The Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing, Part Nine

As a student of the art of fiction, there are several axioms and pieces of advice that I come across again and again; "show, don't tell", "write what you know", "don't trick the reader", etc. These aren't items from a single book, they're everywhere. Some of them surely originate with specific authors, but as ideas they've taken on a life of their own, becoming more than something one person said.

In this series, I will try to gather all those admonitions, encouragements, and adages into a single, definitive list; the Ten Commandments of Fiction Writing. Hopefully this will be as fun and educational for you as it is for me.


Commandment Nine: Thou shalt edit thyself, and allow thyself to be edited

This one shouldn't come as a surprise coming from me. But I firmly believe that all writing deserves to be subjected to brutal, merciless editing.

And not just polishing as you re-read. No. I mean tough editing from someone who knows grammar, punctuation, and the principles of fiction. Someone who won't pull any punches. Someone who will tell you flat out that your story sucks, if that is, in fact, the case.

I've met writers and editors that believe that editing should be done with a light touch, in order to preserve the writer's voice. But I don't agree.

For one thing, if a writer's voice is so fragile that it can be undone by suggesting some more sentence variety, or asking them to avoid over-abundant alliteration, then that writer needs to accept that their voice may not be fully developed yet. If you're afraid an editor will strip your voice out of your work, you must not trust your voice. If it's there at all, it will survive even the harshest edits.

The deeper issue is that too often (arguably most of the time) authors use this amorphous, ineffable thing we call "Voice" as an excuse to avoid editing. Once you invoke the divine mystery of Voice, all meaningful analysis comes to a screeching halt. (Like this quote? Click here to tweet it!) After all, Voice is nearly synonymous with a writer's taste in words, and as the old maxim says, "in matters of taste, there can be no disputes." (If I encounter this argument an editor, it usually signifies to me that the writer is in the First Stage of competence, and will not benefit from my participation)

Appealing to voice is the same logical fallacy that occurs when someone invokes the divine to avoid being proven wrong. It's a cop-out. I'm a believer myself, but if you ever catch me saying "because God says so" when you're critiquing my opinions, you have my permission to slap me. Gimme a good rap on the beak, set me straight.

When a good editor critiques a piece of writing, they should be prepared to defend each note with logic (I'd say the same for any time anyone tells another person to change in any way). Every change the editor suggests requires a reason, and I will be the first to admit that if their only reasoning is personal preference, you should feel free to disregard that particular note. That's not to say you should dismiss it out of hand, though. If you respect the editor at all, you should at least consider their opinion, because it's likely based on experience. And if you still disagree, no good editor will insist you take their suggestion anyway.

The thing to remember is that editing is a mostly thankless job. Editors don't get royalties. You don't see famous editors walking red carpets. Nobody gets rich editing books. In the majority of situations, editors don't even get credit. Pick a novel off your bookshelf, and scan the front matter for the editor's name. Unless the author thanks them in a dedication, I'm betting it's not there.

Editors exist to serve writers. Unless the editor is an idiot, every decision they make has the same goal: to make the book easier to read. Any editor who tries to take over another person's story is an idiot, because they're not going to get credit for it. And remember what I say about the path of least resistance. Readers, by and large, only read books that are easy to read.

One final point: writers must learn to self-edit, at least to some extent. You can't just vomit all over your computer screen and expect some superhero to swoop in and make it a bestseller. If you put that much of the burden on your editor, you don't really deserve the credit, do you?

Expecting your editor to just fix everything is the same as a musician who can't sing expecting the recording engineer to just autotune all the wrong notes. The end result feels fake. Cognitive dissonance is built into the final product, and the audience can sense that something is off, even if they can't quite say what. Some of them won't care, but do you really want to bank your whole career and reputation on people not caring that your work is shoddy?

Writing is a creative endeavor, to be sure, but the writers who attain sales and recognition do so by working hard. You can't expect to dance around like a woodland nymph, surviving on inspirational Pinterest quotes, and then suddenly have Peter Pan the literary agent sweep you off your feet and carry you to the land of success.

You better work, bitch.