Writers and the Sacred Cow of Editing

Kim GoldbergBy Kim Goldberg

Does a writer need an editor?

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: Don’t be silly.

Longest answer:

Despite the prevailing orthodoxy around editing, I have never believed that a writer must have her creative output “improved” by someone else before it is fit to be published or otherwise released into the world.

The literary arts are the only art form I can think of where this dogma about the inadequacy of the artist prevails, this cockamamie notion that the creator herself cannot, on her own, get it right—cannot effectively ply her craft and manifest her creative vision unaided by outside correction.

No one would dream of suggesting, let alone insisting, that a painter must turn her canvas over to some special finishing expert for final “fixes” before exhibition. Or that a potter must step aside and let someone else (who may not even be a professional potter) have the final turns at the wheel. Or that a musician must let some musicology graduate pen the last few bars of her song if it is to be any good.

Yet if a writer resists the orthodoxy of having someone else adjust her work before it goes out into the world, she is branded a prima donna, an amateur, a cranky piece of shit.

Perhaps the reason this orthodoxy persists and is so vigorously enforced in the literary arts is because of the vast industry of academic careers and workshop gurus dependent upon it.

If a writer actually wants outside guidance, instruction, feedback, workshopping, tweaking, editing… fine. But let’s not confuse those individual desires with some overall requirement that all writers must obtain outside help before their work is fit to read. The very notion is paternalistic in the extreme.

in8 4ceIn all of my books, articles, poems, short fiction, and screenplays (from which I have supported myself since 1977), I am saying exactly what I want to say in exactly the way I want to say it. I am not looking for a collaborator, thanks.

About Kim Goldberg

Kim Goldberg is a poet, journalist and the author of 8 books of poetry and nonfiction. Latest titles: DEVOLUTION (poems of ecopocalypse), UNDETECTABLE (her Hep C journey in haibun), RED ZONE (poems of homelessness) and RIDE BACKWARDS ON DRAGON: a poet's journey through Liuhebafa. She lives in Nanaimo, BC. Contact: goldberg@ncf.ca
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12 Responses to Writers and the Sacred Cow of Editing

  1. paulenelson says:

    Thanks for this, Kim. There was an article recently on the Boston Globe’s website (http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/06/29/revising-your-writing-again-blame-modernists/WhoH6Ih2kat2RE9DZV3DjP/story.html) about how extensive editing is a by-product of modernism and the invention of the typewriter. I wrote a “minority opinion” along the lines of your post and it’s linked here: http://paulenelson.com/2013/07/12/writing-or-re-writing/ Keep it up.

  2. Leanne says:

    Thanks, Paul and Kim. I agree.

  3. Leanne says:

    Kim, do you consider handing off a work for someone else’s rewrite or editing or value judgment the same as revising by the author?

    • Kim Goldberg says:

      No, not at all, Leanne. I have no objection to a poet/writer revising and editing her own work. (Although Paul’s fantastic article on that subject, referenced above, has given me cause to reconsider that.) It’s true I am a big believer in “First thought, best thought”. But I have also become a better writer over the years by becoming a better editor of my own work. So I see a value in editing one’s own work. My objection is to the blind cud-chewing orthodoxy that says we are not complete enough within ourselves to issue a fully formed creative manifestation – that our own singular creative genius is a-priori lacking in some way, and so some ‘expert’ must come in at the 11th hour – some literary Man From Glad – to sort us out and make it right. It is so patently ridiculous – I cannot believe how many writers just accept that nonsense… One of the many sad consequences of the post-secondary Creative Writing Industry, I fear…

      • Leanne says:

        The Boston Globe article related to revision by the writer so then I wasn’t clear what you meant by editing. It seems to me the computer has made revision so quick and easy I lose track of how many revisions I’ve made as I type one poem! I do my own revising that’s for sure, but I’m willing to listen to an editor/publisher’s pov being as how their are putting their imprint on it. I choose to believe the publisher wants to make the best book possible but it can involve a certain amount of sell-out. Another reason to self-publish.

  4. Gloria says:

    Interesting concept/question. I went ahead and self-published, because I’m incredibly impatient and the technology is there, so why not. This is not to say I didn’t go over my work. I did. I went over it several times, but a point does come where you have to say, “enough” and get the thing published. I’ve had one editor say she wouldn’t publish the review of my erotic fiction, because she would give it the lowest rating possible. I don’t think she paid enough attention to the end, because she said she was “lost” on my ending. I’ve had other people RAVE about how good it is. I also had some input from co-workers as well, maybe because I worry it’s not good enough. I complain about how bad things are, but from a writer’s standpoint, we are truly living in golden times. We can publish blogs, we can write and self-publish books of any size, and even if we are not interested in selling our work commercially, we can upload files of our travels, intimate thoughs, memoirs, etc. and have them professionally bound (with great-looking covers) and have a nice, neat collection of our thoughts and words. And it’s free to publish, or if you want a print copy, it usually doesn’t cost very much. Golden times!

    • Kim Goldberg says:

      I agree, Gloria. This is a Golden Time for writers – we really hold all the power now… Nothing and no one standing between the writer and her audience, thanks to technology. 🙂

  5. Kim: once again thanks are owed for being courageous enough to step outside the box. I notice that after awhile it becomes almost cult-like, the slavish adherence to writing workshops. I see people who have been writing for 20 years still going to workshops. I have to wonder: do they not feel they’ve improved enough in that time to do their own editing?

  6. As to being in a Golden Age of writing, I’m not seeing it. A Golden Age for writers have plenty of avenues to publish digitally but no money for almost any of it. I think the whole Internet phenomenon has been a way for big corporations to rob creators of their content while earning millions from it. I’ve got at least three manuscripts collecting dust here. Partly because I don’t feel like giving them away.

    • Kim Goldberg says:

      In terms of my Golden Age comment, Art, I was thinking more of short-run self-publishing of print books, rather than eBooks or Print-On-Demand books from amazon.com… although I certainly have author friends who have done quite well via amazon/kindle eBooks! I self-published my last poetry book (Red Zone), and re-issued my previous poetry book (Ride Backwards on Dragon) when the original publisher let that one go out of print. On both of these, I used a Victoria print shop (Printorium/Island Blue). So no big corporation profiting off my creative output at my expense. And on both titles I have done quite a bit better on sales than I believe I would have with someone else publishing and marketing them for me. That’s just one example. But to me it is quite clear that this new technology of digital printing really is allowing the savvy author to write her own ticket these days. There are no longer any barriers (apart from one’s own talent, moxie, and willingness to self-promote). 🙂

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