From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Three Things An Editor Notices First


Just kidding. Actually, editors seriously rock. Especially the good ones.

Anyway, this Saturday was the annual Life, The Universe, and Everything conference, where us hopeful and dewy-eyed writers got to learn at the feet of masters such as Brandon Sanderson, M.T. Anderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Shannon Hale. There's just something so completely cool about actually seeing in real life the actual, flesh and blood person behind the books that have changed your life. 

*We now interupt this program for a Public Service Announcement*: Shannon Hale is amazing and a goddess and she gave the keynote address and you should all go read this post on her blog RIGHT NOW. I'll wait. Back? Okay. *ahem* Now back to our regularly scheduled program.*

So anyway, one of the most practical workshops I attended was given by a professional editor who spoke as cleanly as he preached, and had some seriously great advice to give. One of the things he mentioned were the top three things he and other professional editors notice when they receive a new manuscript.

First, though, why should we care? That's a fair question. We are artistes, after all. What care we for the gruff and superficial opinions of others? Well, first of all, we need others. As the analogy goes, be the artist for a while, soak in the muse and creative juices, make your masterpiece shine, and then LOCK that artist in the closet, STEAL the manuscript and run away cackling and SELL IT for as much moulah as you can get. I'm sorry, if you want writing to be your job, that's how you've gotta do it. If you're just writing for yourself, then just write for yourself. But if you really want to get your work out there and be taken seriously, then plain and simple, you're going to be dealing with editors.

Editors are great. They're human just like everybody else, and are trying to get the best work they can to publish the best product they can. Our job as writers is to make it easy for them to say yes. As easy as possible. (Yes, this means following submission guidelines. If they ask you to send your manuscript in size 42, Comic Sans font on yellow paper, then you darn well send it in size 42 Comic Sans font on yellow paper.) But these guys see so, so many submissions a day, that even you follow the instructions to a T, how can you make yourself stand out of the pack in a positive way? Well, according to this one editor at least, here are three things editors notice first when they pick up a submission:

1. The Prose: This may seem backwards. We often think of clean prose as the icing on the cake, and all the meaty, juicy stuff like character and plot and theme and voice as the stuff that really matters. However, thinking this way may be doing yourself a disservice. You may have the coolest characters ever, but if your prose isn't clean and flowing as rainwater, then they can't even see those awesome characters. They're buried and distorted under the brackish muck. There are SO many resources out there about good characters and cool plot twists and how to improve your writing voice, but not so many on good grammar. However it's not as nasty as it sounds, and this editor even has a rare great resource. Check out his blog The Story Polisher. I plan to go through his posts, and I know it will help make my writing what I envision it to be.

2. Structure: After making sure they can read your writing, the editor wants to know if you can tell a good story. Spin a good yarn. They want a chauffeur who knows what they're doing--student drivers make us all sick. Make sure you're reading a lot, and picking up what the overall structure of a successful story looks like. Have other people read it to make sure there aren't confusing or boring bits. Make sure your ending feels right in the story, and the editors who receive your piece will cry in gratitude.

3. Creativity: Editors also look for something they haven't seen a heptillion times before. Don't stress out too much about this though. C. S. Lewis says, "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." Just be you, as you as you possibly can, and you're work will be a breath of fresh air.

Two more quick things the editor said that I think are worth mentioning. First: we all make stupid mistakes. All of us. Don't feel bad when you do. Just learn and fix and improve for next time around. (I'm working on this as much as [more than] anyone). And second, this editor actually said that items two and three are what he can help you with. He can help your story's overall structure and help you make your idea a little more unique. However, if your piece is riddled with errors and the prose is broken, it will take him twenty times longer to try and teach you the rules of language, and fix every mistake. So make sure you're learning that well on your own (or in a class). I hadn't thought of things that way before, but I'm glad I know now.

Whew. This was kind of a long one, but I hope it was helpful. Get that writing polished and don't be scared to submit!

Sarah Allen

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  1. Nice share. I get what he means about putting the writing first. I read a lot, and sometimes I come across an interesting plot poorly written. It's a real turn-off, no matter how good the story might have been.

  2. Creativity, I think, is where one can stand out most as a writer. Write your own story, don't try to rewrite someone else's. Thanks for the post.


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