I read this article on the NY Times’ Book Review today, always seeking insights from others which might better my own writing process. To me, and to most serious writers, the value of editing is obvious. So why such an article from two successful writers? To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, because common knowledge isn’t always so commonly accepted. And that made me think of an experience I’ve had that turned such common sense inside out.
I came across a writing group some years ago that flummoxed me. I had gone through nearly a year subject to the editing pen of one of North Carolina’s finest, Doris Betts, and then nearly three years in a creative writing curriculum at the local university – not to mention membership in various critique groups, and these had greatly improved my writing – and publications’ acceptance of it. So I thought I might have something to offer this group in the way of advice on editing.
Amazingly, this group was suspicious of any other hands than theirs on a piece of writing. Not to make the point too sharp, they, as a group seemed to think that the first glorious dash of words across a computer screen was gospel, and that any other persons involved with their writing compromised their writing to such a degree that it would no longer be theirs. I did offer to read a few of these persons’ work and make comments – – gratis – – and two or three did warily offer up their manuscripts. What I received in return wasn’t any vestige of acknowledgement of a thing or two that would make their writing better; instead I received snarky comments and accusations of literary violation. One elderly lady swears to this day that I didn’t even read her work.
Later, one person approached me to offer criticism on a manuscript she planned to self-publish. I gave her an outline of what I would like to do, and set an abysmally low price for doing this (I did this so that, I hoped, money wouldn’t be a factor, i.e., we could concentrate solely on the work at hand). I didn’t hear from her until months later, when at a chance meeting she told me she’d given the work to someone who would do the editing at half my price. In other words, she didn’t place value on editorial work.
What then was the reason for this group to exist? Solely to sell books.
This is a group that sold books at county fairs, restaurants, various stores, etc., their approach much as one might sell a jar of honey or a set of pot holders. Having attended a few of these affairs, I noticed that the people who bought their books did so for Aunt Bee or Granny – something to set on the mantel to make it seem that some measure of literacy lived in their place. The elderly lady mentioned above, a retired school teacher, sold a great many books, according to rumor, and because of her longstanding presence in her community had a rather long mailing list of possible buyers. Was she a resource to the writing group in that regard? No. She wouldn’t let anyone else have access to any part of her mailing list and, once again according to rumor, guarded her territory jealously.
Work from such groups hardly constitutes even a hobby. After all, even hobbiers learn and take advice. Writing is a solitary enough affair, and it’s easy enough to get lost in one’s creative juices without considering how a reader might react to pages of typos, poor grammar, awkward sentences, and poorly thought out stories. Good, discriminating editing is invaluable if one seeks to have one’s writing accepted in a literary sense and to widen one’s sphere of influence as a writer.