Monday, March 23, 2015

By Order of the Inquisition: An Author is More Than A Writer

I'm taking the day off to sip fruity drinks with little umbrellas by the beach  shovel the driveway and catch up on work  do something more realistic than my idle fantasies, but less pedestrian than reality. Luckily, Inquisitor M has a guest post that you won't want to miss!  I (and others) have talked in the past about how to receive and deliver criticism, but one thing I don't think I've seen discussed is how to use advice which one has actively solicited.  Click below the break for his thoughts on how an author should treat suggestions and recommendations from editors and pre-readers--and on a common pitfall to avoid.

It says a lot that in even pitching this topic to Chris he immediately returned an anecdote that was the perfect example of what I want to talk about.

I think most of the writers on are aware of what it is like to take off the writer’s hat for a moment and put on an editor’s hat, or maybe even a reader’s hat. But what does it actually mean to take off the writer’s hat and put on an author’s one?

Well, I should hope it isn’t a stretch to say that a writer is not automatically an author – writing is only one stage in the larger process that is creating a piece of work intended to be published for consumption. Yet, time and time again I see little hints of people who cannot seem to let go of the author’s hat, and I think that’s holding them back.

An author is like a foreman, juggling the many aspects of bringing a work to fruition. He holds the blueprints, and has the right of veto over what does and doesn’t make it into the final product. He does not assume that every facet be attended to personally. After all, the whole point of proofreaders and editors is to carry some of the load for you and cover your weaknesses. As the project foreman, the author is in charge of how best to use the time of other people invested in that project.

And yet, a very common response I’ll get back after making a suggestion is “Can I use that?”

Of course you can use that – that would seem to be the point of making a suggestion. I mean, think about it: would you ask someone if it was okay to use that comma that your editor suggested ought to be in your sentence? Of course not. The very idea is nonsense. Any yet, one could easily say that it is very little more work for an editor to suggest a rearranged sentence rather than try to explain that very gut-level feeling that says something just doesn’t work for them – or more commonly, give an example of what would. If someone says they’ll edit for you, don’t waste their time and effort by reinventing the wheel.

Which is not to say that you have to take their advice or use their suggestions, either. No, the point is that, if you take off your writer's hat and put on your author’s one, the only thing that should matter is what achieves your goals best. If you want to publish the best story you can, then use any suggestion freely, and if you want to advance your skills so that you can replicate and truly understand what the editor is doing for you, that’s cool too.

Yet, there is no reason it can’t be both, and I think that’s where the problem lies. When most people ask if they can use a suggestion provided to them, I think it is out of the errant belief that it somehow diminishes them to use it verbatim. Either this is because the work is no longer entirely their own, or because someone has had to shore up and smooth over their failings, and I think both of these issues stem from failing to consciously change perspective from writer to author. If your blueprint is to have a story that is one hundred percent your writing, that’s fine, and that’s your choice, but don’t sell yourself short because of some misguided notion of purity or inadequacy.

In the same vein, I don’t think people always get the most out of their editors, either, and this is a skill attributed to an author, but specifically not to a writer. Don’t get trapped into the idea that becoming a better writer is the same as becoming a better author. If you really want to become the best writer you can be, that also means learning how to source help, take criticism, and ask questions.

I’m going to say that again: if you want to become a better writer, the author in you needs to learn how to ask more questions. Millions of them. Ask all the questions!

And don’t settle for an answer that doesn’t work for you, either. If you can’t get an answer than actually advances your knowledge from one person, go and ask another.

Because, let’s be honest here, us reviewy, criticy, edity types absolutely love prattling on about our preferred methods and styles and opinions, and if you want to know how to sort the good ones from the posers, just ask them for a detailed explanation. You’ll know the difference because the good ones will make sense and the bad ones will just regurgitate the same propaganda that they were once told like it’s the Nuremberg Rally all over again.

And that’s really what it means to be an author: it is every other detail than formulating prose on a page. Asking for help and using suggestions does not make you a weaker writer, it makes you a stronger author. Take pride in that, and don’t let your inner writer stop you from using prose just because you didn’t write it yourself, whether it’s just the right simile, or several paragraphs of wonderful revision.

Much love as always,

-Scott ‘Inquisitor’ Mence


  1. This was an article worth waiting for! :D This dichotomy of writer vs. author is not something I've heard of before (I wonder why), and I suspect it will greatly inform my work in the future. Kudos!

  2. Fantastic advice. I'll keep this in mind.

  3. Very, very useful advice. Makes perfect sense, and (like most of the best advice) seems utterly self-evident despite my not having seen it explained this way before. Thanks!

  4. Come to think of it, I realise that I have done this with you before. When we were exchanging messages after you reviewed End of Empires, you came up with suggestions for what you'd change, and I didn't use them verbatim because I'd somehow assumed that it'd be bad to do so, and resolved to rewrite that section on my own, just following the spirit of your advice.

    And now I also realise that I never actually finished that wave of editing and that the version I have on FimFic right now is unchanged from the original. I should probably get back to that soon...

    Ah well. Nice post, Scott. Very eye-opening.

  5. This is certainly some interesting advice, gonna pay more attention to that on the future.

    However, what is your take on the opposite situation? Should the editor limit his suggestions for fear of, in a way, taking over the story?

    1. Ahh. That is a very good question. probably more worthy of a blog post on my FimFic account than a truncated answer here.

      I think the short answer is that it's always going to come down to how much time you have vs. your available insight into the author in question. I mean, I'd bet you already tailor your editing advice to the ability of the subject: if he's struggling with basic grammar and sentence structure, you don't wax lyrical about the highest nuances of word choice.

      Different strokes for different folks is a bit of a cop-out, though, which is why I will ponder the matter and produce a more extensive post later.

    2. For people looking at this from the future, my rather rambling answer can be found here.

  6. Changing perspective. Hmm. I think that's why I always get the block. I never finished writing a story, not even a short one. I'm sure this will help me sometime in the future, when I have time to write (because apparently I only have enough time to go on this blog and comment). Gotta make time I guess.