obsessive desire for editing and copyediting on novels comes from three places.
— First, it comes from 1970s-1990s traditional publishing habits that have stuck around and passed around as needed like myths of a big tall walking snowman with a chainsaw. In other words, too stupid for reality in 2020, but still believed by those coming into the publishing profession.
— Second place all this editing stuff comes from is fear by the newer writer than their own work is never good enough unless touched by a committee of people who pretend they know more. And wow do you hear beginners make all kinds of arguments about why this is critical to their work, not realizing that obsessive editing hurts their work.
— Third, early writers think that words matter far more than story and that good writing is in perfect sentences and perfect grammar, so they absolutely must let a bunch of people polish and beat on their writing until it is perfect. At least in every sentence.
Story sucks, no voice left, no life left in the poor beaten corpse of creativity, but they do it because of fear and a belief that words matter more than story.
All three of these origins are deadly to a writer’s art and voice.
So what is needed?
Readers will notice too many mistakes, too many typos if not caught. So you have to make an effort to clear the typos.
So you need two things.
— A first reader to find typos, maybe. If they start critiquing the story, run. This person should just be a reader, nothing more, a person who might find that you had a character put on a hat on page six and then put on the hat again on page ten. Readers notice that sort of thing. (NOTE: I said one. Not a bunch of beta readers. Just one.) You can often do this step on your own by simply reading the story aloud to yourself or a friend.
— A copyeditor to find typos. If they start critiquing, find another one. This person should also be a reader and you can find this person at a local library or local community college and they are cheap.
That’s it. After that get it formatted and into book form and up for sale.
But through the entire process it is up to the author to defend his or her own work, to believe in the work, and to actually care enough about the work to defend it.
You are not defending your work when you invite a bunch of people to beat on it.
Poor little story. Written by a spineless new writer who has no faith in the work, so invites people to kill the poor little thing because, as with most bullies, the writer is too afraid to stand up and defend the work, so instead they bully it.
Storytelling is not stringing pretty words in perfect grammar together. It is getting the readers to climb inside a character’s head and follow that character through events until the story is finished.
Storytelling sells. Good grammar and perfect sentences seldom does.
J. S. Ramirez
When I was a high school English and Literature teacher, I told my kids, “Listen, I don’t care about your spelling unless I can’t read it. Don’t get hung up on it, and don’t make yourself miserable trying to make everything perfect. I want you to tell me the TRUTH in your writing, and I want you to focus on the heart and soul of what you’re doing. Spelling can be fixed later. Grammar can be fixed later. But you better write something you care about, and you put your heart into it — and don’t you dare try to write something you don’t care about but you think will impress me, your English teacher, because you’re gonna come through false if you do. I don’t care about your grammar. I don’t care if you can diagram a sentence. I care that you leave my class knowing how to tell a great story, in whatever form that takes, and tell it in a way that you’ll get people to read it. And I bet you every single one of you can do it. FINISHED, KIDS. NOT PERFECT.”
Some kids were delighted. But I also triggered some kids fear responses with that kind of talk, until they believed me and relaxed a little. And then we had the most fun of any English class they ever had, and one kid who thought he was dumb and thought he hated writing left knowing he wasn’t and starting up a novel of his own free will.
Spelling is easy. Story and heart and soul are hard, but they’re the whole point. Funny thing, though, is when those kids stopped feeling afraid that I was gonna chew them out for a missed comma, their grammar improved dramatically along with their writing. Funny how focusing on what actually matters will raise you to new heights, even in the mechanics.
They had years worth of other teachers to harp on their grammar and teach them to hate writing. Why ruin the fun? Why spend all our time obsessing on the nuts and bolts, when we could be spending it racing the car?
Wow, if we had more teachers like you, we would have kids reading and writing a lot more and a lot more professional writers who could last more than a year or two. Thank you for that.
Dean! Did you make that last sentence grammatically incorrect on purpose? If a reader can’t read you due to a couple typos or grammatical errors, then they’re not interested in reading your work in the first place–otherwise they’ll just find some other nitpicky reason to stop reading, so why even waste the time obsessing. Totally agree with you one hundred percent.
Shhhh… don’t tell anyone I know all the rules and chose to ignore them at will. (grin) Plus wanted to see who would say something. You win. (grin)
Man, I’m also an English teacher (writer first, teacher second). I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now, and I agree with 90 percent of what you have to say (the last 10 percent I will probably come around to agree with once I get more publishing experience under my belt), but I just wanted to point out that it’s not always the teachers’ fault.
We are cogs. We are at the mercy of corporations and administrators who know less about writing than we do. For example, I teach an AP class. The College Board recently changed their rubric from a holistic one to an analytical one. This means that my students are now evaluated on the parts of their essays instead of the effect of their essays as a whole. For the majority of my students to score well, I have to teach them to write with a template.
It is disastrous to their writing. It doesn’t help them develop their individual voices, nor to focus on the speaker’s overall argument.
But if I don’t teach this way, the students get bad scores on the exam and the parents complain that they’ve wasted money and the administrators aren’t happy.
So. What to do about the system? I don’t know. I don’t have a clue. I voice my frustration whenever I get the chance, but mostly, I am stuck trying to make the boss and the parents happy. I try to inject a little bit of creativity where I can, but it’s never enough. The system destroys the students’ love of reading and writing and it destroys the teachers’ passion for the subject.
Sadly, the students’ actual skills are the last thing on anybody’s minds. The ONLY thing most parents (and often the students themselves) want is a good grade–and the administrators simply want to keep up appearances.
There are teachers who hear what you’re saying (every teacher I’ve spoken with understands the problem), but most of the time, we lack the power to do anything about it.
My daugher got stuck with that. She’s a good writer. Her teacher told the class, “We are studying for the AP exam. This has nothing to do with your writing. Here is the pattern – if you want a good score, follow it. Once you’re done taking the test, throw it out and do your best to purge it out of your mind.”
Sigh. The joys of teaching. I feel for you.
Such clear, direct advice.
It’s too bad that those most in need of it will be too insecure to adopt it.
In a previous career of many years as a foreign correspondent and editor for two international news networks and a bundle of print outlets, your point of view was common if not universal..
One editor to make sure the writing and narrative makes sense, and one proof or copy editor to check for house style, typos, and some basic and limited fact checking.
No one else was allowed to dicker with the work because it is a truism, much ignored in organizations, that the more who poke at a bit of writing, the worse it gets. Always.
In a couple of writing forums I watch there are often desperate cries from wannabe writers searching for a “developmental editor.” There seems to be a belief that unless some charlatan sitting at the top of a mountain anoints the new writer with development wisdom, all is doomed.
It truly is astonishing to me that the vast bulk of the traffic in many writing forums is about editing, editors, where to find this kind of editor, or that kind, and very little about craft. I always come away thinking that the solution to all their problems is just to write stuff and trust to the story telling gene that has been with us since we sat around fires in caves telling stories to each other.
Where were you fifteen years ago? I have wasted more time and energy than you can imagine.
Even before I discovered your writing about the myths, and thank God I did, I immediately recognized beta readers as the dumbest concept. Here were all these new writers who jumped for joy at the ebook indie revolution and the removal of gatekeepers and what’s the first thing they did? Recruited teams of personal gatekeepers!
A lot of this reminds me of you previous posts about tastes in reading. I love reading old pulp crime novels. I realize I’m in a sort of minority but that influences my own crime stories. Can you imagine me writing a noir tale that plenty of pulp fans would love but have some amateur reader tell me it sucks and it’s all wrong because it doesn’t sound like a Louise Penny story or James Patterson or whoever?
I’ve seen some stuff that if someone won’t touch it to correct all the typoes, it won’t make any sense at all. So, it’s not going to sell. Then the writer comes back and basically accuses retailers of lying about sales, or stealing royalties, or some such crazy thing. What would you do about that? Still tell them that they don’t need any help? Just let them go on?
It makes me crazy. I personally don’t let anyone read my stuff before I publish it. I spent a lot of time studying how to tell stories, have a basic grasp of grammar, etc. I don’t believe in beta readers, or editors, so do I keep telling these folks that they’re going to sell their work? And I don’t mean a few typos, I mean sentences you can’t parse no matter how hard you try. Story plots that change from chapter to chapter. Or stories without a plot at all, just some people yakking at each other. Characters that are so flat, so changable, so weird that you want them to die, and soon. Stuff that makes your brain hurt.
Anyway, keep busting the myths. You’re helping a ton of folks get their work out there.
Sheila, you avoid those types. Shake your head and move away, quickly. Life is too short to put up with that kind of idiocy.
People who refuse to learn and don’t respect this profession are soon gone. Again, no one cares and not your job to convince them of their failures. Just move on, ignore.
It’s respect of the profession that really is the problem. Some teacher or parent told the person they could write and thus this person believes that is all it takes to be an internationally selling writer. They don’t have to learn and every word is golden. Insulting for those of us who have studied and worked and practiced this profession for forty to fifty years, but they don’t realize that. Thankfully, they always go away quickly.