Editor Horror stories or how NOT to critique someone else's work

>> Tuesday, October 17, 2017

I've said before and I'll say again that you've got to be able to take criticism to be a writer unless you want to leave your work in a (virtual or otherwise) drawer forever. You're never going to write something that everyone loves. However, if you're beta reading/critiquing or professionally editing someone else' work, there are certain things you just shouldn't do. Top of the list should be patronizing.

I've been writing a long time. I was asked to join a group and contribute to an anthology. Sent in a story and had it accepted (won't say which one). A month later, I get my "edited" story with a snarky comment to fix it because it's "all over the place." When I opened it up, one of three editors had almost blanket commented every line in the thing. Among the critiques:

"Exposition" - that's the whole line. Because one can't have so much as a paragraph of exposition in a short story set on a totally different world? Over-exposition, where you do nothing but tell what people think and feel and who they are and never show anything or going on for pages on the history of this and that--obviously too much for a short story and probably a novel. But that's not what we were talking about here.

And then this one:
THESAURUS ABUSE! Please, please, please, do yourself a favor and read the dictionary entries on words that I point out thesaurus abuse. Some words are interchangeable and make sense, while others don't. This was over the use of "fret" in a situation where it was meant to discuss someone being vexed, which happens to be the second definition you can find in the dictionary my editor should have picked up. Now, I HATE thesaurus abuse where someone clearly picked up a thesaurus and used a word in a context where it doesn't actually fit or is redundant: "verdant green grass" or a friend "ogling his friend in astonishment" - verdant MEANS green and ogling has a very specific connotation. But I probably haven't used a thesaurus but five times in as many years. So, to be called out for it, especially when the editor is WRONG, is more than infuriating. Other words called out as thesaurus abuse included "fiction," "quit," and "forced affection." The latter is indeed a clumsy term but intended to describe the plight of unwilling prostitutes. Her suggested alternate of "some 'fun'" is NOT the same.

Here's another gem: "
thesaurus abuse here. yes, technically it works, but really you're using a 50 dollar word when the 25 cent words would do better." Except that isn't necessarily so. Using precise and evocative language adds texture to prose, helps us define things more clearly, make some parts more specific to a particular character. I can use walk, but tripping, marching, stumbling, trudging all add additional information that walk alone doesn't have and, by using them, I don't have to explain it. I get visuals that walk doesn't have. Sometimes walk is enough. Sometimes it isn't. An editor should know enough extensive vocabulary to know the difference.

And this charmer: "
I feel Lofar is supposed to be arrogant, and this is a good chance to show that off, but it's just not jiving well with the rest of his characterization. He's not quite two-dimensional, he's what I call 2.5 dimensional. He has depth... but it's not readily apparent." Y'all are free to provide suggestions as to what a character having 2.5 dimensions is like.

The point isn't that she didn't have anything useful to say. Several of her suggestions were perfectly reasonable changes I'd have no trouble making. But, as in writing, how you say it matters. There are people who critique and edit who use that position to bully and patronize. Speak in absolutes, inflict one's own idea of what's ideal on a writer with a different style. None of that is good.

I'm pretty resilient and I have a good set of self-assurance when it comes to my writing, so I was mostly hacked off at the tone and HER mistakes that she tried to treat as mine (and believe me, you don't want to get patronizing if you're not actually correct). Imagine if I had been a writer just starting out or one that is still very self-conscious (and this anthology was geared to "support" emerging authors) I could readily be crushed or, even worse, feel the urge to cut all my own personality out of my writing in favor of someone else. I don't think I need to tell you how unlikely that is to lead to a good result.
Critiquing and editing are positions of power. Abusing that power gives people who are really helpful, even critically necessary a bad name. And it makes you look hateful and/or stupid. Not a good way to further a career. 

But more than that, this is a writer's work, not yours. You don't get to shape it into your vision, but only help them realize her own. By all means point out problems, even note things you (personally) don't like, but don't confuse that with thinking you are the only arbiter of taste that exists. It has his or her name it; he or she must decide. 

It could lead to responses like my first knee jerk response:

I'm out. Hell no. I will not be accused MULTIPLE times of thesaurus abuse (which is my pet peeve and does NOT mean using descriptive but exact language but rather means looking up similar terms and using words that have subtle meanings at odds with their context or that are redundant). If I had called for running over the verdant green grass or had a friend ogle his buddy in astonishment, such an accusation would fit. Using a precise word that means exactly what I want (as opposed to the alternates you handed me) does not suit me at all. And I don't need to be in your anthology. I have withstood and grown from much more useful criticism than you have to offer; I will not be crushed. I can only marvel at the damage you are inflicting on those more sensitive and not yet self-assured where writing is concerned.

I did not write a story for a sixth grade primer, more's the pity, and my use of language is hardly extraordinary. Or out of keeping with my speaking vocabulary, both of which are the result of years of reading great books. Given that I still have to look up about every tenth word Poe wrote. I suppose you'd tell him not to quit his day job.

But I'm not going to have my story included in a collection where one of the editor's chief complaints is that we didn't dumb down the language enough to suit her.

I'm out. I have no trouble, actually, placing my stories in other anthologies and will find a home for this where, hopefully, they won't be interested it in simplifying the charm out of it.

I didn't send it because I'm a professional, but I did remove my story from the anthology and, believe me, that's just as bad.

Also, as an FYI, if you're looking to get started as a professional editor, spamming prospective clients via PM every few days is a good way to get yourself blocked.


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