Friday, May 26, 2006

There's no crying in baseball

I encourage authors to become writers.

Here is the distinction:
  • An author is someone with authority. That is, you are an author if you have something you wish to convey to readers, whether it is a story you have invented, an experience you feel is instructive, an opinion you want to express, or knowledge you want to preserve. You are the subject-matter expert.

  • A writer is someone who expresses ideas, perhaps someone else’s ideas, in words. Writing is about the craft of expression more than about the content, whereas authorship is about the content more than the craft.
Authors can learn to be writers. Doing so requires gaining proficiency in the craft, of course; and that takes time and practice. But before you can even begin down that path, you must first internalize the necessary attitude.

I will consider you a professional writer, regardless of how well you sling words, when you can honestly say you accept these three principles:
  • It’s all about the reader.

    Your writing will improve significantly when you look at it not as a vehicle for expressing your ideas but as a vehicle for the reader to gain insight into those ideas. As a writer you have to form a partnership with the reader. You have to think about how the reader might interpret your words. Is there ambiguity in what you have written? Is the ambiguity intentional or unintentional? Did you say what you meant, and did you say it clearly? Those are nontrivial questions, but if you ask them as you work, your writing will improve.

  • The perfect manuscript does not exist. Not if it is longer than a single, short poem, anyway.

    The goal of the editing process is to improve the manuscript, not to perfect it. While many editors are, in terms of personality, perfectionists, the realists among us understand that being a perfectionist is not the same thing as producing perfect work.

    Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
    To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine.
    —Alexander Pope
    An Essay on Criticism
    If I make a thousand improvements in the first hundred pages of your manuscript and you discover, on rereading, that there were two errors I did not catch, please exercise some divinity. We should be working as a team to catch and correct as many errors as we can, fully understanding that our hummanness will always be there to trip us up.

    My clients generally react to the sea of red I send them by thanking me for catching so many errors and strengthening the book. Every now and then, someone reacts angrily because I missed something; they lose sight of the fact that before I edited the manuscript it had five hundred times as many errors. (They calm down when I have a chance to get a word in edgewise.)

    My larger point, though, is that, like any other editor, I am going to catch quite a high percentage of your errors and leave a small percentage uncorrected. The fewer errors in your original manuscript, the smaller the number of residual errors when I am done. If, as in the above example, I make a thousand changes in a hundred pages (not uncommon) and miss half a percent, that leaves five errors per hundred pages for you to find. If you do a good job checking over the manuscript before you send it to me and I make a thousand changes in a thousand pages, though, that leaves five errors per thousand pages, an average of only one error every two hundred pages for you to find—not perfect, but pretty darn good.

  • Your children are not yourself.

    A healthy attitude toward the humanness of the people whose work you depend on is one important part of being a professional writer. Another big part of professionalism is separating your words from your self. Yes, writing certainly involves pulling from within and splaying bits of your self on the page. But once those bits, in the form of words, are on the page, they are just symbols to manipulate; they are no longer part of you.

    The editing process is all about the words on the page. If your ego is so invested in those words that you feel every editorial change as a knife to your heart, you need to adjust your attitude. Your words are your children; they are not yourself. You need to let them make their own way in the world.

    Sure, professional writers have spirited discussions with editors in which they defend their choices, their words, their commas; but both parties in the discussion understand that the goal is to serve the reader and the argument is about the best way to do that. There’s no crying in baseball.


Stephen Newton said...

Your post and writers and authors was insightful. Thanks for making the distinctions and the words as children is very helpful. The most difficult thing I've face in my own writing is eliminating me from the pages and letting the characters run the show. Rewriting seems to be about discovering what all those words really want to do. I've had sections that I've deleted from one section of the MS only to find the perfect spot for them in another. It's like the book is already written and all I'm doing is piecing it back together. The problem comes with familiarity. The longer I live in the world I've created, the more i take for granted. After it's done, I want others to read it to see if I've made my world real for them

Dick Margulis said...


In the sample chapter you sent me, I did not find you interfering with the characters or the story at all. So you seem to have successfully overcome the difficulty you describe.

As for the words, don't worry about them too much. George Orwell, on this subject, famously wrote, "Murder your darlings." Your task, especially in the sort of fiction you write, is to imagine and convey the situation, the characters' thoughts and actions, and the dialog. You don't ever want to let some precious phrase or sentence interfere with your doing that just because it's too beautiful to throw away. Just paste all those darlings into a private journal, and delete the journal every six months.