In this New York magazine story, author James Frey launches a controversial plan to take ideas from MFA students and turn a profit. As John Scalzi points out, there’s much that is wrong with this tale. But out of Frey’s many, many bad statements and ideas listed in the text, I only want to take issue with one in particular: that writers don’t need to self-edit.
Oh, but we do.
At the end of the day, we, the authors, are the only ones who are going to be able to complete our work in a way that will make agents and publishers take notice. We can and should get help in this process — join a critique group, have a friend look at it, etc. — but ultimately only we know how to fix the problems in our books. We created it, we gotta make it work.
Except here’s why writers don’t self-edit:
Fear. What if our work is awful? Putting ourselves out there is hard. Not a single one of us loves rejection. And our writing really is our art, which is a very personal thing. Someone saying they don’t like our main character is akin to them saying they don’t like us. Intellectually, we might all understand that to not be true — but emotionally, it feels true. And that’s enough to keep us away from other people’s opinions.
Time. Editing is difficult, not to mention time-consuming. When we’re looking at the clock, it’s easier to believe our work is fine, as is, than to realize it’s going to take us twice as long as we originally thought. Add to that the time it’s going to take for us to craft a query letter, submit our work, and wait for replies, and we’re looking at months. Maybe even years. It’s true that publishing is slow but, sadly, it’s only going to be slower if we skip the self-editing step.
That hard-to-see forest from the trees. Often, when we read our own work, we think it’s wonderful. And the parts that we might think are slightly less than perfect — well, it’s hard to know where to begin fixing them. How do we create deeper, richer characters? How do we infuse the plot with tension? How do we create a satisfying ending? There are many helpful books out there on these subjects, sure, but it’s hard to read the manual(s) and then apply the knowledge to our own writing. Which is why it’s helpful to take a step back from our work, put it away for a month, then review it with fresh eyes. These problems — and the solutions — might become much clearer with a little bit of perspective.
Ultimately, we’ll all be better writers if we flex our own editorial muscles, squeezing the bad writing out of our manuscripts entirely.**
Not to mention we’ll all be better writers if we don’t listen to a word James Frey says.
** I am in the business of helping writers, yes. But a manuscript critique — whether a writer gets it from a friend, a writing group, or Help for Writers — will always proceed much more smoothly if a writer has already done some major heavy lifting themselves.
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