Writers and Editors: who is the master?

I have seen a number of discussion recently relating to why writers desperately need editors, the usual tone being, “Your writing will inevitably be bad, and you desperately need the inherent wisdom of an editor.” Implied in this is the assertion, “All editors write better than you do.” If you believe this, then consider the following.

A twenty-eight year-old woman writes a novel that is over 830 pages long. Many of the scenes are repeated from different points of view, and the chapter length is designed on a converging sequence wherein each chapter is seemingly half the length of the preceding one. What do you think the average editor would do with that? Especially when, to get the necessary length in the first chapter, we get plenty of description. However, the young author dismisses many editorial suggestions on the grounds that they are mathematically impossible! Others are astrologically impossible! What? This young woman writer knows better than these experienced editors? Seemingly yes, because the author was Eleanor Catton, and the book has just won the Man Booker prize. My thoughts on this.

First, congratulations Eleanor on winning the prize.

Second, and more importantly, congratulations on insisting that this was your work, and you were going to do it your way. Recall that old windbag Polonius: “To thine own self be true.” Yes, it goes on, and this gem is buried in an outpouring of dross, and a hack editor might wish to reduce that dross, but the point of it was that Shakespeare was drawing a character, albeit a minor one, and not producing a manual. Could further editing have improved the book? Maybe, particularly in some people’s opinion, but there comes a point where you cannot make certain changes without throwing out the point of the exercise. One could argue that the structure of this book is deeply flawed, and perhaps the author might agree in a couple of decades, but what is far more important is that the author set out to achieve something and she succeeded. Once this structure was started, there was no going back, and criticisms to the contrary simply do not understand what was going on.

In my opinion, being true to yourself is imperative if you wish to create something of value, and while there is value in taking advice from others, it is important that you look at the advice and decide for yourself whether it the suggestion is an improvement. If it is not, you should discard it. I know the pressures, and in the past I have succumbed to them, admittedly in writing scientific papers. The pressure was, accept the editor’s advice or it would not get published. When future funding depends on publications, it is only too easy to simply accept what is said and get the thing published, and in my case, the introduction to one paper is the absolute worst piece of writing under my name, and I hate it. For a scientific paper, perhaps it does not matter so much, but for a novel, it does. It is your creation, not the editor’s, so make it yours. If you do not feel confident in what you have done, then do something else. By all means listen to the editor and use useful advice, but do not lean on the editorial lamppost. The editor is an advisor, not the master.

The third thought is that Eleanor apparently teaches creative writing. It is marvellous to see that we have someone teaching something in which they have demonstrated real ability. Of course that does not mean that everyone should write like she does.

Fourth, a number of comments have been made that this will help New Zealand writers. Maybe, to the extent that it reminds people that we exist, but it probably will not make much difference to writers such as me, nor should it. My writing should stand on its own.

Finally, it is good to see a story set in Hokitika, where I grew up. As a boy, I recall going around the remains of the gold-rush period, and it is interesting for me to see that someone else finds this period interesting. 

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