Writing I don't know how you're impaired

Writers and Editors

rands quoteI’ve had two compliments on my shoes today. They’re black and white sneakers and unless I’d asked a friend for help I would’ve never bought them

Key Rands deficiency: I’m fashion impaired. Always have been. It’s not that I don’t care what I look like, it’s that I have no basic fashion sense. I don’t know what pants go with what shirts. I know that one color in my tie should match some other color in my outfit, but I couldn’t tell you why that’s important. I think a sweater and a sweatshirt are the same thing. Really.

My clothing impairment has followed me into my writing. Stuffed into a tired cardboard box in the garage are two books that you’re unlikely to ever read. One is called to To God and Back Again and the other is called The Culpeper Switch. A consistent piece of feedback from female friends who read chapters of these books was, “So, is your protagonist’s girlfriend a stripper?”

“No.”

“Well, she dresses like one.”

Fashion escapes me and after more than thirty years of confusion, I know I need help.

Fashion Impaired

I’m writing a book. Third time is, apparently, the charm.

I should be saying that I’m editing a book because a good chunk of “Managing Humans” comes from this very weblog, but therein lies the point of this article. If you write, you need to understand three things:

  • the difference between the role of the writer and the editor
  • why an editor is essential to your writing, and
  • how it’s the editor’s responsibility to prevent the world from know you’re fashion impaired

How do I know this? Well, as I mentioned, there are two books gathering dust in the garage right now. When I say “book”, I do mean 100+ page efforts with a beginning, middle, and end. Yes, with each book I fully intended to find a publisher and inflict my poorly garbed stripper girlfriends on the world. But, here I am, five years after I scribed the last chapter of Culpeper and it never saw a single publisher. This is because neither of these books ever saw an editor.

Writing is a solitary act. Writers’ jobs are to sit in front of our computers late at night and struggle to tell a story to someone who is not there. This is a quiet, insular task, which temporarily removes us from the planet. That’s what the act of creation is; a silent belief that what you have to say is relevant when you’re mostly just throwing your ideas out there and praying.

If your goal is to write for yourself, you can stop right here. Keep on journaling; taking time to write down your thoughts forces you to take another look at the crap in your head and I can’t see how that isn’t mentally healthy.

If your goal is to create and write for others, you need to understand that once the initial creative act of writing is complete, you need to ask someone for help.

You need an editor.

Here’s Why

They are distinctly not you. Writers operate under the assumption that these words we string together silently while sitting in the coffee shop are relevant. We need this assumption, otherwise nothing would ever be written down. But the simple fact is: our writing might be crap.

Your editor has no such addiction to your words and your ideas. They are a neutral party.

They remind you that your writing is not fragile. Perhaps my biggest early psychological hang-up regarding my writing was the idea that the words that came out of my fingers were perfect. There was a reason they showed up in the way that they did and messing with the original structure was tantamount to saying, “If you can’t get it right the first time, why write at all?” I’d like to think this was an attitude of youth, but looking back at early Rands articles it’s clear I was still under the impression that the first draft was the only draft.

A good editor will perform major reconstructive surgery on your writing. The first time you experience this, you’ll freak because, like me, you’ll be unable to separate yourself from the writing and it will feel like mental surgery. Breath deeply. Keep the first draft of your piece and constantly compare it to the current draft. See how your idea is becoming clearer? That’s your editor doing two things. First, they can throw away greatness because they don’t get hung up on a word or a phrase. Second, they can reveal greatness by throwing away all the crap and extraneous detail that’s burying it.

Your editor’s neutral perspective regarding your entire piece allows them to see the greatness of the whole.

They see your intent. This neutral perspective allows them to ignore what you think are essential parts of your writing. There’s your three-page preamble where you explain to the reader why you’re qualified to write on whatever topic you’re writing about. There’s your four-page irrelevant background, which you think helps make your point, but really just says the same thing twice. This article has two beginnings, by the way, and I can hear my editor telling me, “When are you going to get to the point?”

Editors can’t hear your inner dialog, but they can see when your dialog is spilling all over the pages and getting in the way of what you’re trying to say.

They inform you of the rules, but allow you to enforce them. There was a lot of experimentation going on in the early Rands pieces, what with the endless… ellipses… and FunkyUpperCamelCasing. As I’ve edited pieces into the book, my editor has provided insight into when creativity is art and when creativity is just plain annoying. The end result has been chapters that, I believe, stay true to the Rands tone, but will appeal to a broader set of people.

I’m a fan of riffing on language, grammar, and punctuation, but my advice is that of my editor: is your bleeding edge creativity getting in the way of what you’re saying? The rules were developed for a reason. An editor can teach you the art of a semicolon and the bliss of a properly applied em dash because breaking rules when you know them is more elegant and readable.

It Begins with a Hard Request

I don’t know how you’re impaired.

What I need out of an editor is likely different than what you need, but I’ll say the same thing I say to my engineering teams. Each set of eyeballs that stare at an idea increase the value of the idea. Finding someone who is willing to impartially read your writing, discern your intent, provide constructive information, and remind you of the rules is hard, but finding this person means you’ve chosen not to write for yourself, but for everyone else.

Finding an editor and figuring out whether sneakers go with slacks starts the same way as a request of someone you trust, and the request is, “I need help”. These people are few and far between. You’re going to need to try many different editors on to see which one fits, because I believe the relationship between a writer and an editor is as important as the relationship between a writer and his words.

6 Responses

  1. Desmond Elliott 10 years ago

    I have a pair of Onitsuka Tigers. They are my summer shoes and I love them! Your friend made a good decision.

  2. Rands, do you think that the citizens of the interwebs can provide reasonably valuable “editor” functionality through blog comments? Or, is humanity mostly useless, wet bags of overvalued chemicals, and “wisdom of crowds” is really just a more tactful way of saying “mob rule?”

    By the way, you’re missing an article in this sentence fragment:

    “[…] but will appeal to broader set of people.”

    🙂

  3. jojax 10 years ago

    As a blog-writer writing a book, I recommend you track down a post by Penelope Trunk (from memory, just penelopetrunk.com but google is your friend). She is about to release a book and went into detail about blogs/books.

    Keep up the good work!

  4. Good advice, Rands. Every book I’ve written was vastly improved by the editors, and I’m continually astounded when people claim they don’t need an editor.

    Dossy:

    There’s no way blog comments will ever serve the purpose of editors. The fact is, your blog readers are most likely unqualified for the task. If your blog readers all happen to be editors, then I suppose they’d be qualified, but I can guarantee they’ll never agree on anything.

    It’s easy to think readers are acting as editors – say “it’s” when you mean “its” or “affect” when you mean “effect” and you’ll probably get lots of corrections, some with a disturbing amount of anger. But nobody’s looking at the overall structure, or the fact that your second paragraph is completely redundant, or the disagreement in verb tense, or the lack of consistency in how you refer to particular items…

    I’m not saying blogs need editors, but you do have to put on your “editor hat” from time to time and try to improve things.

  5. I found another great “use” of editors – making sure you’re explaining your idea effectively. I have (co)authored three books (latest is “Notes and Domino 6 Programming Bible”, Wiley 2003), and I find that my editors (both copy and technical) not only make sure my language is clear, but also that I have fully explained the “weird” areas that the average reader may not understand. When writing technical books you tend to take your reader for granted – you assume they have a base set of knowledge, and often you assume their knowledge is the same as yours.

    Usually this is a bad assumption.

    Copy Editors are usually the best at making sure you are explaining the idea well. Why? Because they tend to not be technical experts, they are English language experts (hopefully 😉 ). Your technical editor tends to have the same base knowledge that you do, so they may make the same assumptions that you do.

    So, if you write, I cannot agree more with Rands – you must trust your editors. They’re professionals, and they know what they’re doing. They will undoubtedly make you sound smarter and more eloquent, and that is priceless.

    Oh, and my grammatical “hangup”? It isn’t elipses – it is hyphens (See? There I go again). I love them, and I find that I have to really watch my use of them.

    Isn’t it funny how most of us have hangups in writing? I liken them to the speakers who say “you know” or “uhhm” all the time. Best to nip all those hangups – auditory and written – in the bud.

    Great article Rands. Thanks for posting it. And I can’t wait for your book!

    –Rock

  6. Sorry for joining the party late. As a former editor of tech books, I tip my hat to all of you who have appreciated the efforts of your editiors. Brings a tear to my eye, man.

    One of the things a good editor does is tries to make the project a collaboration. The best authors take full advantage of that. Even still, you would be surprised how many authors saw me as The Enemy, One To Be Feared and Derided, and The Main Barrier to Receiving my Next Check.

    It so happens I just wrote on my blog about the difference between a good and a not-so-good author. http://jimgrey.wordpress.com/2007/06/23/pride-of-workmanship-part-2/