“Would You Take a Look at My Book?” How to Edit Your Way to the Bad Guy
In the writing world, I am the cleanup hitter, the imposter, the fixer.
I am a fairly mediocre writer. I started my struggling career as a journalist for a small town newspaper and was quickly promoted to editor. It was a calling which suited my skills. I can identify what is important and understand what a writer is trying to communicate. I can take a complicated concept and distill it down to a manageable and tasty little bite.
Most of my paying work is ghostwriting long form pieces. Many times, I can get their idea across like a two-by-four to the back of the head. This talent doesn’t translate into my own work unless I am able to move into a headspace where I pretend I am a famous writer.
Unfortunately, people know this, and it results in requests to help with their book project. Fun fact, I find more non-writers have written a novel than real writers who are more qualified to do so.
I don’t mind lending a hand to those who do write regularly. I have several colleagues on Medium I help on a casual basis, and this never seems stressful or intrusive. They have not asked me to edit their book, but I wouldn’t mind.
Who is a Writer?
It is difficult to define who is a non-writer because we don’t have a standard definition for the term “real writer". We have authors, copywriters, freelancers, technical writers and the general public who may occasionally write as part of their job.
If you crank out emails all day, are you a writer?
The qualifier “professional” doesn’t seem to fit either, as many of us write as a side gig.
It is all so murky because at any one time, writing can be a skill, a craft, a talent or some combination of these. I know of good writers who have never earned a dime, and I know of those who have books with their names on the cover who didn’t write a word. There are people who are paid to churn out SEO content and earn a living doing so, but I wouldn’t categorize them as a writer — not a real one, anyway.
I have ghost written articles for major publications that later rejected the exact same pitch with a different headline because it was submitted by me. In writing, it isn’t even clear if the product is the actual words or some vague image of the author. Many times, writers toil in obscurity, they are like accomplished singers who perform the songs while the star of the show lip syncs the lyrics to their adoring fans.
Most “real writers" know the difference even if we can’t come to an agreement as to who is part of the club. It isn’t a measure of skill, compensation or recognition. It isn’t whether others agree that what you produce has value. I think it has to do with passion.
At a fundamental level, some people love to write, others do it because they want to be called “a writer". For non-writers, it is about the designation and not the process.
“Will you edit my book?”
The non-writers confuse editing and proofreading. Real writers instinctively know the difference. Non-writers think this means you will only fix any glaring typos, grammar or punctuation problems. Real writers believe editors will rework some problem areas, or at least identify sections that need attention.
Most non-writers want someone to proofread because in their mind, everything else is perfect. They believe there are only minor issues to be corrected which do not detract from the quality of their masterpiece. Invariably, non-writers will assume that actual editing is unnecessary where real writers welcome the opportunity to improve their work.
Many of us reading this are thinking, “Man, I wish I had an editor to help me.” I know I do.
There is a sense of relief when someone even remotely qualified points out that the troublesome fourth paragraph is confusing. We long for verification of what we suspect because we weren’t quite sure of it, either. Real writers welcome any suggestion on how to make their product better. Personally, I am grateful when someone saves me the embarrassment of releasing crap into the wild.
If you are mortified when someone finds a typo, you’re probably a writer. If you’re annoyed when minor mistakes are pointed out, you’re not.
The worst experience I had was when I realized an editing project was going to result in an ugly backlash not seen since the likes of Martin Shkreli.
I abandoned the job because the subject matter was so offensive to its target market, it was going to go viral and not in a good way. I was convinced it would spawn memes and get a negative ratio in the Amazon reviews. Everyone who read excerpts felt the same way and one person thought it was a cleverly written satire piece because it couldn’t possibly be serious.
The only thing I can compare it to is proposing an article on Medium entitled, “Why You Should Go Ahead and Plagiarize.” Yeah, we aren’t talking about simply a book that doesn’t sell, but a career-killing, legendary shitstorm of anger directed at the author.
I struggled with whether it was my place to say anything and ran it through what-would-I-want filter, ultimately deciding I needed to have some integrity.
I delicately approached the subject by addressing the “tone" of the book and how it could be fixed. I suggested they might want to drop the criticism and soften it by making suggestions and recommendations rather than saying, “Here is what you are doing wrong and why you should listen to me.”
The author got pissed and told me they were sick and tired of hearing this same thing out of their agent (yeah, they already had a book deal even though they weren’t a writer and never had published anything). They wanted me to keep the manuscript the way it was but make it “funny". You didn’t need to be psychic to see the future and where this was headed. When it failed, they would blame my humor as being offensive, and it would be my fault. I wasn’t volunteering to be their whipping boy.
Thankfully, they never published that book. I don’t know if they came to their senses, or they couldn’t find a ghost writer to accept the project. I suspect the agent simply flatly refused to publish it.
Non-Writers Want Validation
Non-writers are looking for a reader who will agree their book is next New York Times Bestseller.
Many times, when you ask the subject matter, they will compare it to the work of some famous modern author. “It is like if Stephen King wrote sci-fi.” Of, “It is like the Lord of the Rings but set in Russia.” They believe they are the next Dean Koontz, JK Rowling, John Grisham or Agatha Christie, demonstrating they don’t have a clue as to what it takes to reach that dizzying height of literary success.
This is a big red flag for me, because they have an unrealistic idea of their work. Trying to discuss the giant plot hole on page six is going to be viewed as a dream killer, not a suggestion to make their work better.
This is the stumbling block because they are addicted to a fantasy of being a famous writer and aren’t interested in actually putting out better work.
I look for another warning sign. It is when they beg you to “Just read it and tell me what you think” or, “It is ready to be published" but no proofreading has been done. I have tried to help people like this and they simply don’t want to put forth the effort it takes to fix the problems with their work. Some get angry when you suggest they reread their manuscripts from the beginning and fix all the typos. “Do you realize how long that is going to take?”
When it is clear they are more interested in having a published book than having the best version of their book published, it is time to run.