How do you judiciously help someone whose work isn’t very good?

This question keeps reappearing in various guises: How do you help someone whose work isn’t very good? Simply saying “This sucks” isn’t helpful and is usually taken with offense. A sufficiently screwed up work may also be unrecoverable. But making minor changes and saying, “It’s great!” often isn’t helpful either, because the work isn’t great and false praise is a lie. Those seeking criticism should be tactful enough not to ask, “Is it good?”, but often they aren’t and it leaves critics and editors in an awkward position.

I’m a writer, so I tend to see stuff from bad writers, but the same principles apply to other people with other domains of expertise. I developed my method of commenting on bad writing years ago, when a former student and now friend asked me to read a few stories she’d written for a creative writing class. Given her age they weren’t terrible; I made some comments, fixed a couple of minor things, and suggested some books that might speak to her.*

She asked if I thought the stories were good, but fortunately she asked via email so I had a few minutes to think about my response. I replied that I’d reframe the question: if she keeps writing, reading about writing, and developing her own sense of good writing, in four or five years she’ll reread her stories and be able to decide for herself whether her work was any good. I mentioned that when I was 26 or so, I no longer thought the stuff I’d written from 18 – 22 was any good. She got the point, I think, and seemed to appreciate what I was saying without saying.

And what I told her was and is true: I don’t think much of that early work now. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without having written what I did then. In addition to being true, that sort of advice has the advantage of being tactful. I think John Irving said that every writer who seeks feedback really wants to be told, “It’s perfect. Don’t change a thing.” But of course nothing is perfect and editors exist for a reason (so do therapists; the reasons may be more closely related than we’d like to commonly assume).

* Anyone interested in writing ought to look at this list, which I still think good. I periodically re-read every book on it. In some sense no good writer ever fully stops being a beginner.

Links: Sex at Yale, bikes, writing, TV, margins, urban life, editing, and more

* Where are the Bicycles in Post-Apocalyptic Fiction?

* Sex in the Meritocracy: Performance anxiety, not hedonism, motivates Yale’s sexual culture.

_MG_8659* In Writing, First Do No Harm.

* A model of TV viewership:

For TV I do not think upfront bingeing can become the norm. The model of “I don’t really care about this, but I have nothing much to talk to you about, so let’s sit together and drop commentary on some semi-randomly chosen TV show” seems to work less well when the natural unit of the show is thirteen episodes and you are expected to show dedication.

I hadn’t conceptualized TV this way, but the description is accurate and may explain the confusion, verging on horror, that people express when they register the absence of a TV in our apartment. I hesitate to include the previous sentence because I don’t want to become this guy and do use an iMac to watch TV sometimes. Nonetheless it is striking that so many people have so little to talk about.

* Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns the camera on paparazzi; they don’t like it.

* “Margins:”

If you have bigger lungs than your competitor, all things being equal, force them to compete in a contest where oxygen is the crucial limiter. If your opponent can’t swim, you make them compete in water. If they dislike the cold, set the contest in the winter, on a tundra. You can romanticize all of this by quoting Sun Tzu, but it’s just common sense.

* Cool news watch: the bulb discussed here: Switch LED bulb: The long-awaited light bulb is finally here. Is it worth $50? is now available.

* “The emergence of “YIMBY” [Yes In My Backyard] organizations in American cities would be a welcome counterpoint to the prevailing tides of NIMBYism that often dominate local government. But it is worth saying that broader institutional reforms are what’s really needed.”

* “Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by ‘reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted’, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles.” Editing is also an act of sympathy: an editor needs to be sympathetic to the writer’s work. I would be a terrible editor of genre romance novels, and some of my friends have not cared much for my own writing out of taste.

* For writers, along with the above: “The Business Rusch: Hiring Editors,” which is a problem I’ve been thinking about and don’t know how to solve. She confirms, however, that it’s probably impossible for self-published writers to hire effective content editors. Line editors and copyeditors, yes, but not content editors. I can see writers’ groups becoming more important in an era of self-publishing.

Bloggers and editing

Someone asked me about how much time I spend editing posts for The Story’s Story, and I answered simply: more time than I should but less time than I need. I don’t think this blog is a typo-strewn, incoherent mess, but I’m also not the New Yorker: I don’t have a squadron of typing-catching wombats at my disposal to savor every word. It’s me, sometimes friends who I can press into proofreading service (sometimes through plying with beer, tea, or other favors), and sometimes readers (who send me e-mails or leave comments with typo warnings; thanks!).

This is the part where I say something like, “I do the best I can,” and it’s true: but there’s a point of diminishing returns when dealing with one’s own work. Someone else who’s familiar with the piece needs to read it, which applies to fiction writing too: with the possible exceptions of Nabokov and Joyce, everyone needs an editor. If you look at Melville’s manuscripts, you’ll find someone who really, desperately needs a copy editor. I’m neither Nabokov nor Joyce nor Melville; I’m just a guy who writes and imagines that what he produces is of sufficient interest to others that it belongs on the Internet where it might be of some use to someone, somewhere. At least as measured by traffic, that appears to be true, despite typo problems that I can’t solve using reasonable amounts of time, energy, money, and concentration.

Amusing edit of the day

I’m going through a friend’s edits on the novel I’ve been writing for the last few months and came across this: “Each time you enter a bar you use religious imagery.”

I like how my friend uses the uses the second person “you” to imply that I’m the character. She’s also picked up on the joke regarding modern places of worship. I would consider that success.

(There haven’t been a lot of substantive posts over the last week or so because I’ve been spending every spare moment writing. At some point, space for real thoughts on novels will emerge.)

Do editors still edit? A response in part based on Mark McGurl's The Program Era

Betsy Lerner tries to answer this reader query: “Is it true that editors no longer edit, and if so, why?” Her basic answer: “I think most do, and some quite brilliantly.” But it’s hard to say beyond anecdote: I’ve read various answers that range from hers to simply stating “No.” One letter to the editor in The New Yorker has a perceptive comment on the issue—the author is responding to an essay about Mark McGurl’s The Program Era:

The days of editors like Maxwell Perkins shepherding talented young writers through their early years are long over. With publishing houses now expected to turn profits of around fifteen per cent, as opposed to the three to four per cent of Perkins’s day, what editor can afford to give a latter-day F. Scott Fitzgerald the devotion, time, and professional advice needed to hone his talents? Creative-writing programs have stepped in to fill this void by teaching young writers, in effect, to be their own editors––an essential skill in the current publishing climate.

In the absence of hard figures, it’s difficult to tell whether this is true, and if it is, how true it is. McGurl does write about the “… wide distribution… of elevated literary ambitions, and the cultivation in these newly vocal, vainglorious masses of the habits of self-conscious attention to craft through which [their writerly ambitions] might plausible be realized…” I doubt this makes editors superfluous, but it might mean that, in the face of layoffs, increased workloads, and so forth, editors might be more likely to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on the skills that universities and other writing programs cultivate. Granted, this is based on speculation from someone peering in through the glass rather than someone with direct experience inside of publishing, but it at least seems plausible.

Furthermore, it might be easier for writers to learn some of what editors once might have provided because of the wide availability of pretty good books on the craft parts of writing. This doesn’t mean reading such books will automatically make one a good author, or that any book can substitute for good secondary readers (or editors), but they still might occupy a small part of the function professional editors once held.

(Incidentally: The Program Era is a wonderful book I keep meaning to write a post about. One reason I don’t is because there’s so much to talk about that I get overwhelmed. At some point, however, I’m just going to write that post, completeness be damned.)

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