Before I opened my freelance doors for business, I worked as an associate editor for a small publishing house. Long before that I earned a degree in Journalism. But much of my training for my current job came from many hours writing fiction and working with my critique partners. Since I started this freelance venture, I’ve worked with all sorts of authors, newbies to multi-published veterans on multiple projects, fiction and non-fiction, in various genres—contemporary and historical, romance and suspense, memoir and magazine articles. As a writer, a critique partner, an associate editor, a copyeditor, and a freelancer, I’ve learned a few things.
- Talent matters. All great writers begin with talent. I can’t carry a tune, but suppose the height of my ambition was to become a famous singer. Suppose I took voice lessons and spent lots of money and time honing my skills? Suppose I spent thousands of dollars going to singers’ conferences (are there such things?) and hob-nobbing with the best? I might possibly be able to carry a tune someday, but would I ever be singing at Carnegie Hall? Heck, my church’s worship team wouldn’t even want me. I can become a better singer. But I would never be good enough for people to fork over hard earned cash to hear me. Hard as this is for some of us to hear, talent matters.
- Hard work is everything. I’ve seen many writers with only a modicum of talent transform their writing through sheer determination. These writers don’t rely on instinct. Rather, they work with good critique partners, question their editors, and subject themselves to arduous rewriting sessions. They don’t settle for that’ll-do writing. They read craft books, attend writers workshops, and devour great works. Eventually they hear the words, “You’re so talented.” And they are, but that talent would still be raw without these writers’ passion for excellence.
- Writing is hard. You’ve heard the joke about the brain surgeon and the novelist who chat on the golf course. The brain surgeon says, “I’m going to take this summer off to write a novel.” And the novelist quips, “Really? I’m going to take the summer off to perform brain surgery.” Too many people believe writing is easy. They remember what they learned in ninth grade English, and they know where the commas go. They have decent vocabularies and a story that (they’re sure) needs to be written. What else is there? I’ve worked with folks like this. They pen their first manuscript and send it to me to edit, figuring they’ll get it back ready for a big New York publishing house. Instead, I send it back dripping in red. Even after they make the changes I suggest, in most cases, that manuscript still won’t be ready. I hate to break this to you, but your first manuscript probably isn’t very good. (I’m no exception. My first was terrible. My second rose to the level of mediocre.) Are you surprised? Was your first painting akin to a Van Gogh? Was your first Play-Do sculpture comparable to a Rodin? Writing is hard.
- Writing costs. Oh, I know, all you need is a computer. Theoretically, all you really need is paper and a pencil. But you also need what’s inside you. Your heart, your experiences, your emotions—these need to be liberally poured into your manuscript. If you’ve never felt heartbreak, you can’t write about it authentically. Sure, you can imagine a scenario, but unless you dig into yourself, find the heartbreaks in your past—even if they’re quite different from those in your story—and apply those feelings to the scene, your words won’t have the depth of emotion your readers are seeking. When you attempt to write without touching those deep, difficult places, your writing turns out flat and inauthentic. No editor will pull your truths into a story. Only you can do that.
- The editor isn’t always right. In fact, I’m sure I’ve often been wrong. I might read something one way when you intended it to mean something different. (However, one could argue that if it’s not clear to the editor, then it might not be clear to readers, either.) If your editor misses the mark, shake your head and move along. If he misses the mark a lot, consider chatting with him about it. If he misses the mark more often than not, it’s time to find a new editor—assuming you’re working with a freelancer. Having said that, please consider the fact that, though your editor might be wrong, if he is experienced, if he has worked with many manuscripts and authors over the years, and if he is an expert in the field, he might be right.
- Tension is king. Your manuscript needs big conflicts. But it also screams for minute-by-minute tension. That’s what makes readers turn the page. It’s not what happens at the climax of the book, it’s what happens in the next page or two that keeps a reader up at night. There are lots of ways to add tension. Learn those techniques and employ them on every page. Yes, on every page. It’s not your editor’s job to add tension to your manuscript, and we don’t like it when our eyes glaze over, either. Unlike readers, we don’t have the luxury of putting the manuscript down.
- Planning helps. Sorry, seat-of-the-pants writers, but it seems to me that the plotters have an edge. It might not be as fun to write with a detailed outline, but it usually makes for a better, cleaner book. I’ve seen so many plot holes and lost storylines in novels written by non-planners. Obviously, not all pantsers leave holes and hanging storylines, but that’s often because they’ve gone back and fixed them. If you must be a seat-of-the-pants writer, plan to do a lot of self-editing before you send your book to an editor.
- There’s no such thing as a good first draft. If you’ve ever been tempted to send your first draft to your editor, go back and read that opening line again. I’m serious. Don’t do it. Find a critique partner or two (I have eight). Rewrite and edit. And then, when you’re absolutely convinced it’s perfect, send it to an editor to prove you wrong. (He will, by the way.)
- Even the best editor can’t fix ugly. You should treat your editor as you treat your housekeeper. Everybody picks up before the housekeeper comes over. We joke about it, but do you really want to pay someone to pick up your dirty socks? If your housekeeper walks into a room covered in clutter, even if she hasn’t been paid to pick it up, she has to move it to clean around and under it. Either she will charge you more or not clean as well. If your book is filled with spelling, grammar, and usage errors, if it’s riddled with overdone metaphors and overflowing with unnecessary adverbs, your editor will spend half her time sifting through that junk to dig out the story beneath. It’s easy to miss plot holes when they’re cluttered with bad writing. So clean up that manuscript before you pay someone to shine it for you.
- Good critique partners are priceless. Find one—or a group of them, if possible. Your local and national writer’s organizations should be able to help you. And if you’re not involved with a writer’s organization, get involved. Once you’ve found a good critique partner or group—and beware: they’re not all good—you and your partners can learn and improve together.
So there you have it: ten lessons I’ve picked up in my years as a writer and editor. I strive to learn even more this year, not just about editing, but about writing and marketing, too. If I’ve picked up anything since I started this journey, it’s this: the more I know, the more I realize how much I don’t know.
Robin Patchen runs Robin’s Red Pen, an editorial service specializing in fiction editing. She is one of the editors we really like and respect, and we’re thrilled to have her offer this guest blog to our readers. Robin blogs regularly with a group of friends over at Quid Pro Quills, and she is the author of several books, including the just-released Finding Amanda.