Friday, March 28, 2014

Why I Edit

Time for a guest post!  The title of this one is properly "Why I Write Edit," but I can't figure out how to get the strikethrough to appear in a title.  Oh well; Chris 0, Technology several thousand.

But leave me now to my confuzzlement, and click down below the break to read Scott "InquisitorM" Mence's thoughts on editing and otherwise assisting others with their creative writing--why to do it, and what benefits it reaps for not only the editee, but the editor as well.


You know the question. It’s there on every RCL interview, and before that, every ’Vault interview.
Why do you write?
The answers are as many and varied as the writers interviewed, of course, but as time goes by I wonder if it hides another question that seems ever more fitting: why do I edit? When I say edit, I mean acting as an editor for others, and the answer to that question bears some consideration.
There are a couple of things that sparked this train of thought—my recent editing time with The Descendant and Pascoite’s advice for new writers in his recent interview being major ones—but the bulk of it has to come from the mental gymnastics that come hand in hand with thinking of myself as actually being good at something. It’s not a feeling I’m either terribly comfortable or familiar with, and yet, when I edit for others, I can’t help but come face to face with what I can do. More importantly, I come face to face with what I can’t.
That’s what I want to put out there.

Why edit at all?
Because if you want to be the best writer you can, then you will probably want to be the best editor you can, too. Never do I work harder to research an uncertain area of grammar, or spend longer selecting the best words to explain a gut feeling than when I am editing for another author. For me, it isn’t enough to say that I don’t like it or it’s wrong: I have to be able to explain why and offer suggestions. You don’t truly know how well you understand a rule or principle until you try explaining it to someone who definitely doesn’t. Editing has gone a long way towards showing me how much I don’t understand. One by one I have scoured those deficits in my knowledge, and each time I have become more confident and competent as a writer.
It’s not about knowing everything: it’s about knowing that nothing is beyond you if you put in the time to learn. It’s also about finding new ways to hone your skills. Virtually every list of writing ‘rules’ says to just write, but I’d say that it’s more about being immersed in writing as a concept.
Read. Write. Edit. That’s my holy trinity.
The thing that finally urged me to speak out on the matter is the updates about the changes at Equestria Daily. I’m sure most of you will know already, but the pre-readers will no longer be giving out any advice with their rejections. Not as standard, anyway. This leads me to wonder what is going to happen to all those writers who—I agree unfairly—depended on pre-reader feedback to assess their stories and improve. It’s not like reviewing and editing services haven’t been consistently available, but I was there once and I remember it well. Yet I have to admit that I’ve been damned lucky to have the services of several pretty classy writers and reviews, with Chris and Pascoite undoubtedly being at the forefront.
But was it luck? Probably not.
The secret is a simple one: I asked [Never underestimate the power of a polite request for assistance, even if it is out of the blue; that's how I met Mr. M in the first place! -Chris]. Add to that being earnest, respectful, and putting effort in to make use of their time, and I think I can file it away as something I have earned, in part.
Will those now-bereft-of-feedback authors ask? Probably not. Not without some prodding, at least.
I know a lot of the folk who come by here already do editing and review work, but for those that don’t, now might be a really good time to find someone lower down the totem pole to lend a hand to. I also know than many in that category will likely think that they don’t have the skills to help, or simply aren’t erudite enough—it’s something I’ve already heard a lot of people reference in particularly oblique and defensive ways. If that’s what you just thought, then that’s exactly why you should give it a go. Working on someone else’s prose is a completely different experience to working on your own and adds many new systems and processes to your skillset.
Right now there is someone out there with less of an idea of what to do that you. I guarantee it. Helping them is helping you, and you want to help you, don’t you?
I said recently that I’m not a fan of false modesty and that’s true. So why do I edit? Because I wouldn’t have gone from zero to blithely assuming my work will pass EqD’s muster in just two years if I hadn’t. It’s not arrogance when it’s stacked on a few thousand hours of practice, so read, write, and edit. When you don’t have work of your own on the go, edit someone else’s until commas and clauses and colons rearrange themselves in front of your eyes like code in the matrix.
Oh, yeah, and apparently it’s a nice thing to do.
Whatever. Lead by example. Lead by excellence.
-Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence
P.S. The Descendant’s fic, Highball, should be out by the time you read this. Go read it. It’s one of very few stories I’d give five stars to. I cried. Seriously.


  1. I'd actually given some thought to editing in the past. After Wednesday's semicolon debacle, though...

    I almost offered to help Silent Strider clean up Discord Comics after Augie's contest, but then spent way too long making barely any real progress and a ton of notes that wouldn't help him present his own voice in the best possible way so much as force mine upon the narrative. I was basically turning it into my fic instead of helping to polish his. That may be the best way I could approach writing my own stories, so long as I rewrite to the point that they no longer resemble the originals in any fashion (wouldn't want to plagiarize,after all)

    I dunno, maybe this would be a good way to start contributing to the fandom instead of just consuming all the time. I'd really need to develop better time management skills first

    1. Yes, a reviewer can definitely run into the dilemma you've described. It's a good thing to tell a writer when something's not working for you, because you probably won't be the only one with that reaction, but it can be a tricky business to explain why it's not working or what to do about it. I'll make suggestions, but also make it clear that's what they are. You definitely shouldn't couch "this is how I would have written it" as "this is how it should be written" (a mistake far too many reviewers make, even well-known ones). But giving an example of how you would have written it can be illustrative and get the writer thinking. If he's inexperienced and latches onto your style, that's fine; he has room to grow away from it later, once he's found his voice better. But unless I really trust the author, I'll provide a more abstract example, something that he can't just cut and paste into his story, since the end goal is to make him think.

    2. Sometimes "this is how it should be written" is valid. I think I've only said that emphatically once. It was a story about a character with a flaw, whose plans came to ruin until he learned a different way of thinking about it from the Mane 6, and began to try to reform himself. But in the story as written, the main character's plans were ruined not by his character flaw, but by a bunch of random bad luck! I flat-out told the author his structure was wrong and he ought to rewrite it so the failure was a result of the character flaw that was to be reformed.

    3. But in this case, your problem wasn't a "this is how I would have written it," so it's something different. That's a problem with story construction. "This is how it should be written" is fine when it's a concrete error, from a plot hole right on down to a spelling mistake.

  2. I attribute my loss of enjoyment in the art of writing to time wasted performing edits for largely mediocre stories*. Nothing was more soul-draining than correcting the same basic mechanical error time and time again, made even worse when they sent me a new chapter featuring the same shit, different page number after I had finished writing an exhaustive explanation that commas, not periods, go with dialogue attribution (Looking at you, Squeak! You put me off Doctor Hooves for life!).

    Indeed, I locked myself in editor mode and forgot the key, leaving me to pray for those few glorious moments where inspiration overrides inspection. I often harp on those who enjoy popularity with little regard to narrative cohesion or mechanics, Pen Stroke often taking the brunt of it, yet much of my ire is born of bitter jealousy. How dare they enjoy writing while I struggle to look at the things I am given praise for yet despise myself for making? The creation process no longer grants freedom but rather drags me back kicking and screaming to re-write re-write re-write that tiny, insignificant line I know 99% of my readers won't even notice.

    So I see your editing and spit on it. What good is grammatical perfection to me if I have self-lobotomized my enjoyment so that I could fix it as an unbiased outsider? I have the choice between a few paragraphs of tightly woven words or an entire story written loose and fast. You cannot fathom how much I wish to return to the latter.

    One of these days, Onyx, I will give you the many ignominious and humourous deaths you deserve.

    *My time with Purloined Pony is enjoyably exempt of course, Chris! I even tried to play it with my little brother, but as soon as realization struck and he asked me "Is this ponies?" I knew it was a lost cause. However, on the bright side, I read a friend Going Up over Skype and to say he was overjoyed by it would be an understatement. Alas, I can't find my Skype logs for it, but I think there may have been tears on his part.

    1. It sure can be grating to explain dialogue punctuation for the umpteenth time, especially when it's to the same person. This is what copypasta is for. If you've found yourself typing the same explanation a half-dozen times, write it again in a document. Collect these over time, and refer people to it instead of having to rehash it all the time. Yes, some people never learn. Some people just can't spell. Some people just don't get punctuation. You're still helping.

    2. Yeah, I can certainly empathise with times like those. However, I think that treating it as something you do for your own purposes means being able to blow off things that hurt you. If you're mechanically doling out your editing time like a robot, that's going to hurt you. If an author wasn't willing to learn, I'd kick them to the curb pretty damn quick.

      Maybe I'm lucky, maybe I'm a good judge of character, but everyone (The Descendednt included) has been either willing or actively enthusiastic about improving and trying to hone their skills.

      Perhaps there is mileage in asking what the author is looking for upfront: if they say they're looking to make story the best it can be then you get to call them out later if they can't be bothered to learn a rule or skill. Anyone who doesn't match your time investment with their own time and effort (the writing of their story doesn't count) isn't worth my time, or yours.

      There is also the differentiation of roles. In the fanfiction world we lump everything into 'editor', for the most part, with pre-reader taking a second common role due to sites like EqD. Lumping those things together is handy for helpful, amateurish dealings, but there is no reason to let those generalisations constrain you. There's no reason you can't restrict yourself to pre-reading, copy-editing, or editing only and jettison the rest. Anyone with half a functional brain will be glad of a little focused help over none. If you get tired of explaining grammar use, then just pick out the consistent errors and feedback that they need to look into X, Y, or Z, just like some EqD pre-readers used to.

      And then, on the other side, maybe you just don't want to be the best writer you can be. Maybe you just want to have a bit of fun and kick back. Not only is that fine, but it angers me how often people get backlash for that. The problems only crop up when there is a communication failure about what different parties want. I mean, if someone told you upfront that they wanted an editor because they couldn't be arsed to learn proper grammar, there's not a one of us that would take him on board--and rightly so.

    3. Try telling people you'll help them edit the story only before they write it. By the time somebody's written a first draft, it's too late to help them much with it, unless they have the courage to rewrite (not revise, really rewrite).

      Editors should see stories either as outlines, before they've been written, or not until they've been proof-read and the grammar corrected. You can't edit while correcting grammar. (At least, I can't.)

    4. @Pascoite
      I've considered a copy/paste, but I usually use examples from the author's work to demonstrate the issue, which somewhat defeats the purpose. Plus, I like to put my own spin on it for each one.

      I no longer perform such in-depth edits except for special circumstances, mostly friends who I know are willing to put just as much time and effort into the editing process as I am. For the rest I practice a Trial by Fire approach, to see if theit author is capable of separating their ego from their work and, in doing so, capable of taking pointed criticism. Vitriolic and creative insults nevertheless containing all the information on what's wrong necessary for the author to Google search how to do it right. Those that get back up after it and say "Please sir, may I have some more?" get the real help.

      I do some writing (read: most everything these days since it's the only way to turn off my brain) in fetishes and let's just say there's some low standards floating around there, below even the regular dreck of fanfiction. I don't make too many friends telling those authors that their smut is as vapid as a Micheal Bay movie without the virtue of big explosions and Meghan Foxes' breasticles.

      I wish I could just kick back and have fun, or buckle down and be a proper tortured writer as I tear out my hair on my next fagnum dopeus, but instead I hang in limbo with a lot of cool ideas that refuse to be translated to digital medium and some procrastubration.

      @Bad Horse
      The only regular editing I do these days is with a friend, and I perform the edits as he's writing usually. There's grammar flubs, but it's mostly just improving style and word choice. It's not so bad with him, at least, since I enjoy his work and his company.

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  4. Scott and I are very much of a mind in why we edit. Yes, it definitely improves your own writing. That moment of illumination when you find yourself ranting at an author for the tenth time about how the narrative voice isn't working... only to realize that you've just done the same thing in your own story but couldn't see it until you took the broad view. That's not a mistake you'll make again. Yes, help people who aren't as far along as you. But also help people who are better than you. There are obvious benefits to your writing in doing so, but this is how you grow as a reviewer. Helping inexperienced writers raises the general level of writing, if only a little. Many writers will grumble, walk away, and stay in their rut. But the few that become something special because you really turned on the lights for them make it all worthwhile.

    It's much harder to review for someone who's a better writer than you, which isn't necessarily intuitive. It's not just a walk in the park of skimming the story and saying you didn't find any problems. You wouldn't expect to find any obvious ones, so when you don't, what do you do?

    hris has asked me on a few occasions to critique something he's written. I don't consciously do this, but I naturally spend a pretty constant amount of time going over a story. If I spend that time correcting punctuation, so be it. I'm obviously not going to spend much time on basic mechanics for something of Chris's, so I really have to reread and scrounge and think of useful things to say. This is where you learn. This is where you're forced to think about the story in a way you normally wouldn't have in order to feel like you're giving the author useful feedback. And the author can surely use what you say, if only because it's an external perspective he lacks, which is a pretty valuable thing on its own. The author benefits more than you think he will, and it's a great learning process for you, too.

    There are a few authors who occasionally ask me for reviews or whom I've offered reviewing support. Some are people I merely wanted to help out so they can achieve some success they might not have otherwise. That's karma. For others, I get just as much out of the process as the author does, if not more. I think Chris is a better all-around author than I am, especially for comedic and slice-of-life moments. Scott is better at exposition through subtle implication, leaving delightful puzzles for the reader to work out, as well as startling and original premises. GaPJaxie is better at making thousands of words feel only half as long through flowing conversation, where I couldn't have stretched the dialogue more than a few paragraphs before running out of things to say, to name a few examples. But these are all things I can learn from them. And if you're the type of person who doesn't need to be in the limelight, there's a definite satisfaction in knowing that someone's story was good because you made it good.

  5. I know this sentiment well. I've played editor on several fics in my time. On one occasion I offered my services to an author because I thought their fic had some potential that was unrealised, though I feel in retrospect that it was probably a mistake to do so, and for all the others it was because I was asked by people who approached me.

    I learn a lot working with those kinds of people. Despite the fact that I'm often extremely bored doing editing work, I'm actually far prouder of my editing than I am of my writing, even if my editing does tend to almost veer into cowriting in some extreme cases. But it's always educational for both parties when I come across an author genuinely looking to improve, or, rarely, one who already knows their writing but wants someone they trust to give it a second look and make sure it's up to scratch.

    War Machine is the story I'm most proud of. I became friends with the author in the course of editing it, and I helped make it presentable enough to be posted on Equestria Daily (with the assistance of Amacita, the EqD pre-reader who looked at it). The amount of improvement it went through and how much the author learned from draft to draft was staggering, because he was enthusiastic and listened well. He just needed someone to tell him the rules, and after I did, he'd never make the same mistake again. The final product is almost unrecognisable from how it started out, (which is a very good thing, trust me).

    The one point where I'll say I differ is that the way editing helps me as a writer is a side benefit for me. It takes up time, and like I said, I don't like doing it. I only ever do editing for other people because I'm the kind of guy who likes to help, and if I'm asked for help then I give it. I really try not to volunteer myself for editing jobs anymore unless I feel I'm really needed and I definitely have the spare time.

  6. I'd just like to say that InquistorM has edited for me, and it was extremely helpful. I learned a lot from working together on that story, and it's always good to get your view shaken up a bit. It's very easy to get into patterns as a writer. M helped me shake a few loose so that I could re-examine what I'd learned and see what a rut I'd gotten into. It's the bare surface of what I still have to learn, but it was a great time for me, even when it was also incredibly frustrating.

    It was also interesting to see the difference of approach. InquistorM and I don't see eye to eye on a few points, but that's going to be the case with any two creative people. What actually surprised me was how much we did agree on. I found myself nodding when he'd bring up something for me to think about much more often than I would have anticipated. Sometimes learning is such a blast!