“You don’t try to reverse the river or get it to jump over a mountain, you harness its flow and energy to gently urge that it join up with other tributaries.”David Byrne
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think that writing is a lonesome activity. Granted, like many writers I spend a lot of time by myself in a room, working on a computer. Seeing as I maintain my focus best when there’s no-one else around, I often choose to be on my own when I write. However, the writing process isn’t merely comprised of typing words on a page. In fact, there are various important facets to writing that involve other people, and so writing, for me, becomes a game of communication and collaboration. Not only has such collaboration enabled me to write higher quality texts, but I also find it energizing and motivating.
So, I think it’s strange how many writers seem to be convinced that they have to work alone, and how some writers even maintain a negative attitude toward working with an editor. I believe that adhering to these notions is to hinder one’s own creativity and learning opportunities, which is counterintuitive for those who seek to improve on their writing skills and self-destructive for those who aim to get published. Hence I’m writing this essay: to offer my perspective—as a writer and editor—in the hope that it helps someone along their writer’s journey, and to answer the following question:
Why do writers need editors?
When I first started to become serious about writing at the age of 16, I was the only one of my friends who was writing fantastical stories, and while my friends certainly were interested in my creative endeavors, most of them just weren’t into reading. I did, however, discover an online community of writers with whom I collaborated. Together we created characters and wrote stories about those characters on a forum, and so collaboration has been integral to my writer’s journey from the start.
During my English studies at the University of Amsterdam I finally met kindred spirits in person; people who were working on poetry and fiction and essays. We talked about our shared interests and our dreams to become professional writers that can live off their wordsmithing. Soon I enrolled in a creative writing course and it was during those classes that I became conscious of how valuable a collaborative environment can be. During this course my peers and I traded drafts and took the time to thoroughly critique one another’s work. Each session we openly discussed two pieces, and the person whose piece was being workshopped was required to remain silent until the discussion had concluded. The point was to observe the discussion, listen to what people have to say without influencing their thoughts, and collect as much information as possible so that follow-up questions could be asked to those critiquing the work.
In those classes I learned how to create more vivid imagery in my fiction and eventually I formed a strong opinion on the notion of show-don’t-tell. I also realized that there were already a few techniques that I could pull off well; I just hadn’t been aware that I was utilizing those skills. At the same time I came to see what my weaknesses were; for example, I occasionally wrote convoluted sentences riddled with unnecessary adjectives and adverbs, which kill the momentum of an otherwise crisp passage. Then there was the issue of register: I used to write high descriptions and flowing prose that, at times, got accidentally interrupted by colloquial phrases. While I can’t say for sure whether or not I would have figured these things out on my own, being in a collaborative environment with likeminded souls definitely helped to speed things along. Toward the end of the creative writing course, I had acquired a kit filled with tools, and from there on out it was but a matter of keeping those tools as sharp as possible by continuing to write and presenting my work to those whose judgments I trust.
The first story I wrote after completing the course is an experimental piece written from the perspective of a crashing meteor, and it’s called “Terminal Velocity.” I wrote it for the 2016 short story contest hosted by Writer’s Block Magazine, and I came in third, and I remember being incredibly proud of that accomplishment. However, when I look back at that story I see things that I would have changed if I had the opportunity, and this holds true for most of my texts. I don’t believe that any work of art is ever flawless or perfect or even finished; I think that most artists will always notice things that continue to bug them even after publication because they are so intimately familiar with their own works.
The editing process never stops—it’s a rabbit hole. Without a voice of reason, it’s easy for me to lose myself in an infinite string of revisions that will, after a while, only be destructive to the piece. God knows how many writers butchered a fine draft because they didn’t know when to stop and had nobody to tell them that enough is enough. I think that this voice of reason needs to be external to myself, because I’ve noticed how easy it is to develop tunnel vision while editing my own work. I need someone to explain to me—as honestly and as directly as they can—what works for them and what doesn’t. Only then can I put things into perspective and look at my own work through a different lens. For example, I once wrote a story where I ended up solely focusing on getting the protagonist’s inner struggle right, and any notion of plot development didn’t even occur to me, so the plot turned out weak and uninteresting. Consequently, without a strong plot to drive, reflect and develop the protagonist’s inner struggle, that struggle itself was meaningless. It was only after workshopping the piece that new ideas came to me and I was able to significantly expand on the story.
While I had mostly been writing fiction (besides academic essays for university), it was at Writer’s Block that I started to really get into nonfiction. Every month several articles, each written by a member of the editorial board, appear on our website. Behind the scenes, we edit each other’s articles, and so I have received a lot of different feedback from my fellow board members which helped me to develop my nonfiction voice. Moreover, writing nonfiction on a regular basis forced me to think critically throughout the entire writing process, and this fed into my fiction writing in the sense that a critical mindset and writing style helps to write more concise and vivid imagery.
Co-writing a text is another interesting form of collaboration. This is a technique that I practice with my partner in crime (and former Writer’s Block Editor-in-Chief), Luc de Vries. Luc said it best: “Though you only write half a story, you end up with a complete book.” The process, compared to writing by myself, is inherently different: we sit across from each other at a table, working on laptops. The main advantage of working together is that we can instantly provide each other with feedback on passages that we wrote, and later, while editing, each of us notices different things.
Yet, receiving feedback is not always easy. It is a skill, much like giving feedback, that needs to be honed. While a writer has to be willing to open themselves up to criticism, I think that it’s even more important for a writer to learn to recognize what kind of feedback is useful and what kind of feedback can be ignored, for not all feedback is always accurate. As a writer, I know that I’ve occasionally ignored some feedback because I felt that incorporating those suggested revisions would alter my work to a point that it’s simply not my work anymore. Additionally, I’ve received feedback that was just completely missing the mark, and I’ve received feedback that was merely negative for the sake of negativity. Of course, none of these aforementioned examples are to be feared, despised or avoided; on the contrary, even when feedback is negative or seemingly useless, it’s likely that there are still things that one could take away from it. Identifying why certain feedback doesn’t work for me not only helps to assert my own creative vision, but it also still gives me some insight into how someone else reads and interprets my work. Unearthing another’s unique interpretation is exactly what I need to ascertain that I’m still on the right track, because another’s interpretation functions as a mirror to my own vision.
Whereas I was never a stranger to editing, I had always seen myself as a writer first and foremost. It wasn’t until I joined the Writer’s Block editorial board in September 2017 that I truly began to identify as an editor. Having enjoyed the position of Final Editor for two academic years, I have been on the other side of the fence: a representative of a magazine who, together with fellow board members, decides to accept or reject submissions.
A piece doesn’t have to be outstanding right off the bat. It has always been Writer’s Block’s mission to offer a platform for writers of all skill levels and aiding those writers in developing their voices as well as achieving a publication. I vote for accepting a piece when it shows that the writer has the potential to grow and I feel that we can aid said writer in the process by giving feedback.
My philosophy as an editor is that I am in service to a writer. As it is the magazine’s prerogative to accept or reject a submission, so too is it the writer’s prerogative to accept or reject suggested revisions—even if that leads the writer to withdraw the submission or the magazine to cancel the publication. It isn’t my job to alter but to amplify a writer’s voice, which means to identify what is unique about a writer’s voice and then suggest a way to let it ring a little brighter, and if this is to be done well, a writer’s strengths should be maximized and their weaknesses minimized.
I should not hijack the work and attempt to leave my mark on it; all I should do is aid writers in crafting the best draft possible so that their work will shine on publication. I accept that editors remain mostly invisible to the audience as we are not the artist in the spotlight. Being both a writer and an editor, I think it’s important to be able to keep these two disciplines separate. While it’s useful to be able to think like a writer while editing and vice versa, as an editor I’m not the author of the piece and therefore should by no means be allowed to change a writer’s work without first consulting with said writer (mere grammar corrections or the editing of a text according to a publication’s style guide notwithstanding).
While the person receiving the feedback initially tends to say less and the one giving the feedback tends to talk more, this entire process is anything but a one-way street. The first to communicate is always the author of the piece, because it is their words that are being analyzed and critiqued. An important goal is to explain my opinion as succinctly as possible to facilitate learning opportunities for the writer. I’ve found myself in a position where, while receiving feedback, someone was just trying to impress me with their superior knowledge, or where someone was being flat-out arrogant, or where someone ended up rambling and I was unable to understand what they were trying to say. As a result, that part of the discussion was nothing but void and little was learned.
Regarding the relationship between writers and editors, I think—especially when a writer aspires to get published—the writer needs an editor. Editing is a long and arduous process, and often takes even longer than the writing itself, and rarely are writers capable of writing a flawless draft all by themselves. Good editors possess eagle eyes that spot every mistake while bringing out the best in writers. Publishing requires the writer and the editor to find common ground and collaborate in order to achieve a common goal: creating the best publication possible. As for why editors need writers—well, without anything to edit, we are simply out of a job.
As a writer I attempt to write the strongest draft I can, but I’m bound to reach a point where I lose track of my original intentions. Only someone else’s honest opinions can snap me out of a negative editing loop as well as help me raise the quality of my work to another level. Even when I feel good about my work and deem it complete, I might still be blinded by my own confidence, and so I need an editor to show me my mistakes and how to improve the already solid parts.
This collaboration among writers and editors is an art form all on its own. There’s creative energy flowing from the writer’s fingers onto the page, which an editor channels and nourishes before sending that energy back to the writer, who then molds the work of art into a polished final draft. Since this is a major part of writing, the claim that writing is a lonesome activity is simply untrue. In an ideal situation, writers and editors dance together across a web of words, elevating the work and achieving synergy.
Acknowledgment: Special thanks to my buddy Trevor Vreeburg for creating the cover illustration for this essay. Find Trevor’s artwork at TV Illustrations on Instagram!