He said, she objected

9 05 2011

blue pencilling

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”  William Faulkner once said that about Ernest Hemingway. “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” was Hemingway’s reply.  Can you imagine if one was editing the other?

Recently, I was party to a discussion of how seriously to take an editor’s recommendations.  In this case, the poor writer had been instructed to place all of her dialogue tags at the beginning of the quote so the reader would always know who was speaking.  The other participants in the discussion, some of them seasoned professionals, said phooey.  The tags go where it makes sense to put them.

Readers, editors, critique partners, they are indispensable.  But none of them qualifies for Pope. They each have their prejudices, blind spots and obsessions.  The ones that are fixated on The Rules are particularly suspect.  Demanding that all dialogue tags be in the same position is an excellent example.  They know The Formula and will force you into their Procrustean bed for your own good, while righteously lecturing you on all the logical reasons for it.

We all need someone who can go over our work and catch the face-palms.  Like the streams of crackling, scintillating dialogue that you labor over, not noticing that the cold reader needs a score card to keep up with who’s saying what.  Or the fact that your heroine had limpid blue eyes in chapter three, and doe-brown eyes in chapter eleven.  (I actually read a published fantasy novel where that happened; I guess the editor was too busy blue-penciling adverbs and fussing over commas to notice the claxon inconsistencies in the plot.)

There’s the old trick of submitting a lesser-known piece of prose by a world-class writer to a critiquing workshop and watching in smug amusement as the instructor points out all the egregious errors.  Go back and read authors who are considered geniuses, still in huge demand today, and pay close attention to how they write: Excessive descriptions and tedious detail; one sentence, even one word paragraphs; rambling clauses; dump trucks full of words ending in –ly; words repeated in a paragraph; dialogue tags all over the place.  Holy smokes, a modern editor would be tagging every other line with dark comments.

Brilliant writing isn’t just about craftsmanship, like acquiring the skill to turn out a nice piece of furniture that fits all the requirements to get you juried into the league.  If the plot is absorbing, the characters engaging, if the dialogue has a genuine ring and the story makes a moving, resonant statement, if it’s a ripping good yarn your readers aren’t going to notice or care if it doesn’t follow The Formula or obey The Rules.  Screw the adverbs; they want to know what happens next.

Granted, we’ve all seen writing so bad that it screams for help like the pretty girl tied to the railroad tracks.  It’s a problem when the prose is so clunky that it gets in the way of its vision.  But once a writer reaches a certain point of competence, no longer tripping over his own diction, it becomes a matter of personal taste and preference.  The choice of terse or flowing, quirky or conventional, simple or sesquipedalian, is all a matter of judgement.  Different readers, different editors, would pass completely different judgements.  Who’s right?  Who arbitrates?  Good question.

Ultimately, the writer must decide for (genderless pronoun)self.  If the editor points something out and you slap your forehead and say, “Of course!  This conflict would be so much more intense if the villain was the hero’s father!” then go for it.  But if the criticism leaves you scratching your head, thinking, “But…no.  That’s just…no,” then dig your heels in.  Yes, editors are professionals and are supposed to know their stuff.  It’s like questioning a doctor.  How dare you presume.

But it never hurts to get a second opinion.  Even doctors have been known to be wrong.




4 responses

9 05 2011

Thanks for this post. I think it’s spot on — we should always take the criticism that resonates with us and disregard that which isn’t useful. I also look out for multiple people (who I respect) saying the same thing, even if I disagreed with it at first. But an editor require all dialogue tags at the beginning? Without knowing the context, I’d have to say that’s a big red flag!

9 05 2011
Lynda Williams

Love the opening quote, Justine. Faulkner vs. Hemmingway. That does away with the whole question of whose edits get to count most by pound weight of worldly success, which I’ve always considered a dubious criteria. Especially if the goal is to encourage the person being critiqued which it ought to be unless the writer who volunteers for the experience is a crazy masochist. Sometimes those who “do” aren’t always great teachers. Great post.

9 05 2011

Thanks for this – dead on.

9 05 2011
Michael J. Curtiss

A good editor is an extension of the excellent teachers who first gave you the tools of how to write well; a fine grasp of sentence structure, grammar, what have you. Paradoxically, it’s the insistence upon a blind adherence to that structure which sometimes dampens the spark of creativity, stultifying the creative process.

The truly great teachers of writing, and the editors who help to shape their style, give you two concepts to take away- one, that structure is important, and two, it’s not so graven in stone that one should not think outside of it. Picasso was a master draughtsman before embarking upon his career as one of the co-founders of Cubism: he had to learn form and function before bending the rules. Fortunately, he was encouraged by those who could see past mere form and function, and encouraged him in his endeavors.

A good editor doesn’t stringently adhere to the rules so much as recognize that they have value, and that the writer’s finding his or her own way to shaping a story is of infinitely more value.

A good editor guides and encourages, rather than insists. In so doing, he or she becomes both mentor and partner, and nurtures the writer so that ultimately two things happen: a good story is told well, and it has the writer’s singular voice telling it, adding a vast richness to the tale being told.

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