Unqualified Praise Only, Please

The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors
Theryn “Beaver” Fleming

Edited Version of First Book
Photo Credit: Joanna Penn

You’re probably familiar with the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” People love to malign teachers, talk about how easy they have it. Those people have obviously never stood in front of a classroom of ninth-graders.

What is most difficult about being a teacher is not teaching per se, but the many things that get in the way of teaching and learning. Perhaps the most disheartening of these is dealing with students who insist on framing the teacher as The Enemy, turning the classroom into a combative space rather than cooperative, collegial one. Inevitably, such a student thinks the teacher is out to get them because they think the teacher “gave” them a grade they didn’t deserve.

The conversation that transmogrifies a disgruntled student into one who thinks the teacher is The Enemy generally goes something like this:

  • Student (unhappy face): “Why did I get this grade?”
  • Teacher: *explains reasons*
  • Student: “But I did what the assignment asked!”
  • Teacher: “Yes, you did the minimum, and your grade reflects that. To get a higher grade, you would need to do more.” *explains how student could have improved grade*
  • Student: “But I’m an A student!”
  • Teacher: “Grades aren’t based on a student’s track record. When I grade an assignment, all I have to go on is the work you chose to hand in.”
  • Student: “This grade will destroy my chances of getting into [college / university / med school / law school / grad school]!”
  • Teacher: “This is one assignment worth only x% of your grade. If you earn an A on all your subsequent work in this course, as you have indicated you are capable of, it will have a negligible impact on your final grade.”
  • Student: “You’re doing this because you hate me!”
  • Teacher: “Why would I hate you?”
  • Student: “You gave me this grade because don’t want me to succeed!”
  • Teacher: “I’d love to see you succeed. My office hours are from y to z on the days we have class. You don’t need to make an appointment; you’re welcome to drop in. I’m always happy to answer any questions students may have about course material or assignments.”
  • Student: “You’re out to get me!”

And so on in circular fashion until teacher cuts off student or student angrily stomps off, dissatisfied. The only satisfactory response, of course, would have been for the teacher to respond, “And what grade do you think you deserve? An A+? Oh, fine. Consider it changed! Have a nice day!”

At this point, perhaps you’re thinking this conversation is too absurd to be realistic. Or maybe you’re wondering why I’m telling you this story… Ahh, yes. Let’s replay the preceding scene with two new characters.

  • Writer (unhappy face): “Why is there all this red pen on my novel?”
  • Editor: *explains suggested edits*
  • Writer: “But I used spellcheck!”
  • Editor: “Yes, and your manuscript has very few technical errors. However, a good story consists of more than just proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. To improve your novel, you need to do more than just clean up the typos.” *explains how writer could improve manuscript*
  • Writer: “But I’m very successful in my [non-novelist] career!”
  • Editor: “Your novel’s merit isn’t based your track record as a [butcher / baker / candlestick-maker], even if that’s also your protagonist’s occupation. When I edit a manuscript, my comments are based on the work you provided to me.”
  • Writer: “This edit has ruined my story!”
  • Editor: “Mine is just one opinion. If you’re not happy with my suggestions, you don’t have to incorporate them. You’re also welcome to seek out another editor for a second opinion. In fact, I encourage it.”
  • Writer: “You’re doing this because you hate me!”
  • Editor: “Why would I hate you?”
  • Writer: “You tore my manuscript apart because don’t want me to succeed!”
  • Editor: “I’d love to see you succeed. I’d be happy to work with you to make your manuscript the best it can be. My rates for developmental editing can be found on my website. I’d also be happy to recommend another editor if you’d rather work with someone else.”
  • Writer: “You’re out to get me!”

Does the conversation seem so absurd now?

Editors aren’t the enemy of writers any more than teachers are the enemy of students. Just as teachers want to work with students to help them succeed, editors want to do the same with writers. Some writers seem to find this hard to believe. I think I know why.

I think there are writer-writers and there are editor-writers. You’re probably a writer-writer if you love, love, love writing first drafts and find editing and revising to be a painful chore. You’re probably an editor-writer if you want to stab an icepick in your skull while writing a first draft, but can barely contain your glee as you start tearing it apart for draft two (three, four, five… twenty-seven…).

There’s a riff on the saying I opened with that goes: “Those who can, write; those who can’t, edit.” I think this is what writer-writers believe, that editors are only editing because they’ve failed at writing, and that’s what leads to the belief that editors have it in for writers. I think writer-writers hate editing so much they find it hard to believe that there are people who love editing as much as they love writing, who, in fact, prefer editing to writing. But it’s true. Editor-writers aren’t gleeful about tearing apart a first draft because they love destroying things, they’re gleeful because they can see how to put it back together in a way that makes the story better.

Some of us edit because we love it and we’re good at it and we want to share our passion and skill with others instead of hoarding it all for ourselves. When an editor makes suggestions at a writer’s request, they’re not ambushing the writer with an unexpected punch. They’re extending an invitation to enter into a cooperative working relationship, one that in time can grow into a collegial partnership based on mutual respect—but only if the writer accepts the invitation.


Email: beaver[at]toasted-cheese.com

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